Friday, April 16, 2010

AHHH!! AHHH!! HAS EVERYONE SEEN THIS?? (you know, all of you readers. The readerS of my blog. That's right bitches, it's PLURAL.)

Apparently they have discovered a new species of leech in the Amazon, in swimmers' noses. A leech with giant teeth (for a leech, anyway). This is why I don't swim in the Amazon. Well, that and this. And I suppose being on another continent contributes.

Okay, here's my real post.

Some jobs are less compatible with a family life, and that’s just the way it is. Is academia one of them? Does it have to be this way, or should we keep pushing for a change?

Everyone has to decide for him or herself how much time to spend at Work vs. Everything Else. If Everything Else includes a family, that decision becomes a much bigger deal, if for no other reason, other people are depending on you. This feeling of constant responsibility to someone else sets parents apart from the rest of the world. You may have a dog at home you think of as your “baby” (subtext: gag me) or you may be the one bringing the beer to the party tonight or, more seriously, you may be the caretaker for an infirmed parent. While the last situation may come close to what it is like to have kids, the other “someone is depending on me” situations are simply laughable in comparison. The point of this is not to garner pity for parents; it is to illustrate that most non-parents do not have to consider anyone but themselves and how heavily becoming a parent weighs in on every decision you make, every day. Not least of these is which career path to choose.

Some of you may have known what you wanted to do since you were a kid, and understood what that career demanded of you. I think most of us have/are figured/figuring it out as we go along, and that includes becoming parents in the middle of our pursuits and suddenly reconsidering our career choices. Will I have enough freedom to take off if my kid gets sick? What kind of child care can I afford? Can I get health insurance for my family? Is there enough time in the day to raise my family and do my job at the same time? Am I willing to travel, work weekends, and take work home? Is my boss sympathetic? If all of these issues can be satisfied now, will that remain true if I get promoted? What about when my kid starts school and wants to play soccer and gymnastics and have piano lessons?? These are the kinds of questions that the childless do not have to consider; the kinds of questions that make or break our career decisions.

In that light, there are probably no perfect jobs. Some sacrifices will have to be made, both on the job side and the parenting side. The question is: what are we willing to give up? Personally, I decided I could not have a family and all the things I want my family life to entail (e.g., cooking every night and weekends off) if I went into academia. Admittedly, the realization that I would probably suck at it helps a little with that decision… suckage notwithstanding, I understood that I was willing to give up some aspects of family life (being home all day with my kid) but not others, and academia was not conducive to that.

If this all seems reasonable, then it should go without saying that it never occurred to me to blame the “system” for my choice; I never felt forced into choosing something outside of academia. I knew what the job demanded, and I wasn’t willing to do what it took to make it. But for some reason, the seemingly logical progression from the last paragraph to the current appears to be a leap for many. Others expect the job to accommodate their life decisions; I’ll run the risk of sounding more conservative than I probably am by saying, That’s not your employer’s job. I do not think it is reasonable to expect your job to work for you, instead of the other way around. After all, how many med school students get to residency and complain “They’re not making time for me to have a life”? They knew what they were signing up for! Why does academia seem so different?

A comment (well, the comment. Hi, Queen of Spades!) on my last post got me thinking again about the employer’s obligation to the employee. While I agree with QoS that society certainly benefits from making it easier for women to have kids and a lucrative science career, I think it’s important to point out that academia isn’t the only way to go. I don’t think that’s what was said necessarily, but I think we’ve all experienced the academia-or-bust mindset, where anything else is simply referred to as “non-academic” or “non-traditional”. It’s important that we (continue to) make scientists aware that there are other options. LOTS of other options. I recently attended a seminar by Susan Basalla, co-author of So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia and oft-contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, about finding a job outside of academia (she calls them “post-academic” jobs) and how to transition from The Ivory Tower into The Real World. The most stunning piece of advice I heard regarded the lack of confidence we may have in breaking into The Real World. Many of us feel that we are only trained to be academics, and we can offer nothing valuable outside of this. She argued quite convincingly that our training is extremely versatile, and the clincher was this:
If you don’t think you’ve acquired any skills by being in graduate school, look at the undergraduates you teach.

Really. I don’t just know more science than they do, I can assimilate information quickly, think critically, maximize efficiency, troubleshoot, relay complex information concisely and clearly… MAD SKILLZ up in here. MAD SKILLZ that employers want. MAD SKILLZ that the majority of people haven’t been taught. Say it with me, I am marketable!

Now, that being said, there are always going to be people that can make it work. I don’t mean to imply that you have to choose between family and academia. There are certainly good PIs (principal investigators/bosses of graduate students) out there that seem to also be good moms (and dads). I’m just not sure when they sleep.

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