As I'm entering my third year in a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts university, I'm still scrambling to lay the groundwork for my career both as a professor and as a researcher. While, at this stage, I certainly don't have any striking words of wisdom or advice, I feel that my story can be helpful to young scientists. What I want to share might be of particular interest to young women in physics who are wondering how to balance family and career as they embark on their academic journey.

When I entered graduate school, I assumed, like most in my cohort, that I would take courses, conduct excellent research, publish, and head off to a dream job on the tenure-track at an R1 institution. But by my third year, a realization had dawned on me. I already knew that each of those career benchmarks was highly non-trivial and dependent on numerous factors, many of them not in the direct control of a graduate student. The new realization was that I didn't actually want to be a researcher in an R1 environment. From my perspective as a graduate student, academia appeared to be a pressure-cooker. It seemed as though few succeeded—it really was a publish or perish environment. The culture for graduate students and postdocs was to live in the lab and neglect the many other aspects of life. Many of the faculty modeled the same culture, working late into the night, working on weekends, and working on holidays. Many professors didn't have children and those with families didn't frequently talk about their lives outside of the office. Of course, many of those I saw who were successful didn't look like me. As I entered my mid-twenties, my priorities began to shift and I started to imagine what my own family dynamic would be. I was saddened to see that, by all appearances, it was incompatible with a traditional academic career path.

The average time to degree in my program was 6.5 years. Assume that most incoming graduate students are 22 years old; this means that most acquire their PhD at or around age 28. If one then does two or three postdocs, totaling 8–9 years, before acquiring a first tenure-track position, that position starts at age 36 or 37. Upon securing tenure, these bright young scientists will now be in their early 40s. Timelines vary, of course. For some the time could be shorter, but I worked with several postdoctoral researchers who were entering their tenth year of postdoctoral work, still patiently waiting through each hiring cycle to obtain a permanent position. Who would want to wait that long, who could afford to wait that long—in view of health and pregnancy—to start a family?

Like many of my graduate school colleagues, I made the decision that I would forgo that academic career path and I planned for a career in industry. Not having much exposure to industry careers, I simply placed my bets that the grass would be greener there. At least in industry, the pay would be respectable, and I likely would be afforded a reasonable amount of maternity leave. However, I still fretted regularly about balancing family and career. I wanted children, but how could it be done? To the best of my knowledge, none of the other female graduate students in my program had ever had children while enrolled. I knew many of the male graduate students did have children, but they had a spouse at home to care for their children. Having a baby didn't seem to be more than a week-long hiatus for them. For me, the impact of a baby on my progress was unknown but I suspected it would be immense.

One of the most impactful moments for me was attending a presentation on Women in STEM given by a highly successful female physicist from an elite institution. When asked how she balanced work and family, she said she really hated that question. Is it harder for women in academia? In science explicitly? Harder than if we worked in retail? In food service? Having children in this country is challenging no matter what the circumstances are. Childcare is outrageously expensive. Most workers receive no paid maternity leave. However, we are blessed in academia with more flexibility and accommodations than most women across this country. So an academic career had the downside of economic security deferred to age 40, but it had the upside of flexibility during the long slog. This shifted my perspective and made me feel empowered to pursue the family I wanted when I wanted it.

I decided to take full advantage of that graduate school flexibility. My daughter was born as I entered my fourth year of study, two years past my PhD qualifying exam and waist-deep in my dissertation research. I was out for only six weeks, as that was the paid leave given by my institution. When I returned I relied on the short leave that my husband had through his job, on an immense amount of help from my mother who lived only a couple hours away, and on the inherent flexibility of my late-stage research. A recent editorial in Science titled “Universities need to do more to support grad student parents”1 nails the issue right on the head. There, the author describes the very serious challenge of managing to find affordable and reliable childcare on a graduate student salary. It can be an almost impossible task and I fully recognize just how privileged I was to be able to make everything work at this financially precarious point in my career. My son was born, less than two years later, only weeks after I defended my dissertation and before I walked across the stage to receive my PhD.

Like any other fresh PhD graduate with a one year old and a breast-feeding infant, I panicked. I worried over who in their right mind would be crazy enough to hire a woman with a new baby and a toddler. My solution, which at the time seemed necessary and temporary, was to apply for a teaching position at a community college in a nearby rural area. This was a college that struggled to recruit faculty in the sciences due to its location. The competition for that part-time, permanent teaching position was not steep, and I gratefully joined the faculty that fall semester.

Teaching at a community college was a life-changing experience that re-directed my path back into academia, but for reasons very different from those I had in graduate school. I found joy in working with students in the classroom and through advising, appreciated the relative flexibility of my teaching schedule—which allowed me to optimize the time I could spend at home with my children—and I found the challenge of learning to be an effective teacher surprisingly engaging. Two years later, I leveraged my newfound teaching experience and applied for a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts institution. I wanted a position that allowed me to maintain a small research program, but primarily focused on teaching. The institution is not far from where my parents and my extended family live; this was a critical factor in my search. Very happily, I accepted an offer and this is now my third year in this position.

My story may be unusual. I differ from many young scientists in academia in that I quickly found a tenure-track position that both suits the needs of my family and engages me professionally. I had two children while I was a female graduate student in physics, which absolutely puts me in the minority. But I am by no means the only young female scientist struggling to figure out how to exist and succeed in academia while balancing my family obligations. Through social networking, I have found tens of thousands of other women in academia (not necessarily in physics—but across disciplines) who are in the same position. They worry about publishing, about teaching when they've been up all night caring for a sick child, about job security, about applying for grants, about making it to soccer practice on time, about caring for aging parents, about preparing their tenure portfolio, or managing their relationship with their department chair. It turns out that it is impossible to completely decouple our personal lives from our professional lives as researchers.

The question I ask, then, is what can we do in physics, or in academia more generally, to better support young scientists who are running for the greener pastures of industry when they come face-to-face with the reality of the family-unfriendly grind of an academic career path? In physics, we need to seriously consider both at cultural shifts in how we manage and discuss workload, as well as systemic policy change to better support working parents. A little compassion couldn't hurt, either, to keep them in the academic pipeline. Otherwise, we will continue to lose talented scientists through that leaky pipeline, to the detriment of all of us.

Richelle Teeling-Smith

Department of Physics, University of Mount Union, Alliance, Ohio 44601

This guest editorial is the sixth in the series of early-career guest editorials announced at the end of the editorial in the October 2017 issue (85(10), 729). Previous guest editorials are at AJP 85(10), 730; 86(2), 85; 86(10), 725; 87(5), 328; 87(6), 413; and 87(10), 778.

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