Dear Mentor: How do you handle dual careers and family?

Dear Mentor,

How have you gone about managing raising children with your own academic career and your spouse’s career? My husband recently began an academic post that requires several hours of commuting a day. I am finding it difficult to continue my own research when there are so many distractions involving children and household matters. Do you think it is possible for me to continue? What advice do you have to women academics with families?

From Kelly Aukema

This topic of managing careers and family is probably THE biggest one for us mentoring at The Well and is worth revisiting multiple times. One thing that strikes me is that we want to hear from those who do it all, not from those who have compromised. Somebody please tell us how we can do it all — have the stellar career, the wonderfully adjusted children, a meaningful marriage to a successful professor, and have a ministry of some sort! But the reality is that most of us can’t do it all and probably shouldn’t be trying to have it all. So most of the stories we will tell are how we have had to compromise with ourselves and our spouses.

Brian and I make our family work because I don’t have much of an academic career. While I am currently working as an academic postdoc, I never initially intended to pursue an academic career. I wanted to work in the biotech industry.

We decided seven years ago to follow Brian’s career path when I finished graduate school about a year before he did. He knew he wanted to be a professor with a competitive research program, he wanted my support, and we did not want to live in different cities as I pursued a postdoc. Nor did I want to jump into a biotech position fearing our next location would not have any biotech industry, which turned out to be true. So, I chose to stay at the same institution for my first postdoc while he finished his degree. I am certain that decision cost me research funding, but it gained for me the opportunity to have a child in a supportive environment.

I balanced work with child-raising and domestic duties, but my research suffered. For example, a publication was accepted pending additional experiments the day my first son was born a few weeks premature. Needless to say I missed the standard two-month turn-around deadline. Brian did reduce his workload too, and he would also say his work suffered those first six months. My research required long hours that I simply could not squeeze into a day on so little sleep. From that point on, even though things have gotten a little easier, I have never felt that I could work as much as I wanted or as much as I think is required for me to be a successful lead scientist.

But I do believe we made a wise choice to follow Brian’s career. He has been extremely successful and has recently been offered a tenure-track position in a prestigious department. Right now, I am getting my CV ready to start passing around. I have eight publications in twelve years. That’s 1/2 to 1/3 of what I should have been able to publish in that time. Only the best are even considered for faculty positions. On paper my career looks awful! Because we’ve followed Brian’s career, mine looks like I don’t know what I want to research. The time challenge in my field of genetics/biochemisty is generating materials — doing all the “DNA moving” to get ready to do experiments. It takes far longer to set this up than to do the actual experiments themselves. Just when I start to build enough materials to really start making some progress on an important research question and start churning out publications, we move and I’m changing labs and fields all over again.

In reality, I’ve had great training from talented advisors and co-workers, and I have grown into a thorough, talented researcher with a wide variety of expertise. I have compromised my career for my husband’s demanding academic career and for the opportunity to raise two boys, but I do not feel compromised. While my life might not look like that of the typical, aspiring postdoc, my life is full and successful. No publication record could refute that.



From Anne C. Bailey

Graduate school is a challenge and there is no question it is more of a challenge with a family, but that family can also be your greatest asset. Aside from the love of family members, they can also provide you with much needed perspective. Perspective, alas, is necessary in all stages of life but particularly necessary when one is facing the numerous challenges of grad school.

While I myself did not have a family during this period, I did find myself in that position when I was working on my first book — a process that seemed terribly similar to writing the dissertation. I found myself juggling motherhood and research and the juggle was not always comfortable. My best advice is one that I must admit I do not always follow myself: be kind to yourself when you do not meet all the expectations that you have of yourself. Remember that in the long run, you want to get through this process healthy and well. Take time to eat well and to exercise and to do the things that make you feel happy — even in the midst of deadlines and other urgent matters.

I think this makes a tremendous difference. I also think alerting extended family members to your pressures is extremely important. A grandmother or an aunt can really make a difference during your exams, your defense, or your tenure review. Sometimes it seems that extended family members have even more of that valuable perspective I mentioned earlier and can thus help alleviate tensions at critical junctures.

In the end, we have to remember that the dissertation, the book, the academic career, and all the rest is just one means of our honoring Christ. The way in which we do so is more important than the end itself. The way we live, the way we treat others, the way we treat ourselves — our submission to the principles of Christ in the way we go about our work — is a gift to us and to others. Hopefully, we are blessed and others are too.



From Dorothy Boorse

It’s hard to craft a satisfying response to your question. I cannot know that you will be able to find and keep a job in your field under these circumstances. But what I have to say might be freeing rather than discouraging. It will show you that the problems you are facing are the nature of the modern dual career academic family, and not of you. That is, there is no easy solution out there that you are failing to find. Couples deal with these things all the time and solve them, incompletely, in a variety of ways.

There are a number of places to read advice on careers. When I was in a similar place in life, I read a number of columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In one column, two female academics outline some of the trade-offs people make and the high level of communication required to successfully navigate a long term relationship and job hunting.

Also in the Chronicle is a series of columns about careers and women written by a group of female scientists who called themselves the X-Gals. I found them very helpful.

In all of these columns what you will find is that you are describing the common experience — of how hard it is to get personal lives and careers to work together successfully. Several of the X-Gals chose non-traditional tracks in order to better balance their lives and careers—but it often involves sacrifice. One of my colleagues, a young physical chemist, is leaving our institution after three years because her husband, an attorney, lost his job and after a long search, found another on the other side of the country. She will go with him and try to find something in her field there.

In some marriages, the wife has the academic job and the husband has a more flexible job. That is the case in my household. This can come with its own difficulties. Your peers may not value the work your spouse does or your spouse may feel at loose ends, as though they are not able to fully engage in a career.

In contrast, I have a dear friend, a medical doctor, married to another medical doctor who is a powerhouse researcher. He is steadily rising in his career and is a workaholic. They have a blended family with complicated dynamics. For their family to work, the wife has taken a back seat and limited her career.

When I look at my world, most successful dual career couples have something out of the ordinary that makes their lives work. One or the other takes a back seat, they have enough money to hire extra help, they have parents who live close by and help them, or they do not have children. Alternatively, some share a job. Some make use of several of these strategies.

In your particular instance, having young children, a spouse in a new job, and a full time job of your own is really difficult. A long commute for either of you could make it unworkable. One possible strategy would be for you to look for a less difficult job that allows you a slower pace but still allows you to keep your foot in the door. Another strategy could be your spouse taking a job with shorter commute — or there may be another solution. These solutions and other possibilities might be better explored by some of the columnists I’ve mentioned.

I think the thing missing in some of the advice columns is the view one Christian can bring to another. There is truth to be spoken and that truth is both difficult and freeing. The truth is, there is no upper limit to what your career can ask of you. You and your spouse will have to set boundaries on work and make your lives livable. The professional world will not look out for your family. Another truth is that an extremely busy professional life can harm a marriage. People sometimes divorce because their lives are so hectic and when something goes wrong, they blame each other. Likewise, the truth is, your children will only be young so long, and your parenting matters in their lives.

There are other truths as well. You are bright and educated, you want to use your gifts, you need intellectual challenge and something that works for you. I am the same way. Many times in our lives together my husband and I have prayed for wisdom about how to meet the needs we each have for satisfying and fulfilling work, to be doing something that matters. We have prayed to be a team when one of us was much more satisfied with our lives than the other. We have tried to be grateful and content. These are spiritual disciplines and necessary for us as we try to honor God.

As I have heard the difficulties of the life your family has, it is not clear whether you can maintain that pace for long without damaging relationships. But I think you can work very hard in the short term for a clear goal. Your career decisions are made in the context of the other life parameters you have. Your experience is one many have, and your goal is to find something that allows you sanity and still lets you use your education and training.

Peace to you and yours as you sort this out!

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