Wednesday, January 17, 2007

:: Choosing The Hill You Wish To Die On ::

One of the most important things you can get out of your Ph.D. program is a better understanding of your talents, your contributions, and your commitments. Which battles are you willing to fight and which are you willing to let go?

I attended a quite-enlightening event today called "Women in Higher Education: Career Strategies for Entering the Workplace," sponsored by the OSU Graduate School. There, speakers from all over the University talked to over 100 female graduate student attendees about the realities of academic life, with particular attention to the opportunities and challenges for women in academia.

Here are some of the statistics we learned today:


  • The percentage of doctoral recipients who are women rose from 12 percent to 42 percent between 1966 and 1996.

  • However, "the gap between the percentage of all men faculty who are tenured and the percentage of all women faculty who are tenured has been fairly consistent over time, even though the relative numbers of women faculty have grown" ("Do Babies Matter," Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden)

  • The same is true of salary: the gap between men's and women's salaries in academia has actually grown wider in the same 30 years.


One possible reason for this is the "glass ceiling" theory which basically says that there is a pattern of inherent discrimination barring women from top positions. Research has borne this theory out (for example even studies of women show that they are more likely to hire or to promote male applicants versus female applicants, even given identical resumes).

However, Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden have also argued, quite influentially, that babies (family) factors significantly, as well. Their research examines "family formation and its effects on the career lives of both women and men academics from the time they receive their doctorates until twenty years later." Their findings? That "babies do matter" a great deal. Here is some of the data:

  • "Early" babies (ones joining the household within five years after completing the Ph.D.) negatively affect women in academia while they positively affect their male counterparts. Both in the sciences and in the humanities and social sciences, "men who have early babies are strikingly more successful in earning tenure than women who have early babies."

  • Women who attain tenure are unlikely to have children.

  • Tenured women are up to twice as likely (depending on their field) as tenured men to be single.

  • Women with early babies often do not even get to the tenure track: they "make choices that force them to leave the academy of put them into the second tier of faculty: the lecturers, adjuncts, and part-time faculty."

  • At Berkeley in particular, 59% of married women with children indicated that they were considering leaving academia.

  • Married women with children were far more likely than others to cite children as one of the reasons they changed their career goals awar from academia.

  • These women were also most likely to indicate that balancing family and career was a source of high stress.


As my first baby's birth looms ever closer (a turn of phrase that I realize sounds more foreboding than I mean it to -- I honestly can't wait for baby's arrival!!!), and as the job market also grows frighteningly close (I am "scheduled" to "go on the market" in the fall, applying for jobs beginning the following fall, and yes, I do mean "frightening" to sound as foreboding as it does), these issues are certainly enough to preoccupy me, which is why I am here writing instead of upstairs reading about the social construction of identity and personality.

Beyond these somewhat upsetting statistics, I found today's conference enlightening for another reason: the advice given by the various speakers. My three favorite pieces of advice were these:

(1) Ask yourself, "Is this the hill on which I want to die?" (In other words, is this the battle I want to kill myself winning?)
(2) Maximize your contributions.
(3) Maximize your talents.
The questions, then, are these: Is the tenure track the hill I want to die on? Does getting there, and does succeeding there, maximize my contributions and my talents? If so, then what can I do now to assure my life will be easier when I get there? If not, then what are my options?


My sister-in-law is a speech pathologist who is very dedicated to, and feels very rewarded by, her career. This September, she and her husband adopted twin girls. She had planned on going back to work but now says she just doesn't want to leave those babies yet. (I've met them. I can't blame her.)

This, of course, is also part of the issue. What will I feel once baby comes? Will I be able to leave that child to go to battle on the tenure field? Is there a different field I would be willing to die on, even at the cost of working while my baby is still learning to walk or talk? (Financially, of course, I may not have the option.) And what about the fact that unlike my sister-in-law, I don't already have the career? I mean, it won't just be sitting there for me when I decide I'm ready. If I want to go on the job market, it kind of has to be now (in the fall, I mean). Is that something I'll be ready and willing to do?

I don't have the answers. I have some inclincations and ideas, but no answers. I know I won't really be able to answer these questions until I'm in the position of having a child and possibly applying for jobs. But the questions are still important ones for me to think about.

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