Why It’s Important to Mentor Female Graduate Students and Young Professors

Academic Mentor Cartoon

In acad­e­mia, talk abounds about grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion, tenure, get­ting a job, low wages and poor work­ing con­di­tions, and bal­anc­ing per­sonal and pro­fes­sional lives. One recent arti­cle in The Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion by Berke­ley Pro­fes­sor Mary Ann Mason is par­tic­u­larly sober­ing. Mason’s arti­cle, “The Future of the Ph.D,” addresses sev­eral inter­est­ing points about the over­abun­dance of PhDs and the lack of tenure-track jobs. She also points out how dif­fi­cult it is to have a fam­ily and a tenure-track job. Here are a few quotes I found provoca­tive (if you are inter­ested, you should also read through the com­ments sec­tion of her arti­cle; so many heart­felt, reveal­ing and per­sonal responses that pro­vide their own form of mentoring):

In a sur­vey we con­ducted of all doc­toral stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, more than 70 per­cent of women and over half of all men said they con­sid­ered a career at a research uni­ver­sity to be too hard-driving and unfriendly to fam­ily life.

A male Ph.D. stu­dent in the sur­vey char­ac­ter­ized the com­mon sen­ti­ment when he wrote that he was ‘fed up with the narrow-mindedness of sup­pos­edly intel­li­gent peo­ple who are largely worka­holic and expect oth­ers to be so as well’.”

A female stu­dent wrote, ‘Since begin­ning my doc­toral work, I have become con­vinced that very few, if any, female pro­fes­sors are able to have sta­ble, ful­fill­ing fam­ily lives of the sort that I wish for (a sta­ble mar­riage and children)’.”

Female grad­u­ate stu­dents who do become moth­ers dur­ing their doctoral-study years are very likely to give up on their dreams.”

“Too few uni­ver­si­ties are pay­ing atten­tion to the needs of graduate-student par­ents, or pro­vid­ing men­tor­ing on how to bal­ance fam­ily and career in a stress­ful pro­fes­sion in which, arguably, the most seri­ous stress—obtaining tenure—also occurs dur­ing the years when women will have children.”

These find­ings do not come as a shock to me as a pro­fes­sor. I have now expe­ri­enced what it’s like to be on the tenure track, which is dif­fi­cult in and of itself. But I also know what it’s like to be a woman, a mother, and a wife in this highly stress­ful job.

But as a grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ing on my master’s and then Ph.D., I never would have guessed it was this way–so dif­fi­cult to “have it all” and find bal­ance between work and home.  I even had won­der­ful men­tors through­out grad­u­ate school, but we never really talked about mar­riage and chil­dren or what it would be like to have a fam­ily and work in academia.

With results and out­comes like these–where women are leav­ing the pro­fes­sion because they have babies, or where they leave because they are denied tenure at such high rates (moth­ers even higher)–we are not left with many options. Even though more than half of grad­u­ate stu­dents are women, if we do not deal with the inter­sec­tion of a woman’s per­sonal life with her career, then we are not going to have a range of women in acad­e­mia. We might still have unmar­ried women or women with­out chil­dren, but we may lose a large per­cent­age of women who can teach and men­tor oth­ers about what it means to have a fam­ily and a career in academia.

In short, we need men­tors. We need moth­ers who are will­ing to share their experiences–the good and the bad; the sac­ri­fices they have/had to make; the joys that have come along the way; and why being a mother in acad­e­mia might still be worth it. We need moth­ers who talk frankly about hav­ing chil­dren in grad­u­ate school, about hav­ing chil­dren on the tenure-track, about not hav­ing chil­dren at all. We need moth­ers to share their sto­ries, for it is their stories–our stories–that will edu­cate oth­ers and bet­ter inform female grad­u­ate stu­dents about the real­i­ties of being a mother in academia.

I hope you will share your story; it may make all the difference.