Foregone conclusions, redux

July 2007 (Vintage SciWo

I will not be a foregone conclusion.

Sometimes I get depressed when I read the blogs of other women scientists – particularly when the topic of children vs. an academic career is the topic du jour. The short version is that many of us seem to think we have two choices: (1) Have a career and no children, or children we never see; or (2) Give up our plans for t-t/research academia in order to raise a family. That we can’t be both academic researchers and fantastic parents seems to be a foregone conclusion.

Well, I refuse to be a foregone conclusion.

In January, I was blessed with a wonderful daughter – a child that I had been aching for (and actively working toward) for years. I want to be an attached parent, one who knows what my child’s interests are and what she had for lunch. I want to be there for bedtimes, games of pat-a-cake (and later, catch), and school plays.

In April, I got a job offer for a tenure-track position at a research university. I’ve been preparing for such a job for as long as I can remember. I want to get tenure, be a good mentor to students, teach interesting classes, conduct funded, intriguing research, and be a good colleague.

I’m having an incredibly good year, and it pains me when people suggest that I’ll fail at one endeavor or the other. That I’ll miss years of mealtimes and never have a weekend off, or if I do take time to be with my family, that I’ll be unfunded, under-prepared, and untenurable.

That shouldn’t be true. And I won’t let such talk defeat me from the start.

I will work very hard and very efficiently at my job. I’ll pour my heart into grant proposals and syllabi. But I’ll also draw the line at some only-moderately-unreasonable number of hours per week (say, 50-60). It is equally important to me that I have the time to sing my daughter to sleep, make her mashed bananas for breakfast, and change the occasional poopy diaper.

If those things deny me tenure, then so be it. I will acknowledge that I could have done more, but defiantly reply that I shouldn’t have had to.

I will not be a foregone conclusion. I will be a productive assistant professor. I will be an awesome mother. Just you watch.

August 2015 (8 years, 1 month later)

I am not a foregone conclusion.

I haven’t accepted either choice.

I have sung my child to sleep, and I have earned grant money. I have taught 12 courses that I think were interesting, and I know what my daughter eats for lunch. I never mastered patty cake, and I once missed a school concert to go to a conference. I have sometimes been under-prepared, and I have often been sleep deprived. But within the parameters of my life, I have been a productive assistant professor and an awesome mother.

Eight years later, I not only have a fabulous daughter but a spunky baby son. Eight years later, I’m preparing my tenure portfolio for a better job than I started with. Those who know my portfolio and my institution say that I will get tenure. Eight years later, I am not a foregone conclusion.

The path here has not always been smooth. There was a separation, divorce, and an era of single parenting. There were periods when I cursed the time limitations of daycare schedules and a child who desperately needed my help to sleep. There were something like 21 rejections before I got my first grant funding, and I’ve stopped counting how many there have been in total. I’ve had students bail mid-program for a lucrative job offer, leaving me with unanalyzed data that I’ll never have time to work up and publish. I’ve been scooped and desk rejected. I went on the job market multiple times before I landed the job where I am now. I met a new partner – a really, really good one – and then had to navigate the two body problem. I miscarried and I experienced the deep unease that accompanies even a successful pregnancy after a loss.

But most of the time I’ve done just fine working at or below the “only-moderately-unreasonable” 50-60 hours per week I set as my limit in 2007. I even take a real vacation and work shorter days in the summer. I have worked very hard and reasonably efficiently at my job. I’ve poured my heart and soul into every aspect of it. I’ve published, gotten grant funding, taught classes, mentored students, and been involved in the professional community. I’ve met all of the requirements for tenure, and I’ve proven that professional failure was not a foregone conclusion.

The naysayers are wrong. I am a successful academic researcher and an active parent, and I am not the only one bucking the prophecies. As my future within the academy becomes more secure, I’ll be working even harder to support students and young faculty on their paths toward work-life success. I don’t want them to hear only defeatist talk, I want them to see a real-life model of “having it all.” I’ll never pretend it’s easy, just that it is achievable. And I’ll be working inside the system to make sure that’s true.

For eight years, my battle cry has been “I will not be a foregone conclusion.”
Now, I can change tense: “I am not a foregone conclusion.”


35 thoughts on “Foregone conclusions, redux

  1. Hooray! I’m so excited for you!!! I don’t know you, but this blog post warms my heart nonetheless. One thing that surprises me is how little I read about men wanting to know what their kids eat for lunch or to sing them to sleep, etc. Several years ago I was required to teach out of a school’s standard ENG 101 book, and I was really surprised to see many essays about men wanting to take on more active parenting roles–statistically, even at a pay reduction. They feel left out, and they feel upset that their own father’s were basically walking paychecks. Although I know “Tenure, She Wrote” is about women in academia, I would love to hear more about the cooperation that must have gone on at home to make this work. Am I wrong to think that cooperation at home would encourage men and women to expect such home environments? I hope not! I want to hear more men say, “I’m going to be a father, and I’ll have to consider how this will effect my career, though it need not if we do it together.” 🙂

    • One thing to note in my story is that I spent much of my time pre-tenure without a supportive partner, and my professional trajectory had been pretty well established by the time I had one. While I can understand the reasoning behind people saying that choice of partner and equitable domestic arrangements are important for career success, I want to be perfectly clear that they are not prerequisites.

      • I cannot tell you how astounded, relieved, hopeful, and even joyful I am to read this post, *particularly* when you went through a divorce and a period of single parenthood. I am a single mother hellbent on attaining a PhD and a tenure-track position, and I am quite familiar with the naysayers you speak of. Thank you for being a complete badass; you make me look forward to the day I’ll (hopefully) be paving the way for the “non-foregone conclusions” that will come after me.

      • I’m a single mother of two, no partner in sight. Have graduated PhD in hand, and now in the ECR treadmill trying to get where I need to be to be where you are now. Thankyou for giving me hope that it CAN be achieved.

  2. Wow! I am sitting here having read this moving post. With every word that I somehow missed in 2007 (probably because I was also just starting), to your current update of what has become and you’ve brought me to sit and take a moment to reflect. Reflect on your words, which could be my own words. Our paths are not exactly the same but your strength and passion to be a mommy that is present and an excellent colleague and scientist, were my exact battle cries…..every single day for the last 8 years. I too earned tenure. And I too cherish that I have also taken time for my kiddos. I have 2 boys and cannot imagine not being present for their lives. Thanks for putting into words what I forgot to reflect upon.

  3. Wow, navigating a job switch, divorce, and new baby all pretenure! Congratulations on all you’ve accomplished!

  4. Well done, bravo and thank you for sharing. I think the crux of the matter is “moderately reasonable hours”. Enough work CAN be done in those hours, or enough to be satisfying anyway; and everyone has to work out what is satisfying for them, personally.

  5. Reading this gave me hope.. I’m way behind, half way through my PhD at almost 35 dragging my 8yo along for the ride. Thank you for sharing it can be done!

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  7. I knew when I started on an academic career path that I would always regret not having kids to get tenure, but I would never regret not getting tenure because I had kids. This has been my mantra 4 years and 2 kids into a tenure track position (one born while I was a post-doc). I love my job and want to keep it, but I love being a present parent more. The more of us there are and the more we speak up, the easier for the next generation of women scientists to see that it can be done. Bravo to you and everyone else who makes it work on this crazy path.

  8. Wow! Good for you, and thanks so much for sharing your story! I’m super impressed with the fact that you accomplished all of this while going through several personal situations, specially the period of single parenting. You’re a hero!!!

  9. Great post. I appreciate you sharing your story and challenging some of the accepted ‘ways of being’ in work and academia. I thrashed out some of my own thoughts on finding a balance between (for me too, attachment) parenting, work and study: I’ve been lucky enough to have a supportive and flexible partner along my journey, but agree that we shouldn’t allow dominant narratives to define our choices.

  10. I never wanted children, so that didn’t play into my thinking, but the hours worked and intensity of focus eventually did. I have somewhat limited energy and broad interests and while I’ve pretty successfully managed to make my work time efficient, I still see how others with more energy and/or a single-minded focus on research will pass me up. It took a while to come to terms with that–perhaps I still am. I’ve been successful but sort of stepped away from the top tier. You sure have to find your self-esteem internally against the academic message that only the obsessed researchers “count.”

    • Yes exactly.

      Often broader is more valuable than narrowly focussed, but you have to make your own evaluation, and sometimes they are not society “norms”. It is great to see the number of people who value other things in their lives, and cope with also being part of the science community. Well done all of you.

  11. Cheers to you & thank you for sharing. Your ‘battle cry’ is an inspiration, and it was just what I needed to hear (or read) at this point in my life & career. I too will not be a foregone conclusion.

  12. I think that the tone of the post and many of the comments overstates the difficulty of balancing a family and earning tenure.

    The reality is that at a research focused institution getting tenure depends almost exclusively on bringing in grant money and publishing. Academic writing is one of the most family-friendly jobs one can imagine. Although a lot of hours are required, academics have almost complete flexibility in choosing those hours to accommodate family needs. If the manuscript isn’t done today, finish it tomorrow. Missed a grant deadline, then submit to the next one. As long as enough grants are won and enough papers are published by tenure time, individual mistakes don’t matter. Because of the flexibility, I would argue that academic work is more family-friendly than a job that requires being present at a desk for a specified set of hours or an hourly wage job where the choice is between seeing the school play and getting paid. Even for those at more teaching focused institutions the only the contact hours are set leaving flexibility in scheduling office hours, class preparation, and grading.

    The challenge is not in earning tenure and balancing a family but in being perceived as ‘good’ and balancing a family. Perception is less forgiving. While being seen on campus, doing a little extra for students, and helping out a colleague won’t earn anyone tenure they will dramatically impact the perception of others. When there aren’t enough hours it’s these little things that suffer.

    For this reason I’m hesitant to use the author as a role model without hearing from her students and colleagues.

    (PS. My perspective is based on my grad experience working for an adviser with two young children. She had tenure, grant money, publications, and went to kid activities during the day. The sacrifice was that the students in the group when the kids were young got less attention/fewer meetings/longer turn around times than those before the kids were born.)

    • thanks for sharing your experience. But please don’t use it to stereotype the author or other female academics. My experience has been the opposite (and both our experiences are valid and important to this discussion) — a tenured male professor and department chair with two kids would leave literally in the middle of the graduate seminar he was teaching to go pick up his kids from some afterschool activity. He would not return. Can you imagine a woman doing this? Absolutely not – their colleagues (let alone their students!) would not be as forgiving. Often when men do “childcare” activities (aka be an involved parent) they are celebrated in their personal and professional circles. When women do, they are penalized. Studies have found this to be true in hiring, pay, promotion, and the myth of the 80-hour workweek. Please see this important read: It’s especially relevant in the academia, where people can come and go throughout the day and/or do work at home, so appearances matter a lot – and can be deceiving.

      My advisor is a tenured male professor with two kids. He often leaves during the work day to attend events related to his family life, or is unavailable certain times/dates. The thing is, he often just doesn’t reveal the reasons (blocked off times on calendar with no description, doesn’t specify reasons unless absolutely pressed). It may leave his colleagues the impression that he is off meeting stakeholders or writing grants, but he is using his privilege as a male academic, which often comes with the ASSUMPTION that he is off the hook for household and childcare responsibilities. Many men don’t want to be and aren’t — but some of them can and do use tactics to make those decisions less visible to peers and students, so that they don’t suffer professional consequences.

  13. I’ve been thinking a while about this, and I can’t decide whether I’m happy or depressed.
    I will say that given all you’ve accomplished, you do deserve congratulations – it’s seriously impressive.

    But I’ve been trying to work out the logistics of “I’ve done just fine working at or below the “only-moderately-unreasonable” 50-60 hours per week”.

    A standard day is c.8 hours, i.e. 9-5 (in the UK, where I’m based), giving a 37 hour week. Now academia doesn’t demand such a strict schedule, but it makes a good place to start. Skip lunch, and you’re nearer 40 hours. Still ten hours to find, maybe 20. That’s at least another 2 hours a day (not including weekends), plus the inevitable commute, usually at least 30 minutes each way for most people. So by my reckoning, to do a 50 hour week, you’re leaving the house around 7.30 am (some mornings my son may not be awake at that time), and getting in maybe 6.30? My child is already having tea then, and is only up for an hour before it’s bedtime. And if you’re doing a 60 hour week, you’re giving up at least one full day of each weekend. I’ve got to ask, is that about right? Or do you leave a bit earlier, and get in a bit earlier, but work once the kids are in bed (in which case, where is the time for your partner?).

    This sounds critical – please don’t be offended. It’s just made me question if academia is really for me if that’s the best I can expect? Most nights, by the time my child is asleep I’m too tired to do more than watch an hour of TV and fall into bed. I commute more than an hour each way – meaning I’d be out from 7 til 7, barely seeing my child, and then giving up some (regular?) weekends. Is that really what we’re going to count as a success?

    I’m in awe of the fact you can juggle it all: I just don’t think I can do the same.

    • Honestly, I average around 45-50 hours per week, when I keep track. That goes up when I’m approaching grant deadlines or I’m behind on prepping for a new class or doing the grading. Even at my busiest, I’ve only pushed past 60 hours a few times. Because I am bound by daycare hours (and I want to see my children), I force myself to work most evenings for an hour or two – but often that “extra work” is making up for me cutting out early to take my daughter to gymnastics, for example. I rarely work more than a few hours on weekends – and now with two children I’m not even doing that. My work time is less than 45 hours a lot of weeks too – when my daughter has a no school day or is sick, and especially in the summer, when I’m largely not paid and I feel less inclined to push myself. But I have also made decisions to minimize my commute, have working lunches, and to outsource housecleaning so that I can have more time for my family and my job.

      Meghan Duffy at Dynamic Ecology has a really great post on the myth of the 80 hour work week in academia, but it could probably also be called the myth of the 60 work week. A lot of the boasting about super-human workweeks is either just lying or the result of really inefficient work habits. There’s also been some neat stuff lately on how men pretend to work 80 hour weeks and get away with it (and get ahead, unfortunately). I think attitudes toward ridiculous work hours are starting to change, and you can also set your own boundaries and see where you get. Ultimately, we all make our own decisions about what we can live with in terms of work time, family time, and definitions of success. Best wishes as you find your own way!

      • Thank you!
        That, and the articles you’ve linked to, combined with your post, were really helpful ways of viewing things, and do put it into perspective a lot better. I appreciate it. Maybe it’s just that I’m used to counting my hours to try and ‘keep up’, plus my first post-doc appears to be in an office of workaholics but no mentoring, so I’m struggling to figure out what is and isn’t ‘right’, not that such a thing exists! So I do apprecaite you taking the time to reply.

  14. Not only is this an incredible success story for academics (and non-academics!) everywhere…it’s going to have an impact on your children’s perceptions of work and family, too, in such a positive way. They’re listening and watching, even if you don’t realize it. My mother was a stay-at-home mom for 16 years, but when I was 16 she went back to technical school to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a nurse and started working. My siblings and I were *so* proud of her, and she taught me many lessons – explicit and implicit – about the value of work, working a job you feel strongly about, being economically self-sufficient (particularly as a woman), and defining yourself with many identities (and not just worker or mother). I’m 29 now, and I still use her example and the different experiences she had before and after she went back to work as a motivating model in many ways.

  15. Thank you for this. I am currently writing my dissertation, raising my infant son, and trying to reassure myself that my partner (also a grad student) and I can get our timelines and job prospects to align. Everywhere I turn someone tells me my goals are unreasonable or an article laments the impossibility of women having children and an academic career. These perspectives are important, but when I’m sitting alone in my office, missing my son, overwhelmed by how I’m going to finish a dissertation, get articles published, and find a job, they send me further down a spiral of self-doubt. The next time I find myself wiping away tears and second-guessing my decisions, I will remember your story. You did this. Women can do this. I can do this.

  16. An update from me: I just submitted my PhD thesis, in under three years, while parenting two children (who were 6 months & 2 years when I started) and working. Thesis submission blog post here: (Now the wait for the examiners’ reports.)

    So again – don’t let others’ naysaying or the dominant narratives tell you what is and isn’t possible. My boss called me a ‘freak’, but my husband commented on how consistently disciplined I had been. One tiny step after one tiny step can add up to a long journey and a lot of work. Keep going!


    • Huzzah! That is incredibly impressive. Well done. You and your husband are right – focus goes a long way.

      But to other readers, remember that we don’t have to be superwoman – if it takes is a bit longer or we publish a bit more slowly, but we have a life that makes us happy, then that is the best metric of success.

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