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09/22/2022

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My two cents

I would add the following:

Conference travel---it is difficult for a family, especially one with little children and no extended family support (because you all moved to a distant city for work/PhD program), when one family member goes to conferences. Not impossible, of course, and other careers require regular travel, but it can be hard at times. (It can also be difficult for single individuals, to be sure!)

Fellowships---there are wonderful semester-long or year-long fellowship opportunities that require the scholar to relocate for an extended period of time. This is practically impossible if your partner works full time and/or you have children in school and in various social networks.

On the other hand, having summers (mostly) off is nice and the flexibility of the job is something many of my non-academic friends envy.

newly tt

IIRC my reading from Singing in the Fire, that PhD life is hostile to family life was taken to be either so self-evidently true or, even further, kind of the point of PhD life, that it was one reason women were discouraged from pursuing it.

I can think of at least one book (Professor Mommy) and countless advice columns and blog posts which try to help people (mainly women) deal with this feature of PhD life, which may only become fully apparent after a few years in grad school.

So, I don't think this idea is controversial. I am glad we are continuing to discuss it. One thing that seems to help is providing graduate students access to childcare services. (This shouldn't be surprising.)

Douglas


I think that everything in the post rings true, especially about the pressures around relocating family and financial strain, but I’ like to point out a few other points that don’t get as much attention that have (I think) a greater impact on day-to-day life as a grad student with a family. (I entered grad school with a 4 year old and 2 year old. The 2 year old is now a 10 year old and, appropriately for what follows, I’m at home with her as she recovers from a cold.)

Here are the salient things that I encountered. I suspect that my institution is pretty run-of-the-mill in the relevant respects, but I could be wrong. Pinch of salt:

In my department, grad seminars, department colloquia, and other events are all scheduled for the afternoon or evening, when a parent is likely to need to pick up their kids from school, supervise them at home, prepare dinner, and do bedtime routines. There were several seminars I wanted to take that I simply could not due to family obligations. Some of them were only offered the once and were in an area directly relevant to my research. Similarly, depending on the scheduling of undergraduate courses, my primary consideration in ranking which courses I’d like to TA was how the course fit with my family obligations. Similarly, there were many colloquia (and dinners afterward) that I wanted to attend but could not. Sometimes I was able to swing it, but more often that not, I could not.

Also, at my institution, support for graduate students with families is inadequate (overpriced daycare) and stops once the children are able to attend public schools. Additional resources and accommodations (e.g., medical leave) are often designed to apply only to the individual. When my son had a mental health issue that required constant attention for several months, my only pathway to paid leave was to show that it was impacting my mental health. (Fortunately, my wife’s boss bent over backwards to help us out.)

Having children and being older than the other graduate students in my program certainly makes it harder to relate to the them and (I’m sure) for them to relate to me. (I recall blank stares in response to my description of how stressful IEP meetings are. If you know, you know.) So the social bonds that are, for many, the best part of graduate school have been much weaker than usual for me. On the other hand, I suspect I’ve had an easier time relating to the faculty and staff in my department. Also, I’ve found that having other responsibilities keeps the stresses of graduate school in perspective.

And, of course, there is the general lack of time due to care responsibilities and, in my case (and probably many others), the need to hold an outside job. (I kept the job quiet for a long time because – again on institutional structure – it was technically forbidden by the university. Ultimately it became clear that the faculty didn’t care, so we could obliquely refer to my ‘side hustle’ with a wink and a nod, but I still didn’t publicize the fact.) So getting through the program is likely to take longer than it will for your peers. I’ll be finishing this year (my 9th), come hell or high water, job or no job. My family won’t put up with it any longer!

Ian

I totally agree with Marcus's point that "So, perhaps the real issue--or rather, more complete picture--is that grad life is profoundly hostile to individual and family flourishing." In fact, it's not just grad life. I would argue that grad school life and post-grad, precarious academic employment are both hostile toward this type of flourishing.

On the other hand, I have found that secure tenure track employment is not hostile toward this kind of life. However, you first must secure this type of employment, which is not a given. Furthermore, it takes 5-15 years to get such a job. Now that I'm in my mid-30's with no real family life, I feel like I've wasted a lot of time.

As an early 20's person, it is difficult to envision how much this might matter to you as you become older and advance through a graduate program, or as you become even older and move from temporary position to temporary position. I don't know if there is a good way to get this point across to undergraduates considering graduate school without being overly discouraging or pessimistic.

Perry Hendricks

Point #1 is completely right. I've only not worked an extra job for a single semester (when I first started my program), and it would have been pretty difficult to make ends meet if I didn't work.

Point #2 seems about right (lack of job prospects is going to be more stressful for a person w/ a family than it is for a single person). And note that - at least for many of us with families - the job market is even worse: I'm not willing to move my family around for a non-permanent job. So post-docs, VAPs, and anything less than a permanent position is ruled out.

Point #3: How much of an issue this is will range from person to person. For me, doing a PhD allowed me to spend a ton of time with family and friends, because almost all of my work was done at night. (In fact, now that I'm working a non-academic job, I have way less time to spend with family and friends.) Of course, this won't work for everyone: not everyone likes to work at night, and there may be other constraints. My point is just that, at least for some, doing a PhD can be conducive to family life.

Trevor Hedberg

This reminds me of some of the Cocoon posts in the past on whether or not to have children in graduate school. (I authored a couple on that topic.) I recall taking some flack for defending what a colleague of mine called "an anti-family view", but my concerns were dominantly rooted in what Jared mentions above -- the low income, the challenges associated with relocating your family, the difficulties of balancing your studies with childcare, etc. Of course, I recognize that these concerns may carry greater weight with some readers when they come from a person who is actively struggling with those challenges rather than a non-parent like myself. I certainly know some people who navigated these challenges successfully, but there's no doubt that it added an additional layer of difficulty to their graduate studies and the job search that followed.

G

Thank you for having this discussion. I totally agree with the point that a PhD life is hostile to families.

I think the problem is not just about flourishing "locally" in a program, but about flourishing in the profession. For example, since I had a family when I was a PhD student who was poorly paid, it was not easy for me to travel to conferences and to some summer workshops. I also cannot visit other universities for a semester or two (housing, kid's school, affordability, etc...). A friend of mine who was single can travel to conferences and workshops to know people, and then established relationships so that they could work with different people by visiting their departments for a semester or two (they visited three schools for three semesters in the last couple of years as a student). Of course, they also got letters from those external people. It was like I had a systematic disadvantage just because I had a family.

Prof L

I had (birthed) three kids in graduate school. It was a fantastic time to have kids. Things that helped were extensions to the grad school clock (1 year/kid), and a paid semesters off (for the first kid). Also, if you are poor enough you qualify for pregnancy medicaid and WIC, which are great programs.

In my experience, academic life is family friendly, compared to some other possible lines of work (lawyer, doctor, etc.). You have some control over your schedule, you have flexible summers. Deadlines are soft, and most of your work can typically be done at odd hours (if need be) and in your own home.

Online conferencing and zoom meetings have helped me with getting to know people outside of my own institution. I have a large family and don't travel a lot, but it's been great to make academic contacts over zoom and (occasionally) to meet them in person.

I look back at that time in graduate school as idyllic—I would say that it's easier to have a kid in graduate school than it is to have a kid while on the TT, but both are fine. So maybe it doesn't have to hostile—I think those sorts of accommodations I mentioned above are not too costly for grad programs, and could go some way toward making PhD programs more family friendly.

OCDpostPhD

Lack of income can also mean lack of safe housing for babies. Maybe this has to do with the particular area in which I am seeking housing, but it has taken months to find a suitable place for crawling babies (easily clean-able, no chipping (possibly lead-based) paint, no cracks on the walls or bowing walls, no obvious water issues). When I was childless, a lot of this didn't really matter. Also, finding and switching doctors (post Phd) year after year is annoying. In graduate school, though money was an issue, I had tons of support, and it was a lot easier than the post PhD situation I am in now.

Greg Stoutenburg

I'm with Prof L on this one. Grad school was a great time to have children.

I don't disagree with anything in Jared's post, but I think it's important to add that if you think working toward a PhD is hostile to families, then so is basically everything else one might do.

There were three concerns expressed:
1. You can't support a family on just a TA-ship.
It's hard to support a family on any single income, whether or not that income is just a TA-ship. (Also, it should be noted that PhD students typically have extraordinary amounts of free time to organize as they see fit. I highly recommend taking on adjunct courses at local colleges, if possible, for experience and supplemental income.)
2. You won't graduate into a high-paying job.
Importantly, this is not a problem concerning being in a PhD program, but a problem with academic hiring. Also, it applies to much more than just being in a PhD program.
3. Isolation is challenging to find, and challenging once you've found it.
All, without exception, of the most productive graduate students in my PhD program were folks who had highly organized schedules for when they would work on their dissertation research, work on papers, prepare for teaching, etc. Most of them were parents, but a minority of graduate students were parents. It is not the case that one must have countless hours alone to work: that is a particular way of working, but it is not a necessity. Nor, from what I can tell, is it a productive way to work.

So, again, I don't think anything in the post above is false. But I do think it's highly specific, fails to mention the positives of having a family in graduate school, and pins the blame on problems in academia in the wrong place.

Douglas

I agree that post-PhD precariousness is a bigger problem than issues encountered during the PhD. I don't know how we'd accomplish it, but the solution seems to be to reverse the trend of increased hiring of postdocs, VAPs, and adjuncts, which has resulted in a general expectation that one will have at least one postdoc or VAP before getting a tenure track position (and lord help the adjuncts!). This would help anyone that can't afford to spend multiple years in underpaid positions with uncertainty about income the following year or so. That line of attack might resonate more with administrators than narrowly focused concerns about parents: the current practices privilege the already privileged and add barriers to the underprivileged. If we need to have such short-term positions, I think three years should be the minimum duration. My guess is that the only way to make these sorts of changes would be for tenured faculty to pressure administrations, which requires organization, which – given my sense that almost everyone is overburdened right now – makes me skeptical that any change will be forthcoming.

thankfully now an assistant prof

I had (not birthed) two kids during PhD work. Perhaps because I wasn't the one who gave birth, it didn't extend my clock in any way that I could tell, and I didn't get official time off. In fact, I took a major program exam while my wife was still in the hospital after the second.

My sense was that the program wasn't actively hostile to having kids (often both colleagues and faculty were very kind to mine), but it was structurally set up to make having a family a pretty substantial burden. Several of my fellow students had kids too, but they all had spouses with significant incomes, so that their grad student stipends were not even necessary, much less the only source of household income. Not so with me. A large fraction of our annual income came from government tax transfers (which included EITC, etc.).

Some of household decisions were definitely our choice, and I finished (much later than expected) regardless, though some of my fellow students didn't. I emphasize that there was no particular animosity toward having kids, and no particular tendency to discourage doing so. But it was very much the case that having something even remotely like a normal life outside of school was hard, and sometimes looked at with a lot of skepticism. Few faculty had kids anywhere near the age of the students' kids (if any at all), and I have often wondered how much of a difference that makes.

I think the point Douglas made about the extra curriculum's demands was quite right. There were frequently things that the department did either formally or informally in the evenings that were difficult for young parents to attend while taking a fair share of kid duties. Having a family seems to rarely undermine doing *schoolwork*, but it makes it a lot harder to do the pre-professional stuff along the way.

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