Dear Mentor: Should I change my name?

Dear Mentor,

I’m looking forward to getting married a few months from now, but in the middle of all the plans I’m wondering what to do with my name! Shall I keep my name as it is, take my husband’s, or even hyphenate our last names together? I want to make sure I make a decision that will support my professional goals but also will be in the best interest of my marriage. What do you suggest?

From guest mentor Heather Whitney

Congratulations on your upcoming marriage! What an exciting time of life for you. Whether or not to change one’s name is a very personal decision, but it is one that can have far-reaching professional ramifications. Even the process of changing one’s name is not always straightforward; you have the option to retain your name professionally but change it privately, or you could change it for both scenarios. You could also be known as First + Maiden Last Name + New Last Name, or hyphenate your name with your husband’s.

Personally, I went through a bit of turmoil over what to do when I got married after my second year in a Ph.D. program. In the end, I dropped my maiden name and took on my husband’s last name personally and professionally, because I thought this would be easier for my family and personal circles to understand. But in retrospect I would have made a different decision if I had sought out more advice, especially from other professional women.

The weirdest gaffe related to my name change was at my dissertation defense. My advisor introduced me by saying, “This is Heather Whitney. She used to be Heather Barker, but changed her name for some reason.” And that was it — no summary of my work or reference to my future professional plans. Maybe it was his British attempt at humor, but it remains a dark mark in my memory to this day.

Another example of the effect of this choice is when my husband’s work and mine intersect, as we are in the same discipline. “Which Dr. Whitney are we talking about?” is a question I frequently have to address.

I’m not sure that there is any one blanket suggestion that can be made, but rather, here are a few considerations to make:

  • Have you already published in your field? If so, to have multiple publications under two names can cause some confusion in how your work will appear in search results and in how people find you professionally. If you have only one or two relatively minor publications, such as conference abstracts, or none at all, changing your name will likely not have too much of an effect. If you have published widely, you may find it better to either keep your maiden name for professional use or not change it at all.
  • Would your name change cause you to have the same name as another person in your field? Similarly, would retaining your name do the same? A name change, or deciding to not change your name, can be a good way to clarify or maintain your identity so that your work is not confused for another’s.
  • Is there any chance that you and your husband may work in the same field, or in the same business or employer? If so, retaining your name, at least professionally, can reduce logistical confusion and help you to maintain an independent professional identity.
  • What does your future husband think? You will want to consult with him as you make your decision. It can also be a good opportunity to discuss your professional work in the context of your upcoming marriage.
  • Are there any cultural or family concerns for changing your name? This consideration may not be so much to affect your decision, but knowing the scenarios you might encounter if you do so will help you prepare for them. For example, if every woman in your family before you has changed their name upon marriage, and you decide to not change your name, you will want to be ready to explain your decision to others.

Best wishes for your upcoming marriage and in the name change decision!

 

From Kelly Aukema

This very topic came up in the lunch room at work last week. As we talked, it struck me that this decision is cultural in nature. My Colombian labmate finds it odd that women take their husband’s name at all. For that reason, I don’t think there is a “right” answer.

I got married at the end of graduate school. I had one more publication yet to come, but then I was changing fields for my postdoc, so I decided to go ahead and change my name. (I did publish that last paper with a hyphenated name just in case that helped with the transition.) My main motivating factor for changing my name was the desire to have the same last name as my children if they were in the future. I thought this might be simpler for their school age years. Now that we’re at that stage, I don’t think it actually matters much.

Academically, this choice hasn’t hurt me at all. My husband is in a different field, and we have not heard of individuals confusing our work. I’d be more likely to get confused with his uncle who is publishing in a field closer to mine. Since I have changed fields multiple times, I don’t think anyone has trouble finding all of my relevant publications. I don’t regret my choice, but it may not be the right one for others.

 

From Dorothy Boorse

Do whatever works for you and your spouse. There is no “should” to this. Here are some things to consider:

  • Do you have a strong opinion? Many people do, many people do not. Think through what you would like to do all else being equal. Try to picture what you will want to do with childrens’ names.
  • If your husband feels strongly about it, what he thinks should matter.
  • Professionally, keeping your name will keep continuity, but plenty of people change their names. It is probably easier to change to his last name if you are not in the same field.
  • Socially, if you keep your name, people may wonder if you never married or are divorced. Don’t be offended by this. Divorce and single parenthood are more common than professional married couples with different last names. Think through what you want children of your friends to call you and be clear. Find a quick way to clarify your marriage status in conversation if you want to, particularly with children, who may never have run into married people with different last names.

Other options:

  • Many women hyphenate. Be prepared to spell everything repeatedly. Many people will call you by one or the other part of the hyphenated name anyway. If you’re planning to have children, figure out what their last names will be.
  • You can use two names, one professionally and one socially. Usually, you do not change your name and it remains your legal name but you go by the other one at home and in your non-professional social life. This is legal as long as you report both names on any government document that asks you for alternative names and it is not kept secret.
  • You can both change your names. I know people who have done this as well — either both changed to a hyphenated name or both changed to a name that was a mix of their two names.

My husband encouraged me to do whatever I wanted with my name. He personally did not want to hyphenate and we both knew his changing his own name would wound his parents. I was never interested in changing to his last name. I tried to hyphenate for two months. I did not like it at all and went back to my original name. Both our children have my last name as one of their middle names. I’d say it has generally worked well for our family and my career.
Changing your name or not is a decision for you and your spouse. There is no right or wrong, and the options seem to work for different people. Do make sure though that you and your spouse are on the same page.

Best wishes!

 

From Hillary Lum

From my perspective, this is a question that has no “right” answer and has everything to do with what you and your husband would like to do. I don’t believe this is solely the “woman/wife’s” decision, since the choice affects the husband as well. Whatever you choose, enjoy the discussion(s) with your spouse because it’s a reflection of the type of marriage partnership you are building.

We were married during my PhD training. I had already published, but realistically, it wasn’t going to make a significant impact on my future career if it was more difficult to search for my early publications. For us, I had my husband’s full support to “keep” my name. This was important to me because my professional title (Dr. Lum) is consistent with who I look like in clinical settings. We did choose to link ourselves by our names in an atypical way; his last name is now my middle name.

Beyond whether changing your name will affect someone professionally (and I think this is very career type and career position specific), it’s also worth noting the culture of the Christian community that you are part of. We haven’t experienced any issues that I can identify, but I could imagine the choice not to use your husband’s last name to be difficult to understand or unusual in some situations.

 

From Sylvia Chen

My husband had no strong feelings about my surname, and I made the decision to keep it the same (with his consent). As an Asian, I was inclined to keep my Asian surname rather than change it to an Irish surname. This was more for practical purposes than anything else. (A “Sylvia Farley” might be expected to exhibit a different phenotype than a “Sylvia Chen” and thus be difficult to find in a conference room.)

If my husband had strongly preferred that I change my name, I would have done so out of respect for him (Ephesians 5).

A sense of humor is helpful for these “in non-essentials, liberty” decisions. Kids who meet me or my children first (who are all surnamed “Chen” with middle name “Farley”) have no problem calling me “Mrs. Chen” but hesitate to call my husband “Mr. Chen.” People who meet my husband first call me “Mrs. Farley,” which is fine by me. And if someone is really concerned regarding our family’s surnames, I tell them to call us “FarChenLey.”

 

From Leslie Walker

I think the decision should primarily be made on where you are in training. If you’re already established in your field, you want to be “findable” when searched, so keeping your maiden name professionally, or at least having that as the first half of hyphenated name, is probably going to be more helpful to minimize confusion.

I was fortunate in that I got married during medical school, so my entire professional career has been under my married name. It is certainly more convenient for a family to all have the same name, but teachers in our area are used to having parents with different names, and I’ve gotten better with practice at being able to sort out which kids go with which parents even if they have different last names. I know of one dual-physican couple who changed BOTH their names to a new hyphenated name so that the whole family has the same hyphenated last name, and that worked well. Some women skirt the issue by keeping a maiden name professionally and using a married name personally, but my roles overlap too much for that.

I think the fear that not taking your husband’s name somehow suggests that you might be less committed to a permanent marriage is less of an issue these days, and most men who are married to women in the professions seem to do just fine if their wives have different names. I think you should make whatever decision works best for you and your family and not attach too much importance to others’ opinions.

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