Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blog XIII (13): Marriage and Grad School

Careers of any type affect family life. If having a family of your own with kids is something you plan on doing, you should understand how being a scholar will affect those plans and how those plans will affect your academic career. The family versus career issue is normally perceived as a matter affecting females, but that is not the case. This matter is one that both men and women must consider, but in different ways.

For females, there is an inverse relationship to fertility and levels of education. Since women biologically have a limited window, the longer they put off having children the fewer they will have. Going to graduate school is a process that will most likely end only in your late twenties or early thirties. That leaves a small window of roughly ten years for having children. On the other hand, becoming a mother before finishing graduate school extends the amount of time the student will be a scholar and—statistically speaking—reduces the likelihood they will finish.

Family versus career is an issue for men as well. While males can have children at anytime during their adult life, you need to consider the corresponding need to find a mate of the appropriate age. Although it is socially acceptable for males to date females that are significantly younger than them, the actually doing of it is a little more difficult. Money, power, and fame always help in this area, but historians are not exactly rock stars or professional athletes.

Implicit in the previous paragraphs is the contention that having children and graduate school are mutually exclusive. Such is not the case. There are studies that suggest that it is easier to get tenure if you are single and without children. To some degree those findings make sense. When you have no other demands on your time, it is easier to invest your waking hours in your career. What those studies do not answer to my knowledge is the cause and effect relationship. Are you investing all that time in your career because you have no life or is the lack of social options the reason you are devoting all your time to your career. There is another factor to consider. There are many studies that show that married men tend to do better in the work place that unmarried men. There has been a good deal of debate on the cause and effect relationship with this phenomenon. Does success attract women who see those men that are best able to provide for them? Or does marriage allow for a division of labor, allowing the husband to focus more on work activity and maximize his career/earning potential while the wife takes care of paying bills, getting the car into the shop, buying groceries, and performing the other tasks that the household requires. From what I saw in graduate school, I am more inclined to believe it is the latter. Responsibility increases these trends. A grad student who is also a parent/spouse often has more of an incentive to focus and finish their studies in a quick and timely fashion than their single peers.

By far the biggest marriage issue involving grad school, though, is one that develops immediately after graduate school ends: the phenomenon of the two Ph.D. couple and the issue of spousal hires. Having a significant other in the same profession does have certain advantages: they understand the demands of your career, and can offer expert advice and assistance. The two Ph.D. couple, however, also involves a number of problems. The biggest issues are the demands of twin careers. Where will you work and live? These questions will not be much of a problem if you both have jobs at the same institution or, at least, in the same city. If you work at UCLA and your significant other is at USC, everything is fine—unless one or both of you are huge football fans, and even then that is a bone of contention only one day a year. The thing is that a two Ph.D. couple is far more likely to find that one person has a job offer from Northern Illinois University while the other gets a job offer from the University of South Florida. What do you do then?

A frequent answer is that the couple will commute. This decision is an expensive one, though. There is the obvious cost of traveling between Florida and Illinois, but a couple is also going to have two homes and at least one extra automobile. If children are involved, that means one spouse is going to have to do a lot of the parenting on their own. Finally, there is the question of how much time you are going to get to share with the other individual.

The academic world has basically failed in this area unlike many other professions. Many colleges and universities do have spousal hire programs. There are, however, a lot of limits to these efforts. First, only major research universities can afford to initiate such programs. Generally speaking, here is how they work: a department will decide to hire an individual and then will ask another to hire the job candidate’s significant other. The department that is doing the asking usually picks up most of the salary of that second person. Many departments can and rightly ask if the job candidate is worth the cost of two salaries. Might one of the other people interviewed for the position be a more cost effective selection. Another factor, given the decentralized nature of university governance, the other department might not want to hire the spouse. Why? Well, the spouse might be a weak candidate, specialize on a topic in which the department already has a specialist, or teaches a topic in which it does not want to offer classes.

If both spouses are in the same discipline that creates real problems for both couple and department. It will be easier to hire the spouse, but personal issues can be brought into the work place. The couple might become a power bloc in departmental voting, and both spouses might need a little time away from the other instead of having to both work and live together. Then, there is always the problem of what happens if the couple breaks up. That will create all sorts of difficulties for them and their colleagues.

A common solution is that one person becomes the principle breadwinner, while the other works on a part time basis as an adjunct. If having a family is more important to someone than a career, this is a good solution. It also allows that individual to have both a career and a family. This solution allows the part-timer to use the professional skills, education, and training they received in grad school. Adjunct work can often bring in significant “extra” income for a household, and issues like health insurance and other benefits might not be as important if the primary bread winner’s job provides for coverage of family members. With time, it will probably be possible to offer upper division or even graduate level courses, escaping the constant tough work of teaching introductory courses to freshmen. In most cases, the part-timer will have access to the university’s library, an e-mail account at the school, departmental stationary/mail services, and a work station/office of their own. These type of support services are exceptionally important and often add up to significant dollars if you had to pay for them on your own. The downside to this approach is that will always occupy something of a second tier status in the department and university. Few part-timers get funding from their home institutions for travel to a conference or research, and that can have all sorts of negative long-term ramifications.


  1. Nick – books could be written on this topic. No, books should be written on this topic! Everyone has their own story and like the other commentator suggested, so many of these issues affect everyone....balancing life and career crosses many lines. When I started out in grad school I was already married. But I asked a prominent female historian how to manage children. She suggested waiting until I was at the dissertation stage, then after having kids and finishing my writing (at the same time!), I could look for a job. That way there would be no “gaps” in my resume. It sounded nice and neat, but as usual, things did not go as planned. As students we saw too many marriages on the rocks, add kids and you had a recipe for heartbreak and stress. We decided to wait, or better to say, we just avoided the whole topic.
    Then one day I woke up and realized I had no time left to wait. I was surprised, but also panicked. Would all our indecision leave us childless? Thankfully, it did not. Since I had waited so long, in effect chosen my AMA (advanced maternal age) status, I now decided I was not going to work part-time and miss my kids’ childhood. And without any family nearby, it seemed to make sense that one of us focus on work and the other stay home with the kids. Yes, I still love my own work, plug away at it, and yes, I’ll take at least some credit for my husband’s success. Nobody sees any of this of course.
    Now, as I look to our future, I wonder about some of the larger issues. How are universities handling family life? Our own experience at LSU is mixed. As for spousal hires, I just do not know enough to comment. LSU does have some great family-oriented programs, for youth, gymnastics, summer camps, Halloween and Christmas specials, AgMagic, daycare, and more. Although the K-12 school on campus is nationally recognized, it is elitist and hard to get into. So obviously, there is a lot to build on, but I would love to see a more consistent alternative, weekly or bi-weekly clubs or activities, to get to know others on campus who have similar concerns for education, entertainment for kids, etc.
    Your blog suggested our history profession could do better when dealing with work-life balance and especially in talking to grad students about it. Where do we start? Some disciplines are now assigning essays on work-life balance. Does ours? It is important to make these assignments more than just token. Maybe we should really start with our journals, and ask several key ones to include a short section on work-life balance to cover all sorts of issues, basic entertainment, kids (education, health issues on campus, etc.), mental health, and beyond. And maybe the inaugural section could even include a special recognition or monetary prize – to give weight to its seriousness.
    I like your suggestion that our profession has to become more open to the need to balance work and life, and indeed in some instances help facilitate the two. But honestly I cringe at the thought of waiting for that to happen. I don’t have that kind of time anymore. I want to re-enter the teaching and academic world in the near future. And I understand that I do have to “re-enter” while some moms have chosen never to leave, sticking it out with daycare, etc. While I don’t want to be given credit for “staying home”, I don’t want to worry anymore about “gaps” in my resume. My life, family and intellectual, has no gaps! No ones’ does–at least no one who seriously devoted so much of their life to Clio. - Lisa Namikas

  2. I like this information, I would like read more about this, is very interesting! I like investigate about this topic!

  3. While having 2 scholars as parents may make it difficult to balance work and children, like any other couple, parents make it work however they can. Having an extended family member or nanny in the home may benefit the parents and the children. One working full-time and the other part-time may work for other parents.

    When it's important and both parents are in agreement, they will always be able to make it work.

  4. Dealing with professional work life and family life can often be difficult, but both parents sitting down and talking about what the best alternatives are for them and their children will always be best.

    Quality day care or tapping into family resources may assist in both parents achieving what they require in their professional lives and yet have a quality family life in conjunction with it.

  5. I appreciate it very much, at least I know from it someone is reading the contents I have here.

  6. Many professional businesses are now allowing flex hour schedules which can greatly enhance family life among professional couples. One spouse can work hours around the other for a better family life.

    Sometimes a flex schedule can mean working at home during regular work hours. This could also be an option for professional couples with a family.

  7. I agree, balancing parenting and working are way difficult to handle but managing your time may be of help, it works for me and i think others as well. But don't forget your time for your wife, you have to include them on anything you plan for your marriage life to work.

  8. Hi Nicholas,

    These are some great topics. I think you have to write a book on this topic.

  9. That leaves a small window of roughly ten years for having children. On the other hand, becoming a mother before finishing graduate school extends the amount of time the student will be a scholar and—statistically speaking—reduces the likelihood they will finish.

  10. A very long but very interesting article. It is difficult to strike a balance between career and family and this article has opened my eyes.

  11. It is a really big decision to choose between prioritizing grad school over marriage. Most especially if the couple already has kids. Most of the time the Mom chooses motherhood and push aside grad school in another time. Which ever they choose, these couples should be given enough support to fulfill their grad school dreams.