Dear Mentor: Job search while pregnant?

Dear Mentor,


I am finishing up my doctorate and just found out that I am pregnant. Should I continue applying for academic jobs, even though I will be due in the fall? Both my husband and I are believers and want to be true to our word and honest in our actions. He is also looking for an academic job, but my field is a better one with more job openings.

From guest mentor Dorothea Hawthorne:

Wow. Big decisions. Hard ones. I’ve been there, too. I completed my doctorate, got pregnant, and discovered that my husband’s academic employer had a very desirable job opening in my field. Relevant colleagues urged me to apply. I wrestled with whether or not to submit an application. I asked myself: do I really want to be working full time at a brand new highly stressful job when I have a newborn at home? Or do I want to be at home taking care of my baby, at least for the first year? I also asked myself other questions, like: will I be left behind in the job market if I take a year out?  If I don’t apply now, will I miss all future opportunities? 

I ended up not applying for the job. I stayed home because I wanted to be the one taking care of my baby. To leave him with someone else during the first year of his life to go to workwould have been painful. I also stayed home as an act of trust, believing that God would take care of me and my academic training and gifts.  

Did I second-guess this decision? Sometimes. Did I feel stir-crazy and disoriented being at home with a newly-minted PhD and a needy infant? Yes, absolutely. At times, I felt like a Grand Prix racecar moldering under wraps in a garage. But looking back now, from a full-time academic position, with my kids in elementary school, I’m so glad for that precious year at home with my little boy. I would not trade it.

But perhaps the question you’re really asking is, “Is it okay to apply for jobs without telling a potential employer that I will be taking maternity leave the first semester of employment?” If that’s the question, then I’d say: apply for the jobs, and if you make it as far as the interview, be honest. I have a friend and neighbor who did just this and it worked out for her. If you’re the right person for the job, an institution may well extend such support. Either way, I’m comforted by knowing that (1) God’s timeframe and vision of “success” differs from ours and (2) we can trust him fully with our vocations. 


From guest mentor Rachel Douchant:

I can bring two experiences to bear on this. One is fairly simple and straightforward — a woman was hired at my university and didn't tell anyone she was pregnant till she got to the job; she was due in October! It was just frustrating to the department because it wouldn't have affected her standing at all, and they could have used the time to better plan how to cover her while she was out. It stressed them out and made for a rocky beginning to the relationship, though all is proceeding apace now.

As for me, I almost fainted when I realized I was pregnant with my second baby and I was starting my first position in three months! I decided to tell the chair personally, and ask him to keep it quiet, and then I told my dean after I'd been working for a month (although I'm pretty sure he had already told her!). They had worked out an amazing solution for me, and all my anxiety had been for naught. I taught an evening class until my baby was six months old, and then started a three-day-a-week schedule.

As to this situation, I think you're absolutely right to tell the truth, and here's my reason. It may be the case that, technically, legally, the university has no right to the information. But why withhold it? Do we think that we know what the outcome ought to be, and that we must arrange circumstances to lead to it?  Or do we think that God is arranging our circumstances and outcomes? 

What if there's a university who has a spot to fill but no immediate need, and would love to hire someone who wouldn't actually start for a year? What if there's a university that has a spousal hiring practice that would be fortuitous for you and your husband? What if there is a department that appreciates your personal integrity and concern for others in choosing to be up front about the situation? What if there's a hidden reason why your husband would really benefit from a stint as a stay-at-home dad? What if God has something else in mind altogether? Since we don't know what God has planned, but we do know that he loves us, we can confidently proceed according to our consciences.

from guest mentor Elizabeth Corey:

This is a slightly tricky situation. I see two options. Let me begin by simply recalling my own experience in these matters, which was actually easier than what you're facing.

I began a tenure track position in August after giving birth in May, which gave me three months with the baby before starting the position. When the semester started I arranged childcare with a young woman who took my son into her home on the days I taught. (An arrangement like this might work better for those who are in non-science fields, since we can have more flexibility in being on and off campus.) When I didn't teach, the baby was often home with me. In a certain way, that first year is easier than the toddler years because the baby will sleep a great deal. You can actually get a fair amount of work done once you're past the initial six weeks or so.

So the two options:

  1. Postpone the job search for a year, if you're financially able to do so. You will not lose all momentum in one year, and as I've implied, you will still have some time to yourself for academic work during that year. Perhaps you could look at that year as your opportunity to write a really well-placed article, which would make you all the more appealing in the next year's job search.
  2. Go forward with the search as you'd planned. Here are there are two different possibilities: if you are not far along I see no reason to disclose that you are pregnant. You are not "hiding it" for the sake of being dishonest; it's simply not something that you are required to tell the world yet. Let the interview process go forward as it will. Then, if you are offered the job and wish to say yes, do so. That's the time you disclose the pregnancy, and work out an arrangement. If they've hired you, then they obviously want you as a colleague. Don't wait to tell them until you arrive on campus, as Rachel Douchant's colleague did.

On the other hand, if you are already showing at your interviews, things become slightly more dicey. Your interviewing committee will certainly take your pregnancy into account, even if subconsciously. It's not fair in the sense that a male candidate whose wife was expecting would never have to deal with these issues; but it is a fact of life. It's also awkward in that you are operating at a certain disadvantage in having to ask for some kind of leave in your first semester. I think I would go into those interviews armed with stories about women at other universities who have dealt with the situation before, and the ways their universities accommodated them as well as your plans for getting back into full-time work during the subsequent semester. I don't have those stories for you offhand, but I've found that people are often persuaded by hearing how other institutions have handled such situations.

In the worst case scenario, you will not get a job, which will mean you'll be back to option 1. Even in this case, you'll have gained something from having gone through the interview process, and be ready to start again the next year.


from guest mentor Catherine Crouch

I think my colleagues have offered terrific responses that show the range of issues to consider. What I have to add is from a very field-specific perspective (I'm an experimental scientist). As a scientist, having the doctorate isn't enough for many faculty positions, and it is typical to spend several years in a postdoctoral position before seeking faculty jobs. In my field of physics, the usual length of a postdoctoral fellowship is 2-3 years, which means typically one is about 30 when first applying for faculty positions.

Instead of waiting until I had a faculty position to have children, I spent seven years as a postdoc working between three-quarters and half-time (varying from year to year); my son was born six months after I defended my dissertation (I was 28 at the time) and my daughter three years after that. I also took three months of maternity leave when each baby was born. I started my full-time faculty position when my son was six and starting first grade, and my daughter was three and in preschool.

There are no simple, ideal solutions to the challenge of having an academic career and raising a family. However, this worked about as well as anything would have, and I think it would have worked even better had I been a little wiser. Here’s why I felt this was a really good approach:

  • I think a three-month maternity leave is a good amount of time to not try to do anything other than be with your new baby and get your life adjusted, based on both my own experiences and the experiences of friends. (One of my co-respondents mentioned six weeks as a time after which one could get a lot of work done, but I had a very difficult delivery of my first in which I lost a lot of blood, and I definitely wasn’t feeling back to myself in six weeks. With two children, I think it takes longer to be ready to manage multiple responsibilities).

    From a university faculty position in the sciences, it’s really hard to take such a leave in which you just don’t do anything else, because you have a research group to support and advise. (Four-year college positions are more amenable to taking a complete leave.) I think it’s more straightforward to step away from everything for that long as a postdoc, as long as (and this is essential!) you have a supportive postdoctoral advisor and have planned for and clearly agreed upon how this will work. (There’s a lot involved in making this work practically and I’d be glad to correspond about this individually.)
  • I also think working part-time is pretty nearly ideal for new moms after a short maternity leave, as long as you and the baby are healthy. I agree with Dorothea —  I treasured the time I got to spend with both of my children, not just during the first year but throughout the early years of their lives, and I had a lot more time than if I’d been trying to keep a full-time job going. If it had been possible to keep working part-time until my daughter went to elementary school, I would have loved to do that, but the postdoctoral position wasn’t sustainable for ten years. Working full time when my daughter was three and four was in some ways the hardest.
  • There were certainly frustrations, because I was making slow progress. Sometimes I thought it would have been smarter to take a year entirely off and then come back to work full time, instead of working part-time. I never tried it so I can’t say whether that would have been preferable. However, the advantage of not being gone completely was that I kept my head in the work, and you often gain insight on a problem by thinking about it every day even if you’re not working on it as many hours (or most days; when I was working half-time, I worked six-hour days four days a week).
  • Finally, I want to affirm what Dorothea said: Whatever you do, there will be compromises. You will give things up that people will say you are crazy to give up (in both directions; some will say you are crazy to work at all while your children are at home, at whatever time you go back to work; some will say you are crazy to pass up job opportunities). I did not even apply for a job I was being recruited for, because my daughter would have been only two when I started and I didn’t want to take on full time work when she was so young. There were scientific problems I didn’t work on, talks I didn’t give, papers I didn’t write, credit I didn’t get.

    I also missed lots of much more mundane-sounding times with my family. It’s hard to go to work when the kids have a snow day from school (rare in our corner of southeastern PA) and they are eager to play outside and what I would most enjoy is building a snowman with them.

    But we believe in a God who provides for us and who calls us to be the women he has created us to be. If this is who you are created to be and what you are called to, God will provide, and that includes providing comfort and redemption for all the mistakes and the missed opportunities, as well as the glorious joy of doing what he has made you to do — being both a mother and a scholar and teacher.
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