Academic Parenthood: Lessons Learned Along the Tenure Track

March 30, 2015

This is the first in a mini-series on Academic Parenthood, a follow up to the ECF session at the 2015 NASP Convention. The presentation is available here. Given the strong interest in the session, we are featuring two of the presenters’ perspectives. In the first installment below, session lead Bryn Harris discusses her experiences as a parent and tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver.

Academic Parenthood: Lessons Learned Along the Tenure Track
By Bryn Harris, PhD

I want to start this post by saying that raising a family as an academic has many advantages, but is also very challenging. Careers in academia provide flexibility which can allow for unique childcare arrangements; working hours that fit with your family’s schedule (rather than typical business hours); balancing teaching, research and service around family dynamics; and often an academic calendar that coincides with school breaks, among others. However, we also know that women are less likely to get tenure or advance to full professor than men (D’Amico, Vermigili, and Canetto, 2011) and that women with children on the tenure track are much more likely to drop off the tenure track than men (Ginther & Kahn, 2006). Furthermore, among tenured faculty, 70 percent of men are married with children compared with 44 percent of women (Ward & Wolf-Wendell, 2012). While I recognize this issue includes men and women, it is clear that women are impacted by academic parenthood in a unique way and thus my post will focus on my personal experiences as a mother on the tenure track.

After reading the above paragraph, you might be surprised to learn that I willingly had two children while on the tenure track—I have a 2 year old and a 3 month old and I submit my tenure dossier this summer—and am so glad I did. I realize the decision to have children is a personal one, and for me I felt it was important to have children when my partner and I were ready, rather than waiting until after tenure. Below, I will provide some suggestions for people considering having children while on the tenure track. I realize that every university setting and personal situation will be different, but I hope these suggestions will be beneficial and promote your own success along the tenure track.

Institutional Support. One of the main reasons that I feel I have been successful as an academic parent is the institutional support I received. When negotiating my leave length and responsibilities with my Dean, I prepared a proposal with my ideal scenario and shared this with her. Others might find it helpful to consider working more the semester prior to your leave to give you more time during your leave or other creative options. Could you teach a class during the summer to count toward your future load? Can you teach an online class after you return to allow you more flexibility in your schedule? Is a reduction in administrative responsibilities possible? Having conversations with your program faculty about your leave will also be beneficial. After you return, can you teach classes that you have taught before so as not to have new course preparation? Can another faculty member cover you advising responsibilities during your leave? Now is not the time to take on significantly more responsibilities – especially as you work toward tenure. Advocate for yourself! If you are unsure or uncomfortable with how to advocate for yourself, consider contacting university offices or committees that may be of help. For example, at my institution, the Women’s Issues Committee provides resources to faculty members and the Ombuds Office helps faculty negotiate leave or other responsibilities when there may be contentious relationships at play.

Surround Yourself with Supportive Colleagues. I was surprised to find myself in a situation at my institution where there were no colleagues with young children when I had my son. Within the next couple of years, more of my colleagues were having children and somehow that felt less isolating. I found that I gravitated toward collaborating with other colleagues with young children at other universities as well. If I had to miss a conference call because my son was sick, they understood. This made the guilt I felt about missing work or a deadline more bearable. It was also nice to talk to these individuals about their own experiences in academic parenthood. One of my colleagues and I have a monthly phone call where we talk primarily about our success and challenges as parents. I feel this has made our working relationship stronger as well. It is not necessarily important that you surround yourself with colleagues that only have young children, but my point is to surround yourself with people who are supportive and understanding as much as possible.

Know the HR Policies. It is important to know the requirements and processes within your own institution regarding leave, FMLA, and short-term disability (if applicable). I believe this should be done far before you think about having children. For example, at my institution we accrue sick leave each year to be used for events such as childbirth. If you do not have sufficient sick time accrued, people are eligible to purchase short-term disability insurance, which would cover additional weeks of leave at full pay. However, this has to be purchased during an open enrollment period prior to having your child. Be careful not to get all of your information from a colleague at your university that recently went on leave. You might fall under different leave policies if you are on a 9-month contract and they are on a 12-month contract, for example. Lastly, it is important to discuss whether you will stop your tenure clock. Some institutions allow faculty to pause or stop their tenure clocks so that the time does not count towards their probationary period when they have children, which can be beneficial when it is difficult to maintain productivity while caring for your new family member. This is a personal decision that should be discussed with your Dean, colleagues within your institution, and other mentors.

Publication Pipeline. Hardly anyone I know has been able to time their pregnancy to the exact time they are hoping to have the baby. That being said, I do think this should be something you consider. I had one of my babies in September and enjoyed having the time during the summer to get some publications out the door and prepare for the baby’s arrival. I had my second baby in December (at the end of the semester) and was able to take off the spring semester from my teaching responsibilities, which meant 8 months off from teaching. In terms of research, pregnancy impacts your productivity more than you can imagine and most people find the second trimester to be the most productive time for them. I spent some time during the first trimester planning out all of the projects I would like to finish before I had the baby. I also tried to make my life easier after the baby came by having data collected by the end of my pregnancy so that I could write during my maternity leave. However, I truly believe that spending time with my baby is what maternity leave is for, they are only this young once! Once I returned to work full-time, I had several writing projects that I could delve into right away. This made returning to research tasks much easier. I also broke down my days so that certain days of the week were research-focused days and others were focused on teaching and service. I found that teaching responsibilities easily crept into research days and thus I gave myself a time limit of how much time I would spend preparing for classes each week. Amazingly, I feel just as prepared now than when I spent much more time preparing for my classes. I think that giving myself a time limit to prepare for teaching allows me to be more focused and efficient. There are always more research tasks I would like to be working on, but that was the same scenario prior to having my son. I do feel like I could be more productive with my research if I sacrificed more time with my family—which I am not willing to do right now. I allow myself to work during their naps on the weekend if necessary, but I also value the time I have with my husband and time I can focus on my own self-care.

Be Kind to Yourself. When I came back from maternity leave with my son, I felt like I had been gone for years! It seemed like everything had changed at work and I needed some time to catch up. Furthermore, when it came to teaching I found that my confidence was lower and that I had a hard time getting into a “groove.” I think more than anything I was dealing with the fact that I was now a parent and an academic, and trying to balance these roles was tough. Give yourself some credit. You just had a baby. Returning to work can be challenging. But I also enjoyed having an identity other than being a mom when I went to work.

Returning to work. Think about when are you the most productive. Do you normally work from home? It will be helpful to think about how the baby might impact your productivity and try to modify your surroundings. I thought I would be able to work from home when I went back to work. We hired a nanny who came to our house to care for my son. I quickly realized that I was incredibly distracted whenever I heard my son cry. I even bought noise-cancelling headphones to help! But I realized that I needed to physically separate myself from my son in order to be more productive. You will need to be patient with yourself as you re-learn how to be the most productive upon your return to work.

Set Priorities. When you have children on the tenure track, you need to be especially focused on your productivity. Intimately knowing the requirements for tenure at your institution is the first step. I also recommend having regular meetings with the Dean or Department Chair regarding your productivity, establishing mentorship relationships with people who are also aware of the tenure requirements at your institution, and holding yourself accountable for your own successes. I encourage you to map out your projects and responsibilities as you work towards tenure. These goals can be broken down into 1 month, 6 month, or yearly increments. I also spend 30 minutes every Sunday mapping out my priorities for the week. My research priorities come first since research is incredibly valuable to achieving tenure at my university. It may help to share your priorities with others so you are held accountable.

Flexibility. I used to be a person that always got things done on time, usually before I needed to. Those days may have passed! But I have embraced that. I focus on getting my priorities done on time, this allows me to feel productive. But I also know that my son will likely get sick at the worst time possible and that my daughter will refuse to take naps at all some days. I had to let some of that control go. Remember that your career will likely last for many, many more years. You will have other opportunities to do work.

Practice Self Care. I find that it is increasingly difficult to find time for myself after my second child, but it is crucial. Maintaining your individual identity is important and makes you a better parent. If you currently have hobbies, think about how you might incorporate your baby or family into them – or how you can continue to do these things by yourself. Spending time with friends is also a critical part of my life and reduces feelings of isolation that you may have. You may consider joining a parent group in your neighborhood to meet other families with young children. This may be incredibly important for people without family members nearby as you can receive support from other parents (and maybe even a babysitting trade!). In addition, eating well and exercising are also important. I find that when I am not eating well I am more likely to get sick. We teach our graduate students about the importance of self-care, now is the time to practice what we preach!

Supportive Partners are Instrumental. This may seem like common knowledge but it might be the most important factor of all. Have conversations with your partner ahead of time regarding your pregnancy and leave. What types of supports may you need during your pregnancy? How will you divide responsibilities during your leave? When you go back to work, how will you equitably provide care when a child is sick? When I had my son, I somehow thought I would have time to do the cooking, cleaning and care for my son during my leave. Reality check: if I took a shower that felt like an accomplishment. We are productive people or we would not be in academia. But you will need the support of others, and you will need to ask for help.

One of the best things about being a parent is that it adds a new perspective to my research and teaching. It has allowed me to set greater limits with my work hours. I am more focused when I work since I know I have less time to work on something later and I want to spend time with my kids! Finally, careers in academia allow us flexibility that other careers may not and this lends itself well to parenthood. I hope we will all support other faculty members who have children, especially those working towards tenure.

What other ideas can you share with us? What scares you the most about academic parenthood? What do you think will be the best parts of academic parenthood?

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