Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Name Game

Here's a problem that definitely disproportionately affects women scientists more than men: what to do with your name when you get married?1

My personal advice? Don't hyphenate. It doesn't matter if both your original name and your husband's name are pretty straightforward. Join them with a hyphen, and suddenly no one can pronounce it nor spell it correctly. Your new name is suddenly long and unwieldy, even though neither name was individually. There's also the fact that many computer systems simply cannot deal with a hyphen, particularly most airline reservation systems.2

I actually had it pretty easy in a lot of ways. I got married before I ever published anything, so I had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted with my name. And actually, now that I'm used to it, I like my name just fine the way it is.

Still, choosing what name you go by is one of these issues that is deeply personal, yet at the same time affects your career. You might choose to keep your name because you've already published under that name or simply because it's been your identity for so long. You might choose to change it so that your family will all have the same last name or simply because you've always hated your name.

A friend of mine is getting married soon, and she asked me for advice about her peculiar situation. For the purposes of anonymity, I will call her Ann Baker-Cooper and her fiance Yancy Zhan. She writes:

[...]people have already started asking me what I plan to do with my last name -- change it, keep it, triple hyphenate it, etc. I know you decided to go with the hyphenation route, but I've spent my entire life trying to get away from the hyphenated last name. I am really excited about the idea of taking Yancy's last name, which would make me Ann Zhan. However, there is the major problem that I am fairly advanced in my career at this point, and I've published a lot of papers under my current last name. Also, Baker-Cooper has that uniqueness factor when it comes to publishing, since only 1 other person in the entire world shares my last name. (I did look up "Zhan" on ADS, and there are several, but no other A. Zhans.)

[...]One idea for me is to change my last name to Zhan in my personal life, but use Baker-Cooper in my professional life. I think this sounds a little complicated though, since both spheres tend to overlap... and what do you do when someone at your work books your flights under your professional name b/c they assume it's your legal name. Sounds like a mess to me!

Sounds messy to me, too! I did try briefly to use one name legally and professionally and the other socially, but it ended up getting too confusing and in the end I gave up and embraced my hyphenated but unwieldy name as my own.

I do know that it is possible to link both your pre- and post-marriage names on ADS: it's simply a matter of contacting the right person at ADS. So even if Ann did change her name to Zhan, a search on A. Baker-Cooper would also pull up those by A. Zhan, and vice versa. The trick is getting people to realize that those two people are one and the same.

So now I open the floor to you readers: what do you suggest that Ann do with her name?

1 This is not to say that only women ever change their names when they get married. I know of at least one man who took his wife's name, and a few who both changed their names. But still, this society's expectation is that women will take their husbands' names.

2 (Also, it's possible that your own mother will never remember your correct name, but always refer to you by your husband's last name anyway.)

[Update] More comments on the subject at the CSWA Facebook page here.

[UPDATEx2] A similar discussion is going on over at Sciencewoman's blog here!