Guest Post: Changing my surname was a personal choice

Today’s post is the first in a three-part series here at Tenure, She Wrote exploring the complexity of name changes and choices in academia. The author of this guest post, Mo, is a PhD student in the U.S. currently trying to unravel one particular mystery in ecology. 

I applied for graduate school before I got married, then I got married, changed my name and shortly after moved to my new university and started working on my PhD. I always believed that whether or not I changed my last name when I got married was my choice, and I did not discuss my planned name change with my future peers and mentors. When I arrived at graduate school with a new last name the initial confusion of my PI and others did not surprise or bother me, although the paperwork boggled my mind.

Unfortunately the timing of my name change gave many people I barely knew a chance to weigh in on my decision. I was told by several of my new professors (including my PI) that I should have kept my maiden name because of feminism, and by changing it I was destroying everything I represented as a woman. I was told changing my name would make me look like I was not dedicated to my career and prevent me from getting a job. I was told I should have kept my maiden name because chances are my husband and I are getting divorced some day and won’t that be awkward. I found all of these reasons insulting on a variety of levels, but most insulting of all was that no one ever bothered to ask why I had changed it, or seemed to care. These comments all came from professors who were much older than me, most of which were male – including my PI and entire committee. However, it was the less-frequent comments from other women that hit me hardest. I felt like I had done them a personal wrong by changing my name, while also feeling like it was none of their business.

I was pretty shaken up by these unasked-for comments on my personal choice. Unsure how to respond to them I turned to a couple of sources for some perspective. First, I asked my one female mentor. She said, as usual, that she supported me no matter what, and gave me some suggestions on how to talk to my PI. For the first six months or so I had dismissed my PI as being absent minded, but once I was into the second year of my PhD and he still ‘forgot’ to call me by my married name I got irritated. I keep correcting him (‘No it’s X name now, remember?), and slowly he has switched over, but occasionally he still throws in my maiden name and a short lecture on my ‘poor choice’ for whatever reason. Each time I correct him, and try to explain to the confused onlookers that I’ve been married for X years now. I hope someday he’ll stop, but the fact that he continues to do this makes me wonder if he doubts my judgement or doubts me. He gives me no indication, other than these comments, that he doesn’t have the utmost respect for me but the doubt still lingers. I’m trying to accept this as a lesson that many things in life bring about unsolicited opinions (I’m told if I have kids it only gets worse), and this likely isn’t the worst one.

My second source of perspective about my name chance choice might sound odd: I posted on reddit (anonymously). I wasn’t on twitter at this point and didn’t really have any other women to turn to, so I turned to one place I thought I would get some honest feedback (some of you will laugh, but there are corners of reddit where supportive people roam). The response from my mentor and the kind souls on reddit was unanimous and affirming. While there were some things I should consider professionally, it was my choice, and my PI and other professors needed to accept my decision. On reddit there was a lot of talk of feminism, a word that at the time I was not comfortable with associating with. But I took their words to heart, and over the past several years I’ve learned that I’m actually a feminist myself.

I’ve talked to many of my fellow grad students the past few years, and together with those original thoughts that my mentor and reddit threw my way I think there are some logistical items to consider when deciding if you want to change your name. If you have published under your maiden name there are two main issues to consider. The first is that by having publications under two names, you are going to have a clear indication to future employers that you are married (information future employers in the US cannot legally ask you). As a woman in academia this might not work in your favor as I’ve been told many times that getting married and changing your name implies you aren’t dedicated to your work (I disagree, but haters gonna hate). Secondly, if you have publications under two names it could make it more difficult for people to associate your older work with you and your new name. However, older academics I know who are involved in many projects have told me that often the hard part is people associating you with all the different organizations you work with, not your Masters or PhD thesis everyone forgot about long ago, regardless of the name on it. One way around both of these issues is to continue publishing under your maiden name throughout your academic career.

A lot has been written on the subject of women changing their surname (including this great post here on TSW) and there is no right or wrong answer, it is entirely personal. In an ideal world your peers, PI and others should respect that, though it is good to be aware that they may not. Regardless of what you choose, I think its important to realize that someone isn’t going to like it.

This experience has really shown me how important it is for women in academia to have female mentors, and a safe space to talk about issues surrounding being a woman in academia. Even though I don’t have a woman on my official graduate committee, I have been able to find an outside mentor, and I highly recommend women in graduate school do the same if they are in a male-dominated group. Also, being able to talk to peers near and far through reddit (and now twitter) about issues surrounding my name choice and other stressful situations has really helped me think through this and many other women-specific issues as part of my education.

For those on the other side of this issue – if someone you know decides to change or not change their name, please keep your opinions to yourself unless they ask. You can do a lot of unseen damage to someone without evening knowing it by questioning their personal decisions. Support your friends as they make their decisions, and help them find resources and mentors as necessary to get the advice they need. Lastly, although it should be obvious, for the love of goodness use the name they decide on!

15 thoughts on “Guest Post: Changing my surname was a personal choice

  1. I am sorry that your PI is being so unsupportive of your choice to change your name. It is not at all difficult to remember that someone’s name has changed; giving people a few weeks to adjust to the name change is perfectly reasonable. The fact that he has continued to refer to you by the wrong name years after you changed it is insulting, unsupportive, and undermining. Some people will accuse you of being too sensitive and will claim that this isn’t a big deal. It is a huge deal given the importance of names in our lives and identities.

  2. As someone who didn’t change their name, I did not realise some people thought this way about it in academia. And that they’re so vocal! I have experienced similar stuff in relation to other life choices and it is incredibly rude and insulting. I’m glad you have support and hope you move on to a more supportive workplace!

  3. Another grad student in my department took her husband’s name. The only concern I’ve heard people express over it is that it makes her name alliterative…..I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing, but whatever. I’m sorry you’ve had so many negative reactions over yours.

    My husband and I hyphenated our names. We’ve actually received a lot of respect for that from people in my field. It’s been much worse outside of work. We both constantly have to remind people in the service industry that everything after the hyphen is not silent and does actually exist, so please write and say the whole thing. The old-fashioned folks in our families keep forgetting or assume, but I get the impression that they either really are forgetting (advanced age; they only remember the concept that’s familiar to them) or just hadn’t been exposed to different naming conventions the first time they addressed us after we got married.
    The most pushback we’ve gotten has been from the DMV when we went to change his name. Systems in the US are NOT set up to accommodate men changing their names at marriage. They either want both his new and old name on the marriage license (doesn’t work if the marriage takes place in a state that doesn’t include spaces for both, and some seem to think hyphenating two names present on two different people on the license doesn’t count) or to make you go through a far too expensive and time-consuming procedure to have someone else sign a paper saying that he really does just want to take his wife’s name and isn’t looking to hide a criminal past (even when you’ve already changed the social security name!). Thank god the supervisor on duty at our DMV had more common sense than her employees.

  4. It really chaps my butt when women cut one another down for something that is such a personal decision. It’s obviously something you (and every other woman I know who is married) have thought carefully about, and you’ve likely considered the ramifications that come with either option. Don’t forget that you are making a pro-feminist statement by becoming a scientist at all, and that you have plenty of other ways to support and encourage other women, including by sharing this! I’m sorry you’re not getting much real-life support from your advisor–mine was a very vocal feminist, and his wife kept her maiden name. However, he acknowledged that it was a personal decision to 2 of my fellow students in the lab who married their spouses while in grad school (one kept her maiden name, the other changed hers) and didn’t make a big deal of it. But, he still calls the one by her maiden name, 100% out of forgetfulness.

    FWIW, my peer group (biomedical sciences, in postdoc-land but not far out of grad school) is pretty evenly split for those who are married among women who kept their maiden name, women who took their spouse’s name or hyphenated their names, and women who use their maiden name professionally and their spouse’s name everywhere that isn’t work. A handful of couples I know both hyphenated their names, although they have mentioned that it’s way more difficult for a husband to change his last name. I think at least for our generation, there won’t be a clear majority about this–hopefully there will just be plenty of happily married, happily working scientists and plenty of happily single, happily working scientists, and people will think more about their accomplishments than their names.🙂

  5. Thanks for posting this. I think its an important discussion to get out there. I married early in my PhD and decided to keep my name, but (being in Canada) was able to assume my husband’s name for all documents/utilities/banking etc outside of work and taxes. We then moved to the US where assuming a name is not allowed, so I am fully entrenched in my maiden name. My kids have my husband’s name, and I happily assume it for familial reasons, but it is not as easy as I thought. I always thought I would use my name for work and his name for everything else; however I really didn’t think through things like email addresses, etc. Also, a lot of my ‘work friends’ are also our ‘home friends’ and they obviously associate me with a specific name. All this is to say, that it all seems so unnecessarily complicated!

  6. 100% support for doing whatever you want with YOUR name. I’ve had colleagues who have changed their names (or not) after marriage, and others who have either changed it back after a divorce or kept their married name after a split. Many options, all valid, and it’s YOUR name after all.

    As far helping people track publications after a name change, it’s worth mentioning there are many ways to do this.
    – Maintain a personal website with all your publications listed. If you curate one with an independent URL that’s not affiliated with a specific institution, then the address can stay the same after you switch (particularly helpful when you’re going from grad school to postdoc to whatever comes next).
    -Actively maintain scholarly profiles, such as Google Scholar, ResearcherID, ORCID, and so on. I like to put a link to these profiles on my CV so people can click through if they want and see updates that may be more recent than the CV (like for an academic job application that may be evaluated weeks or months after you submit it). Again, a handy way to say “I published all these papers” regardless of a name change!

    Keep it up, and listen to the supportive mentors. They’re far more important in the long run (compared to the haters).

  7. I’m going to be unsupportive and say that I hold all those negative opinions about women who change their names, especially after their careers have started. My earliest publications (20+ years old now) from grad school are still cited. My achievements during high school are still associated with my name, and still come up, very occasionally. I know one too many female scientist who still publishes under her first husband’s last name (even as she entered a second marriage) because her track history was too strong to give up.

    Of course you have the right to make whatever personal choice you want and you shouldn’t be discriminated against or harassed for it. But, people will have opinions on your choices, and, sometimes, they will disagree with those choices. I do, however, wholeheartedly agree that an opinion shouldn’t be volunteered unless it is asked for, and that you should call people by the name they wish.

    (now, I have an unusual name; people named Smith or Chen or Ghosh may have a different experience).

    • Your publications aren’t going to stop being cited because you changed your name, though, and linking up who the person is is pretty easy with a glance at their cv or website.

      Also our life experiences are different, but I have never had high school achievements come up or figure remotely, much less importantly, in anything that’s happened in graduate school and beyond.

  8. Firsly, I support whatever personal decisions people make and I am appalled that others think it appropriate to even comment, much less try to offer advice. I would feel insulted at the things that have been said. (And I had a very common name which I hated and couldn’t wait to change. I know others, including men, who officially changed names they didn’t like…including the British Royal family, during World War 1)

    Throwing some more balls in the air….many people change one (at least) of their names for a whole host of diff reasons – marriage is only one of them. And then in other cultures, naming is a whole different issue (would readers from Hispanic or Russian or Asian cultures like to explain some other traditions here, as I don’t understand all the nuances but know that the same person sometimes publishes under different formats of their name/s, and sometimes it is not their preference but the style of referencing required by different journals). And I have had several Asian contacts who choose an Anglo sounding name for their own conveniece …the sometimes choose a different one later. Are all these people similarly vilified, or is the comments reported in this posting reserved for newly maŕried women?

    Off topic but slightly topical…I am currently at a family reunion in a place far from my home. My brother and i are being called by family nicknames we haven’t used since we were kids….just a strange feeling, our elderly relatives are not going to change…

  9. In Computer Science there is the interesting example of Lane Hemachandra and Edith Spaan, who, after marriage, are now known as Lane and Edith Hemaspaandra. But this example is folk history in theoretical CS so every knows them and their previous names.

  10. It’s ridiculous that your PI and others have been so vocally negative about your name changing. It’s your choice and not their place to keep commenting on it. You can do what you want with your name and people have many reasons for coming to the best decision for them. With that said, I would also say that in the title of the post it sounds like you’re saying that it was a purely personal choice. I don’t think we get the chance to remove this choice from its broader political context completely– even though for you this may not have come into play, married names of women make political and social statements. That doesn’t mean you people should comment on your name or that you shouldn’t be supported for whatever you choose, but to me it’s a stretch to say this choice is purely personal.

  11. Thanks for posting about this, I grappled with name-changing decisions when I got married and I agree that it is a very personal choice. I’m sorry to hear that your choice presented some rather insulting responses. I ultimately decided to keep my name for various reasons. Moving to a new University were my spouse and I both got jobs, and have separate surnames, has been somewhat amusing. In some ways, having different surnames helped me secure my independence as a researcher at the University and maintain a separateness from my husband (also a scientist, but in a different field). Now that we’ve been here a few years, most faculty and students know we’re married, but our different surnames aren’t a big deal – at least no one says anything to me about it. Perhaps most surprising (and most insulting), is that my family not only refuses to acknowledge our hard-earned titles, but also refer to me as Mrs. X or to us as “Mr & Mrs X”. To me, this sends the message that in their eyes getting married was a bigger achievement than obtaining my PhD, which is slightly insulting. Although it’s nice that my surname choice is generally a non-issue among colleagues, when family can’t (or won’t) acknowledge my name, it stings just that much more.

  12. I got married shortly after finishing my PhD. I decided to keep my maiden name for (mainly) two reasons. I had that point already couple of good publications (where I’m the first author) and my husband doesn’t understand why women (or anyone) should change their name when getting married. Later when we moved to another country we sometimes have to explain to authorities that we are really married although we have different surnames.😉

    But I think it’s every person’s own choice what name they want to use. Change it as many times as you want or stick to the one for your whole life.🙂

  13. Pingback: What’s your choice? Names as a microcosm for a feminism at the crossroads | Tenure, She Wrote

  14. Pingback: Having it both ways: on changing – and keeping – my name | A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman

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