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« What is professional ambition for a philosopher? | Main | Suggestions of things to do/not do while out on the job-market »

09/17/2012

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Shen-yi Liao

"Mainly, I fail to see what great loss it would be to wait a few years (hopefully until after the dissertation is complete) when the professional benefits appear so significant."

I find this statement to be especially (to say the least) gender- and trajectory-insensitive. (And I say that as a man who went to graduate school right after college.) The statement fails to take into account women (who are female, who are capable of reproduction, and) who desire to have biological children. It also fails to take into account people who came into graduate school later on in their lives. Once we take into account the privilege that some people have and other people lack, I don't think it's at all difficult to see the potential great loss here.

Trevor Hedberg

Shen-yi, thanks for your comment, but I think you are giving my view a very uncharitable interpretation because you've taken the quote out of context. Adding a prior sentence gives it a completely different meaning: "I also confess that I am not particularly sympathetic to those who feel they must have a child before the age of 30... Mainly, I fail to see what great loss it would be to wait a few years (hopefully until after the dissertation is complete) when the professional benefits appear so significant." After this passage, I also mentioned how it would be better for your child if you waited.

The claim I intended to make is that I don't see what great loss is incurred if you're under 30 and nearing the end of your doctoral career and you decide to wait 2-3 years to have a child. What's going to change from, say, the age of 29 to 32? Well, you'll finish your dissertation and probably land a job that pays more than the $15-20K that you get for a stipend from graduate programs (even if that job isn't a tenure-track one). So you're at a better place professionally (relative to 3 years ago) and in a much better position (financially) to support your child.

I also acknowledged later in that paragraph that people who enter graduate school later in life may indeed have to make a tough choice about whether or not to have a child: "This dreadful dilemma, where a person faces such a basic and significant conflict between personal life and professional life, is one with no easy solution and is best avoided altogether." I am aware, of course, that not everyone will be able to avoid this dilemma and that for some this will be through no fault of their own. Honestly, I'm just not sure what advice to give them. It would require careful weighing of one's personal values and what's feasible (e.g., financial) for everyone involved.

My advice wasn't meant to be a mandate that applies to everyone in every circumstance. It's more of a call for reflection. The decision to have children is life-changing in ways that no other decision is, and I think graduate students need to think carefully about the impacts of that decision on their professional lives. That said, I stand by the general point that for many graduate students, it's a better move, both personally and professionally, to wait to have children until at least after they have defended their dissertations and landed their first academic job.

I admit that I don't follow your claim regarding gender-insensitivity. I did my best not to diminish just how motivating and significant have a child can be to a person (whether male or female), noting not only that some people genuinely feel they can't live happy lives without children and that activities involving one's children will frequently be more rewarding than professional activities.

Of course, I'm still making some controversial claims in this post, and I don't mind discussing them further. But so far as I can tell, your worries about gender- and trajectory-insensitivity disappear when the quote is read in its full context and its meaning properly understood. Feel free to follow up and clarify your points.

Brad Cokelet

Hi Trevor,

Interesting and well thought out post. I think that the issues you raise are important, but that the decision might best go the other way in some cases. You mention the costs to the person's grad school performance and potential cost to the children of moving around a lot (while looking to land a permanent position). I think these are good points, but I also know that having a kid or two after you finish grad school and are TT can slow down your early career output, and it is hard to weigh that against the grad-school slowdown. My own view is that many people can handle the grad-school slowdown without it much affecting their grad work overall or, at least, their career trajectory; and those people might be better off getting the kids started in grad school. But the point about the costs for the kids of moving a lot stands, regardless.

Two more issues to consider: how invested you will be as a parent (and hence how good of a parent and partner you will be) and whether having kids might help you step back and put your career in a more mature perspective.

I suspect that some people will be better parents and partners if they have kids in grad school, than they would if they waited until their careers take off (esp if they really do take off in a serious way).

I also suspect that many people with kids as grads are better at adopting a healthy professional attitude towards their career in philosophy and this is good for their mental health and, perhaps, their job interview performance.

Just some thoughts...I know this stuff has to vary widely from case to case.

Jenny Szende

Hi Trevor,

Let me start out with the full disclosure that your post made me angry, and that it has taken a few days for me to find a constructive way to respond. What I've come up with is this: your opinion comes from a position of privilege, and you enumerate a variety of dimensions of this privilege without adequately acknowledging that they are dimensions of privilege. Let me explain.

The first and most obvious privilege that deserves more comment is regarding gender. Whether or not you decide to have children one day, the decision will ultimately be undertaken with an understanding that someone who is biologically female will carry the child to term. If you are biologically male, this means that someone else - who may be your partner, or a surrogate, or some other party - will experience certain aspects of the decision in a way that you will not, although hopefully you will try to share in. But as a biological male, whether or not you are ultimately able to have children of your own (genetically speaking) will not turn on whether you make this decision before or after the age of 25, 35, or 45. As a woman, I know that the timing relative to my biological age features much more prominently in my decision than you have given it credit for. So, I echo Shen-yi in worrying that your statement about the loss incurred by delaying having children is gender insensitive. Although I suspect that your focus was more on the child-rearing features of delaying having children (which I perhaps agree with in terms of financial stability, emotional stability, etc.) the biological features of the decision are significant, and indicate another form of gender-insensitivity that your post suffers from. Ultimately, you haven't provided enough acknowledgement that your decision now or on the tenure track most likely revolves around what happens after the 9months of gestation, whereas a woman's similar decision in a similar position would have to include the gestation period.

The next piece of privilege that deserves attention is your age relative to your career point. You are very lucky that you appear to be on a trajectory where having tenure before the age of, say, 40 is at least a statistical possibility. Perhaps tenure or tenure review at age 35 or 36 is even a possibility. In Europe this would be the norm, but it is more rare in North America, and so I am pointing out how lucky you are to be able to consider delaying children until you have an ideally stable situation. Many will be older, and will find tenure before infertility impossible, and so will find themselves weighing having children during grad school against not having children at all, or against having children on the job market, without health coverage, etc. Of course many have pleasant or unpleasant surprises that undermine any level of planning. So the question of whether to slow progress in grad school, or on the job market, or in a pre-tenure career stage, or instead to wait until tenure is achieved, is also a question that comes from a level of privilege that is facilitated by your age.

The last feature that makes your decision unique, but that deserves to be highlighted as a privilege, is that you are currently single and so the deliberation can, at this point, be undertaken as a monologue. Or perhaps an imagined dialogue, with an interlocutor yet to be determined. Is that interlocutor a fellow academic? Older or younger? Same sex or opposite sex? A citizen? Legal? Illegal? Do they have health coverage? While I agree that it is good to know what you want out of a possible relationship, and to know from your perspective whether you want to eventually have children, I think the decision to have children rarely has this monologic structure.

In the senior ranks of female academics, the wisdom until fairly recently, was that women should delay or simply decide at the outset not to have children. Men were not quite as burdened by the same expectations. This is happily no longer the case, and many of the barriers to having children at earlier career stages have been improved if not removed. There is now often a way to address career breaks in grant applications, postdoc applications, and even tenure applications.

I agree that this set of deliberations will be unique to each case, and that general rules are unlikely. Ultimately, we each have to make our own decisions and hope that we will not be judged too harshly for them. But we also have to try harder to empathize with the complexity and unique character of this decision in particular.

Trevor Hedberg

@Jenny and Brad -- Thanks for your comments. It's become clear to me based on these and the myriad of comments I received on Facebook (some in agreement and some in disagreement) that I will have to do a follow-up post to clarify my main argument and address many objections. Jenny, I'm especially glad you waited to respond since your post is very detailed and helpful. No doubt the view expressed in my post makes many unhappy--including some of my fellow grad students at UTK--but I feel the issue is too important to avoid discussing (even though discussion of it is often avoided).

All that said, I think I can address all the criticisms I have encountered and still keep the core of my original post in tact. I hope you're both willing to continue the discussion when I get the follow-up post finished in the next few days.

Heidi Howkins Lockwood

Trevor,

I applaud your courage in posting this piece. It’s good to see a junior philosopher carefully and honestly reflecting on the issues involved in deliberations over whether or not to have children.

That said, I’d like to encourage you, in your upcoming post, to take on three challenges.

The first is to try to come up with a more comprehensive list of the reasons for and against having children at various junctures in one’s life and/or career. Although you have touched on some, there are many that you have overlooked. (I’ll point in the direction of a few via a brief description of my own bio, below.)

The second is to try to consider the question from the vantage of other individuals and groups. Are there reasons, for example, that a woman might prefer to be pregnant while completing coursework or working on the dissertation, versus while teaching as a junior faculty member? Or, for a couple with, say, aging parents, or plans to apply for positions in other countries, might there be reasons to have children as graduate students, rather than as post-grads or junior faculty?

The third is to refrain from moving from a careful, impartial, and balanced discussion of the pros and cons, to a blanket statement about what is/is not advisable for everyone, or even for most junior philosophers. Without additional empirical information about those philosophers, your conclusion is a non sequitur.

OK, so, because I’m impressed by the simple fact that you’ve taken on a difficult topic, let me share my particular rationales and a few thoughts about having children at very different phases of my life and career. (This is intended as pure description. No normative overtones.)

I have three daughters, currently ages 2, 9, and 19.

The first was born in 1992, a little more than a year after I decided to leave the graduate program in philosophy at MIT. I was 24 at the time, and had been on a fast track to the PhD, with no plans to do anything other than specialize in mathematical and modal logic, from about age 16 on. The decision to get married and have a child was made with a kind of youthful and naïve intensity. I sought the advice of two senior female philosopher-mentors who had children in later life, and both advised me to have children at that point in my life because: (1) they found it physically challenging to bear children in later life, and (2) developing courses, publishing, and staying on the tenure track as a junior faculty member is much more demanding than graduate school work.

After dropping out of MIT and having a child, I moved to Oregon and worked hard and played hard as a technical writer and mother and weekend soloist-climber for a couple of years. I lucked into an opportunity to go to an 8,000-meter peak in the Himalayas, managed to reach the summit, and was then able to “work” as a high-altitude mountaineer for the next decade or so, supporting myself by landing sponsors, speaking engagements, etc. Climbing in the Himalayas meant that I was absent for 3-4 months at a time; although it was difficult to train on the east coast, I moved back to Connecticut when my daughter was in kindergarten, so that my parents could look after her while I was gone without any disruption to her education. The main things I remember about the transition to motherhood are: being overwhelmed during the first few months; surprise at how visceral the connection is (oh, the sweet smell of that soft spot on the top of an infant’s head); learning to love the simplicity of playing in a sandbox; and understanding for the first time the importance of family, community, etc.

Lessons learned from first daughter: 1. It’s really helpful to have live-in support from someone you love and trust during those first few months, 2. When you don’t have family nearby, your friends can become surrogate family, but there’s a limit to how much support they can provide in times of need, 3. Kids make you laugh much more often than philosophy does, and 4. It’s possible to read journal articles when you have a young child, especially if you keep a stack of them in the bathroom, but it’s ridiculously difficult to get through an entire book.

My second child, born in 2003, was a completely planned, carefully timed, and stupidly lucky event. I wanted to return to philosophy, and also wanted to have another child -- but knew it would be near-impossible to commute to anywhere other than Yale (one hour away), and also didn’t want to be both an older-than-average graduate student and a pregnant graduate student. So I pulled out the gestation calculator, figured out when I needed my husband home in order to have a baby in June, and applied to just one program. I matriculated at Yale in 2003 with an 8-week-old baby, started teaching full-time (4 courses per semester) as a VAP in 2007 and then an Asst Prof in a TT position in 2008, and finished the PhD in 2009.

Lessons learned from second daughter: 1. Not being able to do everything forces you to reflect on what really matters, 2. It is sometimes useful to sort philosophers into categories, e.g., those who like cats and those who prefer dogs – or those who like kids and those who do not, 3. It really does get more difficult to do a forward roll as you get older, and 4. One plus one does not equal two.

My third child, born in 2010, was a beautiful oops. She was also the first child I have had as a philosopher. Once again, I was much luckier than many others I know. The chair of my department was delighted when I told him that I was pregnant, and immediately offered to give me some of his own personal release time to decrease the amount of time I’d be on my feet teaching during the last trimester. And the rest of the department was equally supportive. (They even threw a baby shower. Picture, if you can, the challenge of trying to come up with appropriately appreciative comments about duckie pajamas and diaper changing materials with a group of mostly male philosophers aged 45ish to 70ish sitting in a circle to watch you open the gifts.) Since having her, I have been awarded tenure (in 2011), and promoted to Associate Prof (this year).

Lessons learned from the third daughter: 1. Life is longer and shorter than you think it is, 2. Busy-ness is a state of mind, as is cleanliness, 3. It’s possible to sleep hard, just like it’s possible to work hard and play hard, 4. There are philosophers who simply won’t be seen at a bar with you when you’re visibly pregnant, even if you offer not to hold a glass with liquid of any kind, 5. There are other philosophers who will insist that it’s ok to breastfeed your child while you give a keynote presentation, and 6. It’s arrogant to dismiss their views; those who command the most respect in life are those who listen in order to comprehend the world-views that ground diverse perspectives.

So… I’ve had three children, one in my 20s, one in my 30s, and one in my 40s. I had the first as a grad student drop-out, the second right before going back to grad school, and the third as a junior faculty member. What advice would I offer to younger philosophers trying to decide when and whether to have kids? Well, to listen to as many stories and opinions as possible, of course. But also to learn *not* to listen, to shut out the voices of others, to learn to "walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours," as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. Or, as he so memorably advised in Letters to a Young Poet:

"…I would like to beg you... as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

Ethan

While I appreciate the substantive comments above and agree with a lot of the critique, I just wanted to put forward the view that being 25, single and childless is pretty much the shit, and should not be regarded as being 'a bit depressing' or having only 'some advantages'. Grsh!

Sam

"The claim I intended to make is that I don't see what great loss is incurred if you're under 30 and nearing the end of your doctoral career and you decide to wait 2-3 years to have a child. What's going to change from, say, the age of 29 to 32?"

What will change between having a child at 29 and having a child at 32 is the likelihood of having multiple children a few years apart. If you have your first child at 32, you may find it difficult to conceive at 35/6, and perhaps very difficult at 38/9.

From a 2011 article: "In your early 30s, your chances of getting pregnant are only slightly lower than in your late 20s and your risk of a miscarriage or a baby with Down syndrome only slightly higher--but at 35, that decline in fertility begins to accelerate. Age 35 is also the point when Down syndrome and other genetic abnormalities become more of a concern. [...] At age 30, the risk of carrying a child with Down syndrome is one in 950. That risk jumps to one in 365 when you're 35."

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