Should She or Shouldn't She?

By JoAnne Hewett | November 10, 2005 2:36 am

This is a very, very serious question for female scientists. At least in the physical sciences, I can’t speak for other disciplines. It’s a question that I bet plagues everyone of us. And I also bet most of our male colleagues don’t give it the same degree of thought. In my view, it is the only gender asymmetry. And something needs to be done to accomodate it.

The question confronting women scientists is: Should I have a baby at this stage of my career, or should I wait?

I imagine all of us women scientists encounter this question. And once we make a decision, I bet we continue to question that decision. Caolionn O’Connell over on Quantum Diaries writes

I hate that I feel compelled to schedule a baby such that it would have the least impact on my experiment.

In a nutshell, that’s the problem. And the real question is: is their ever a time when a baby would not impact one’s experiment or career? My experience says no, at least not until it’s too late.

Some women scientists do manage to have both children and a successful career (although I continually hear them discussing guilty feelings for not having enough time to accomodate everything). Some get punished for trying it, as highlighted in the recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article entitled The Laws of Physics: A postdoc’s pregnancy derails her career. In this story, a woman post-doc in experimental particle physics had a daughter and was effectively denied her rightful maternity leave (as was university policy) by her mentor who threatened her with a poor recommendation letter. She is now a graduate student in statistics at a different univerity.

The article also contains a Table of numerically weighted job-related pros and cons for `Should I have a baby now or should I wait?’ as calculated by a woman post-doc (also in experimental particle physics) at the University of Rochester. The result was 71-53 in favor of not waiting, but perhaps she didn’t know about the experience of her colleague mentioned above. When people feel compelled to calculate such a Table, it shows there’s something wrong with the system.

The dangers of waiting are obvious: the career path is a long process and by the end you’re too old. That’s my story. As a graduate student I wasn’t ready, as a post-doc I had to focus on getting a tenure-track job, as an assistant professor I knew I would never get tenure if I got pregnant. And now, I go to the clinic and the doctor’s first statement is `do you realize how old you are? Do you realize the infinitesimal chance of getting pregnant and the infinite risks?’ Nonetheless, they are happy to help me try, but at this stage it costs $10k a pop and insurance doesn’t cover it.

It is a fundamental right of a human being to have children. And our scientific career path needs to accomodate that fact. Otherwise, we will never have equal gender respresentation in the physical sciences, and science will lose out on talented people with some brilliant ideas.

  • Jack

    It is indeed a major problem. Observations suggest that the least harmful time is during the first postdoc. During PhD and second postdoc would be suicidal. Nobody expects you to do anything sensational in the first pd anyway. Sorry, brutal but true.

    Don’t wait. And don’t wait for more enlightened days. That will happen in your daughter’s time. Make that granddaughter.

  • Pyracantha

    Does this mean that women in science who do not want children and do not have them (for whatever reason) would have a better time of it, career-wise?
    Not all women want to have children.

  • Joe Bolte

    What exactly are you suggesting be done? “Scientific career paths need to accomodate [the right to have children],” is not an action to be taken, in order to allow women to have children, but still keep the same oppurtunity as their non-children-bearing coleagues. As a 22-year-old with an undertermined (so-far) career path, I think often about how having a child would enrich my life, but how it’s simply the wrong time for me to bring one into this world, for a number of reasons.

    If I were to consider two otherwise equally-qualified candidates for a business position, of course I would choose the one who wasn’t three months pregnant (or married to a women in this position, if I found out). Similarly, I will never complain about an employer that penalizes my choice to travel in South America, rather than obtain a graduate degree or pursue an internship. It’s simply a personally enriching experience that doesn’t necessarily translate into better preparation for a career. Some employers may regard this as good preparation for the position they seek to fill, but if they don’t, you won’t see me complaining about equal representation for those who chose to pursue personal, rather than career goals.

  • chimpanzee

    “There are two great tragedies in life. One is to not get what you want; the other is to get what you want. ”
    — Jonas Salk, click HERE for Video

    [ M. Gell-Man expressed a similar thing, on a recent episode (How Does Order Arise
    in the Universe?
    ) of Closer to Truth/Round 2, when he referred to a decision-tree (each node is fork-in-the-road, in the “Path of Discovery”) ]

    from Achievement.Org/Jonas Salk:

    You had phenomenal success in your work, but I gather there were some setbacks along the way. It seems shocking today, but you were turned down by a couple of institutes that you applied to after medical school.

    In fact, my entering the field that led to work in vaccines came about as a result of my being denied an opportunity to work at another institution.

    There are two great tragedies in life. One is to not get what you want; the other is to get what you want. And if I had gotten what I wanted, it would have been a greater tragedy than my not getting what I wanted, because it allowed me to get something else.

    [ Key to Success ] Perseverance

    “Victory belongs to the Most Persevering”
    — Napoleon

    Tell us where you applied that you didn’t get in.

    I applied to a laboratory at a medical school that was interested in pathological disorders, diseases involving the immune system. I had also applied to a laboratory at Columbia University. I know how disappointed we all are, not to get what we want. But the question is, should that discourage us? That was not my attitude. My attitude was always to keep open, to keep scanning. I think that’s how things work in nature. Many people are close-minded, rigid, and that’s not my inclination.

    Did you ever doubt yourself when you got turned down from these places?

    I would say evidently not. I was merely looking for opportunities. And it was the opportunity that came first. It was not a test of me. In some instances, I was aware that there was a tendency toward favoritism or discrimination.

    “Life is 20% what-happens-to-you, 80% how-you-respond-to-it”
    — a wise man once said

    A friend of mine (MIT math undergrad, U Wisconsin Math PhD/Topology) couldn’t get a job, ended up getting a 2nd PhD in math/Statistics at Rutgers. He’s now working in the area of Bioinformatics. Given the above, that woman (postdoc in experimental-physics @SUNY, to grad student in statistics @Purdue) who had a detour might end up making a name for herself in Statistics/BioInformatics. (way better job prospects & pay scale)

    One note from Biology:

    “The purpose of to CREATE Life”
    — Dr. David Suzuki, biologist (on one of his 1hr TV shows)

    I.e., participate in Evolution by “randomizing” the gene-pool (improve it). Continuation of the species, & also continuation of the family-name genes.

  • chimpanzee

    Here’s the correct link to the Video:

    “Russell Johnson, who played the asexual, ingenious Professor — who could turn a coconut into a radio but couldn’t build a boat — said he and other cast members recently appeared at a biotech conference in San Francisco and spoke to a crowd of scientists and PhDs.

    “And every one of them was a fan of “Gilligan’s Island,” Johnson marvels.”

    I think the property of “obsession to work” being correlated to “tenure-track success” (Lisa Randall actually used the term “obsessive” in one of the recent articles), was covered by that hit show “Gilligan’s Island”. Ginger would always be coming-on to the Professor, who always resisted her advances. I remember one scene, where he orders everyone out of his hut/laboratory. He lived/slept in the lab.

    “Erika Tiffany Smith to the Rescue”
    Zsa Zsa played this socialite and old acquaintance of the Howells, who arrives on the island, looking for a husband and a place to build a hotel. She falls for the Professor, but he barely notices her since his academic mind leaves no room for romantic notions. She promises to send help when she leaves the island, but is never able to relocate it!

    Professor takes her out on a Nature walk:

    Why do you know, we ran into a plant [ fancy Latin name ], & SHE WASN’T THE LEAST BIT INTERESTED!!?

    Professor!.. [ approaches him seductively, & explains to him the “Birds & the Bees” ]

    This also illustrates the “gap” between Science & The Public. Science is tedious difficult process (boring/stale), while the Public just wants to be entertained (instant gratification). That’s why that radio host interviewing Lisa Randall made all those dumb comments (“string theory & string bikinis”, her single status, flirtacious comments). It was all cheap laughs for a dumb listening audience.

    [ below is a review of a crackpot book, “Fingerprints of the Gods” ]

    Entertainment – Not Science, November 1, 1999
    Reviewer: A reader in Cincinnatti

    Everyone who gave this book one star should realize that this book is entertainment. Hancock is not a scientist or an academic of any kind – he’s a journalist! He raises some interesting questions and then goes on to provide answers. Some are plausible, most are not, and none of them have any hard evidence. Of course Hancock tailors the facts to fit his theories – he is not constrained by truth, science, or even ethics. He is a journalist. If you are interested in some of the real science, go to the real sources. Read Hapgood’s Map of the Ancient Sea Kings, and Path to the Poles. Don’t accept Hancock’s interpretations, read the origionals. Hapgood wasn’t the greatest scholar, but he presented his theories in a scientific way. Hancock’s an entertainer, and a capitalist. This book, and all those like it that preach pseudo-science, appeal to the majority of people in this world who are scientifically challenged. Most Americans don’t have enough scientific knowledge to understand the technology they face everyday, much less untangle the fact and fantasy in this book. It is entertainment, but it’s dangerous – science interpreted by a journalist!

  • Chad Orzel

    It’s a question that I bet plagues everyone of us. And I also bet most of our male colleagues don’t give it the same degree of thought. In my view, it is the only gender asymmetry. And something needs to be done to accomodate it.

    The question confronting women scientists is: Should I have a baby at this stage of my career, or should I wait?

    There are enough qualifiers in that first statement that it’s almost certainly true, but as a male colleague (albeit in a distant field), let me assure you that some of us do think about this question quite a bit.

    I’m not sure what there is to be done, though, short of the invention of the uterine replicator. Suggestions are welcome.

  • Pingback: Botsmack » The Right Time To Have A Child()

  • Hektor Bim

    I’m not hopeful, actually. One of the reasons I got out of academic physics is that it is not supportive at all of people (male or female) who want to interact with their families or have down-time at all.

    People will screw you if you have a child. Especially if you are a woman. If you are a man, they will think it is weird and inappropriate if you try to take care of your child at all, instead of dumping everything on your wife. If you are a woman, it will be cast-iron proof that you are “not committed to physics”, and they will write bad recommendations, deny you tenure, and pressure you to become a housewife.

    The implicit attitude is perfectly expressed in Joe Bolte’s message. He and most other people like him (men and women) will discriminate against women who have children. And it is not fair. Men with families make more money than average. Women with families make less.

    The expectation of a physics professor is that he is male with a stay-at-home wife who manages the house and deals with all of life’s tedious details for him so that he can concentrate on deep thoughts on physics. It is still very much a priesthood. Structurally, that’s how the system is set up, and why professors are so likely to divorce. I don’t see it improving, since the field is more competitive than in the past. Hiring committees know they have the power, so they know they can get away with driving assistant professors into the ground and forcing one spouse (usually the woman) to do all the drudge work while the professor spends 70+ hours in the lab. It’s pretty bleak, and I don’t see it changing soon.

  • Becky Stanek

    I’m not sure what there is to be done, though, short of the invention of the uterine replicator. Suggestions are welcome.

    More men demanding paternity leave might be a good start.

  • Hektor Bim

    That article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is typical.

    Basically, Ms. Towers is totally fucked. She worked hard, neglected her child, did some good research, and it didn’t matter in the end. Her advisor gave her the shaft, and he got promoted.

    As long as lawbreaking and abuses of power like this are tolerated and even encouraged in physics academia, this will go on. I’m very sceptical that anything will change much anytime soon.

  • Hektor Bim

    I agree with Becky Stanek. More men demanding paternity leave is very important.

  • ann nelson

    This discussion comes up a LOT, nearly whenever the women graduate students in our department get together. When men are present, some react as Joe Bolte did ” It’s simply a personally enriching experience ” and don’t see why any particular accomodation should be made. I have been amused to watch the transformation of this attitude in a male colleague after the birth of his own children. Then he got it. Having children is not a ” personally enriching experience” (in fact it may, objectively, be the opposite!) it is what people and other animals are biologically driven to do. It is one of the strongest drives there is. And a career which makes this basic human biology excessively difficult is dehumanizing to men and women. Furthermore a society which does not support child raising does not optimallly use the all the talents of its citizens, and is bad for children. Should people who do science be required to not reproduce? If so, only a rather special (and mostly male) subset of scientifically talented people will pursue science careers.

    In our system the science career path is antagonistic to female biology, although women with extraordinary committment and energy do often juggle bearing and raising children with launching their careers. A hilarious book about what it is like to try this is “I Don’t Know How She Does It : The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother” by Allison Pearson. Although this is a comedy about a hedge fund manager, I read it while alternately laughing and thinking “My god, this is my life!.”

    I think our current system is an anachronism and ought to be redesigned from the ground. France, for instance, has a rather different structure, with much earlier tenure, and less moving around required, and it is easier for young French scientists to mesh their biology with their career.
    Given that this is not realistic, at least we ought to try some tinkering and improvements–part time faculty job options, serious university resources devoted to childcare and maternity leave, subsidized childcare and maternity leave for grad students and postdocs, and alternative tenure paths with different timing.

  • Jocelyn

    Oh gosh, I’m thinking about this right now. Getting married next year, want children sometime, right now I’m about halfway through my PhD. I’m lucky to have a husband-to-be who wants to be a stay-at-home dad, but I still stress about when I’ll have a chance to have kids. And for my genes, the time will run out when I’m in my forties. I’ve been thinking about postdoc-timed pregnancies. (Assuming I can get pregnant on any kind of schedule, which people sometimes forget isn’t a given).

  • janet

    One of the things that makes this a fundamentally different issue for women than it is for men is that women have a much shorter window during which childbearing is a) physiologically possible and b) relatively safe for mother and baby. Male fertility drops off gradually with age, and men who are fertile at 30 are likely to be fertile at 60; most women are subfertile by they time they’re in their early 40’s, some much earlier. The risk of chromosomal abnormalities such as Down’s Syndrome increases with the mother’s age, as does the risk of pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes and preterm labor. This is not to say that a woman can’t have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby in her 40’s — I have a sister-in-law who conceived without medical help and gave birth to her son, in a home birth after a pretty easy pregnancy, on her own 44th birthday. But for a woman, putting off childbearing does increase the risk that you won’t be able to do it at all.

    JoAnne, I’m sorry that you’re having to face this conundrum. I can sympathize, believe me! My husband and I agreed to start trying to have a baby nearly 5 years ago, and we are just now, finally, about to become parents. We put off childbearing for other reasons than career (neither of us is in academia), but I too have done a lot of second-guessing — what if we had started trying even a few years earlier? We’ll never know. I’m now 33 weeks pregnant and have had a relatively easy time so far, and both the baby and I are testing normal for everything they can think of testing for. But this is it — I’m in my 40s and have type 1 diabetes (also a risk for various complications), and I don’t feel like pushing my luck to have a second child, which is why we are planning to adopt our second.

  • weichi

    Joe Bolte said: “If I were to consider two otherwise equally-qualified candidates for a business position, of course I would choose the one who wasn’t three months pregnant (or married to a women in this position, if I found out).”

    First of all, the bit about “two otherwise equally-qualified candidates” is a red herring. Two candidates are *never* “equally qualified”. You can always find a legitimate reason to prefer one over the other.

    Secondly, I can assure you that basing a hiring decision on whether or not a candidate has children is highly illegal. When I was interviewing people, HR explicitly told us to never even *ask* questions about whether a person is married, has a family, etc. You can ask questions like “This job requires you to work 60 hours a week and travel constantly – are you willing to do that?”, but you can’t ask them whether they have a family and then *assume* that they won’t be willing to put in the hours/travel based on that.

    More importantly, it’s also deeply offensive and stupid. Maybe you aren’t aware of this, but a large majority of people in this world, men and women, do have children at some point in their lives. Do you really think that people with children shouldn’t be offered jobs? When your company is going through a period of lay-offs, would you place employees with families at the top of the list to be fired? Is this the type of society you want to live in?

  • James

    Despite the very real concerns of women and how their pregnancy can derail their scientific careers, just imagine how much interference men enocounter when _they_ get pregnant! I think this issue deserves more attention than it has been receiving.

  • Moshe

    “It is a fundamental right of a human being to have children.”

    Could not agree more, very well said. Being a parent should not copnflict with personal ambitions, but of course it does. This does not end with conception, as I mentioned before, and then the father is more affected as well…

    One random thought- a friend of mine in CERN got one year extension on her postdoc because of her pregnancy, another got the tenure clock delayed one year, this is how things are done in the real world as well (e.g the dpt. financial secretary). However, a small group usually just cannot afford it. So maybe one idea to have a dramatic effect on representation of women in science is to make this ubiquitous choice easier: maybe if some private/federal fund exists solely for this, a scholarship awarded to good women scientists who are pregnant, to extend their temporary job. Everybody wins this way, and I think it is one major reason for the under-representation of women in science.

    More ideas of how to be more inclusive towards`parents once the baby is out, but maybe later…



  • Kieran

    Who knew that women in science reproduce by parthenogenesis?

  • Dissident

    Sorry JoAnne, but there is a simple but crucial error in your post: it is most definitely NOT a fundamental right of a human being to have children.

    Children are an option, just like spending your money on a Ferrari or a house, or having a carer in physics or a a career in finance. Most options tend to be exclusive f other options. You can only have so many carrers; you only have so much money to buy this or that; you only have so much time to make this or that ambition come true. You must choose a path, excluding all others, and hoping that the outcome won’t be too disappointing.

    The fundamental right of a human being is the right to choose freely. Not to have it all.

  • Moshe

    Ah, I am reminded of one of the political oddities of the US, where the rich and powerful majority is forever presenting themselves as the persecuted class. Strange but true.

    Sorry, off-topic (almost).

  • Phil S.

    I agree with Dissident. There simply is no way to “have it all”. Tenured professors and other staff at research institutes are highly compensated, so it’s only normal society expects them to be excellent and do sacrifices. Arguably, the only thing wrong with the current situation is male researchers not spending enough time with their children and expecting someone else to spend the time they cannot (but should) spend with their children (or pay them to do it). If you want a highly paid research job, then either try to accommodate both children and work, or forget your plans of a family. Alternatively, lower your career expectations.

  • Belizean

    “It is a fundamental right of a human being to have children.”

    Yes. But you don’t have the right to have children and advance professionally to the same degree as those who remain childless or make career-preserving arrangements for their care.

    Short-term solution: A nanny. Get pregnant as soon as you can afford one. [Live in a cheaper house. Drive an older car. Any assistant prof, especially in a two-income family, can afford an nanny.]

    Long-term solution: An aristocratic society. This is one in which “careers” are unimportant due to a dramatic rise in mass leisure. No one would care about a career, because everyone would in effect be finanically independent. An aristocratic society will arise, when there exist millions of self-perpetuating robots slaves, whose programming gives them orgasmic joy in supporting the human race. Time frame ~ 150 years.

    Also, please realize that this problem (children vs. other achievements) is by no means unique to academia!

    Joanne, please don’t take this the wrong way. But you’re coming across as someone who is whining, because she can’t have everything that she wants. You made very conscious choices. Physics does not discriminate against women, it — like all professions — discriminates againsts non-careerists. This is hardly shocking news. Where did you get the strange notion that we have a right to a successful career?

  • Mark

    As someone with fantasic female colleagues both inside and outside my own department, I can tell you that research and teaching will both suffer if we do not make provisions for people to have children and have a decent shot at a career in science.

    Making sensible options readily available is good for us all, not just for those who want children. This doesn’t mean lowering standards. Extending the time to the tenure decision by some appropriate amount for someone who has a child doesn’t seem an unreasonable step to me (we allow it here at Syracuse for both the Mother and the Father). Naturally, those who don’t have kids may then get tenure earlier than those who do, but those choosing to have children don’t suffer the drastic result of being kicked out because they made this choice.

    I mention this as an example, not as the complete solution to the problem. I don’t see how anyone loses by us taking steps such as this.

  • Arun

    How did Marie Curie do it – she had a scientific career and children at the same time at the beginning of the 20th century?

    I would imagine that a university has much better child care facilities than the average business; (e.g., the child care center might even be on campus!); that a university job may have more flexible hours; etc. Surely there are solutions – the scientific career should not be any more a barrier to having children than a career in business or law.

    Surely spouse and society both can be much more supportive; we just have to cultivate that mind-set.

  • Jacques Distler

    Stopping the tenure clock for a year or two is probably the best accommodation that one can make. You’re (generally) not too old (early 30s) at that point and you have a bit of medium-term stability in your job situation. Moreover, the cost to the University is minimal, so there’s no good reason not to make such an accommodation.

    Postdoctoral positions are really too short to pause to sneeze, let alone have a baby. And the cost of extending a position (for a year or two) is borne entirely by the research grant in question, which is rather unfair.

    I ‘spose having a baby while still in grad school is also an option, but unless your husband has a real job, raising a baby on a graduate student stipend seems tough to me.

  • Risa

    JoAnne, thanks for writing about this, been meaning to since I saw the article. I don’t agree with you that it’s the only gender assymmetry, but it’s definitely one of the biggest. I have certainly always felt like having a child during my post doc years was impossible — and with six years a standard length as a postdoc, and another 6 for tenure, the tension between this clock and the biological clock can be very difficult either way.

    There is nothing about doing great science per se that requires working 80 hour weeks for all of your prime child bearing years, but that is clearly the way the system in the US is set up. The article made me consider something I hadn’t thought about much before, which Moshe also suggested above: how much it would help if there were federal (or private) funding for postdocs (both women and men!) to take time off (say, 3 months) to have a child. In my subfield, funding is tight enought that its very hard for individual investigators (or even small groupd) to have enough grant funding to fund a postdoc for 2-3 years, and if they do they are not likely to take kindly to someone taking a few months off. Widely available funding for this situation might make this much more possible, and eventually even more acceptable.

    And Phil, tenured professors are extremely lowly compensated, relative to their education and training. One cannot, as an individual (especially as a woman in a field that is highly male dominated) just decide to “accomodate both children and work”. The culture of the field needs to change to make this possible. And the reason to do this is not just for those selfish women who want to “have it all” — it’s for science, because if you exclude people who want to have children — a pretty basic, if not universal desire — then you will exclude many of the best scientists, and the field will suffer as a result.

  • graviton383

    I believe that JoAnne’s point is that it is WOMEN who make almost all of these sacrifices today and not men. Male researchers at prestigious institutes do not have to choose whether to have a career or instead have children (who they may hardly ever see). In a world with an even playing field I can understand that to do either of these `jobs’ , ie, researcher or parent, really well a given person, male or female, may need to sacrifice one or the other of these roles. But that’s not the world we live in. Lastly, it is not only these women who have to live with this choice but also their significant others who sacrifice with them and are also childless.

  • prosaica

    Arun: Marie Curie had a wet nurse, and left her children with nannies and in-laws. She was also a single parent (widow) for a long time. And her eldest daughter was a good physicist.

    Ann Nelson: I totally agree with you, and recommend the book “I wonder how she does it” to the nonparents who want to get a glimpse of parenthood for academics.

    JoAnne: thanks a lot for raising this important question, that concern (men and) women in all sciences, all over the world. And best of luck to you, and to everybody who’s trying to conceive or adopt.

    Hektor Bim: we don’t need a uterine replicator. A healthy pregnancy, which is most likely in younger women, allows you to work as a scientist (well, at least as a mathematician) until the contractions start.

    Breastfeeding takes a lot of time and energy, for a few months which in most european countries are anyway compulsory paid maternity leave. After that, fathers and mothers are on a par, except stay-at-home-dads aren’t so common. And yes, I planned my children with respect to my carreer and the lectures calendar.

    Bonus tip: between 35 and 40 you’re more likely to get twins. That’s the one point where our family planning became unplanned after all.

  • Moshe

    One more comment, in the current system maybe a good time is towards the end of the PhD, maybe prolonging the PhD one year and emerging to the job market one year later is not as bad as other options.

    (I also want to mention, gently and without offending anybody, that the child also has a father, so it is not entirely a female issue).

  • Kieran

    I agree with Dissident. There simply is no way to “have it all”.

    Yes, this is why elite male scientists have no families.

  • LM

    As much as I hate to side with Motl on anything, this whole discussion does smack of whining by a group of priviledged (by global standards) women who are finding it inconvenient to pursue their fantasy jobs. I mean, sure it would be nice if I could pursue my dream of being a rock star and astronaut while raising a family and a couple of ponies, all the while living in the level of comfort to which I am accustomed, but I don’t view that as a fundamental right.

  • Phil S.

    @Kieran: Not that I have the pretense to become an ‘elite’ scientist, but if I realize my study projects, I will seriously think about whether I want children or not. The scientists you mention often rely on extremely comprehensive and dedicated (and perhaps frustrated) wives, and their children most certainly suffer from their long absences (even if, when they get older, they realize the importance of their fathers’ and will likely downplay the impact these absences had on them when they were children). If I ever have children, I would like to be something else for them than the “weekend friend” who comes to visit them when the nanny isn’t there.

  • bittergradstudent


    you might have a point if the “establishment” weren’t so intense on punishing women for having families, while being completely indifferent to whether or not men have familes. That behaviour is clearly illegal.

    Similarly, the family and medical leave act is the law in the united states. Complaining about people not uniformly enforcing it (or them not applying it at all) is completely valid.

    Finally, raising a family completely natural. Please read this. It’s by a non-physicist, but it has everything to do with the point at hand, is extremely good, and gets the point across better than I could.

  • JoAnne

    Wow….some comments in this thread are quite enlightening. I never realized society expects me to sacrifice because I have such a high paying job (actually, I never realized that I have such a high paying job, especially given the cost of living in Silicon Valley), or that I gave up my right to have children when I advanced professionally, or that I am whining in my expectations of being able to have children and a job, or…

    Keep it up folks, this is fascinating and I’m learning alot. And I mean that seriously – I am learning quite a bit about people’s thoughts and prejudices.

  • Gavin Polhemus

    Here is my story. I don’t know the ending, but so far I am very happy with it. I’ll answer questions if anyone wants to know more.

    I met my wife as an undergrad and we married the week after graduation. We moved to Chicago where she attended medical school and I went to graduate school in physics. After two years of graduate school, we decided that it was time. Our son was born between our third and fourth years. She was able to stretch medical school to five years, taking a year off in bits and pieces. I was doing theoretical work so I could do some things from home. It was a crazy time with no sleep and no money, but we did have great help from her family in Chicago.

    After getting my Ph.D. I became an at-home dad while my wife did her medicine residency. I’ve been at-home for the last six years, and am just now starting to get back into research.

    The bad news is that in those six years I was not able to do much physics. I did tutoring (pre-meds are a gold-mine) and an online string theory course, but I couldn’t work enough to do even slow research. That was a disappointment.

    The good news is that there don’t appear to be large obstacles in the way of my return to research. I went to a conference this summer and met former colleagues and mentors who were happy to see me, tell me about what they were doing, and help me get back in. When I was contemplating at-home fathering, professors warned me sternly that the gap in my resume would be very damaging. Now that I’m at the other end, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. I tell people, “I left to field to raise my son. Now he’s in school so I’m back.” That’s it. The people who would have written me letters six years ago seem perfectly happy to write those letters now. Maybe some of that is because I am a guy, but I think that the at-home dad thing probably wiped out the initial prejudice in my favor.

    There is one totally unexpected benefit, which is the tremendous confidence that this experience has given me. With my son in school and my wife’s career firmly established, I can focus on science. Because we have learned to live on a single income, I can look for a job without fear. I’d like to get an income so my wife can work less, but it isn’t urgent.

    My biggest warning is that having kids isn’t something that you do “on the side.” Everything else will be secondary because they are your kids. They can’t be put on hold for six moths while you write a paper or collect data. If you want to have kids with out disrupting your career, then you better find a spouse who is ready to do all tho work. However, the disruption isn’t a disaster. For me it was a blessing.


    Summary FAQ.
    Q: Is now a good time to have kids? A: No.
    Q: When is the best time? A: Now.

  • JoAnne

    And, thanks to you all who have written with positive suggestions for change. Official programs such as job extensions for post-docs, maternity leave, and stopping the tenure clock for Assist Profs are all worthwhile and should be pursued. But, I counter that they unfortunately do not address the real problem at hand – people’s attitudes. The post-doc highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education article had a maternity leave program at her university, but it didn’t help because her advisor refused to acknowledge it. Stanford has a very good tenure-clock stoppage policy, but I chose not to take advantage of it. I am convinced I would not have tenure if I had.

    I think real change will only occur when there are enough women on faculties and in administration to prevent this discrimination.

    And thanks to all who noted that the discrimination is rooted in the fact that most of our male colleagues do not have to choose between children and career. All of my male colleagues (except ones married to women scientists) have children. And yes, Graviton383, Moshe, and Chad there are issues on the male side as well, and I don’t mean to make light of that. It’s just that men don’t seem to lose their jobs when they have children.

  • collin

    The evil seems to be the post-doc position. It’s not surprising, considering there’s tremendous pressure to get as many results as possible out (i.e. to do nothing but work) in your late 20s to early 30s (i.e. when most people want to have children). It’s also something rather unique to academia. Sure, adding a year to your tenure clock is an obvious thing to do once (and if) you have a tenure track position. But it’s not an ideal solution. So, can we get rid of the post-doc position? Turn it into more of a university sponsered quasi-tenure track position, so that you’d have a bit more stability? Perhaps be able to work for a couple of years, take time off to have a baby, and not lose much in the way of your career?

    Also, if you have two incomes, I think most people could support a child on two grad student stipends. That should be pushing $40-50k/yr, at least in physics. But I’m guessing most people feel too unsettled to want a baby while in grad school.

  • Hmm

    Why is there such an assumption that the academic system needs to be fixed, or changed drastically? This is the same system that, just talking about particle physics, gave us quantum mechanics and, in the US after WWII, gave rise to QED and the Standard Model. Show me any other system with such an amazing track record. There is no evidence that all the work done to date changing the system to make it more diverse, friendly, balanced etc. has helped push science forward more effectively–though it is still too early to tell. The people involved in previous revolutions were ambitious, obsessive and driven. This is simply what it takes to generate big breakthroughs in science. Of course it is tough on people, especially fresh PhD’s and post-docs. It is tough on women who want to have children, it is tough on men and women who want to maintain healthy, meaningful relationships–especially when the significant other is another academic. But no one promised a rose garden! People who succeed tend to be rather extraordinary, make sacrifices, and don’t make a big fuss or whine about it. Perhaps the system can be tweaked to make it easier for people to take maternity/paternity leaves for months or maybe even a year–but it is simply false that one can do great work as a part-timer, and the insanely driven people will always be pushing science forward more effectively. Thats life, thats also what makes science so cool and different from duller pursuits–virtuosically talented unbalanced people are so much more interesting than well-balanced 9-5ers.

  • jam

    In answer to your original question: no, no way. Not now. Not soon. I’m finishing my PhD, and I have two enormous disadvantages: 1.) I lost several years to undiagnosed depression, and it’s going to take me a few more years to really repair the damage to my career and 2.) I foolishly fell in love with and married somone in my own field, so now I’m the junior member in a classic “two-body problem.” That will severly limit our job prospects geographically (even if we decide we’re willing to spend a few years apart, we really have to stay on the same continent, ouch), and the junior member always ends up with the short end of the stick. A baby? In addition to risking another bout of depression during either pregnancy or post-partum, a baby at this point would unquestionably kill my career in science. Heck, it would take several years off of my job prospects outside of science, too… which means that the earliest I could get started working on my pension might be age 35, more than ten years behind most college undergraduates. Yikes!

    Is having a child a fundamental right? No, of course not. It’s merely what we’re programmed to do, above and beyond all other things. All of our instincts, our upbringing, our hormones, our “culture of life” tell us to replicate, replicate, replicate or die. But we live on an over-populated planet… indulging our genetic programming is stressing an already over-taxed system.

    So obviously the solution is to wait until I’m somewhat secure and then adopt? Unfortunately, this is still a two-body problem — and my husband isn’t yet ready to give up his right to replicate.

  • female,single,no children

    My situation: 2nd postdoc, single, no children. Very long distance relationship, see my boyfriend twice a year. I have not even time to think about sex, not to mention children. Unfortunately, the boyfriend has a position related to his native language, so it is unlikely he will find some job close by. I try to find a position back home, but it is difficult.

    I say, the problem is much more general than women having or not having children. The problem is that the education takes and enourmosly long time during which there is too little savety. Who would want to have a child with a one or two year position, with the prospect to move overseas any time soon, with the thought of having to work 24/7 every day of the year, because every day away is one too many?

    When I think about it, who would want to live this way?

    I should have had children as early as possible, say, during high school time. My gyn says the stress ruins my health and I should quit. My psychotherapist agrees. I try not to think about it. Which is not so difficult since my desk is always covered with work.

    Since this has already gotten pretty pathetic (sorry, been thinking about that a lot lately): Hey you with the grant! Please treat us postdocs as human beings! I have been spending the so-called best time of my life trying to convince older men that I am not stupid. Don’t you think 12 years of education should qualify in some sense?
    Give me time and give me money and I can do the really good work.

    Even with children.

  • Gavin Polhemus


    Give your fiance a big cheer from me. The Tenth Annual At-Home Dads’ Convention is next weekend in Chicago. He might really like it if he is in the area. I won’t be there.


  • Dissident

    “female,single,no children” wrote:

    “I have been spending the so-called best time of my life trying to convince older men that I am not stupid.”

    Oh dear. I know it’s rubbing salt in the wound, but does that really strike you as a smart thing to do…?

  • female#2, single, no children

    Here: 1st postdoc, hetero, single (everyone male too old/taken/young but not interested), no children, no hopes to even meet somebody, not enough social skills, neck of the woods research university location, foreign national(“alien”).
    Completely agree with comment #40.
    Generally men colleagues have wifes not PhDs, not even M.S., because, as we all know, “men look not across, but downward” to get a wife. As Ms.Dowd said in NYTimes, they marry their secretary/servant/ etc. (Apologies to the enlightened males who posted here and who dared to look “across the room”, and not downward.)
    Do I see a solution?
    Ending my life in a partnership with another woman, just to have one to take care when I’ll die. Hey: pathetic, but true and practical.

  • Dissident

    Hm, and here I was thinking that it’s women who look not across, but upward to get a husband. Of course, the definition of “up” and “down” may and does vary; assuming that degrees must necessarily have anything to do with seems rather narrowminded.

    female#2, if you were really desperate for a man, you could probably pick one up in no time. Just find out the location of the nearest single’s bar and hang out there a few hours. That’s all the social skills you need as a woman. Of course, your catch is unlikely to come equipped with a Ph.D. …

  • Arun

    Hmm, The US system after WWII had a strong steady growth in science funding. Now that funding is not growing or even shrinking. At one time, one moved from a PhD to an assistant prof. position, now 2-3 postdocs is the norm. It is not clear that the system that gave us the post-war advances in science is still working.

  • Kieran


    The scientists you mention often rely on extremely comprehensive and dedicated (and perhaps frustrated) wives

    Yes, that’s my point. “Wife” is a social role, not a fact of nature.

  • X

    Fertilize and freeze embryos for later pregnancy.

  • Chad Orzel

    Risa writes:
    I have certainly always felt like having a child during my post doc years was impossible — and with six years a standard length as a postdoc, and another 6 for tenure, the tension between this clock and the biological clock can be very difficult either way.

    Six years as a post-doc?!?! That’s the standard?

    Ye gods, no wonder string theory people are all crazy. Two years was more than enough for me…

    On a more serious note, I should say that my institution has a policy of stopping the tenure clock for one year after a birth or adoption, and during the discussion of that policy, my impression was that this is fairly standard for tenure-track jobs at comparable institutions.

    Life is considerably worse for post-docs and adjuncts, full stop. That sentence doesn’t require any qualification about “regarding maternity leave” or “when it comes to child care.” Post-docs and adjuncts have a much harder life than tenure-track faculty in almost any area you’d care to name. It would actually be shocking if they got a better deal when it came to family issues.

    And let’s not even talk about the sorry lot of grad students.

  • female#2

    Comment #44 from Male Dissident it inappropriate. No one wants a man just because he’s a man.
    Comment #44 does not communicate anything new. Just that the men with equal qualification as mine do not hang out in bars.
    Which we already knew.
    When I said “everyone male too old/taken/young but not interested”, I was refering to my university colleagues.
    You are not substantiating your claim that this woman with a PhD
    is “desperate for a man”. Your comment is inappropriate.

  • X

    Move to Singapore. Singapore wants highly educated people, and wants highly educated people to have children.

  • Dissident

    Dear “female#2”, you seem to have missed the “if you were” in “if you were really desperate for a man”. I did not claim that you are desperate for a man; in fact, I pointed out that you evidently are NOT.

    Your response confirms this in a most revealing way, with the statement “men with equal qualification as mine do not hang out in bars” and the reference to “this woman with a PhD”. See why I question your claim in #43 that the problem is “men look not across, but downward”?

    Evidently at least one “woman with a PhD” won’t even consider men without “equal qualification”…

  • Dissident

    P.S. The gender, marital status, age, nationality, religion, eye/hair/skin color, shoe size etc. of The Dissident are all Top Secret. 😉

  • janet

    Wow, some of the people commenting here have crawled out from a damp and squishy place underneath a very old rock.

    I suggest letting those arguing that “wanting children and a career is selfish (especially for women)” and “people with demanding/elite careers shouldn’t have children” duke it out with the crowd that says “not having children is selfish” (see Mark’s thread from a couple of months ago) and “educated people should have more kids for eugenic reasons.” Fair enough?

  • Clifford

    janet, there’s the famous quote (I saw it first as a caption for a New Yorker cartoon many years ago): “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

    It is amazing what these discussions can bring out. It is very instructive too.

    Excellent post, JoAnne!


  • Ann Nelson

    Dear Janet

    Regarding your comment “Wow, some of the people commenting here have crawled out from a damp and squishy place underneath a very old rock.”

    Unfortunately not. In your typical physics department, one hears this sort of comment on an everyday basis when the subject of accomodating people having families comes up. Sometimes the eugenic-type comments are made too. Many physicists are not ashamed to openly say such things.

    I love physics, but some aspects of the culture, not!

    I would love to implement your suggestion.

  • female#2

    Crawling monsters from under a rock?
    Yes, they would be very easy to bear, without having the example of one’s parents, both scientists and married for the last 45 years.
    How many new couples of scientists do you know today?
    How many will still be in 2050?

  • Dissident

    Clifford: bark! bark! woof! woof!
    I’m not telling you my breed either.

  • Dissident

    female #2, if you read German, here is a pretty unlikely (intercontinental) couple in physics for you:

  • drop_in

    Not to interupt all of the heated contention building up, but, as a mother, i feel compelled to comment on this topic… While some of you allude to children, the majority of the consideration seems to center on having a ‘baby’. Forgive me if I am stating the obvious, but being a parent goes far beyond being pregnant and giving birth…generally at least 18 years of full-time work and then a lifetime of concern, events, things that come up, etc with respect to the baby that you have. There will be times when you need to leave the lab to go pick up your sick child from school and days that you call in to be a chaperone on a fieldtrip and all of this is before the teenage years begin.

    I think being a parent is a decision, a choice and one that should be taken seriously. While I don’t subscribe to the notion of ‘fundamental rights’ I make this comment because the amount of responsibility having a child requires does not come ‘naturally’ to everyone. So to say that having a child is a right is to say that any human being, regardless of his or her psychological, physical or financial wellness has a right to have a child. I find that notion scary. However, I do think a society more tolerable and supportive of life/work balance is desirable. But when you have people who are willing to forego certain opportunities in favor of focusing thier time and energy on work it will be difficult to change the current, competitive, results oriented, capitalistic ‘nature’ of work. And I do believe that this situation is not specific to acadamia or science. In fact, I might argue that the environment is much worse in the CEO level corporate world.

    Thanks for listening.

  • Pingback: Women Leaders | Cosmic Variance()

  • spyder

    As for the human rights that we are entitled to assert for ourselves, please take a few minutes to cool off and read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a treaty signed by nearly all of the world’s nations, including the US (it is amazing that the Bush administration hasn’t unsigned it yet).

    These are a fairly definitive listing of our human rights and include the right to have children (article 16) regardless of our capacities and status etc. Likewise we have the simultaneous rights to pursue various paths of self-improvement without interference from those who would restrict us because we choose to exercise our other given human rights.

  • Dissident

    Ah yes, the UN. The austere place where China has a permanent seat on the security council while Taiwan’s existence goes unrecognized, and where the Human Rights Committee is presided over by… colonel Ghedaffi’s Libya?

    Far would it be from the Dissident to question the value of any piece of paper produced by such a noble assembly, but perhaps it’s not completely out of place to point out that there is no mention of “the right to have children” in the “definitive listing of our human rights” (whoa!). What there is, is “the right to marry and to found a family”.

    Unless you believe that everyone on the planet is entitled to marriage, courtesy of the UN, that’s “right” as in “not forbidden”, not as in “entitled to”. The difference being the same as the difference between “the right to buy a car” (it’s not illegal to do so) and “being entitled to having a car” (actually doing it takes money).

  • Dallas Trinkle

    Thanks for bringing this topic up. I’m a postdoc (male), and met my girlfriend of four years while I was in grad school. She started veterinary school 2 years ago, and as I apply for faculty jobs, I wonder what our family life could be like down the line. She also wants to pursue a faculty position, which brings up the two-body problem, but besides that… I wonder if we won’t be able to have children till after one of us has tenure? It seems like things will only get more complicated in time, and without recognition from our employers that starting a family is important, it gets a lot harder.

    “Should we or shouldn’t we…”

  • Maynard Handley

    I think a good summary of this discussion would be to reflect on the following point:
    Do you think Brave New World reflects a wonderful world or a terrible world?
    The point of Brave New World is what is important? Happiness or something more sophisticated which we can call something like achievement and striving? IMHO the people on JoAnne’s side are those who think that the world is all about happiness, the people (like myself) not on her side, believe that while happiness is nice, it is not the sole purpose of human existence. Plenty of people have pointed out that
    (1) having children is a massive commitment of time and
    (2) doing good science is a massive commitment of time.
    There simply isn’t enough time in one’s life to do both well without serious help. You can choose one or the other, or you can find some sort of slave to help out with the kids (unquestioning husband/wife/live-in nanny), but pretending otherwise is, IMHO, intellectually dishonest. Side issues like the length of maternity leave or the existence of day care don’t change this fundamental truth. You can, sure, do science part time, but don’t pretend you are still going to be in the major leagues and deserving of the same recognition and rewards as those who live and breathe this stuff 24/7.

    The only honest complaints here are complaints along the lines of “men can find a stay-at-home wife”. But this is something to be solved by individuals, not “the government”. There are certainly men who want to be stay-at-home husbands — but you, the woman looking for one, have to make a choice about what you want. The same guy who wants to be a stay-at-home husband is not going to be someone impressing the world with his ambition, for example. Compromises have to be made, just like any other aspect of choosing a mate. And, when push comes to shove, the choices you made reflect your priorities.

    As for the issues of money, well, guess what — every study ever done on the subject, not to mention every wise man since 4000 years ago, has pointed out that the two constants of human nature are
    * a belief that just a little more money will make you happy and
    * not being happy when you get that little bit more money.
    One can build a perfectly acceptable family life in the US on the salary of a single academic. This life may not include plasma TVs and annual trips to Hawaii, but then the life of two academic salaries doesn’t include a vacation house in Tuscany and a private plane. The path to happiness is not to whine, plot and scheme about how to get more money, but to let your rational brain take control over your wanting brain.

  • chimpanzee

    Hektor Bim wrote:
    Basically, Ms. Towers is totally fucked. She worked hard, neglected her child, did some good research, and it didn’t matter in the end. Her advisor gave her the shaft, and he got promoted

    As long as lawbreaking and abuses of power like this are tolerated and even encouraged in physics academia, this will go on. I’m very sceptical that anything will change much anytime soon.

    I view the issue of “gender asymmetry”, as part of the larger abusive nature of the system (“old & antiquated”, “The Establishment”).,kamenetz,53011,1.html

    Wanted: Really Smart Suckers
    Grad school provides exciting new road to poverty

    by Anya Kamenetz
    April 27th, 2004 10:10 AM

    Here’s an exciting career opportunity you won’t see in the classified ads. For the first six to 10 years, it pays less than $20,000 and demands superhuman levels of commitment in a Dickensian environment. Forget about marriage, a mortgage, or even Thanksgiving dinners, as the focus of your entire life narrows to the production, to exacting specifications, of a 300-page document less than a dozen people will read. Then it’s time for advancement: Apply to 50 far-flung, undesirable locations, with a 30 to 40 percent chance of being offered any position at all. You may end up living 100 miles from your spouse and commuting to three different work locations a week. You may end up $50,000 in debt, with no health insurance, feeding your kids with food stamps. If you are the luckiest out of every five entrants, you may win the profession’s ultimate prize: A comfortable middle-class job, for the rest of your life, with summers off.

    Welcome to the world of the humanities Ph.D. student, 2004, where promises mean little and revolt is in the air. In the past week, Columbia’s graduate teaching assistants went on strike and temporary, or adjunct, faculty at New York University narrowly avoided one. …

    [ note that NYU grad TA’s went on strike recently ]

    Grad students have always resigned themselves to relative poverty in anticipation of a cushy, tenured payoff. But in the past decade, the rules of the game have changed. Budget pressures have spurred universities’ increasing dependence on so-called “casual labor,” which damages both the working conditions of graduate students and their job prospects. Over half of the classroom time at major universities is now logged by non-tenure-track teachers, both graduate teaching assistants—known as TAs—and adjuncts. At community colleges, part-timers make up 60 percent of the faculties.

    [ 60 Minutes did that story several years ago. Professors were publishing papers in “esoteric journals” (“Publish or Perish” as part of the tenure requirements), while an excellent teaching professor was being let go ]

    Founded in February 2003, Invisible Adjunct quickly became one of the most popular such blogs. Dozens of regular posters followed discussion threads like “The Old Boy Network” and “Is Tenure a Cartel?” Invisible Adjunct’s author—call her IA—is a New Yorker in her late thirties with a Ph.D. in British history, an adjunct for the past two years. “I’ve spent all these years and I’ve failed,” says IA, who entered graduate school in 1993 and received her Ph.D. in 1999. “You agree to do this five-to-seven-year low-paid apprenticeship because you’re joining this guild. And if you end up as an adjunct you think, wow, I’m really getting screwed over.”

    The also pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton was a frequent contributor to Invisible Adjunct’s blog and has penned a series of cautionary columns for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is even more blunt than IA. “The premise of graduate education in the humanities is a lie: Students are not apprentices preparing for a life of scholarship and teaching,” he says. “They are a cheap source of labor and status for institutions and faculty and, after they earn their degrees, most join the reserve army of the academic underemployed.” Benton, a professor at a small liberal arts college, warns his students about trying to follow in his footsteps. “My experience as a working-class kid who finally earned an Ivy League Ph.D. is that higher education is not about social mobility or personal enrichment; it is one trap among many for people who are uninitiated into the way power and influence operate in this culture.”

    Dan Friedman completed a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale University this spring after 10 years. He now teaches at a private high school in New Jersey, making twice the $25,000 he was offered as a university part-timer. He says that as a TA back at Yale, he tried to warn his favorite students. “I’ve had a few bright students, majors, who are often interested in carrying on and I’ve said to all of them, ‘Don’t do it.’ I really wanted them to stop and think. And without exception, they thought I was joking. Only one of them came back to me—she ended up at NYU—and said, ‘Now I know what you were talking about.'” Friedman says, however, that he isn’t sure he would have taken his own advice back then. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. It would have been different if I had known. You’re committed to your subject and you think, I want to study literature. You don’t think of yourself as a 40-year-old trying to support a family.

    As a scholar of contemporary theory, Friedman quotes a cultural critic’s perspective on the economic impact of the love of learning. “As graduate students get more and more exploited, people believe in it more and do it despite the difficulty.” He refers to the 2001 book The Invisible Heart by feminist economist Nancy Folbre, which describes how the work that is most important to a society tends to be the most undervalued. “Teachers, nurses, people who do things they really care about, get shafted.

    “I’ve been stunned by what people have said at some of the blog sites,” Lord says. “They seem to believe that working as an adjunct and earning $19,000 and having no health insurance is preferable to working outside the academy. I think this prejudice is even stronger with people in grad school now than it is among older faculty.” For her own part, Lord has no regrets. “I was a single New York woman teaching in a small rural town in Montana. I could go days without speaking to my colleagues, and all my social contact was with 18- to 20-year-olds. I felt that I had sacrificed my personal life for a professional career and I didn’t see a reward.” Now a public historian in Washington, D.C., Lord has peers she can talk to and makes $37,000 more than she did as a tenure-track professor.

    Like Lord, Friedman has no regrets at leaving the ivy-covered walls. He currently teaches literature and an interdisciplinary seminar to high school freshmen four days a week and coaches soccer. “The best phrase I’ve heard for us is the intellectual lumpenproletariat,” he says, using the Marxist term for the ground-down members of the underclass who lack the class consciousness for revolt. “If something happened to empower those people, there would be an incredible efflorescence of culture in this country, because there’s more of them now than there ever has been. But they are too busy scuttling around getting shitty jobs.”

  • JoAnne

    Maynard Handley,

    You missed the point of this post (as did many others). You summarize that:

    (1) having children is a massive commitment of time and
    (2) doing good science is a massive commitment of time.

    You get no argument from me about that.

    But, the point is, that women scientists are essentially getting fired or being penalized for having children, while men are not. That’s not fair. Period.

  • Moshe

    I believe it is the word “right” which brings the whole theoretical constructs, aimed at the universal truth without worrying too much about personal stories (details, details). So maybe that word should be skipped (I am learning). There was also a good argument in comment 59.

    Speaking of details, as aesthetically pleasing is the argument that talented human beings cannot do two things well, there are just too many counter-examples for this to be convincing

    So maybe insetad of talking about abstract “rights” we can talk about removing hurdles which prevent good people from doing good science. Just because something makes life harder for scientists does not automatically justify it as some sort of last guard of quality control…

  • Maynard Handley

    I understood the point perfectly.

    The male scientists have, as I pointed out, managed to find a slave to take care of the kids. The women have not.

    Now if the situation were *simply* based on gender, ie the men you mention as being promoted and not being fired were, in fact, doing lousy work because they were constantly taking time off to tend to sick children, cook food for them, do their laundry, take them to soccer practice and so on; and if women were being fired or not promoted even though they were doing great work and didn’t devote much time to their kids because they had either a full-time nanny or a house-husband doing that, then, sure, that is completely unreasonable.

    But, as far as I can tell, this is not what you are complaining about. You are, as far as I can tell, willing to admit that, yes, having a child has taken away vast amounts of time from these women and, yes, they do devote lots of time to household chores, carting the kids around, helping them with homework and so on, but, even so, it’s unfair that the university doesn’t ignore all this and pretend that they are just as productive as the childless faculty.

  • Mark

    Well put Moshe.

  • Jocelyn

    It saddens how many people think one should just choose one of career and family. Wouldn’t a satisfying emotional life be part of what make a balanced, productive scientist? It’s sad how many brilliant people could be lost by such extreme restrictions.

    Plus, where is the next generation of scientist minds going to come from if none of us breed? :)

    I also think that the hours required to make a good contribution to physics are sometimes overestimated. I don’t think quantity of output is totally linked to quality of output. There is of course time needed put in to get understanding, and work through a difficult problem. Even some extended periods of singleminded dedication. But it is not all your possible time – and sometimes you get your best insights when you are doing something else. It seems unhealthy to expect such total devotion to one aspect of life.

  • Maynard Handley

    I also think that the hours required to make a good contribution to physics are sometimes overestimated. I don’t think quantity of output is totally linked to quality of output. There is of course time needed put in to get understanding, and work through a difficult problem. Even some extended periods of singleminded dedication. But it is not all your possible time – and sometimes you get your best insights when you are doing something else. It seems unhealthy to expect such total devotion to one aspect of life.

    The complaint, as I understand it, is not “I can’t do physics and have a kid”, it is “I can’t do physics, have a kid, *and* be promoted to the top of my field”.
    Does anyone dispute that you can indeed do physics and have a kid if you are willing to settle for eg, being a lecturer not a prof, or for working at a small liberal arts college rather than Harvard, or working at a company rather than as an academic.

  • JoAnne


    The complaint is that women tend to be fired for just trying to have children and a career. They don’t even get to the point of being able to see if indeed they can do both. They are immediately fired or put into the second track tier. Those few that make it past all this actually tend to do quite well.

    Personally, I think I would have done very well. The time that I spend on this blog, for example, could be well devoted to raising children.

  • Amara

    >I’m not sure what there is to be done, though, short of the invention of the uterine >replicator. Suggestions are welcome.

    I strongly suggest for all twenty-something and early thirties women to freeze their eggs to give them more options in their future. The technology exists _now_. (It was unfortunately not a viable technology when I was young (I am 44 now).)

    See my editorial:

  • Jocelyn

    There seem to be two concerns here.

    The first is that the prime childbearing years are ones where a typical physicist has neither job stability, employer support, nor savings to allow for time-intensive aspects of childbearing. This is stressful and can drive good people from the field. With more support of child bearing in these years, when it is biologically favorable, more physicists could go on to make stellar contributions later in a career-family balanced way.

    The second concern is a sometimes-atmospheric idea that any scientist who diverts time to silly non-science trivialities like having a fulfilling relationship, having children, blogging, teaching, exercising, bathing, etc. is not serious and should just give up now because they won’t make any significant contribution. And when this links with old fashioned attitudes about women, it leads to people dismissing the potential of women scientists, especially those who want to have children. So even if a woman is capable of managing children and a career, she may be shut down when she tries.

  • JoAnne

    Yep, Jocelyn, you hit the nail on the head. Very well said.

  • Amara

    The larger context of Jocelyn’s second concern is a culture that emphasizes one’s job while ignoring the other 2/3 of one’s 24 hours. As much as I like my work, I am not my job, and it’s necessary for my well-being to have time to devote to the other aspects that comprise all of me. The cultural environment of science embedded in a cultural environment (U.S.) where one “lives to work” is, in my view, extremely unhealthy. This issue of scientific women’s needing to ‘fight’ for time to have a family is a poignant reminder of some fundamental cultural attitudes toward work and nonwork life that will need to change in order to solve this issue.

  • agm

    Amara, unfortunately you are very wrong about what is expected of an academic in physics. 2/3 of one’s 24 hours are the job. Period. Maybe more. My advisor, when she took me on, told me that she expected me to work the same 16-hour days she does. It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized that this was BS, from watching where she invested her time (even though, as far as we can tell, she does seem to live for the job/company she’s building/educational outreach activities — I don’t get to see her much). Recently we had a tough discussion regarding a class I needed to drop; I was cracking, putting so much time into the class that I’ve probably taken a couple of years off of my life from the stress and the sleep deprivation. In this conversation, her dictum has changed, from 16 hours to 18 hours, with no discussion of commute times, husband (the prof whose class I dropped…), kids, that silly eating business, etc. My boss is exactly the sort of person Jocelyn describes in comment 74.

    I entered grad school determined to reach the professoriate; three years later, I’ve started fantasizing about just being a plain old high school teacher, simply to avoid the two-body problem, to get decent insurance, and to earn more than $20k before the $1800 mandatory insurance. Post-doc doesn’t look better, and I know the tenure chase is even worse, especially given that one of the three main physics funding agencies is getting royally screwed for the next 5 years or so (you can’t undo stupid budget planning in an instant). My fellow advisee, who wants kids much sooner than I do, even worse situation.

    It feels like I’ve been sold a bill of goods.

  • Amara

    >Amara, unfortunately you are very wrong about what is expected of an academic in physics.

    Dear agm: I’m sorry, either I did not communicate well enough, or you misunderstood. I do know what is expected of an academic in physics. I’ve worked in astronomy since 1980, my circuitous path through US astronomy research institutions led me finally to a PhD in physics in Germany, after which I chose to stay in Europe (now in Italy). This my present attempt to put some reasonable balance in my life after experiencing some situations that I thought were not good for me (A work injury, for one thing). I’m still not sure that where I am is the best solution either. (Science is poorly supported in Italy but I do think people have a healthier grasp of living)

    I know well how the scientific field is brutal to rest of people’s lives. In the movement of graduate students and postdocs in their early phases, I’ve seen couples break up, friends break up, experienced my good friends moving away, seen the upheaval when people have to move two or three or four times before they managed to find a stable position. In fact seeing those things were enough to convince me for ten years that I didn’t want a PhD and be like ‘them’ (I was a scientific programmer for some years.).

    After the PhD, one’s life in research is not their own either. The group I work in has four instruments on four spacecraft. One is expected to be ‘on call’, where the data and instruments have priority over the human being and 16 hour days are not uncommon, especially when an instrument is in the last months of building or there is an encounter with another planetary body. However there is a more relaxed attitude here towards one’s work and personal time, and if one fights to have that extra time, they can usually get it without the repercussions I saw when I was working in the States.

    My point in my previous message is science is a cruel mistress, and embedded in a workaholic culture, the combination is awful for building a real life. Cultural attitudes will need to change and some technologies like the one I suggested in 73 can help a little.

  • RudigerVT

    Entitlement. Lots of entitlement. It ain’t pretty.

    Background: I started out in show business, attending a midwestern music school where most of us could discuss the vagaries of NYC’s rental real-estate market before we’d even been there. We also knew the score. If you were principally a dancer, you got busy, fast, because your mayfly prime had already begun and your days were numbered (okay, there is Chita Rivera, and then there’s…you get the idea).

    If you were a singer, you knew that your twenties would be a blur of touring companies or apprenticeship programs or backwater German opera houses. That’s because your physical prime — 30s to 50s — was preordained and if you weren’t ready (meaning functionally fluent in 3 or 4 languages; meaning having roles learned that fit your voice and face and body AND the fashions of the day) then you were simply overlooked. If some unwise, ardent oopsie damaged your voice (singing too loud or high or long too early) then it could all be over before it started. Same, of course, for the pointe-shoe or tap-shoe mishap. Excuse me, but were you being dragged to physics classes when you were six? We’re talking about women who never got to *be* children, only then to spend their brief professional lives…being girls.

    Add to that, this: always, ALWAYS more women than men, and more of the common types (vocally, physically, or both) than the odd extremes. The competition makes what I see in academia courtly and quaint in comparison. “Math is hard!” Barbie exclaims. Yeah, well, learn to sing Gilda, or dance Giselle, then get back to me. I’ll show you hard.

    Okay, so then I go into research (psychology), PhD, post-doc, grant-hustling, yada yada. Most of my colleagues are female. I’m hearing these truly legitimate complaints, this railing against the machine. I see the gut-wrenching choices, hear the deafening din of many biological clocks ticking. But I think back to the lyric sopranos (that’s the common voice type) who wait tables or teach junior-high students how to sing, but who could also pin you to the wall with gorgeous, monsterous sound, or who could dance to make you make you weep, make you forget that you’ll die someday. And what do they have to anticipate, at best? 20 years, maybe; then the physical decline. Then, look: a whole new crop of young, lean, hungry, talented, trained, ambitious…girls.

    Maria Callas expired alone. True, her legend was just beginning, really, to gather steam beneath her, on a recorded legacy that continues to shock and awe. But at least some of the academics — male, female, otherwise — who achieve her level of unassailable dominance, what do they get? The plum jobs in the hot departments at the cool schools in the great, leafy towns. Who do you think’s vyying for tables at all those restaurants in Cambridge on Saturday night? Who chairs the departments, and committees? Who schmoozes at conferences? Who gets release from teaching loads on grants their post-docs wrote? Who gets to shop at Talbots, in season?

    Who can be more tedious or fatuous than high-rent academics? I’m drawing a blank on that one.

    Sure, there is a place for the matronly autumnal diva, holding forth in those high-class music departments. Sad fact: teaching ain’t doing. Many who can do, who can astonish in creating art cannot really explain how they do it. Don’t get me started on the fate of 50-year-old retired ballet dancers who can hardly walk, their bodies ground to a pulp in the futile, but thrilling fight with gravity (gravity always wins). You want to talk about unfair, about biological clocks being silenced with amenorrheic anorexia, because there’s always somebody lovlier, skinnier, literally hungrier than you? People, ambition isn’t nice, and it sure isn’t pretty.

    And don’t get me started on the clarinet players, all 200 of them showing up for a part-time gig in a half-rate orchestra, popping beta blockers to keep their nerves in check, munching Advil to reduce the swelling of their literally frayed nerves. Speaking of which, did I mention my friend, the Paris-trained pastry chef? She’s so happy to be able to again write her name (sort of) after years of physical therapy brought on by even more years of squeezing out buttercream frosting to decorate drop-dead gorgeous wedding cakes. For other women: she’s single, childless, pushing 50, and yeah, she also went to Sarah Lawrence. No expose in Gourmet about her plight.

    Oh, wait: this was about having children, about finding it unfair that you can’t have them when you want them. Look around. It’s so much worse in so many ways for so many women who’re responding to so many other callings. LOOK AROUND.

    Maybe there should be more frank discussion of these sad facts early on. I know it seems cruel, and may dissuade undergraduates from the various priesthoods. Good.


  • Maynard Handley

    I’d just add to 79 that this is not a female issue; it’s true for men as well — being the best is very demanding.

    Yes there are fields where men can stay at the top longer than women (movie/TV acting), but people who want to be the best in sports burn out early.

    I’d say the same is just as true if you want to be the best in my field, software engineering. During your twenties you can create great stuff through enthusiasm and 16 hr days 7 days a week — that’s certainly how I lived my twenties. During your thirties you can coast somewhat — experience makes up for not spending quite so much time on the job.

    But, inexorably, the world you learned your skills in is changing. Those mean PPC assembly skills mean nothing when Apple switches to Intel. All that effort you put into learning the ever-mutating world of COM is not quite so useful when you’re programming .NET. The world is now talking about new protocols, new compression algorithms, new programming paradigms (eg AJAX) that you know nothing about. Sure, sure, you can retrain, but you’re never going to have the energy of the college students studying this stuff. If you’re smart, you realized this when you were twenty five and saved your pennies so that at 40 you can retire to something a whole lot less demanding — maybe program for a non-profit, maybe start your own small company, maybe become a teacher. Alternatively you will have to resign yourself to being the slow old guy in your corporation, the guy that the 20-somethings run past, don’t eat lunch with and secretly mock, the guy who hasn’t got a pay raise in ten years but knows, realistically, that he hasn’t a chance outside this company, so will do anything to stay employed.

    This is the nature of life. As I said before, the way to find happiness is to accept certain eternal truths and work within them, not to rant at the unfairness of the universe and imagine that you, unlike the 20 billion people who have come before you, are special enough to defy the laws of the universe. (What I mean by this is that JoAnne and Jocelyn seem to have no problem asserting that they can do world-class science while simultaneously growing older, raising kids, and enjoying the good life. Bull shit, bull shit, bull shit. Yes, you can do some science this way. As I said, you can teach at a small liberal arts college, or do useful work for a corporation. IMHO these are fine lives, worthy occupations, valid choices. But you’re not after that, you want to believe you can make the insight that will put you in the same class as Newton, or Einstein, or heck, at the very least say Max Born or Louis Neel.)

  • Chad Orzel

    Maynard writes: Does anyone dispute that you can indeed do physics and have a kid if you are willing to settle for eg, being a lecturer not a prof, or for working at a small liberal arts college rather than Harvard, or working at a company rather than as an academic.

    As a tenure-track faculty member at a small liberal arts college, let me emphatically state that it is not a job that one should “settle” for. Not if one would like tenure.

    In fact, the suggestion that working at a small college rather than a research university is somehow analogous to being a lecturer rather than a professor is, frankly, offensive.

  • X

    There is no reason not to try to make life better for academics simply because life stinks for some other professions. Let’s put a hold on any improvement here until the lot of the one billion people who live on less than a dollar a day is improved, shall we? RudigerVT, you know how whiny you sound when there are half-a-billion women who would consider the life you describe a huge step upwards?

    And so on. The silliest bunch of people here, trying to persuade the author that either she doesn’t have a problem, or that her problem is insignificant in the scale of things!

  • chimpanzee

    “The difference between a tenured-professor & a Terrorist, is that you can negotiate with a Terrorist”
    — inside joke by professors
    [ an ex-professor of mine (dept head at a major university, now retired) told this to me, on Sept 10, 2001..the day before 9/11 ]

    I asked him about institutional-change at Universities, to foster Interdisiplinary Collaboration/Cooperation/Coordination. I also spoke to a head at the Fraunhofer Institute (German based, fosters inter-agency exchange between Universities & Industry), who told me “Forget it”. I.e., Universities won’t change.

    An ex-classmate of mine (Stanford PhD, Geophysics) told me universities came about as the result of the Catholic Church wanting to prove its “Creationism Theory”

    [ recall the falsifiability criterion of the Scientific Method: “you can never prove a Theory, you can only DISPROVE it” ]

    Isn’t tenure-track a relic of the flawed infrastructure of the Church? (this is obvious from the rampant child-molesation among “tenure-track” priests in the Catholic Church). Then this issue, shares the same roots of the issue of Science VS Creationism & Science VS Public. The Church still has a deeply-ingrained presence.

    The opening statement summarizes the “rigid” environment at universities, that resists change (like all bureacracies). Can’t the over-specialization of fields, sub-fields, etc be described as “Differentiation”, & the new-wave of Inter-Disciplinary Science as “Integration”?

    from Closer to Truth M. Gell-Mann:
    I think the most important developments in science today for the future of science itself and for the future of applications as well have to do with the reunification of the sciences. Many centuries ago, science or natural philosophy was in a sense a unified enterprise. It hadn’t yet become so specialized that you needed very different people to work on the very different aspects. Today, of course, specialization has gone a very long way and that’s a good thing. There’s so much information, so much knowledge, so much understanding available that it has to be parceled out into fields and subfields, but along with that specialization there has to be some scientific activity that’s integrative. And I think that’s occurring more and more, and people are recognizing more and more the interdependence of all the sciences and the need for some scientific activity, especially theoretical activity that’s integrative. And we try to meet that need at the Santa Fe Institute, and I think that this partial reunification of the sciences is perhaps the most important phenomenon in science today.

    from NOVA/Erich Jarvis
    Science is a “me” culture: my paper, my lab, my discovery. Erich was playing the “me” game very well, but when a problem came up that could only be solved by bringing the many “me’s” together, Erich would have to choose between bettering his career or his community.

    If there was more of an “team approach” (integration of efforts among a group of researchers), then wouldn’t there be less of an effect on projects..if female-colleagues took maternity leave? The focus on tenure-track (“me, me, me”) causes this whole folly, right?

    ROBERT KRULWICH: Erich is at the very moment in his career when his field would have him focus on his lab work and publishing to make his name. There is less reward in science for those who have a talent for leading others.

    HARVEY KARTEN: I think to some degree he gave up some of the essential things he might…we…several of us felt he should be concentrating on to get his own papers out, rather than working on this. But, you know, that’s a choice he made.

    ERICH JARVIS: What’s most important for me is that the scientific accomplishment gets accomplished.

    SARAH DURAND: He thinks broadly to see the big picture.

    ROBERT KRULWICH: For Erich, this was his big picture: the gathering of scientists to improve all their work.

    The photograph that I have in my mind shows you at the center of all these people. Did you orchestrate that?

    ERICH JARVIS: Yes, I did. The reason for taking the photograph was to show the rest of the community, the scientific community, that we are in unison on this.


    ERICH JARVIS: Okay? And then I thought about it. I says, “Wait a minute. This is not unison enough.”

    ROBERT KRULWICH: So the choreographer in Erich Jarvis took over. He convinced these 28 scientists, who’d been yelling at each other for the past three days, that, for the sake of unity, for the sake of science, they needed to take one more step.

    ERICH JARVIS: We hold hands, okay? And so that then even shows more our unity.

    ROBERT KRULWICH: And perhaps it’ll show some of the leaders in Erich’s community that sometimes what even science needs is a little more art.

    And a happy little postscript here: Erich Jarvis was just awarded one of the National Institute of Health’s coveted Pioneer Awards—$500,000 a year to his lab for the next five years. So he took the risk and somebody noticed.

    The great Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, said one of the things that makes us special, “in good part makes us human,” he wrote, “is that we have a deep, rich connection to other living things.” What he calls “biophilia” the love of other organisms. And even if you get the creeps when you see a snake or a cockroach or a rat, even if there are animals that you do not like, chances are there are animals you love.

  • Hektor Bim


    I’m not the one who mentioned uterine replicators. You’ve mistaken me for Chad Orzel.


    Thanks for adding your story to this thread. Since I actually know something about it from the perspective of an outsider, I just thought I would add a couple of details. Your move to stay-at-home dad was commented upon often at Chicago by physics grad students – I don’t know if you know that.

    I’m glad that your ex-professors and others are trying to help you get back into the game. But I don’t think your experience is typical. Everyone at Chicago knew you were completely brilliant, and that doubtless affects their willingness to help you get back into the game now. I am pretty sure, based on other experiences I know of, that your average Chicago Ph.D. would not get similar treatment.

    P.S. Thanks again for the particle physics class sketch. Still funny!

  • citrine

    There seems to be an implicit thread running through many of these posts: doing something = being the best in the field. What about deliberately opting to work in accredited (but not top-tier) universities where the competitive pressure is less intense?

  • Belizean

    JoAnne wrote:
    “But, the point is, that women scientists are essentially getting fired or being penalized for having children, while men are not. That’s not fair. Period.”

    Wrong. Women are being penalized for devoting time and effort to raising children at the expense of their profession.

    If you get pregnant, pop the kid out, turn it over to your nanny, and get back to work, the penalties are minimal. Especially if you inform your superiors of your intention to reproduce with minimum down time.

    Men who devote serious time to raising their children are punished just as much.

    You beef is not about academia, it’s about our culture: It’s much easier for a man to find a woman willing to devote herself to child rearing, than it is for a woman to find a man willing to do so.

  • Jocelyn

    Ah, another tedious atmospheric idea raises it’s ugly head. If you do not do work on the level of Einstein, you are also useless! Maynard, do you really believe that the hundreds of tenured professors at tens of world-class universities are all of the class you mentioned? Thousands of tenured professors doing research across the country? You seem to feel that there is some sharp dividing line between maybe five people in the world doing the highest levels of science and a far-below level where one might as well ‘just’ teach or work in a corporation. I don’t think this is true at all.

  • Becky Stanek

    There seems to be an implicit thread running through many of these posts: doing something = being the best in the field.

    It’s not about being the best in the field, but about reaching your full potential, whatever that may be. But if your advisor writes you a crappy letter of recommendation because you have kids, then you’ve been derailed by forces outside of your control.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Becky has nailed it.
    The primary issue right now is that women are bumped off the career track merely for having, or even considering, children.
    There is career damage at all levels if you make substantial time committments outside of academia; but it can be overcome if people get the chance to hang in there and come through – sure some people don’t live up to expectations, but that is also true of the monomanic 100hr/wk monks (actually statistics on burnout of single workaholics vs family people in academia would be interesting, I know in white collar industry the evidence is in favour of family people in the long term on average.

    There are relatively few careers, even in academia, where potential is fulfilled at a very early age. There are famous examples of young people doing breakthrough work at an early age, and then no more, but most of the progress is made by mid-career and experienced people working away over extended periods.

    The US attitude on all this is a permanent source of bemusement to me, but then I have played along with it, so what can I say.
    Hey, put me in charge, and I’ll fix it. Ok?

  • Adrian

    “I’m not sure what there is to be done, though, short of the invention of the uterine replicator. Suggestions are welcome.”

    …given the audience, I have to ask: how close are we to a fully functional uterine replicator? If there’s any group on Earth with a more vested interest in making it happen and more capable of actually building one that works, I’d suspect someone reading this blog at least knows about it. (I know there are some biochemical mysteries to the process that still need investigation. But it’s far from being as mysterious as, say, dark matter.)

    Yes, most of the problem comes from time spent raising the kids (for which help can be hired, if one has the finances), but the pregnancy itself does cause at least a brief problem in some fields. (For instance, if one is the PI on a nanotechnology investigation, and thus regularly has to don a bunnysuit because the laboratory is a cleanroom. Not only are there concerns about the potential for chemical exposure, but for a month or two there might not be any bunnysuits that fit: issues over special ordering something at a shared facility, as most university cleanrooms are, that would only be useful for one person for a couple months aside, they don’t make maternity bunnysuits to my knowledge. That’s one or two months of labwork lost.) There’s also the psychological impact to your superior – be it an academic professor who will write letters of reccomendation your career depends on, or a corporate bean-counter (with lesser but similar controls over your fate) if you work in an industry lab: “Yes, boss, I’m going to have kids. But I’m not going to take an indefinite break from work. I’ll still be working on the project – maybe a bit more slowly, but I won’t just stop with promises to eventually restart again.”

    While a uterine replicator might not solve the entire problem, it would help.

    “I can assure you that basing a hiring decision on whether or not a candidate has children is highly illegal.”

    Legal or not, there is incentive for an employer to hire someone who has no outside commitments, and thus who can give more energy for the same salary. This is, in fact, one of the reasons those laws were necessary in the first place.

    “The problem is that the education takes and enourmosly long time during which there is too little savety.”

    “Six years as a post-doc?!?! That’s the standard?”

    It is a minor tragedy that the length of time required for higher education greatly overlaps with a woman’s prime childbearing years. Perhaps if there was a way to compress it – for instance, routinely shave a few years off K-12, at least for the gifted, as a matter of standard policy rather than the exception it is in most places. Likewise for college: I completed my BS in three years and my MS in one; why should this pace be so unusual for students who know what they want and can handle the coursework?

    Modern technology might help with this. For example, offering some classes – especially the more basic classes – mainly online or otherwise computer-taught at whatever pace the student wishes to proceed (and whenever the student wants, so the student does not have to delay taking a course until next quarter or semester because it would create a schedule conflict), so that a sufficiently capable student could learn in one to two months what standard lecture-based teaching would take three to six months to communicate. TAs and professors helping with the course would expect to deal with students at different points along the cirriculum. Of course, there would be a review at the end, and perhaps also after a month of doing other courses, to make sure all the necessary information is retained. Note that this would be optional, for those students who can handle accelerated learning (this is not meant to exclude from service any student that universities currently serve) – but I suspect there would be a disproportionately high number of those destined for PhDs among those who could handle it.

    Likewise, six years to complete an honest post-doc seems excessive – unless the extra time is because of the time post-docs take to support the university, as TAs and the like, which would seem to argue against post-docs doing that much work not directly in support of their PhD.

    This wouldn’t help with taking six years to gain tenure, but even shaving 3-5 years off the normal total time from birth to tenure would help significantly, if people are normally 35-40 years old when they reach tenure. (If it seems odd that I’m comparing a biological event like birth to a social event like tenure: prime fertility is a biological event, and the conflict of that with seeking tenure is one of the things we’re talking about anyway.)

  • janet

    On uterine replicators — I did some thinking about this a few months ago, when I was a) reading all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, in which uterine replicators are an important technology, and b) working on some patient education materials for parents with premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

    At this point, the incubators in a state-of-the-art NICU are probably the closest thing we have to a uterine replicator, and they are not very close. Nothing that can be done in the NICU — regulating body temperature, feeding, breathing, monitoring of various functions, plus the subtle environmental factors that contribute to proper development of the neurological, musculoskeletal, GI, and respiratory systems — is a good substitute for a healthy pregnancy.

    Still, my guess is that if uterine replicators are ever developed, it will be as a result of efforts to keep increasingly premature babies alive; that’s about the only way you could get around the ethical problems of testing the technology. Meanwhile, at the other end of the process, the fertility docs are working at increasing the length of time that a blastocyst can continue to develop normally in a petrie dish. Eventually they may meet, but it’ll be a long time, if ever, before that happens.

    The necessary technical and engineering advances probably aren’t too far away; what’s really lacking is an understanding of development and what is needed to allow it to occur normally, let alone how to replicate that safely and reliably. Artificially mimicking the function of any human organ or biological system is extremely difficult. Just ask the researchers who are trying to develop an artificial heart, or a fully automatic (“closed loop”) insulin pump — which are much, much simpler problems than a uterine replicator.

  • ann nelson

    This thread has been enlightening to me about people’s attitudes. There is so much ridiculous mythology out there. As mother of two wonderful children and as a tenured physics professor who is married to another physicist I feel qualified to say that there are enough hours in a week to be both a parent and a scientist. The problem is that most people ASSUME that a woman cannot be a good mother and a good scientist. So at work we always feel we have to prove ourselves and do extra so people don’t say “see, she can’t be serious about science because she is a mother”. Then women who do need to take some leave or some time to breastfeed or need to leave work to pick up a sick kid worry that this is going to lead their colleagues to assume they have lost their committment to science.

    The other side of the pressure and stress is caused by the very large number of people who assume that only a SAHM can be a good mother, and a career oriented woman must be some kind of neglectful mother who is having her kids raised by strangers.
    SAHMs are particularly careful to point out how they have their priorities straight.
    Working moms and dads have theirs straight too, and the kids are at the top.
    There are 168 hours in a week. Even if one sleeps a full 8 hours there are 112 waking hours. Furthermore the notion that elite scientists need to work 80 hours to do cutting edge science is complete garbage. The only cases I know of where people do this are labs where subordinates feel compelled by high pressure personalities to put in facetime. Whether or not these people have families this leads to burnout and is therefore wasteful. People without families to keep them sane and provide support are even more likely to burnout under this kind of regime. Lots of people like to brag about how they work all the time, but if one is efficient, 50-60 hours is enough. I never worked regularly more than 60 hours a week before I had kids, and would not have been more productive if I did. I am more efficient now, and more productive in my 11 post-children years as in the 12 pre-children scientist years. But I still felt I had to have tenure before having kids because I thought my colleagues would worry that I wasn’t serious enough about science.

    Being devoted to science while raising children is doable. The children are always our highest priority but they simply do not need more than about half of their mother’s waking hours. They do just fine if much of their care comes from their father, and some comes from good daycare and responsible nannies.

    And no, one does not need to find a partner who is willing to be a slave. Just a truly supportive equal partner.

  • JoAnne


    Thank you much for weighing in with a reasoned voice with experience.

    For our readers who are not familiar with Ann, she is, by anybody’s standards, one of the top particle theorists and maintains a strong and active reserach program.

  • Moshe

    Interesting news related to this discussion just appeared on bitchphd (, an excellent blog devoted in large part to issues of parenting in academia.

  • Mark

    Ann (in # 92) makes the point very clearly. There is no reason that one cannot be a parent and be a physicist of the highest calibre. Ann herself is a prime example. The idea that being a top-flight physicist requires 80 hours a week and no interests (child rearing or otherwise) outside physics is patently incorrect. Ann’s career is going impressively well on the paltry amount of 60 hours a week, and she is managing to be a parent, but notes that she faces unnecessary pressures from those who think that one can’t do both things.

    You can judge my career for yourself if you wish, but I have chosen not to have children, work in the region of 60 hours a week or so (comparable to what I took away from Ann’s post) and use my free time to do recreational activities that make me happy (much as I suspect children do for some people). I’m very happy with how things are going and would be doing worse if I was to work more hours per week.

    Being a successful physicist does not primarily come down to hours invested. Not everyone can do it, because it requires one to have a large amount of talent in a particular area. But given this talent, the hours one works need to be used to produce high quality innovative and creative results (the opposite of that which long, production line-type hours tend to generate). If you can do this to the extent needed to make the international reputation required to be a tenured faculty member at a research university then you are successful by any metric that I can imagine.

    If one wants children, then usually that requires a partner. And if that person is supportive (as, for example, Ann’s is) then, in the absence of unfounded prejudices, one can be as competitive as the next person in academia. Of course, if one’s partner is not supportive, that is a major problem, for which one’s job is not responsible and cannot provide a solution.

    I have female (and male) colleagues who are more constrained than I am because of their choices to have children. However, their careers are going well (remarkably well in the case of at least one of my female colleagues). I think this is because of their inherent physics abilities and the fact that my department doesn’t care at all how (at what times or from where) they get their world-class research done. In particular, there would never be any assumption that their reproductive choice would affect their work.

    If they performed below the standard expected they would never get / never would have achieved tenure. However, there would be no assumption about whether or not their personal life (or mine) would influence this decision.

  • Amara

    I wonder at what critical mass of outspoken actions is necessary to wake up the science departments in US universities. What I learned from this blog is that biases still exist towards professors with kids. Are the biases mostly present in the older faculty, or does it exist among all age groups? Perhaps more exposure of examples like Ann can tilt the opinion?

  • JoAnne


    Sadly, I would say that there is bias in all age groups. It is certainly more prevalent among the older guys, but it does exist among some of the younger ones as well. I am reminded of something a fellow post-doc said to me during my first post-doc: “It’s a woman’s duty to society to stay at home and raise children.” I remember being disturbed that this was the attitude of people in my peer group.

  • Aaron

    There are always idiots.

  • Dissident

    …and jerks who’ll say and do anything to weed out the competition…

  • Morningstar

    Should she? No. Not now, not ever.

    To quote from the Transtopian Principles:

    “Choosing to remain childfree is both a rational, pragmatic decision and a powerful moral statement. This is especially true for women, whom evolution has disproportionately burdened with pregnancy, childbirth, and the bulk of the childrearing process. By saying ‘no‘ to procreation, one rejects being just another link in life’s endless chain of births and deaths, just another runner in a mindless relay race. It is, in effect, a personal declaration of independence; a confirmation that one isn’t a means to an end, but an end in itself.”

    Also, procreation is NOT a ‘right’; it is, or at least should be, a privilege. Only those who a) can comfortably afford it, b) are in good health and have no serious genetic defects, c) are mentally well-balanced and fit, and d) really want children should be allowed to have them. All others should not breed; it’s better for everyone that way. Imagine all the poverty, abuse, war, sickness, environmental damage, and overpopulation that would be prevented if the mentally, physically, and financially unfit didn’t breed. The world would be a much better place. Healthier. Happier. Richer. Safer.

    Of course, from a personal, individualistic perspective it’s always better not to breed, period.

    Related sites:

    Childfree By Choice
    Happily Childfree
    The Childfree Page
    Woman and the New Race, by Margaret Sanger.
    Reproduction Technology for a New Eugenics, by Glayde Whitney.

  • Frumious Bandersnatch

    Dissident (post #19), Phil S. (post #21), and Drop_in (post #59):

    Having children is not a choice. NOT having children is the choice. Half of all pregnancies are unplanned – that’s not half of all pregnancies in unmarried, under age women, that’s half of ALL pregnancies. Even if a couple has decided that now is not the time for a child, biology may take that decision away.

    In my own circle of acquaintances (which I know is not an adequate statistical sample) I have observed that when someone’s degree or career takes the back seat, it is always the woman’s. Of my female colleagues in graduate school who planned to have a family, they also uniformly planned to leave the work force to care for the children. They were too threatened by the idea of 80 hour weeks trying to get tenure while also raising children. The women who had children while still in graduate school did not continue in physics past the PhD. One of them left with a masters. (and yes, I do wonder why someone would go through the hell of grad school without the intention of using their degree.) None of my male colleagues gave even a moment’s thought to the idea of staying home with the kids. Now that I am in the private sector, I observe that most of the salaried women are unmarried or childless. Many of my male colleagues are young and are just starting families. About half of their wives left excellant careers to stay home with the children. I find it interesting that only women see a conflict between having children and a career. I find it interesting that men are ok with kissing the kid goodbye in the morning and not seeing it again for 8 or 9 nine hours, but women are not. I find it interesting that the men describe their time alone with their children as “babysitting” rather than parenting. There is a gender asymmetry, and something does need to be done about it.

  • Dissident

    You’d think that people would have heard of contraceptives by now. But I’m a dog, so what do I know…

  • Amara

    Dear Dissident: One can get pregnant while on contraceptives (I have personal experience of this).

  • Dissident

    Yes, and it can snow in June. But statistically speaking, what are the odds? Surely not enough to explain Bandersnatch’s [love that handle!] claim that “Half of all pregnancies are unplanned”. Sounds like a variation on the old “the dog ate my…” excuse to me. See, we always get the blame. Woof.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Dear Dissident

    Best commercial contraceptives have 1-2% failure rates.

    You can do an extreme model, that every failure would lead to pregnancy (it doesn’t) and assuming Poisson statistics calculate how often you need to have sex under this extreme model before there is 50% probability of pregnancy.

    Now pick your favourite assumption for actual odds of pregnancy per instance of unprotected intercourse and recalculate. Marvel at the power of the exponential.

    More realistically, the odds range from 0.0 (some people just cannot get pregnant), to Very High (since actual probability is very non-Poissonian).

    You takes your chances…

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  • janet

    Contraceptive failure rates also depend on whether you use them consistently and correctly. Thus, for every method, you’ll usually see quoted a success rate for “perfect use” and another for “typical use,” and they are often quite different. For example, for the Pill, the failure rate is about .1% per year for perfect use, but about 8% per year for typical use — which could include forgetting to take pills, or not understanding that you need to take them every day.

    For all the statistics on contraception, pregnancy, abortion, and other aspects of reproductive and sexual health you could ever want, see:

  • Sharon

    I did a chemistry PhD and postdoc and then went off to industry because (among other reasons) I wanted to have kids. My experience was that academic life requires you to be able to work 50 hours a week every week and move across the world at about 6 months’ notice until you’re about 40. That means you have to either be single or have a partner who’s basically willing to fit their life around your job. The same goes for having kids: you need a partner who can do everything, and then as a woman you *might* have a chance to combine career and family.

    I think the model for academic life and work is based on life 100 years ago when rich young men with devoted wives were the only people who became scientists. I think there will probably always be enough people mad enough to deal with the awful conditions so things won’t change: I just wish that it was easier to see, as an undergraduate, what the implications are of choosing a career in academia. I wouldn’t say I regret my PhD exactly, but it was a bit of a waste of time from the career point of view once I realised it was impossible to have a n academic career, kids and something of a family life.

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  • bitchphd

    I am late to this thread, but in case JoAnne (or anyone else) is still reading, one of the best solutions in academia at the present time (that I’ve heard of) is, I believe, Princeton’s. They had the option of stopping the tenure clock but found that women were unlikely to take it precisely b/c, as JoAnne points out, having rules in place doesn’t deal with the possible negative consequences of dealing with people who harbor prejudicial attitudes. Oddly, at Princeton, men were more likely to take family leave, presumably b/c they were slightly less worried than women were about this issue. By and large, I think it’s true that men who take leave are seen as progressive, right-on guys, while women are seen as possibly less than serious about their jobs.

    So what Princeton did was make leave after childbirth or adoption MANDATORY. For everyone. Suddenly the issue of, “well, you’re *allowed* to take leave, but of course if you’re really serious you won’t do so” simply disappeared. And b/c both men and women had to take it, the number of people who do have families became much more obvious. There’s strength in numbers.

  • JoAnne

    BitchPhD, thanks for writing in. WOW! That is such an incredibly obvious and fantastic solution. I hope other universities take note.

  • Moshe


    Long time fan…anyhow, I believe in the sciences the most problematic time with regard to this issue is the postdoc years, typically two of those after the PhD, 2-3 years each. Taking time off during that period (late twenties typically) is nearly impossible. I think that problem is more difficult because it is likely to require resources, not just good will to solve.

    Also, good opportunity to say keep up the good work, yours in fact is the only non-science-related blog I frequent so far…

  • Sean

    I do like that Princeton idea, I hadn’t heard of it. As Moshe says, though, it would be hard to make it work for postdocs — even if current employers won’t hold it against you, future ones would. Which is simply an inherent injustice in the postdoc system, something that might be worth a discussion of its own…

  • JoAnne

    Sean & Moshe,

    True this does not solve the situation for post-docs, but I can say that if this had been policy while I was an Assistant Prof, it would have made a huge difference to me. Assist profs are usually in their early-mid 30’s which corresponds to prime child bearing years.

    I am going to raise this issue with my university administration and point to the Princeton policy. I would like to encourage others to do the same.

  • bitchphd

    Re. Moshe’s point about the postdoc period requiring both resources and goodwill: yes, that’s the catch with almost any initiative to increase the diversity of the work force–dealing with the gap between simply saying “we want a more diverse workforce” and actually putting resources behind it. It is a genuine problem. One can make all sorts of arguments about how the resources required would pay off in the long run by ensuring a broader talent base, better morale, etc., but in terms of near-term budgeting, it’s a tough case to make. I don’t know enough about the postdoc situation to really be able to come up with a clever solution, but I’m sure someone else does…


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