Mamacademic: how I hack parenthood, grad school, etc

Last week  I had the pleasure and privilege of participating in the Digital Media and Learning: Designing Learning Futures conference in Long Beach.  What was striking to me as a first-year female grad student was that this was the first time I had seen evidence of the fact that not only are we women represented in higher numbers in schools, but we could actually be represented on dais, in charge, doing the work.  There was no shortage of women whose careers provide a road map for those of us coming up behind them.  As I chatted and networked, I was asked again how I do it with three-year-old twins at home while working.  My gut instinct is to say  “I don’t know,” because I honestly don’t think about it that much.  But as my first year as a PhD student comes to an end, it might be useful to someone else for me to think through  how I do it.

Before I start with the tips and tricks, a few points I want to make.  First, this post is a little scary for me to write as I was told TO NEVER MENTION THAT I HAVE PROCREATED if I want to be taken seriously in the academe.  I have never explicitly blogged about parenthood here and even deleted my mommy blog. But as I look around, I sense the importance for us mamacademics to stick together a bit. Secondly, a few weeks ago, after being asked about how my kids were doing, I was told point blank that I was a bad mother for working and going to school while my kids were young. BY ANOTHER FEMALE ACADEMIC.  So I’m feeling a bit scrappy, to be honest. The surest way to motivate me to do the impossible is to tell me I can’t.  So, for all my sisters out there trying to do the balance, I give you my reflection on how I make it work (and some of the ways it doesn’t).


  • Sharpen your pencils before class: I like to make sure that I know my assets and that they are as well-tuned as possible. I work ahead whenever I have a free moment.  I know when my twins will play together so I can fire off an email and when they won’t. The Kindle is perfect for reading while cooking; the iPad even better. The idea here is that I map out when I can multitask and when I need to have a singular focus on the kids, housework, homework, or work-work and I plan accordingly. Why waste time when the kids are sleeping doing the laundry, when I can instead have them help me do it? Three-year olds love loading laundry into the washer.  Why try and send an email when they are crabby and just want to sit and read in my lap? I sit and read, naturally, and I don’t worry about it. Of course, flexibility is the watchword in all things, and I am sure to cut myself slack when it doesn’t go according to plan.
  • Do a Lit Review: At the end of this post, I have listed some useful articles I’ve read recently.  I habitually use waiting room time at appointments to beeline for the parenting magazines.  I will pull out my phone, bring up the Evernote app, and take pictures and notes of the articles I want to remember (or absent that, write them down with a pencil and paper). I have gotten more tips from this short activity than anywhere else. I have faith that I am not the first person to run out of craft activities during the winter, and a well-run craft activity at my house means getting dinner done more easily or another chapter read. I never stop searching for ideas and hacks to make my life as a parent run more smoothly.  Not to mention that my kids do not need me involved in their every activity.  I don’t really care about Thomas the Train, and that’s okay.  They don’t seem to care about Multiple Regression either. We can still be together.
  • Find a guidance committee: I have filled my support system with friends with no kids, friends who are working moms, friends who are in grad school with families, friends who are single in grad school, etc. Without this diversity of friendships, I know I would be much worse off. My friends without kids will babysit in a pinch. My friends who are working moms are great for commiserating. My grad school friends are the best motivators. Overall, my friends out of school’s healthy skepticism that a PhD is a good idea keep me the most honest (and prevent me from ever attempting to pepper my conversations with jargon. Ewwww.)
  • Everything is a practicum: I really love the idea of the practicum.  Here I get a chance to try out some little study, some tiny corner of my field with basically no risk. I can posit a theory that doesn’t pan out and it’s fine! Just as long as I learn something for the next round. I try to approach everything like this: I am going to try it, see what works, and when it doesn’t work out, take it as a learning experience.  If you think about it, sustaining a healthy marriage and raising kids never really have that definitive dissertation-finishing moment to them–it is generally a serious of trials and errors and sometimes actually learning something that works.
  • Write something everyday: I find that there are three things I require for optimal daily happiness: writing, exercising, and eating. I don’t try to do any of these perfectly, but I try to do at least all three every day.  I read a ton of stuff while riding on the elliptical (with the GoodReader app on the iPad, I can even annotate while getting my heart rate up).  Writing every day can mean something important and school-like or just for fun.  Living the life of the mind means letting it roam free over the page, and writing for no reason at all is great way to get me ready for writing things that matter. Also, I know that I ALWAYS regret eating sugar and caffeine, so I try to make sure that everything I put into my body is nourishing.  If I am not nourished, no way can I be a good employee, partner, mother, or student.
  • Try not to panic: I am including this one because it is the one I fail at most often.  Sometimes, the toys scattered across the floor make me want to sit and weep. If I get lost driving in the car, I can have a full-blown freak out. I try not to panic in front of the kids, but I also know that seeing mommy deal with the full range of human emotions is one of the ways they will learn to deal with their own. I try never to look past the next thing on the to-do list and I create said lists when I am in the proper mental state.  Sometimes that means AFTER I do the dishes, sometimes not.

Above all, cultivating a sense of compassion for myself, my colleagues, and really anyone I come across is essential. I can cut myself some slack.  This is not an easy road for anyone, and we are all trying our best. At the end of the day, if this grad school thing doesn’t work out, I still have my work and my family: I get to hedge my bets while trying something I love.  I remain my only judge and I let myself know when I am judging too harshly.   While I don’t always do this well, I always attempt to find that place of good enough.  Would I like to be perfect? Sure.  But good enough seems to be the place of sanity for me.

Any other tips/tricks you can give me as I go forward? Please leave them in the comments :) TIA!

For more helpful posts on this topic:

#Jobs4Phds or Finding a Job Outside of Academia

Yesterday, the MSU Grad School hosted an event called “How to Find a Job Outside Academia, Even if You Aren’t Sure that You Want One.” The speaker was Dr. Susan Basalla, co-author with Dr. Maggie Debelius of “So What Are  You Going to Do with That?” Finding Jobs Outside Academia.

Clearly, this whole question has been on my mind and I started blogging about it last week. It was interesting to note that the post got so little comment here: I was inundated with DMs, emails, and facebook notes after I posted it.  People wanted to talk about what I had written, but just not out loud.

The statistics the authors cite in the book are startling, and remind me of why I feel so hell-bent on looking beyond the ways of the academy for my career path. 30% of History Phds are working at a tenure track position. For English it was 40%.  Social Sciences/Education (my field) fare hardly better.  It seems to me that it is only wise to consider a job outside of the academy (henceforth to be called “post-academic” jobs via Dr. B) when they make up the whopping majority of what it is people do with these PhD thingies.

Which brings me to last night’s event. Dr. Barsalla, first of all, is charming, funny, and clearly very smart.  I am not sure I want her job, but I know I want to BE her: that confidence, that spark, that zest for living.  You can tell: she LOVES what she does.  And she has a PhD in English. And has a job.  My mind is blown.

And here is where I admit to my startling naivete when it comes to Higher Education. Even after two years working in the College of Arts and Letters at MSU, I completely missed that a post-academic job was failure. Apparently, this is the first and only commandment when it comes to Phd world: Tenure-track or nothing.  This still blows my mind.  How is it that the whole academic culture is set up to myopically focus on producing tenure-track professors? THIS MAKES NO SENSE TO ME.  Really, I don’t get it.  And I keep stumbling into conversations where I walk away puzzled because of the way I so highly value my non-academic pursuits when those around in me graduate school world are so focused on what I am publishing. Seriously? This is the way you are going to mentor me in this endeavor? To a dead-end job or no job at all? Um, no thanks. I think I’ll keep barking up this post-academic tree.

I came to my graduate program to be able to take my analytical and research skills to the next level. I wanted to read difficult things, grapple with difficult ideas, talk it over with smart people, and write a few things. As I see it, I get to do all of that, and, more importantly, grow the skills I highly value.  I don’t expect my graduate program to spit me out at the end, ready to take on the tenure track.  Maybe this path will lead me there, maybe it won’t. I certainly don’t see taking a different career course as failure. My favorite quote from the book is really early, from a Chemistry PhD who became a patent lawyer:

“People always say, ‘You’ve spent your whole life doing this, and now you’re throwing it all away,'”, Mrkisch says. “But they never think to say, ‘What a great stepping stone to other things (11).'”

In the end, the talk was mostly about convincing us, the eventual Phds, that getting a post-academic job was not failure.  I still am amazed that people need to be convinced of this, but looking around I see that this myth pervades.

Dr. Basalla also dispensed some Don’ts of the post-academic job hunt, which I dutifully tweeted (and tagged with #jobs4phds) for all of those who couldn’t join us in the room.  Here is the archive, in reverse chronological order:

Interesting to hear Dr. B discuss the attitudes towards searching for jobs outside the Academy. (It wasn’t good). #jobs4phds
The term is post-academic, thank you! Not alt-ac. Not a fork, but all available options. #jobs4phds #PhD
Dr.B is going to give us the 5 don’ts of the post-academic job search. #jobs4phds #PhD
Dr.B: 1st DON’T In post-academic job search: your dissertation is not your biggest accomplishment. Focus on skills, not topic. #jobs4phds
Note: outside the academic world, the details of the CV don’t matter. Transferable skills matter. #jobs4phds
Dr B’s 2nd Don’t: don’t spend more time on job boards than on networking. Get out and meet folks!!! #jobs4phds
Dr. B suggests that networking starts with Google stalking. I’ve got this part down. #googlestalker #jobs4phds
Dr.B’s 3rd Don’t: don’t underestimate the value of your non-academic pursuits. #jobs4phds
Dr. B notes that things without footnotes have value. #jobs4phds
Dr.B’s 4th don’t: don’t be afraid to start low. Think of this as a career switch–and high performance means rapid advancement. #jobs4phds
Dr. B’s final don’t: don’t do it all at once and don’t wait until the last minute. Start peeking beyond the walls of this tower. #jobs4phds

What am I doing again? PhD update

POTD #44: Scripture Study Materialsphoto © 2008 Stephanie Hawver | more info (via: Wylio)

There are two questions I hear most about my recent undertaking of a doctoral program: 1) What’s it like? and 2) What are you going to do with that?

First, in case you haven’t known me for very long, a bit about my personality. I’ve always been an academic overachiever: I was my own Tiger Mother. An A- was not good enough.  And then, I learned the freedom of failing.  My High School years were spent alternating between the extremes of overachieving and seeking to please my teachers and breaking all the rules and flunking.  In my college years, I have received University honors for my grades as well as academic probation.  At the end of the day, I can best explain my checkered academic past by recognizing that I will do my own thing no matter what, and I am pleased when it lines up with what is expected of me, but I am okay when it doesn’t, too.  There is no shame in failing, in my opinion, only another opportunity to learn.  That never makes it sting any less, though.  Also, it makes it very hard to explain my transcripts.

All of my past experiences and opinions inform what I experience now: that much is certain.  I am also certain that I am a little bit fuzzy on the details of why I decided to take the leap to the “other side” and begin my doctoral studies. I vaguely remember being very sure about it at the time, that it was a way to enhance and further both my knowledge and career.  At the beginning of my third semester (and hurtling towards prelims), I am less certain.  This post is an attempt to explain why, both for myself and for those who ask me about what is like for me in this situation. Here is what I know:

  1. I am no longer convinced that a PhD will further my career.
  2. I am pretty sure that the typical Academic job (teaching, research, tenure, etc) will not be available for me upon completing my degree due to the Recession, the lack of tenure-track positions (in favor of adjuncts), and my unwillingness to up-root my family.
  3. Despite those things, I love every minute of what I am doing. Every minute.

See, I’ve been reading a lot lately about Higher Education, a realm of our educational system I largely ignored before. After all, it was K-12 I was interested in, and just as many Higher Ed folks look down their noses at the K-12 world (it’s more common than I realized before entring the ivory tower), I just ignored the Higher Ed world.  This myopia led me to stumble into my Higher Ed experience, with no other expectation except that there would be lots of smart people (which there are).

But back to my readings.  Here is a re-cap of what has crossed my feed lately: “The disposable academic: Why doing a Phd is often a waste of time,” and this chilling indictment of how bad it can get in the academe, “because: a manifesto.”  These are just a small sampling of the doom-and-gloom crossing across my internet feeds,  and they are the ones, because of the truths they present, that make me doubt what I am doing.

That being said, I love being in school again. I get to read what I want, explore ideas and issues of my own curiosity because that is what I am expected to do. I know what an unbelievable luxury this is! Not that I haven’t always done this to some degree, but now I can give myself fully to this endeavor without apologizing. I finally have enough room to explore. Additionally, I can even design experiments of my own creation to poke and prod and figure out what it is that’s going on when students learn and write and use technology to do so.  I get pure, unadulterated joy out of this. Every minute is heaven.  And that is why I won’t quit, because even if my career goes nowhere, and the degree is as worthless as The Economist insinuates it is, I know I will be able to say that I had fun getting there.

The ivory tower is a crazy place, but no crazier than any other place I’ve worked. I have heard the horror stories, have known those who’ve adjuncted for little pay and no benefits, and seen grad students crumble and quit from the pressure.  I’ve also seen colleagues thrive, get the perfect job, and are optimistic and fulfilled by their careers.  I can’t account for the differences. What I can do is hope for the best, all the while enjoying the process and doing my best work.  Really, for all this gnashing of teeth, where is the future certain? Where in the world are we guaranteed the path will get us where we need to be? I choose optimism in the face of uncertainty. And coffee. Lots of coffee.

More things to be optimistic about in Higher Ed: