Friday, June 15, 2012

Ask a Postacademic - Question 2

A couple of commenters (or perhaps the same one leaving multiple comments?) have asked me some variation of a question about balancing work and family life within and outside of academia:
What about the work-life balance in a professional job? Is it more realistic to start a family in a profession than working toward tenure?
I'm going to throw this one out for fellow postacademic bloggers and commenters to help me answer. Since I don't have kids and have a partner who has a nonstandard work schedule, my concerns over work-life balance aren't going to be the same ones that most people have.

Now, in terms of my own personal work/life balance - making time for a partner and pets and outside hobbies and responsibilities? Well, based on that, I can answer this question ... and my answer is that my work/life balance is much better now than it was when I was in academia. I've always been a worrier with a tendency to overthink and obsess over things, so the constant guilt and pressure of academic work hanging over my head drove me crazy. My schedule was undoubtedly more flexible in academia ... but as I've written many times before, it didn't feel flexible.

Now that I've left, my life feels much calmer. Sure, I have to stay in the office until 5. But when I leave, the next 16 hours are mine. The hours between Friday at 5pm and Monday at 9am are mine. I can go to the gym or run errands or walk the dog or cook a gourmet meal or just sit on the couch eating bon-bons and watching terrible movies 24/7 ... no one cares, and as long as I am back in the office Monday at 9, no one will ever label me a slacker or as being "unserious" about my job.

So my personal work/life balance has never been better.

That being said, I know that's not really the answer this commenter was looking for ... they were specifically asking about having kids. And that's not a question I can answer. I don't have any children, and at this point I am not planning to have any. So the constraints and stressors (or freedoms) of academic v. nonacademic life as they pertained to having children were never something I thought much about.

But they are excellent questions, indeed! I'm just not the one who can answer them. So first, I'm going to ask readers to leave answers/advice for this question in the comments of this post.

However, I can offer some anecdotes I've heard from friends and family who have had kids, both inside and outside of academia:

(1) Almost every academic I knew recommended having your first child in the later stages of grad school. "Don't be pregnant on the job market, and don't be a new first-time parent while you're working toward tenure." In the outside world, there doesn't seem to be a commonsense time to have kids ... I suppose it's a bad idea to time a new job with the birth of your first child, but otherwise babies seem to appear when they appear.

(2) Many people said that the flexibility of academia made it easier to manage kids' daily lives ... but that it was hard to afford child care on a grad student stipend or on a non-rockstar assistant professor salary.
(2a) Speaking of the "academic guilt ... a few friends have told me that it's easier to ignore academic work when it's your kids who need your attention, than to do so for your own needs. So ... take of that what you will, I guess.

(3) Many people have told me that having family and friends nearby makes having kids a lot easier. It seems like academia could hamper that a bit, if you wind up moving halfway across the country for a faculty position or if you are an overworked adjunct.

That's really all I can offer you based on my own knowledge. However, I'd love to hear from others. Postacademic bloggers with kids, leave a comment or link to a post at your own place if you feel inspired. Readers who have kids (while inside or outside of academia), leave a comment. Readers who've gleaned tidbits or anecdotes from others who have kids (inside or outside of academia), leave a comment.

Let's crowd-source some answers to this question for the commenter!


  1. I had kids in grad school. I think the only benefit of being in grad school was that my schedule was not 40 hours a week, so I was able to spend a lot of time with my kids. That said, it totally destroyed my academic progress. I blogged about the conundrum of grad school life balance here:

    I think the benefits of having kids while employed in a real job are:
    - Paid leave and an understanding that you will actually take your paid leave. In grad school, people really didn't know how to react or give me "time off" from teaching and coursework. If you plan it right, you can take a full 12 weeks of leave under FMLA, although some of it might have to be unpaid.
    - Depending on the job, time taken to be with your kids won't count against you (at least, it won't mess up a tenure clock or deny you a promotion, because that would be illegal).
    - Health insurance. That can't be underscored enough.
    - Income to buy high quality childcare so that you can feel ok about leaving your baby with strangers.

    In terms of work-life balance, that depends on your job. I do think it's hard to work 9-5 then rush home, make dinner, clean, do family stuff, and get everyone in bed. For that reason, I am hoping to find a "real" job that is 30-35 hours a week. Then, I can be home with my kids after school, but have income and a professional life. Because my husband has a full-time job, that is an option for our family. YMMV.

    I think having a baby in America is hard no matter what your situation because we don't get enough paid family leave. But that's another debate!

  2. "My schedule was undoubtedly more flexible in academia ... but as I've written many times before, it didn't feel flexible."

    This is SO TRUE! I have all of this flexible time and yet it always feels like I either don't really get anything done or I have so much to do that it's just easier to procrastinate and work on feeling guilty.

    Either way, it sucks and the benefit of the "flexible schedule" has now become my chains which I will be breaking very soon.

    Thank you for posting this.

  3. I had a friend that had her baby while over the winter break... literally days before the new spring semester started. She was going to take 2 classes (online) and that would give her time to go to school AND spend time with her baby. Well... spring semester came and there was a need for an online instructor. Everybody else was busy with teaching and classes of their own so professors begged her to teach. She didn't want to. She specifically said NO TEACHING IN SPRING. She did it anyway and ended up dropping a class. It was stressful for her. In grad school, you don't get any breaks, especially if you're qualified to teach. Maternity leave? Sure, but be connected to your email at all times because you're still expected to work...

  4. yep, that's pretty much the drill. There is no such thing as maternity leave for academics. While flexibility is good, you will find it works both ways - that is, even if you have just had a baby, you will inevitably sucked in to academic work. Some people like it that way, mind you. Others, not so much, but feel obliged because they want a promotion. Often, "family-friendly" is given lip service only, and you will see academics dragging their kids around campus as they try and get stuff done. The kids, for their part, seem pretty interested in seeing what happens on campus though, so I don't think it's too difficult ultimately. Not many non-aca workplaces where you would get that being standard practice, but there are still plenty that do. I think it's just part of the work/life shuffle. From what I can tell anyway.

  5. Thank you for the post and the comments!

  6. After your prompt in another post some weeks ago now, I've thought of writing a bit about my experience as an academic with two children. I haven't made it past the 'adjunct' role (or the UK equivalent here), and I guess, if I had to be honest, I think a lot of the reason has to do with the fact that I had young children during my PhD studies - I also got very ill mid-way and have Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis, which stopped me dead in my tracks, so to speak (yes, the same kind of MS that all super celebrity star Jack Osbourne has). one of the reasons I got very ill - triggered the MS episode at the start was because I was working all sorts of crazy hours late at might early am in my efforts to 'keep up'. This meant that because I was managing meal times, spending time with kids at end of day etc, getting them in bath, reading to them at night, all those things you do in an effort to be a 'good' parent, I would then take up academic work at night. Like JC the quest for perfection, endless worry that it was never good enough etc, meant I was utterly exhausted. I do think if I had a 'normal' 9-5 type job, I could have seen the borderlines more clearly and been able to go work, do my time, come home and chill out. Academic study and teaching never allowed me to do that! Still planning on writing something about this on my blog - but thanks again for bringing it up.

  7. Abso-bloody-lutely: so many horror stories of female academics trying to carry on writing/researching/etc whilst on maternity leave in case they get 'left behind' (and not in a Rapture way).

    Not sure if you or other leaving-academia bloggers have seen this, but there have been number of recent articles in the UK Higher Education press about the dire opportunities for PhD's - I'd be really interested in your (and other bloggers!) take on them:
    - The editorial:
    - An essay: