Guest Post: Searching for an academic position on maternity leave

Today’s guest post is by Chicken_little. Chicken_little is a postdoc in clinical psychology in the midst of an existential career crisis – but officially in search of an academic position. She studies the impact of mindfulness interventions in various populations, although she very often forgets to practice mindfulness in her daily life. When she is not working or reading funny academic tweets, she is the proud mom of a baby boy. 

I’m sitting at the kitchen table trying to finish a manuscript. I can hear my son yelling in his crib, refusing to take his nap. As I try to concentrate on bringing the finishing touches to my soon-to-be submitted paper, I can’t help but feel incredibly guilty of, once again, favoring my work over my son. The appeal of a tenure-track position is big, and so is the pressure to be productive and to get out several manuscripts this year, even though I am (supposed to be) on maternity leave.

Thank goodness my spouse is home and is there to soothe the baby. Being a postdoc and working from home does have benefits : I was able to transfer my maternity leave to my partner, so we can both spend some time with our son in his first year of life. But let’s be honest here : having him at home only means that I can get more work done, as he watches the baby. I am trying to make things happen for my career all the while he is putting his own on hold. This better pay off.

This is what I have learned so far on being a mom and a postdoc in search of an academic position at the same time : I don’t know how to combine both aspirations. On one hand, I know that I need to be present for my child and to care for him. And on the other hand, I know I need to write and publish during my maternity leave if I want my resume to remain competitive. All the while applying for jobs for which I will inevitably get rejected, either because I am not competent enough or because the job description doesn’t quite fit my expertise. I am also noticing a perspective shift in my career plans : I am no longer aiming to get the most prestigious job in the top-notch university. I now much rather get a job at a university where it’s ok to actually let people know you have kids and care about being present for them, and where it’s ok to aim for a somewhat decent quality of life, as opposed to publishing 10 papers per year. Although I am at ease with this choice, I have noticed that it tends to have people raising eyebrows…especially men’s. It is even possible to aim specifically and openly for a lower-pressure, less prestigious job in academia? Or do you inevitably have to sacrifice any sense of personnal and family life to get there?

I also know that I am 30, that I have been a university student for over a decade now, and that it might be time to consider getting a job, which could, for example, be helpful in buying a house. I also know that I won’t be able to make ends meet if I continue on a postdoc salary for a few years. Daycare costs alone – which would allow me to write more to get a better paying job – are huge. We are also making plans to have a second child, but much to my dismay, I am wondering whether we should put these plans on hold for a while. After all, going to job talks with a pregnancy bump is the best way to not get hired. It saddens me that women still have to consider these issues in planning to have kids.

How do I bring all of this together? Do I quit the academic circuit and « settle » for a comunity college job, or do I chose to «tough it out just another year » in the hopes of getting the dream job I’m not even sure I am dreaming of anymore? And what if « just another year » turns into two, three, four years? Am I willing to make the sacrifice then?

As I return to my beautiful baby boy, now much happier and rested from his nap, I can’t help but to continue worrying about what the future holds for me. And feel simultaneously guilty for not enjoying the present moment with him. Although as I gaze into his great big eyes, I can’t help but feel somewhat appeased and grateful. Someday, somehow, I’ll find a job that will allow me to strive as an individual and as a mom. And even if I don’t, something tells me it won’t be the end of the world…simply the beginning of a new career I hadn’t planned for!

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: Searching for an academic position on maternity leave

  1. Good luck in your job search and congrats to our family on the new addition! I flinched while reading your comments about “settling” for a community college job though. CC are still IN academia. Teaching schools might care less about publication records but are still very much higher ed — and many of us aspire to be there! Those applications are still competitive.

  2. Sounds like we’re in similar shoes right now on the mom front (my baby boy is 3.5 months old), although my life circumstances were such that I had to wait a few years, which means I’m now 3.5 years into a tenure-track appointment. In fact, I work at one of those universities that is not an R1, where it’s OK to let people know that you have kids… and I love it. Totally love it. My nursing infant has been explicitly welcome at all department activities and events, my colleagues regularly offer to babysit if I’m in a pinch at work, and everyone else in my department has kids so they’ve been there (sort of… they’re all male, so it’s not exactly the same). It’s still a pretty high-level liberal arts college, so publishing is important, but the expectation is lower in quantity than an R1 would be, and it’s at a level that I can meet without giving up too much quality of life. You do have to enjoy teaching and advising undergrads to thrive at a place like mine, but if that describes you, then I’d encourage you to go for it! The obnoxious comments from colleagues about how I was selling myself short, or whether I had buyer’s remorse, have dropped off over the past few years as they’ve seen how happy and productive I’ve been here. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re thinking it might be for you, don’t let what other people’s ideas about the “best” job hold you back. And… I think whenever you’re ready to have kids is when you should have kids. I wish I could have done it sooner, but it just wasn’t in the cards. But down the road I think you’re much more likely to regret having fewer kids than you are to regret having fewer publications, assuming those are both things you want. A family-friendly place won’t be put off by a bump in an interview — one of my new colleagues in a related department is taking leave her first semester and it was not an issue. Good luck, and I hope that tenure-track job comes through for you soon!

    • I interviewed with a baby bump, and I told my interviewers over dinner that I had an older child. (Everyone was talking about their families.) In my mind, if they didn’t want me with a family, I didn’t want to be there. Here I am, and it’s been great. Starting a new job with an infant was tough, but it was the right time for me.

  3. Thank you for sharing this! I too am a new PhD graduate who is preparing materials to apply for academic positions … and I’m 3.5 months pregnant. I already have a 3 year old son and my husband and I planned to have our seconded (and last) child once I finished. I did not think far enough into the future with regards to being pregnant while going to interviews. I struggle with feeling depressed that I may have to wait a year to be considered a more serious applicant, or whatever may be said about me. Your mommy-guilt, as I call it, is definitely what I have been experiencing as well. I wonder how I will be able to balance it all with 2 small children working in higher education. When I ask faculty – no one seems to know either. It almost feels like you have to make a choice and you cant have both.

    I didn’t mean to ramble. I’m sure you will land an academic position very soon. Good luck and thank you again for bringing light to this real issue.

  4. “Someday, somehow, I’ll find a job that will allow me to strive as an individual and as a mom. And even if I don’t, something tells me it won’t be the end of the world…simply the beginning of a new career I hadn’t planned for!”

    I say a version of these words to myself every day. Thanks for sharing your experience, and Good Luck! You’re an awesome scholar and mama.

  5. I agree, you can consider a teaching-oriented university. They do vary in how much scholarship is required, so you may find one that has a good mix which can be a good match for you. Bonus if you are good with working with undergraduates in research. And some universities have very family-friendly policies such as workplace lactation rooms and on-site childcare, although there is a lot of room for improvement in these areas.

  6. This is in response to commenters talking about interviewing while pregnant. Without ignoring the difficulties of being pregnant while applying and interviewing for jobs, I’d like to discourage people from assuming you shouldn’t apply or won’t be taken seriously if pregnant. We just made a hire of our top choice candidate, who had a pretty big baby bump at the time she interviewed (she was ~7mo so there was no question to anyone seeing her or interacting with her that she was pregnant). This was absolutely a non-issue for any of us on the committee, nor did I hear anything negative from any of the department. We did get some positive comments on her being pregnant from the grad student comments but honestly it was simply a non-issue in discussions (as it should be). She’s an excellent scientist and that is what we cared about, period. I’m at a top-25 R1, so very research intensive. She’s had her baby and has deferred her start date which is all fine by the department. I know a few other women who have interviewed while visibly pregnant and gotten offers. I’m not saying this to wave away the problems that can arise and the sexism that may rear its head in this situation but instead to say that not everywhere is this going to be an issue, nor is that only true at more teaching focused schools. If you’re ready to have kids, have kids. If you’re ready to go on the academic market, apply for jobs and apply broadly to whatever positions would suit your life and interests. I think too often we feel like we need to be in some perfect place where everything is lined up in order to move forward but that time may never come and there’s no point hamstringing yourself by assuming the responses you’ll get from departments. Sadly there are departments where it will be an issue (illegal but true) but not everywhere and those are the departments you want to work in.

  7. It is worth perservering, it really is. Whatever you do, there are hassles. Try no to feel guilty about making choices that suit your individual circimstances…this is the hardest bit. But in tne end, the kids are worth it AND whatever priofessional life you choose is also worth it.At least, it has been for me.

  8. I interviewed while on maternity leave and pumping. My baby was 7 weeks old (I worked at a National Lab, so just got unpaid FMLA and therefore returned to work 9 weeks after the birth). I just told the person organizing my interview that I needed 20 minutes in a private room every 3 hours, and had no issues. I didn’t get hired there, but eventually went on to an R1-type university. I had LittleProdgal2 at ProdigalU pre-tenure (and got a much more reasonable maternity leave there than at National Lab!), and still got to spend plenty of time with my kids on the way to tenure.

    I would not want to work somewhere that I could not have a life outside of work. Pretending I don’t have a family at an interview would have been counterproductive to finding that sort of environment. If academia doesn’t work out, there are plenty of other options. That said, there are supportive departments, so don’t give up if you are not ready to!

  9. Just echoing what everyone else has said about interviewing while pregnant – I was 5-7 months pregnant during interview ‘season’ and, aside from a few awkward comments, it was a non-issue. It might have even given me a slight edge in getting the offer I eventually got at a family friendly R1, where I’m now on the tenure track and thoroughly enjoying it. Good luck!

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