One of them Good Problems



One of the joys of Whispering is the letters I receive from PhD candidates from all over the world, thanking me and asking for advice. The Whisperer runs on love – and I am grateful everytime someone takes the time to write me and tell me that it was useful.

Some of these letters make their way onto the blog as posts. A blog is a hungry content baby that needs to be fed and these letters are perfect fodder because they are real problems, with all the beautiful complexity that implies. Another reason I post responses in public is because I truly value the way the Thesis Whisperer audience responds to these letters from readers. So many of you have useful advice and stories to share and I hope you will share your insights to this particular problem too.

This letter is from an ANU graduate who had attended one of my career workshops. This workshop is based on the research I did with Dr Rachael Pitt, now of Griffith University. Rachael’s genius idea was to analyse job ads to see what academic employers really want from PhD graduates. In my careers workshop I turn the insights we published in our paper “Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job ads” into a series of activities and exercises to help PhD candidates approach the academic job search with more confidence.

I was happy to get this email – it’s nice to know that the evidence based advice Rachael and I have developed seems to work (yay!). However, the advice works so well that this graduate now has one of them good problems: Which job to pick?

Here’s the letter and my response – which is a very long post because there is just no easy answer…

Dear Inger,

Several months ago I took part in your short course on academic CVs. I wanted to follow up with you to pass on my thanks and was also hoping you might be able to help with some advice. The workshop was one of the most useful I have done in my PhD candidature and I would recommend it to everyone (and have!). One of the best aspects of the workshop was having the opportunity to look at real academic applications and to see what works.

When I did your course I’d just been knocked back after a gruelling post doc selection process. Using the tips from your workshop I’ve now been fortunate to secure a short term post doc position at the University of ______ (with possibility of extension), and have also been shortlisted for three positions:

* A 3 year post doc at Regional University (level A/B)
* A permanent lectureship at Regional University  (level B)
* A 2 year post doc at Prestigious International University .

They are all great positions. I spoke to my supervisors about this and some recommended going overseas, while others recommended taking up the permanent position. I know I am incredibly fortunate to be shortlisted and also may not have to make a decision at all depending on what I’m offered.

Having read a couple of posts on your blog, it seems like there are many ways to have a career in research and they all have upsides and downsides. But beyond those it seems that although we talk about academic vs. industry vs. government jobs quite a lot there’s not a lot of advice out there on different types of academic careers (or maybe I’ve just missed it).

I would prefer a research-focused job if possible, and would like to learn from experienced researchers to build my skills. Money isn’t everything, but the pay is much lower overseas (just over half of what I am currently being paid as a post doc in Australia) and after several years on a PhD salary it would be nice to be financially stable again.  

On the other hand it does seem inadvisable to turn down a good job at a great institution, which my supervisors think would ‘supercharge’ my career prospects when/if I come back to Australia. I have no plans to have children in the next 2-3 years but want to do so in the medium term (I’m in my late 20s) so this is an issue on the horizon for me.

I know you’re very busy but would really appreciate your advice. Permanent job (and better pay) or prestigious institution?

In-demand graduate

Here is my answer:

Dear in-demand,

First of all – congratulations! It’s a difficult, competitive academic job market out there are I’m happy to hear you have a couple of options on the table. It’s incredibly hard to make these kinds of career decisions, because you are, in a very real sense, working blind. The first thing to recognise is that there are no right or wrong answers here – only actions and consequences.

Choices you make now will open some doors at the expense of others. However, for women who are interested in having children, what’s behind one particular door needs to be explored first. Women only have a relatively short time frame in which to make the decision whether or not to procreate because: Biology. You hear stories of women having kids at 60, but I know from first hand experience that you can be infertile at 35, so seek medical advice. I was warned that the infertile thing might be a possibility, so I started at 30 and I’m forever grateful that I have one healthy child as a result.

There are a couple of things to work out before you do get to procreating though. First you need to know who you are having a child with – many people decide to have kids on their own, but most of us do it in pairs. Relationships need to time to develop and it helps to be in the same place to do this. I know of a few married academics who happily live for large stretches of time in different countries. Their relationships are robust and it works for them, but I know it wouldn’t work for me.

I love being at home and having a social life that involves my whole family. Likewise, I enjoy my homelife much more if I feel work is fulfilling and I am making a difference. Finding a situation where these two needs were balanced took a long time, but I have achieved it, but not by being ‘strategic’ as many a workshop will tell you. I just took each choice on its merits and tried to pick the one that seemed to move me closer to the happy balance of work and home I had in mind.

Self awareness is key – what are your emotional, financial and intellectual needs? It might be helpful to visit a counsellor to help you talk it through carefully because where you choose to live and work as an academic can, and perhaps should, be shaped by those choices about family and home.

If you were to take the overseas role, or even the local research role, mobility will be absolutely critical to your future success. If you don’t choose the permanent job, how easy will it be for you to move from place to place? It might be ok now, but if having children is on your mind, be very careful. Some children can be moved from one country to another without batting an eyelid. Thesiswhisperer Jnr was not one of those children. Hence I did a year of fly in fly out (FIFO) to secure the job at ANU. Fortunately Mr Thesis Whisperer turned out to be very portable. This is precisely because he is a well paid professional who is NOT an academic. If you hook up with another academic the complexity of the mobility problem can become unbearable. It even has a name: ‘the two body problem’.

A word of warning on this the two body problem, woman to woman ok?

Listen to advice from straight, white men with care. To be clear – straight white men are not sexist as a general rule – they just experience academia very differently. This can mean that they fail to realise that what is ‘good advice’ for them, may not be good advice for women with aspirations to have children. It seems to me that in hetero-normative relationships (cisgendered male / female partnerships) that the woman becomes the ‘trailing spouse’ much, much more often than the man.

Often this happens because they make pragmatic choices. It’s funny how often the ‘pragmatic choices’ shore up structural gender inequality.

It goes something like this (true story by the way). The woman in a post doc position decides to a year off to have a baby between jobs – so far, so normal. But after that first year it gets tricky. The male academic partner has been publishing and working during that year of maternity leave and gets offered another plum postdoc job. The woman will have to look for another postdoc and climb back into the workforce… but she’s behind the pack now, despite all those words about ‘relative to opportunity’. Her husband is supportive, but his support doesn’t seem to help.

At a coffee date she tells me how all the knock backs are making her feel disheartened. I’m not surprised when, shortly afterwards, they decide to take the certain job in another state. It is the pragmatic choice to take the sure thing over the uncertain wait and, well – the kids need to fed. It seems like a mutual decision – but we both know it’s the structure of the academic workforce and the demand for mobility that is forcing their hand.

Fast forward a couple of years. The man is moving up the ladder, he’s working late and travelling more. She takes up an alt-ac position or something – it has flexible hours so she can attend to the children’s needs and build their lives in a new city. She’s tenancious, smart, resilient – all those good things. The kids are in daycare and loving it. We have lunch when I happen to be in her town. She tells me she’s got some clear air – finally. She’s doing a bit of publishing, teaching and starting to make a career of sorts in another academic area (her partner is respectful of her abilities and really supportive remember?).

But the next week she calls me, delighted. They are moving to another country! This is a great opportunity (for him) – finally a permanent role! No more fearful wait for the next job. This permanent job will help them put the kids through school and pay the insane mortgage they will have to get so their children can attend the ‘good’ school. I say the right, supportive things – but in my heart I suspect it’s the end of her academic dreams.

As it turns out I was right. She’s now fully accepted and embraced the role of trailing spouse. This means she has a lot of emotional and physical work to do. She has lost the networks of patronage so essential to working at the margins of academia. The next job she gets in the university where her husband works is an executive officer role. On Skype she tells me how it pays better than the casual work. More importantly, she feels part of something again, you know? Not like she is just watching from the side lines. I can certainly understand this – my eleven years as a casual I remember the feeling. Like you are looking into the window of a happy house at christmas time. Good news though – her daugher is doing so well at school! Little Anna wants to be an scientist. Maybe she will have a better chance of making it work?

Actually that story is ‘truthy’, not strictly true. It traces the career/life story arc of at least six of my female friends, mixed together to make it make sense as a single story. Ask around. Variations of this story are everywhere – with different degrees of happiness and unhappiness. There are stories around of the two body problem being solved – I wish we had more because we can learn so much from them about how to make it work.

So what do I think you should do? Take the road that is most likely to lead to your version of personal happiness.

If that personal happiness involves a solid homelife AND being an academic – and you are a straight, cis-gendered woman – I suspect in this case it’s the permanent job. I could be wrong of course. What do you think? What should Indemand do? Do you have a story to share that might help?