Discussing Pregnancy of Dissertation Writers

I have been pregnant since last September. This single issue has been dominating my life, as it should, but I felt hesitant to discuss it openly in my blog. After living as a pregnant dissertation-writer for quite a while, I think I’m ready to share some of my thoughts about life and academia.

I always wanted to have a child or two. I had to postpone trying it until I was done with my field research, which I knew would involve a lot of traveling and constant change of address — not a good environment for pregnant women who should get frequent medical check-ups and maintain physical and emotional stability. I felt more blessed than any time in my life when I became pregnant right after my traveling. What a perfect timing. I will be just writing the next two years (well, and applying for jobs).

That said, when I looked up information about childbearing at this stage, I found very little encouragement. One or two articles said “it is manageable and rewarding.” Another few comments said “you should wait until you get tenure” (hah!). Overall, there is not much discussion on childbirth and dissertation writing or early academic career — it is strange considering that many women I know did give birth while writing and I think it is probably one of the best timings. Did I miss something?!

One reason for this odd silence is perhaps the fear that discussing it would somehow appear unprofessional and affect your job prospects. I also felt hesitant to write about it specifically for this reason. Can I complain about the lack of institutions that support mothers with small children in graduate schools? Would I sound like I am making an excuse for not publishing anything? Very fortunate for me is that my advisors, all parents themselves, wholeheartedly support my life plan. But some of us have a female advisor who proudly chose not to take that route. Would the topic of childbirth be a taboo in front of these professors?

Along the same line of thought, I am not sure if I am supposed to disclose my pregnancy in my fellowship applications either. One common aspect of applying to outside funding for graduate students is that we often give a detailed budget form, including rent, health insurance, food, printing, transportation and so on (as if we could go party with that amount of money). I have been adding newborn care in my budget forms and overtly mentioning it if I am asked to “explain how the money will be spent.” The detailed time schedule to finish the dissertation also gave me a bit of headache. Since I am due mid-June, realistically I will not be writing during the summer. Should I leave it blank, say “taking care of a newborn,” or come up with a fake schedule? My baby will be the central part of my life and it felt ridiculous to hide it from such detailed budget and time plans. But perhaps this would be considered “unprofessional.”

At this stage of PhD, job prospects become the central topic of conversation. I attended a workshop for graduate students early in my pregnancy and it was very hard for me to sit through and listen to advice from professors (from various universities). You are supposed to finish your dissertation early, publish a few articles, attend professional conferences, and network within your field — basically work like crazy in order to impress hiring committees especially because the job market is daunting right now. It’s great if you can. But pregnant women are not the only ones who cannot commit 80 hours a week to academic work. Some might have health problems. Some have to do a part-time job to make ends meet. Others might have a very challenging dissertation to write in the first place and have no time left for other career-enhancing activities. In the end of the day, I chose to go get a PhD because I enjoy it. I chose life over all the “rational” options that would bring better $$ and job security. When was my life overtaken by career-making goals? I literally felt like vomiting during this advisory session.

Since I started to feel a lot better in my second trimester, I also became better at handling the career pressure. But it is always there. The information on the job market and peer pressure is not a bad thing. But sometimes you need to shut down yourself from the stress and enjoy what you do. I want to enjoy my pregnancy. At times I just want to lie down and feel the baby moving for a while.

I was going to write about how I feel about my own writing while being pregnant originally, but ended up talking about why people are not talking about it. Maybe next time.

Category(s): My Grad School Life

9 Responses to Discussing Pregnancy of Dissertation Writers

    Kerim Friedman says:

    One older anthropologist I know described to me how, back in the 70s, she had to hide her pregnancy for fear that it would affect her chances at getting tenure. One would like to think that things have improved since then…

  1. Both when I was in grad school, and even now through my circles of friends and acquaintances, I knew/know quite a few women that dealt with pregnancy, childbirth, and raising children while getting their PhD. Some of them had a husband who was working and supporting her and the family at the time, but most of the women I have known that went through this had husbands that were also in grad school at the same time.

    I don’t know a lot of details about how they got through it, but some things were pretty common among all of them:

    1) They lived in an area with lots of other student families. At UT I knew most of them in the student family housing complex that the university maintains (and I also lived in at the time), but others lived in other apartment complexes.

    2.) They had friends or family they could regularly call on for help with babysitting, etc. Many of the Korean and Chinese families I knew actually had grandparents living with them that would watch the baby/children while the parents were at school. However other families would do things like trade off mornings and afternoons to be on campus while the other watched the baby/kids, or would actually pay a friend living in the complex to watch their baby/kids during the day.

    3.) They had a good relationship with their advisor(s) who were aware of their situation and (more or less) supported them.

    You are certainly correct that pregnant mothers aren’t the only grad students that can’t put in 80+ hours a week. I had a wife and two young children while I was in grad school, and I let my advisor know that I wanted to be able to go home early enough each evening to spend time with them. That meant it took 6 years for me to get my PhD (where many in my department get theirs in 5 years or less), but I was fortunate to have an advisor that was supportive of this.

    In terms of your schedule/budget, I would recommend that you be up front and honest about it. Home/family/life issues are a very real and important aspect of anyone’s professional live, and I don’t think it’s unprofessional to include that information in your grant proposals, etc.

    While I was in grad school my advisor was also the department chair, and so he was in charge of evaluating and hiring potential faculty. He said that by far the most important issue to deal with is what he called ‘the two-body problem’, which to really meant ‘what to do about their spouse’. This is because nowadays a large number of people get married while in grad school, and so an important issue becomes ‘if you give me a faculty position, is there a position somewhere for my spouse as well?’ And so they have to try and find a faculty position (often in another department, causing lots of back-room dealing between department heads), or an industry job in the area, etc. Compared to that, being accommodating to a young mother (i.e. bumping you to the top of the list for the on-campus daycare and preschool, etc.) would be relatively simple in my opinion.

  2. I’m a 32 year old PhD candidate with another year to go (after this one) and this post really speaks to me – indeed it is one of the top things I’ve been thinking about lately. My husband (who is 34) and I have been talking about this for the last year. Should I go for it now? Wait until I finish? Try and time it perfectly? The truth is, we’re both getting older and, as you pointed out, I have no guarantee of a TT job (let alone waiting to GET tenure) so what are we waiting for? The fellowship applications and job market are both concerns of mine as well. I live with my husband – not where I am registered at school – because first of all I’d rather be with him (duh). Second of all, he has a full-time academic position, and thus it’s actually more affordable to live here while dissertation writing because I *don’t* need to TA. (This would be impossible in the state where I am registered because TAships and fellowship money are basically poverty level and there’s no way we could live together on that.) I constantly agonize over the fellowship application budget thinking “Should I tell them I’m not planning to live in close proximity to the university campus? Will they think I’m slacking if they knew I had a husband paying most the bills? How much should I ask for if I don’t need as much money as someone else, would that looks suspicious and like I’m wealthy?” It’s horrible.

    The second thing is about the job market and relates to what you said. Two things hurt me here, related to what you said. The first is that the search committee will find out by word-of-mouth or an online photo of my husband and I and think “oh, she’s married, and to an academic who already has a job, so that means we have to make a very compelling offer (like offer more money or two jobs) because otherwise she won’t take it or leave at the drop of a hat.” The second thing I imagine they’d say is “well, given her age, she’s going to have a baby soon, so that puts her out of commission for a while and we really need someone to teach those classes ASAP, we can’t wait around!” Because the honest to god truth is that, in this day and age, most people hiring for jobs – of any nature, although I like to pretend academia is more friendly Smilie: :) – a married man with kids means “he’ll work harder because he needs to” (assumption being he’s a bread winner) while a married woman with kids means “she’ll need more time off and get behind on her research.” I don’t feel this way, I’m just relaying the mentality of an undercurrent running in society at large.

    I do agree that things have changed since thirty years ago, at least compared to my mom things are better now – and I do agree that some hiring committees (and advisors) are much better than others. Still, I wish people in the academy were more forthcoming and accepting of pregnant women and those of us (myself included) who would like to have a kid, even if it means during the PhD and not afterwards. You would think that they would have adapted given that the time to PhD in certain fields (mine and probably yours as well) now also takes longer, and at some point you just need to decide: do I want to wait and wait and… for what? Or should I just do what feels right and go for it? And yes, I also know quite a few female PhD candidates who had children while writing. It’s just not publicized nor, from what I can see, “encouraged.”

    I look forward to hearing more about your journey!

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Derek and Amanda! Most of PhD students are around the early-mid 30s when finishing up the degree and that’s when people deal with the most important spousal and family decisions as well. I really hope this topic will be discussed a lot more openly in PhD programs and hiring universities.

    Amanda, I don’t think you should agonize about demanding the full amount in fellowship applications at all. I know many male PhD candidates that are totally supported by their wives’ earnings and I never heard of such moral dilemma from them!!

  4. Thank you for writing this! I’m new to your blog, been reading through the archives when I can. The balance of family+career has been a hot topic lately, but more along the lines of management/tech/politics and not necessarily academia, which I assume would be the industry most likely able to be flexible and keep up with the shifting cultural tides.

    I’m still barely-educated, but I have strong desires to pursue graduate and post-graduate studies, and somewhere along the line I hope to start a family. I look forward to your future posts about both personal and research topics!

  5. Thank you Caitlin for visiting my blog. Academia is a weird industry — Most people in it are rebellious, open-minded, progressive (or whatever you call it) in their work, but the system itself is quite conservative and slow to change. Anyway that’s how I see it at this point. I might be wrong.

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    HistoryMama says:

    I started a PhD program when my son was eleven months old, divorced during my second year in the program, and spent the majority of my time in grad school as a single mama. Now I’m remarried, living across the country from my university, and trying to finish the dissertation before baby #2 arrives in November. A number of years ago in a professional development class, one of the students (a married father with two children) asked the professor when the ideal time along the coursework/dissertation/early career path was to get pregnant, or to add another child. She replied “Nine months before you want your dissertation to be finished. If you give yourself that serious a deadline, you WILL get finished.” Although we all laughed at the time, two of us from the class are now desperately hoping her advice was right.

    My husband is in school as well, but in the medical, rather than academic arena. As a result, I made the choice when I married him that given his far superior job prospects, his career would come first. While I love history, and teaching, the demands of either full-time adjuncting for a living, or a TT-driven life, are far different from what I imagined when I started this journey. And to me, those demands mean too many sacrifices as a mother while my children are young.

  6. Thank you, HistoryMama, for visiting this site and sharing your thought. Now that I have a 5-week old baby, I developed a whole new level of respect for those who go through the entire graduate work with children. It is amazing.

    Having a family also put things in perspective and I really appreciate various options for “career,” too. I do not know what I end up doing but I honestly think having a spouse whose job is demanding and children — that kind of “limits” as people call it — actually makes us straight to the priority (= happiness in life) and ditch vanity and ego.

    Best of luck to both of us in finishing up dissertations!

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