on working from home and life after grad school

I’ve started writing this post so many times in my mind but each time I sat down to translate those thoughts into words on my screen, something made me hesitate and stop. I’m still not sure how to best describe my career path post graduation. After I received my degree in May, we went on a whirlwind trip through four European countries with our ten-months-old daughter, visiting multiple cities and many friends and relatives. We didn’t rent a car but opted instead for trains and public transport. We met many interesting people and had a lifetime of experiences all concentrated into three crazy, intense, and immensely gratifying weeks. After our return home, T. (who had also graduated in May) went straight to work at a post-doc that had been waiting for him. I stayed home, cared for our daughter, and started thinking about what to do next. And I started to think about all those amazing things that all of our friends, families, and people met on this past journey were doing outside of academia.

As anyone in academia will know, it’s very difficult and often impossible to find positions for two academics at the same university or even in the same city. So, for a variety of reasons, we decided to let T’s career lead the way (both figuratively and literally) and as his post-doc would keep us in our current location for another year, there wasn’t much to do for me but hold down the familial fort and see where the next step would take us.

What's my identity post graduation?

At the same time, I began questioning what it was that I would want to do once that next step came along. Reading blogs by other academics, books such as Mama, PhD or The Family Track, and following news stories on the Chronicle of Higher Ed had not been doing much to inspire excitement in terms of making a life within the academy while finding the time to parent and be involved at home. No matter how many studies and news stories suggest otherwise, a real sense of either/or still exists for women seeking career AND motherhood. Especially when that career is in the ivory tower. (Ironically, this is what both makes me want to defy this dichotomy by forcing an academic career and motherhood to coexist while also making me want to run for the hills and forget about academia altogether).

In the end, I haven’t ruled out academia quite yet (although I realize that my absence on campus during this time might rule ME out as a candidate for the kind of coveted jobs many PhDs pine for). What I have realized though is that many of the things I loved about my work on campus are things that are not exclusive to work as a professor: research, critical thinking, collaborating with clever and thoughtful individuals, feeling intellectually stimulated and challenged, writing, public speaking, organizing, thinking creatively, and feeling engaged with current events, issues, and advocacy work. All of those things get me fired up and excited. They make me want to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

Fortunately, I have found some ways to do those things while staying at home with our daughter. I have taken on exciting work as an editor for the feminist news and advocacy site, Flyover Feminism. I have looked for freelance writing opportunities and even managed to get a few things in print. I have practiced my community organizing skills by starting a Kidical Mass ride here in town. And I have tried to stay open to new opportunities and positive about a future that may shape up to be anything but what I had envisioned during my first few years of grad school. (I should note though that what I haven’t done much of these past months is actually earn an income. Such is the life of the freelance writer (and stay at home parent): a whole lot of satisfaction, not a whole lot of financial gain).

Just as I had made peace with this new path and with my days as stay-at-home parent and work-from-home writer/editor, I was offered a lecturer position for the coming Spring semester at the university in town. I had taught for them before while working on my dissertation (as an ABD-status grad student) and I had a really positive experience with the department and my colleagues in it. I made connections with students that I still hold dear (two of my former students are our sole babysitters now).  The idea of returning to work on campus was nothing short of tentalizing.

BUT. It would mean putting our daughter in daycare four days a week (something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do quite yet). It would also mean that my lecturer salary would just about cover our childcare expenses and that the net financial gain would be minimal. It would mean teaching an entry-level language course and spending all of my free time grading, lesson planning, and checking homework assignements and quizzes, and not actually researching, writing, and doing the kind of mentally stimulating work that often comes with a tenure track-appointment versus a lecturer or adjunct position. In short: I’d be doing a lot of busy work for little financial compensation and at the cost of seeing a LOT less of my daughter in order to possibly set myself up for a career I’m not even certain I want. So yeah…

All of our decisions are made with her in mind now.

It would also mean that my daughter would hear mostly English all day and that what connection to Romanian I was able to forge during her first year of life would be wholly overwhelmed by an exposure to the dominant language all day but on weekends.

I wanted to take the job for nothing else but to keep myself in good graces with the department so that more (advanced and desirable) teaching opportunities could come my way down the road. Especially if we end up living here for a while longer. But not knowing whether T’s current job search will keep us here or move us out of state come Spring, it seems like a lot to gamble on a lot of “what if’s.”

So I chose instead the scarier and also more gratifying path of turning the position down. It’s scarier because it once more leaves me wondering where my career will go and whether I shut a door I shouldn’t have. But it’s also the choice that keeps me where I want to be right now, the one that feels right in my gut, and the one that might force me to open different doors when the time comes.

And I have to trust that things will work out, even if I can’t forsee how they’ll work out, simply because everything always works out in the end, one way or another, right? And because I’m a big believer in the process, and not the end goal, being what shapes and makes us the people we become.

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31 Responses to on working from home and life after grad school

  1. Jane W. says:

    a real sense of either/or still exists for women seeking career AND motherhood

    So true. This spring I plan to take a “life leap” of working part time or not at all after 20+ years in corporate America.

    It might sound naive, but I believe that the outcome is positive when we do the right things for the right reasons. I applaud your decision.

  2. lisa says:

    Remember that the best thing you can do now to keep an academic path open–and it’s doable with a child at home if you use nap-times and evenings–is to publish in reputable academic journals. If you decide to go on the academic job market a steady publication record will matter far more than any freelance work or teaching experience. Nonacademic publications are actually a determent in most academic job searches. Remember that there is a lot to be said about the work-life balance that IS possible as an academic mama–I’m on the tenure-track with a 10 month old (she’s in daycare three days a week). I kept publishing throughout my maternity leave (which, at 9 months, was fall more generous than any corporate job would provide). My own decisions have been motivated not only by how I feel now (there’s an intellectual desire to keep working) but how I imagine I’ll feel in four or five years when she starts school–I’ll need and want a career then even more than I do now. In my opinion, Mama PhD and many of the other books out there don’t do enough to emphasize how GOOD it all can be. Have you read Professor Mommy (awful title, great book)? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Good luck with it all–I know what a personal and complex decision this all is!

    • Stephanie says:

      Based on everything I’ve heard and seen from fellow academics, this seems like sound advice. My sense is that taking on non-tenure track teaching is most worth it if there’s a chance it might turn into a tenure-track position (i.e. a visiting appointment), or if it will provide teaching experience that one doesn’t already have (working with a new population of students or teaching classes one hasn’t taught before, for example). I don’t know whether an institutional affiliation in and of itself necessarily matters as much as staying active in the field–and I definitely don’t think that you’re closing any doors! It sounds like a difficult but smart decision!

  3. Good post, Sandra. While not deeply involved in academia, I also face the challenges of freelancing from home with a baby. Rewarding… yes, sometimes. Not so much financially, in spite of great effort and increasing knowledge/skills/savvy. Thank you for you perspective! And I encourage you to keep up the hard work, the critical thinking, the reading/collating, and the happy motherhood. It’s inspiring!

    Emily

  4. Carly says:

    Really enjoyed this post! Would love to read updates as you continue exploring what direction your career may take.

  5. DM says:

    The post-graduate school job search is complicated no matter what direction it takes. It doesn’t help (though it is logical) that almost all of your PhD advisers and profs. will only have experience with academic job searches. There is an interesting Chronicle of Higher Ed. article about this:

    http://chronicle.com/article/More-Universities-Break-the/129647/

    I am on the tenure-track in the humanities with two kids. There is a lot of pressure and it isn’t always ideal. But I’ve learned that *nothing* is perfect. You make the best of what you have. I do have several friends and colleagues who have taken different paths, such as teaching a private high school, administering a non-profit organization, and working for a Humanities institute. There are many options out there if you are flexible.

    And as Lisa says above, if you do want to keep the academic door open, keep on publishing in reputable journals, or maybe seek out a postdoc position — though most of them require some kind of residency, not all of them do. Also, depending on your husband’s future position, you might be able to get some sort of employment at his university, though it probably won’t be tenure-track. But you never know. If/when he has a job offer, he should discuss everything with trusted advisers and the dept. chair to see about how to leverage a possible position for you, if you agree that you’d like to try for one. This goes double if he manages to get more than one job offer — leverage is everything…

  6. Heather says:

    I’m sure that the decision was even more difficult for you than you make it sound in this post! But you nailed it in your final sentences, which are worth repeating here:

    “And I have to trust that things will work out, even if I can’t forsee how they’ll work out, simply because everything always works out in the end, one way or another, right? And because I’m a big believer in the process, and not the end goal, being what shapes and makes us the people we become.”

    I’m proud of you for following your gut! The rest of it will indeed fall into place. And look at C.’s adorable face! By the time she’s in kindergarten she’ll be prattling at you in Romanian and you won’t hardly recall the possibilities of this path not taken.

  7. S., I think you’re absolutely right … things always work out. I love your philosophy that it’s more about the process than the end goal. I too feel like I should push the system and secure a tenure-track job and challenge the male-dominated world of academia (or at least the philosophy that you can’t have kids). But, right now, that’s not what I want from life. I have found enormous strength and amazing connections from the mom community in my neighborhood – a real feeling of supporting each other so that we may pursue whatever life we’ve chosen.

    You’ll be great at whatever you do!

  8. Rita says:

    Thanks for writing this. It somehow expresses the feelings I have been having too.

    I find that there is a great gap between what I want out of academia and what academia actually is and does. Academia is still an individualistic place. It sounds simplistic but academia is still a place for people who don’t want anything beyond that (i.e.,family) or whose partners are outside academia.

    I think you made the right decision. But that’s mostly because I also believe no doors are ever closed (no, really). I personally have a strong disregarded for pretty much everything the academic world says we’re supposed to do to get the positions we want and still made it where I wanted to go every time. Remember that you can pretty much capitalize on every single experience in your life and what you’re doing now (work-wise) is what will distinguish you from every other PhD student who didn’t leave academia.

    Anyway, you’re an intelligent woman and I’m sure you’ll do well, whatever comes!

  9. Rita says:

    by the way, this post got me thinking a bit more and had to add; no intelligent woman is less of a feminist for making her own decisions, even if the decision was to focus on her daughter. Sure you may not be trailblazing academia atm, and breaking down the big male-centred walls we’re facing in it, but your decision was your own; sure, there were restrains, but from what you say, it seems like the most reasonable option and that’s what free, intelligent women do: make their own decisions.

  10. Julia says:

    “It always works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out yet, its not the end” (paraphrase from the Marigold Hotel movie :-))
    Kudos to you for sticking to your gut and making such a tough decision.
    The balance of work/profession and motherhood is so individual-based, so following your “mother’s gut feeling” is the very best thing to do.
    By my definitions, its pretty close to impossible to have both at the same time – to devote myself to motherhood and be an outstanding professional at the same time. I’m not in academics, but I am a recently graduated physician and a newish mother. I have a demanding profession and I never once thought I would want to stay home and care for my children. I love my job or else wouldn’t have spent all those years toiling in medical school and residency.
    I went back to work after my first child was born (he’s now 2.5) but my heart just wasn’t in it. I stuck it out for a year, but it just felt wrong. So I quit and have been home with my kids (I had a second one 7 months ago) for the past year and have been soooo happy. It was a hard decision and I haven’t been even close to as productive as you are, but I am so VERY VERY glad I did it. I do have to go back to work again – have to stay in the loop or else I will loose touch – so starting again in January. But on my terms – only a 20 min drive from home (prev was commuting 1.5 hrs each way), only 8 hours a week, just the patient population I want to work with and totally unexpectedly I am getting paid more than I was.
    So hang in there, it will come to you. In the meantime, enjoy your time with your daughter. It flies by……

  11. Chrissy says:

    Sounds like you’ve made the best decision for you and your family. Academia is so unpredictable as it is – I still have a year and a half left in my grad program, and I’m already worried about the job market. I like the advice others have given to keep publishing in journals – that seems far more important than an entry level position which might take up the time you could spend on other pursuits, such as publishing, family, and chasing down interesting opportunities.

    Best of luck with your choices! I have a good feeling that you’ll be just fine. :)

  12. Christina says:

    I completely understand your post. While not in Academia, but technology, I too have a career path that really requires me to be on top of it and not let it falter too much. I as well made the choice to walk away from options after my daughter came into the picture. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching over her 6 years of life regarding my own life and career and can honestly say, I do not have the answers. Some women are able to have their “cake and eat it too”, others have to make more choices. I too was not able to stomach the idea of day care and from what I see of the children who have to do before and after school care at the elementary level in order for mom to work to just maybe bring in enough to cover the expenses of that care – no thank you. I take on freelance work through partnering with a web dev firm, but it all depends on how much effort I put into seeking out the work as well as the jobs coming in. Sort of like freelance writing, sometimes there is a lot of opportunities, other times there are some slow months. Just sort of depends. In the end, my husband and I both believe this was the way to go, that one of us take on the full career while the other takes on our kiddo. It ended up being the usual woman at home, but my hubby is definitely a pro-feminist so I was able to be ok with the roles being played out. He is always supportive of me and we never have a situation of feeling like a woman tied to the home. We save money, spend less, and actually have a lot less stress in our lives. Sometimes I have paying work, other times I don’t. We have found over the course of the years that we actually “need less” in life after all, and the extra money, while always nice, isn’t always so drastically needed. As you wrote – in the end things will work out. Opportunities will arise again, when the kiddos are more self-sufficient, there will come a time again to regain that foothold into careers where we need them to be. Enjoy the time with the kiddos – they grow up way too fast :)

  13. Hey! I could relate to this a lot. Especially turning down a Lecturer offer from that same institution ;) Even though I loved being on campus, I did it for the same reasons- the salary wouldn’t have justified the time involvement nor cover the childcare required. It’s been 4 years since then and even though we’ve moved to a different state with equivalent university programs, I do feel like I shut a door. My situation is different from yours though, so I hope I’m not a Debbie Downer! I don’t regret my decision, it was worth it for my family and I’m grateful I had that option… but now that all 3 of my boys are in school, I’m thinking more and more about what I want to be when I grow up.

    It sounds like you are doing a great job keeping yourself intellectually active, I wish I’d done more of that! I agree, I think (hope) that with big life/work decisions like this, ones that seem did-I-really-do-that? scary at first, tend to work themselves out one way or another. For example, a few months after I turned down the Lecturer position, we ended up having to relocate for my husband’s work opportunity anyway!

  14. Carrie says:

    Just wanted to chime in and say I understand what a complex decision this is. After 3 years in a TT humanities job, and after a number of years of questioning whether academia was even the right fit for me in the first place, I quit to be able to stay @ home with our first child, due in about 2 weeks. Like some others have mentioned above, we’ve made some changes to our budget to do without my salary, although much of it would have gone towards childcare anyway had I kept working, so it’s kind of a wash in some respects.

    I focused a LOT on freelance writing this summer and found it extremely gratifying. Have also returned to the freelance editing that helped me make some good $$ while in grad school. I’m feeling extremely good about our decision, but I think I’m in a different position than you are–I actually *wanted* to leave academia pretty badly (for a number of reasons) and had already been applying for non-academic jobs to get out of my TT position.

    If I were planning to stay viable in the academic world, I would definitely heed Lisa’s advice of focusing on publishing in peer-reviewed venues and, if possible, presenting @ some conferences to continue to network and get my name out there.

    I just really appreciate how honestly you’ve wrestled with the options and that you were willing to share your decision-making process with us!

  15. Miss Sarah says:

    You go, girl! Take it from somebody who knows – NOBODY can replace you as the caregiver for your child. You are and always will be the resident expert. Even though society doesn’t value the work we mothers do in salary form, the most important work we do is raising the best little people we can. Kids who grow up with compassion, understanding, curiosity, diversity, and love.

    Everybody tells me it’s all over pretty quickly (kids growing up), so I am always instructed to enjoy it.

    Don and I both work a lot, but my hours are controllable by me, and I nobly work 36 weeks a year and take the summers off. Sure, my other girlfriends are still going strong and I have had to cut back on my teaching, but I have these two wonderful kids, a great house in a great location, and the freedom to have a lot of FUN in my life. Don works like a maniac (12 hour days, almost every day), and it only works because we live near my parents.

    So good on you! I applaud your choice to take the less-conventionally rewarded path:) Here is to coffee during naps and baby laughs. Priceless!

  16. Katherine says:

    Hi there, I am in the same boat as you… looking for jobs in academia after the phd, but wanting to avoid the burden of typical tenure-track. I came across this:

    http://www.nec.ro/fundatia/nec/nec_intl_2013.htm#

    and it made me think of you. A one year fellowship in Bucharest, where you get to work on the same project as in your phd.

    Good luck with your search.

  17. Julie says:

    Your little girl is so gorgeous!
    I’m having a bit of the same anxiety about “closing the door” on my career. I had those crazy fashion jobs and now I’m in Arkansas so…. I’m just volunteering and being a supportive wife.

    I’m happy here and I love my volunteer gig, it’s just a little scary being out of the work force. Just a tiny bit.

  18. Mama Bicycle says:

    I am happy when I read your post today. I think it is important to think of what we are, what we should do or why we do it. Sometimes I think there is a certain difference between Japanese people and people from other nations when we talk about us or when I hear their thoughts. But, as for parents, I think we think of the same thing, that we try to/ manage to pay attention to our children for their happy lives.

  19. Beth says:

    I really appreciate this post! I found it refreshing and encouraging. I’m in my first year of a four year Ph.D. program. My husband has started veterinary school and plans to become a surgeon (which is a four-year residency after that). And… there is a good chance that one of us will follow the other (probably me). It’s scary, though, to stop and think about what that means for me. I’m so happy we’ve both been able to pursue our interests so far, and maybe that will still be true forever, but I also know that it probably won’t be. So I’m pursuing my dreams now and know that they may take a different shape in the years to come.

  20. raquelita says:

    Not being a parent, I can only imagine how difficult this decision must have been for you. If it makes you feel any better as you continue traveling down your scarier but more gratifying path, just statistically the chance of an adjunct or visiting position turning into something tenure track is very slim even when the academic in question is excellent (as I have no doubt you are). I agree with some of the comments above that the best way to position yourself for a later t-t job is to continue to publish in your field.

  21. Roda says:

    I completely understand what you are going through. I also just finished my PhD. I have an idea what I want to do and hope thing work out soon but the future is still unpredictable.

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  23. Lauren says:

    Having lots of open doors to a happy future is a good feeling. I think your writing is superb and I hope you’re able to move forward with these exciting projects. The book Professor Mommy might be helpful to you. Personally, I don’t miss academic writing at all.

    (and thanks for the link!)

  24. As you will know, this post really resonated with me. I would have made the choice you made. It is scary and you can’t foresee what’s going to happen to your career. But as Cheryl Strayed writes to an aspiring writer in her column Dear Sugar: “You don’t have a career; you have a life.” Of course you have a career too and you’re already doing really well with your freelance writing (congratulations on those publications!). But you get the sentiment of Strayed’s comment too; get your priorities in line with your values and know that good writing comes from real being.

    You know what’s really important to you right here and now. You have to trust your heart and body; the mind tends to spin us all out of whack. I think it’s a good thing that you are a “big believer in the process, and not the end goal, being what shapes and makes us the people we become.”

  25. Kate says:

    I really appreciate this post! I anticipate being in a similar situation in about a year, when my fiance (who will be my husband by then ;)) and I go on the job market in the same field… having done social science research in the same country… on closely related topics. We’re trying to look at it as having two tickets in the raffle! Worst-case scenario, we both have plenty of non-academic interests that could potentially generate an income. Fingers crossed for at least one job, though.

    PS. My fiance is a student at WUSTL! :)

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