A month ago, I wrote a post examining the question of whether philosophy graduate students should have children during their graduate studies or wait until they had secured stable employment. For those wondering about the gender-related worries the original post generated, I have addressed those in a separate follow-up. Here, I tackle some other concerns raised by readers and draw attention to a few qualifications that should have been made regarding the original post. I’ll begin with the latter task.
First, one possible implication of the original points I made is that those who deeply value their academic careers should not have children at all. One may wonder why I did not consider that possibility. One reason would be that I find the extreme view that no academic philosopher could be justified in having children to be radically implausible. The main reason, however, is that the post was written under the assumption that the reader is making a decision about when to have children, not whether to have them. A decision about whether to have children involves much different considerations than a decision regarding when (ideally) one will have children. Naturally, since those who do not want children are much less likely to face the decision of deciding when to have a child, I assumed in the original post that those in the relevant audience possessed a significant desire to have children: it might be a desire they are willing to abandon under some circumstances, but doing so would be a tremendous loss to them. Thus, the original post is framed primarily in terms of a complicated choice: given that I want to have children, would it be best to have them
- while I am still a graduate student,
- when I have completed my PhD but not yet found a tenure-track position,
- when I have completed my PhD and secured a tenure-track position, or
- after I have secured tenure at an academic institution.
In the original post, I regarded (2) and (3) as fairly comparable and did not differentiate between them, and I eliminated (4) because it takes so long to achieve tenure that a delay of this length would only be feasible for an extremely small percentage of professional philosophers. For the vast majority, a decision to opt for (4) would effectively be a decision not to have children. I then argued that options (2) and (3) were preferable to (1) for various reasons.
Another point worth clarifying is that the original post was not targeted at those who have children before they enter graduate school in philosophy. This might seem puzzling initially, so let me explain my reasoning. If you and your partner already have a child (or children), then I suspect the major life changes that this generates have already taken place (or at least begun). If you can balance your responsibilities to care for your children while working a full-time job and if the physical and emotional tolls of pregnancy are behind you, then it isn’t clear how handling these familial commitments in graduate school (which often affords greater schedule flexibility than a non-academic job) would be more onerous than handling them under ordinary circumstances.
At this juncture, it might be worth recapping the general for/against reasons for delaying having children until after one has his or her PhD in hand. Let’s start with the general reasons in favor of delay:
- No added strain on one’s graduate study.
- Children will probably end up moving from city to city less than they otherwise would, and generally an unstable living situation can be detrimental to children.
- Greater financial stability when children are born.
And some of the reasons against delay:
- Greater strain on one’s professional life (especially for women) when making the push for tenure.
- Increased risk of genetic abnormalities. (The statistics on this seem to vary, but the probability of having a child with Down’s Syndrome, for instance, appear to rise considerably as the mother approaches 35 and skyrockets afterward.)
- Greater difficulty in having multiple children several years apart.
- The graduate student lifestyle offers a more flexible schedule than one will have as a full-time professor, and so it is a more ideal time to conceive and raise young children. (The first few years after conception are the most demanding; they get progressively easier.)
We could spend a lot of time debating which set of reasons ought to “win” in various cases, but it may be more useful to think of these as guidelines applicable to one’s situation. They will apply in varying degrees depending on the circumstances. Younger female graduate students and male graduate students with younger female partners, for instance, can delay having a child without as much concern about genetic defects or difficulties with having multiple children as older individuals in the same situations. There is also the important question of whether the woman conceiving the child will have health coverage at the time of conception, a factor that could vary widely depending on one’s student or employment status.
Nevertheless, I want to close with a general thought in favor of my original position—that one should, if feasible, delay having children until after completing the PhD. Attrition rates at philosophy PhD programs are very high. Eric Schwitzgebel, for instance, once estimated the attrition rates of PhD programs as being 50% or higher, and other professors with whom I have corresponded have acknowledged similar percentages. I consider finishing one’s graduate career with the dreaded ABD designation to be a simply awful fate: this likely involves spending at least 5-6 years of one’s life on a project that remains forever unfinished, and it leaves the graduate student with extraordinarily limited career prospects in philosophy. I don’t know what percentage of tenure-track philosophy professors get denied tenure, but I suspect it is much lower than 50%. (Someone should definitely correct me on this if I’m mistaken: I don’t know where I’d find data to back up this claim.) This doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get tenure, but those who find themselves in a tenure-track job find their way to tenure more often than those admitted into doctoral programs find their way to the PhD. Moreover, if professors do not get tenure the first time around, they can still hit the job market again and search for tenure at another university. This is a big contrast to finishing ABD: if you don’t earn a PhD, your job prospects become devastatingly worse. Thus, the biggest hurdles facing professional philosophers are finishing the dissertation and finding a tenure-track job. Again, this isn’t meant to imply it’s easy to secure tenure: it’s a comparative claim about what stages of the process a philosopher is more likely to hit a snag. Far fewer philosophers hit snags when it comes to securing tenure than those who hit snags with either the dissertation or the job search process.
So what’s the takeaway from this observation? If other things are equal, one ought to prioritize getting the dissertation completed (thereby avoiding the eternal ABD label) and then finding a tenure-track job. Now, there will be many cases where things aren’t equal—especially for graduate students who don’t think stable careers in philosophy are all that important in the grand scheme of things or who begin graduate school in their 30s—but if things are equal and one can feasibly postpone conceiving and raising a child until after the dissertation and job search are complete, then it seems there’s a general reason to favor this strategy. Admittedly, since the job search can stretch for many years, postponing until it is complete will often not prove feasible, even for philosophers who get a PhD before 30.
For many, pursuing a serious career in academic philosophy involves making difficult tradeoffs between one’s professional and family life. Even after three posts on the matter, I suspect many important issues are left unexplored and that much more can be learned from sustained discussion of the topic.