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!