Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Open Letter to JLK

On my birthday I had a bit of a rant about how I wished/wanted academic life to be. Many of you posted birthday wishes and commiserated in the misery of it all, however JLK's comment made me realize that I might of made it look like having a family and going to grad school was insufferable. This was her comment:
Your post struck a nerve with me. I really, really want to be a mom. But I also really, really want to be an academic. It's not that I necessarily feel that those two things are mutually exclusive - it's more that I feel like I will have to suffer in order to have both. I will not choose a PhD over children. But I don't know how I'll feel about myself for the rest of my life if I am forced to make that decision.

JLK - you don't have to choose to PhD over children or children over a PhD. You can have both. The ability to have both may not be easy, but honey nothing that is rewarding is easy. That 20+ minute run through the trees this morning was torture at times. The feeling when I finished, knowing that am not as sore as I was last week, was worth it. Being a mom and a grad student is bloody hell hard, but not for the reasons that you may think. I find it challenging because:
  1. I care about what people think of me. I have learned not to care but I do. So when my first Phdlab mates implied that I was using my child as an excuse, it was devasting (I'm sure the post about that is somewhere in the archives) or when someone accused me of not pulling my weight because I asked the research technican to take plates out of the incubator, it made me self-conscious of getting an easy ride. You can not let shit like that effect you. You will need a thick skin.
  2. I do not always connect with my fellow grad students. For some of them, my life with a child is totally and completely foreign to them. They have no concept and some just don't care about monkey's stories these people are crazy, who doesn't bust a gut laughing at the antics of my child?? I miss out on socials and other networking opportunities. I also do not get to participate in as many clubs/ committees as I would like.
  3. I need to be super organized and have amazing time-management skills. More often than not, I will have to say no to going for that cup of coffee with my lab mates because I need to get xyz done before TIME so that I can p/u monkey. That is not to say that I can't have lazy days, or go for coffee but the reprecussions are more severe for me. Planning and being careful while doing experiments are super duper important because I only have a limited time. I can't stay the extra hour to re-stain the blot because I forgot to put in an antibody.seriously,?? yes I have done that...
What you need to figure out is do you really want both? If the answer is yes (as it was for me) then you need to figure out how to do that. For me it was this - Change Supervisors.
Although my Old PhD lab and OldGradAdvisor was full of nice people, and very supportative of men and women, it was not supportative of parents. New Advisor and New lab is. When I decided to find the new supervisor, it was not an easy decision but it had to be made. If you go through the archives, you will read how I agonized over figuring out what I wanted. However, I was only willing to continue on the PhD path if all four of the conditions were met:
  1. PI was a good mentor
  2. PI was a good scientist (ethical and high standards)
  3. PI was understanding and supportitave of parents.
  4. PI knew and did not have an issue with me having another child.

Grad school is hard, regardless of whether its in the hard sciences or social sciences. If you are going to embark on this road, you will have ensure that you have a strong support system. I love my life. Its hard, but I enjoy coming into work. I really do think about my research all the time. I may not be reading articles 24-7, but I am thinking about what experiment next, what questions I should be asking. I am passionate about it. If I have to leave my child, I damn well do for something that I love.

I am sure Nicky, Fia and all the other mom/scientist out there would agree.


Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Awesome post! I admire anyone who does both. Hell, I'm not doing either ;)

Liz said...

Thanks so much for this post. Also, your stories about monkey *are* hilarious. Anyone who thinks otherwise is crazy.

ScientistMother said...

Cath - thanks! How was/is the ski vacation? when do we get some pics?

Liz - welcome to the blog! I figure I am probably programmed to think everything about the monkey is cute, its nice to know others do as well!

Aspiring Mommy-Scientist said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I need to hear such affirmations as often as is humanly possible. I am smack-dab in the middle of my PhD studies and hoping to start trying for a baby in the fall. I'm so excited but completely terrified, so I really appreciate hearing from people who are making it work.

BTW, I'm new to the blogosphere (pretty much just an introductory post on my own noob blog), so I'd love links to any other places I might find such wonderful posts!

Anonymous said...

My PhD school was a model of women scientists with kids. It didn't really dawn on me then how much they busted their freakin asses. The women without kids grouped together and the women with kids grouped together, so as a woman without kids, I didn't know what women with kids were going through or how they were doing. Sadly, all of the women with kids disappeared from science. Sadly, all the women without kids are struggling to stay in science by the hair on our chinny chin chin.
JLK, don't let your ideas about motherhood stop you. It's a total different reality out there and you will make it work. The science isn't going anywhere. There are always contributions to make. And the importance of having women scientists with and without kids around the labs cannot be stressed enough - I am sooo glad I got to see how women with kids operated, even if I didn't understand their dilemmas, I saw how they worked it out.

Nicky said...

Well said! I'm far along in the PhD path, fairly new to the mother part, but I've already been doing both for long enough to agree with everything you've said. Managing time and prioritizing what the most important things are that you want to get out of grad school are definitely key.

I love being a mom, and even though it's likely that my little one will never remember my time in grad school (I'll hopefully graduate before he's forming any meaningful memories) he's gonna grow up knowing that learning is valued in our house, that women's contributions are every bit as valuable as men's, and that Mom and Dad shared household responsibilities equally so that they could also share career success. All invaluable lessons for children to learn.

Fia said...

Wonderful post! I totally agree with you and like to add that althuogh it seems to be tough to do a PhD and have kids, nobody ever said it is easy to just have kids. To manage kids and a career is always difficult, no matter be it science or what ever else.

Further, there are benefits to having kids during grad school. The most important benefit is that when you come home, there is someone who is way more important to you than your science is. That gives me a totally different perspective, - and in turn makes it easier to deal with stuff at work. I don't fuss much about annoying work things and rather look at my kids. Saves my nerves, makes me more relaxed at work and that makes me work better.

Anonymous said...

Thank you soooo much for posting this. I'm graduating with my PhD this semester, and just had my first child in September. I'm seriously struggling with where I want to go next. I hesitate to take a postdoc position because I don't want to be expected to work 60+ hours a week. Can you please provide more information about how you went about finding the things you were looking for in a mentor who was supportive of your situation and desires?

JLK said...

Thank you for this, SM.

I definitely want to do both. I was hoping for a grad school admission relatively close to where I am now so that my current support system will be there. But as of right now my only options are going to be to move far, far away from my family and friends and it will just be my husband and I on our own. That's the scary part for me - trying to do it without our families.

I know it's going to be difficult, but I think doing it during the grad school phase will be much easier than doing it while trying to get tenure.

Posts like this one are greatly appreciated. I wish you the best on your journey.

And personally, I LOVE the stories about monkey. ;)

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to add that those issues that make getting a PhD while being a mom tough, also are going to make working while being a mom tough. And one of the truly great aspects of academia is the flexability it allows. So, yeah it will be tough... but it's going to be tough anyway.

ScientistMother said...

AMS - it is scary to have a baby, regardless of whether you're a student or not. Things to keep in mind, there is no such thing as the perfect time, it is a wonderful experience. For some awesome mentors/inspirational/how the hell do we do this, check out my blogroll.
Anon1- well said.
Nicky - oops I spelled your name wrong in the post, I will fix that. Prioritizing and acting on the priorities are most important. So is the sharing of responsibilities
Fia - I totally forgot about the perspective part. Monkey always reminds that science is science, nothing to get all dramatic about (unless your microscope is a cylon...)
Anon - if you go through my archives, specifically the august 08 ones, you'll find information on what I did when I was searching for a new PI. Feel free to email me as well scientistmother at gmail.com, I can give you more advice, ie specific questions, how to read between the lines etc.
JLK - yes its easier when family is nearby, but plenty of people are doing it without family. Again, it comes to what you want. If being in a program close to home is important, then don't give up until you have knocked on every door to get a position.

Isis the Scientist said...

Great post, SM! It is not easy to have a family and a scientific career, but it is possible and you're doing a stellar job!

Nicky said...

I'll also add: I have zero family nearby. None. Zip. Yes, it's harder that way, but not impossible.

PhizzleDizzle said...

Good post SM!

Amy said...

Hello! I hope you don't mind if I comment. I came across your blog from Google and it really touched a nerve for me. Thanks so much for posting it - it is a wonderful post!!

My husband and I are both graduate students nearing completion. We actually moved halfway across the country (away from all of our families) to begin our programs when our daughter was 1 years old. Then last year, I had a baby while I was in graduate school. Our kids are now almost 5 and almost 1.

Just to echo some other thoughts...It is SO INCREDIBLY HARD at times to combine the two. But it is SO REWARDING and I think our lives are all of the richer for this.

The one thing for me, though, is that I underestimated the difficulty for having a baby while in school - my daughter was really young when I started the program, but I didn't realize how much energy life with a baby would be. I think that having a supportive spouse is absolutely critical. Like you said, I also think that you have to have a thick skin (I don't) and just let crap roll of your back. But in no matter what profession you are in - there will *always* be people that give you crap for your life decisions, so you can't let that hold you back. ;)

Best of luck to everyone!


The bean-mom said...

Well said, Scientistmother and all the other mother-scientists here. I think these personal stories are incredibly important to share with others.

By the way, I love Monkey stories!

ScienceGirl said...

Great post - thanks!