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.