Final Thoughts on my PhD Experience

Last month I got a survey in my email called the AEA Climate survey. I only bothered to open it because I thought it would be something related to environmental economics. (While I don’t consider myself part of the economics community anymore, my current job is marginally related to environmental economics, plus it is just a topic that I still find interesting.)

Turns out it was about the other kind of climate, i.e. discrimination and harassment within economics, but I decided to take the survey anyway. I was never sexually harassed during grad school (probably some combination of everyone being super respectful and my un-sexy motherhood), but I thought I would share with you all what I wrote in response to an open-ended question about whether we ever felt discriminated against. (I don’t remember the exact wording of the question but it was something along those lines.)

“My main issues came from the fact that I was raising children while I was in grad school.  I originally wanted to do time series research, but our time series professor had a reputation as someone who expected his grad students to work super long hours, and I obviously couldn’t do that since I had a toddler and a baby.  I had heard stories of professors (including this one) dropping grad students after years if they were not successful enough.  I didn’t want to take my chances and end up getting dropped, so I went with someone else, which meant changing my field. I would not describe this situation as active discrimination, per se, since I never made a strong effort to work with this professor.  However, one could make an argument that non-support is a form of passive discrimination at some level. If you want to make the decision that mothers are not welcome in graduate school, then fine, but otherwise an acknowledgement has to be made that mothers/primary caregivers do not have as many hours in the day to devote to graduate school and have other challenges, including financial challenges, and make at least some tiny effort to support them. In general, I felt the need to hide the fact that I was a primary caregiver, due to the competitive work culture.  I never saw any evidence that the department wanted to support parents or make us (well, mainly me – I was the only female parent in our department, and the men were never the primary caregiver) feel welcome. I’m not suggesting that the department should have bent over backwards for me, but even just a small gesture, like someone reaching out to ask how things are going, would have made a huge difference.”

I wrote this in a hurry, so it wasn’t incredibly well thought-out, and I hope it doesn’t sound super whiny. It is all true, though! Honestly, sometimes I wish I had been a little more of a trailblazer and tried to force one of those “tough” professors to accept that I had maybe 20 hours a week (at best!) to devote to research and take me on as a student anyway. But I did what I could with the personality that I have. I like to think that just existing in that space as a mom, and especially as an autism mom, helped in some minuscule way to move the needle in the right direction.

Law-mom: Econ-mom, actually, from a legal standpoint, I think you were discriminated against. In the law, what you experienced is a called a “disparate impact,” this “passive discrimination” that you refer to. It’s when certain policies or employment structures have a “disparate impact” on only certain groups of people. Of course, to *prove* that in the court of law is a whole other ball of wax. But, being a woman who understands most of what you experience as a mother in today’s culture, I believe that your department’s policies probably had a disparate impact on women–namely, in this case, women who are also caretakers. Of course, a huge percentage of women of a certain age *are* also caretakers. So, they are nearly synonymous terms.

I say, good for you for saying something! I am sure there are people in that department who have probably never thought about that issue before in their life.

Why Would Anyone Want a Tenure-Track Job?

In 2013, a tenured professor at Harvard wrote a blog post called The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life.  I was eager to read it, given that Radhika Nagpal started her tenure-track position with two young children. At that point there were zero other mothers among the grad students in my department, so I had no one to talk to and desperately wanted advice. (I mean real advice; i.e. advice that would be helpful to a working mother.  Not like “catch up on the news while you’re eating breakfast.”  Someone literally suggested that to me once. I didn’t bother trying to explain what parents do during breakfast.)

As I started reading, I was enamored by passages like, “I feel that one of the culprits is our reluctance to openly acknowledge how we find balance. Or openly confront how we create a system that admires and rewards extreme imbalance.” (Emphasis added by me.) Preach it, sister!

But further into the post, I started to see some ways in which even the “ultra-laid-back” approach taken by Radhika was still not compatible with the reality I faced or with the mother I wanted to be.  First problem – she worked from 10pm-12am most nights.  Ummm. I think I stayed up till midnight ONCE during my first two years of graduate school to cram for a metrics exam.  Why?  Because Tuffy didn’t go to bed until well after 10pm most nights and by that time I was utterly exhausted. And, he didn’t sleep through the night until he was about 2 and a half. (Sometimes I allow myself a brief moment of silence for all the extra sleep we could have gotten had we found out about his autism and the wonders of melatonin earlier, but it’s water under the bridge now!)

Second problem – she writes some cutesy stuff about splitting the parenting 50-50.  So… I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that both parents are so extremely organized that they can seamlessly hand off information like “the daycare needs extra pants” and “the school library book is due back tomorrow” day in and day out.  There’s still the issue of travel.  Apparently she and her husband never had work travel, but unfortunately my husband did, and he would sometimes be gone for weeks at a time!  Clearly there is no 50-50 parenting going on in this situation.

But the deal breaker for me, the moment that I knew with certainty that I did not want a tenure track job, was when I read the line – “a sick kid whose fever I tried to mask with Tylenol and send to school.” This is such an absolute NO with a side of NO sauce in my book.  First of all, both of my sons got sick a ZILLION times when they were young. (By the way, sharing this unique, miserable experience is something that bonds Law-mom and I together for life.) Frankly, it’s likely that at least a few of these sicknesses were a direct result of parents pulling that crap. But I’m not trying to rag on Radhika – tons of parents do this, and it’s because we’re all in such desperate situations. I’m sure if I had had a “real” job, there would have been a greater temptation to try the ol’ Tylenol Mask just to avoid getting fired. But honestly this is just one of those places where I drew the line in terms of parenting. I always felt some amount of guilt for putting my son in daycare, but at least I was never going to leave him with anyone other than myself or his dad when he was truly sick. So when Tuffy would get a fever, I’d miss class (which was fun because graduate classes move at lightening speed), and as soon as he was fever-free for 24 hours I’d bring him back and try to somehow catch up while still putting in less than 40 hours a week on class/studying/pumping. And even then I’d still often feel terrible because Tuffy would still have a cough or just not be fully back to himself.

So that was that – and this was even before Tuffy’s autism diagnosis and the onslaught of doctor appointments, paperwork, and therapy sessions. Clearly if working until midnight and taking a sick kid to daycare is the bare minimum it takes to get tenure it’s industry jobs only for this mama!

But here’s the crazy part – back in June I saw a couple classmates who now have tenure-track jobs and as we were chatting I started thinking hey, maybe I could do this too. I guess with Peanut now fiiiiiinally sleeping through the night (usually) and the kids getting sick way less often, it is starting to feel like more things are possible. And working on your own research really is fun.  I published a paper a couple years ago, and it was exciting to collect brand new data and attempt to answer a question that had never been answered before.

Ever since then I’ve been back and forth, sometimes on a daily basis.  It’s like that thing in the movies where someone has the angel and devil on each shoulder. Not that I’m trying to compare tenure-track jobs to the devil, but it does sort of seem like the bad choice in a way.  It’s so high stress, with teaching and research demands, being asked to serve on committees, etc.  Let’s face it, even Radhika who has tenure at Harvard admits to occasionally crying in her office. So the angel was winning for a while, whispering in my ear “Your kids need you. Who would take them on playdates? Also you can’t stay up until midnight.”  Then in September I present my paper and an actual professor comes up to me afterwards and tells me that he likes my work and is interested in co-authoring a paper with me.  And the devil whispers “see how exciting this can be?”

Now, here I am on the job market; and yes, I have applied for some tenure-track jobs. Ultimately I felt like I had to try. Part of me thinks I would crumble under the pressure, but part of me thinks, “hey, I made it this far with so many things working against me. I just want to see what I can do when DH takes over as lead parent, and I can truly focus on my work.”  And, of course, I might not get any offers for teaching jobs and the decision will be made for me. So, we’ll see what happens.

Law-mom’s response:

Yes, Econ-mom (EM), you and I are bonded for life commiserating over how sick both our children were for the first five years (for me) of parenting. Well, first seven years, actually. If you, too, dear reader, are going through this phase, as I am sure others have told you: It does get better! I know that is not helpful when you are going through it. But it does give you hope — I hope. For years I toiled without seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. It’s how I felt. I always had hope. But sometimes that hope felt like a lifetime away in a distant future I would never reach. Yet…here I am.

As a bit of a tangent, the other day, as I was walking home from the train, I saw a toddler walking with her mom or caretaker, and I suddenly had a flashback to when SC1 was 13 months old, holding my hand along the sidewalk and walking, and I nearly broke down in tears. (Instead, I just got misty-eyed and had a few good sniffs.) So, apparently, I will still look back fondly and nostalgically at those younger years — even though they broke me. But, there is a silver-lining to being broken: You have empathy and compassion for others who are breaking! And I would never give you advice like, “Just catch up on the news during breakfast!” LOL. That’s a good one! (Though, EM, with older kids who are more self-sufficient, it will be possible.)

The two main points I took away from your post, EM:

  1. The only way to juggle job and family is for all moving pieces to be in perfect order/synchronicity at all times. And, unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. I could be a drill sergeant, I am so good at keeping a ship running on schedule in tip top shape. (Everyone in my family loves this about me, by the way.) But when kids get sick (or you get sick) the whole fragile balance is thrown off, and it’s never easy to recover. The good Lord above only knows how I EVER would have kept my full-time job when the kids were little. I would have been like that lady crying in my office. I also would have had to move to a much higher paying (even more demanding) firm to afford a nanny. I’ve already talked about a litigator’s hours in a previous post.
  2.  I feel your pain re: the struggle between your ambition versus your familial demands. My familial demands drove me to take (what feels like) a “backseat” job. In other words, I took a pay cut and less stress for more time. I went through a period of time where I had a minor identity crisis after changing my career path. I wondered, frequently, if I was making a huge mistake. The other day, however, I had a “Eureka!” moment. It sounds so simple, but it is what finally slapped me out of my self-pity: Time is the most valuable commodity we have. And I now have the (minimum) amount I personally need to try to keep a decent balance between my work and family life. Therefore, even though I took a pay cut, I gained something so much more valuable. It is by focusing on that priceless time that I am able to see my glass half-full — maybe even more than half-full — while I continue to navigate this parenting journey. That is not advice. It is just one perspective. Good luck on the decision-making! Remember that, no matter what you choose, it won’t be easy. That is not pessimism. It is just reality.