Finding Work/Life Balance in Academia

(Friday Post Category:  Yes You Can! Women and Academia)


Our post today is a guest post by Rachel Connelly, Bion R. Cram Professor of Economics, and Chair of the Economics Department at Bowdoin College.  Rachel and her Bowdoin colleague Kristen Ghodsee co-wrote the new book Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Life Balance in Academia (Rowman and Littlefield).  I encountered their work in an Inside Higher Ed column, The Value of Self-Promotion which I loved.  The negative comments the column got prompted me to weigh in on their comment stream, and eventually to write this post about it.  In  the process I got to talking to Rachel about the challenges of having kids while on the tenure track, and she kindly agreed to share her words of wisdom with the readers of The Professor Is In. Thank you, Professor Connelly!


Karen wrote recently in this blog about the fray that ensued at Inside Higher Ed after they published an excerpt of my new book, Professor Mommy:  Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia, coauthored with my Bowdoin colleague, Kristen Ghodsee, about the importance of self-promotion.

It really was amazing how nasty some of the comments were, as if Kristen and I had revealed a secret the guys had meant to keep for themselves.  In the correspondence that resulted from Karen’s comment, Karen offered me a guest appearance in her blog to address what she says is the number one question she receives from women, “How to achieve work/family balance?”

In the book we offer faculty women at all stages of their career advice for walking the tightrope of work and family without falling off.  Some of our advice comes from things we did right, a lot comes from things we wish we had done else wise, and still more was contributed by friends and colleagues.

For myself, I decided before I took that Bowdoin job in 1985, the same year I finished my graduate studies, that although I very much wanted to succeed in the field of academic economics, I was only willing to do it if it could be done at the same time I had young children.  That is because for me, the children were not negotiable, but the career path was.

Of course, I had the advantage that there are other things that one can do with a PhD in economics but really my ultimate goal was to teach at a small liberal arts college like Bowdoin.  There I was, right out of graduate school at 28 years of age with my dream job and the first thing I did was purposefully get pregnant.  My mother always says I have to do things the hard way and she is undoubtedly right (Moms always are, or at least that is what I tell my kids.)

When I think about those early days on the tenure track it is a lot like the little engine that could, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. New baby. No sleep, no sleep, no sleep. Move to a new city for a fellowship year with a two year old.  Move back to Bowdoin with a three year old. Lots of disappointments.  Finally another new baby.  Tenure time. “Yes.” I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could.”

What kept me going was that I really had it all! Everything I wanted, just a bit too much of each piece.  I am convinced that every new mother feels this way, regardless of what else she is doing.  I remember when my first baby was just born and he was nursing for 45 minutes every two hours.  I called up my mom and said, “What am I going to do? I can’t get anything done.”  She told me two things, both incredibly useful.  First off she said, “You are doing something” and second she said, “it gets easier,”

She is right on both counts, of course (a consistent theme).  Feeding the baby is work so don’t think you need to do something else at the same time.  But taking care of a baby does get easier as the sleep patterns get to be more consistent, then as others become good substitutes for your time, then as the child gains independent moments etc. One’s work gets easier as well.  The new preps are less often and less onerous, the research and the writing gets easier, the acceptance rate increases.

My advice is to hang in there.  It is worth it to stay in the game.  Your child does not need you 24 hours a day.  Your students don’t need you 24 hours a day.  Your research is not important enough to be done 24 hours a day.  At different stages on your life, the pie chart that is our time allocation per week changes. (See Chap 2 of my book, The Time Use of Mothers in the United States at the Turn of the 21st Century, with Jean Kimmel, W.E. Upjohn Press if you like pie charts.)  But all the pieces are there and continue to be there as your children grow, and as you grow into your teaching and research.

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook (July 11 and 18, 2011, pp. 55-63).  Sheryl talks about the need for women to “lean in” instead of “opting out.”  I like that image.  Lean in, steel yourself against the wind and hang on for a dear life.

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Finding Work/Life Balance in Academia — 3 Comments

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