Friday, January 16, 2009

Balance: a generational divide

There's a great post by Alice Pawley of Sciencewomen about a study which surveyed doctoral students in the University of California system. They found:
major research universities may be losing some of the most talented tenure-track academics before they even arrive. In the eyes of many doctoral students, the academic fast track has a bad reputation—one of unrelenting work hours that allow little or no room for a satisfying family life. If this sentiment is broadly shared among current and future student cohorts, the future life-blood of academia may be at stake, as promising young scholars seek alternative career paths with better work-life balance. Today’s doctoral students are different in many ways from those of just thirty or forty years ago. [Emphasis mine]

Just today, I had a... let's call it a vigorous conversation... with an older female scientist, one who had chosen to forego having children in order to pursue her career. She asserted that you can't fault men for their successes, just because they decide to spend all their energy on their careers instead of their families. They are harder workers, so they justly deserve their tenured positions at prestigious universities. She is of the opinion that you just can't have it all.

Now there is some truth to what she says. On the other hand, it means that there's a lot of talent going to waste. The aforementioned study finds that 84% of women and 74% of men were somewhat or very concerned about the family friendliness of their career paths. So work/family balance really is becoming a real issue for both women and men.

For those of earlier generations (I count myself as one of the younger generation, thankyouverymuch), perhaps it really was the case that women had to choose between career and family. The cultural paradigm was one where men worked out of the house, and women stayed home with their children. Today, the dominant paradigm is becoming one of dual-career couples, although there are still those (mostly women) who choose to stay home with their kids.

The problem as I see it is that the fast-track trajectory of grad school-postdoc-faculty-tenure leaves precious little room for variation. Alternative career paths do exist, but in astronomy, this almost always involves giving up either research or job security. What I would like to see is some kind of middle ground, where your research is valued for its quality, not the quantity. I would like to see flexibility in workplace demands, so that you can take time off when you need it, and come back when you're ready.1

Because I think the section on re-envisioning academia at the end of the article does a good job of encapsulating my further thoughts on the subject, I'll simply quote it below. (Click on "link to full post" to see.)

  • Assumption: Fast-track academia is typically either a fulltime or a no-time pursuit, particularly for those on fellowships or grants. Antidote: Men and women can shift to part-time status or temporarily elongate timelines over their academic lives without suffering career penalties.
  • Assumption: The appropriate career trajectory for successful academics is linear and without breaks—from the doctoral years to postdoctoral experience to pretenure years to the attainment of the rank of full professor. Antidote: Many men and women will want or need to take time out temporarily from their academic lives for caregiving, and universities will support their reentry.
  • Assumption: Academic “stars” are those who move through the ranks very quickly. Antidote: Academic “stars” are those who produce the most important or relevant work—faster is not necessarily better.
  • Assumption: There is no good time to have children. Antidote: It is fine to have children at any point in the career path because a full array of resources exists to support academic parents.
  • Assumption: Having children, particularly for women, is often equated with less seriousness and drive. Antidote: There is no stigma associated with having children, nor are there negative career consequences, and the culture is broadly supportive of academics who do have children.
  • Assumption: All talented doctoral students should want to become professors on the academic fast track. Antidote: Venues exist to evaluate objectively and discuss different career and life paths in and outside academia—all are accepted.
  • Assumption: Work-life balance and family friendliness are not typically promoted as important values by academic administrators and faculty. Antidote: Family-friendly policies are promoted, campuswide conferences are held to support work-life balance for all academics, department chairs are trained on the issues, and faculty mentor doctoral students.

1Also, I want a pony.