Children, Childless, and Academia: The Need for Better Scientific Managers

There’s been a lot of discussion about why women in academia have fewer children than those in medicine or law. Unfortunately, it seems to be veering dangerously close to the ‘pro-kids, anti-kids’ argument that ultimately breaks out, when instead, I think the problem has less to do with children and more to do with a fundamental problem within academia (and academic science in particular)–we suck at management.

As bad as we supposedly are at defending evolution (if Randy Olsen is to be believed), we really do a piss poor job at managing. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time wrote something that really resonated with me (bold original; italics mine):

What I am saying is that all people have personal responsibilities and we should value them all and respect them all equally. I want kids someday, and I hope to work in an environment that accommodates that choice on my part. That said, I do think that if I have kids that it is a choice, and people shouldn’t have to schedule meetings around my kid’s soccer practice. Unless I’d also be willing to schedule meetings around my child-free colleagues’ afternoon pottery class of course. Because guess what? To me, those two things are equal. The problem as I see it is that most people don’t value those things as equal. The kid activity gets viewed as a “responsibility” – and it gets characterized that it’s the child-free person’s ethical duty to support the soccer aspirations of the youth of America by having a meeting late Friday afternoon instead of at 3 PM on a Tuesday – while the grown-up person activity gets viewed as “leisure,” and thus as expendable.
The reality, as I see it, is that this profession fucks with people’s personal lives whether they’ve got kids or not. It threatens to take up all one’s time, sucking out any energy one might have for any “life” beyond the job. It fucks with one’s social networks through the national job market, and it fucks with one’s finances with the low pay and debt from grad school. One thing that this affects is when and whether people have kids. It also affects things like when one can buy a home, when one begins saving for retirement, when one sees family and close friends, etc. Now, there are trade-offs, and I am not moaning about how horrible professors have it. But yes, there are structural facts that make it very difficult for professors – single, married, gay, straight, child-having, child-free, whatever – to have a personal life that is separate from the job and that is valued in terms of material resources by employers.
Let me tell you my reality, as a single person without kids, living in an area that is far from the people to whom I am closest. There is no sharing of household chores or bill-paying. All of that is on me to do. I have to keep a stock of various medicines in my house because if I come down with some sort of ailment, I don’t have anyone who could go to the drugstore for me. I have to schedule all appointments for myself and for the Man-Kitty, and I have to be responsible for making those appointments, transportation, etc. The business of day-to-day living, which I would share if I were in a long-term, cohabiting relationship, is all on me. I’m not saying that those responsibilities or realities are identical to having a kid, but yes, they are responsibilities, and they are, indeed, actually urgent and concrete and meaningful. I am not talking about wanting the job to accommodate my desire to take dance classes or something. And I’ve got to find a way to balance all of that with a job that doesn’t acknowledge that a life of the mind can only take place once material needs are taken care of. So why don’t I have kids? Dude, I don’t have time to get laid, let alone the wherewithal to get myself knocked up right now. It’s all I can do to keep my apartment clean. That’s not a “choice” that is “selfish” on my part, nor do I have this luxurious life because I don’t have kids. The reality is that my personal life blows and this profession makes that possible (at least) and causes a lot of it (at most).

The point is that academia–especially when you have made a lot of moves–can wreck havoc on your personal life, kids or no. While science has moved into the 21st century, the academic professional model is still stuck in the 1950s. Anyway, back to the management issue.
One problem I’ve noticed is that most academics are shitty managers, whether they’re deans, department chairmen, or simply a faculty member coordinating a group project. This makes sense: our entire academic training emphasizes poor time management. After all, when you’re a grad student, if someone else screws up (or you screw up when you could have avoided it), you just work longer. There’s little or no penalty for poor time management–in fact, it’s often hard to tell if poor time management is even taking place. You’re working hard after all, and that’s commendable.
One of the good things about working at a non-profit organization for a couple of years is that it, to a considerable extent, took me off of ‘academic time’ and put me onto ‘business time’: if I emailed someone on Friday at 4:55pm, I didn’t expect a response until Monday (unless it was truly urgent–for the recipient). That didn’t mean that I didn’t work late or weekends on my things, but I didn’t automatically consider that others’ weekends were business hours. What’s worse is that we then encourage this bad behavior by responding (again, this is different if it is a genuine emergency, or a long planned weekend interruption).
The other source of bad management is that too many in academia can’t say the simple word no. Granted, sometimes it’s very hard or impossible to say no, particularly for an untenured faculty member. Even when there isn’t that power imbalance, someone wants to say no, but the concept of collegiality (which is abused ad nauseum) doesn’t permit it. If you do say no, people are often shocked, even if they spring something on you at the last moment. The idea that a collaborator will say, “No, I can’t, you didn’t give me enough lead time” is often novel–and more importantly, avoidable.
For example, I’m currently involved in writing several hundred pages of grants. When a colleague asked if I could get involved in another project, I said the dread word no. So said colleague tried again, and again, no. There is no available Mike for developing a project right now. Period. It’s not personal, but I have to get these grants done. I needed to be told about this months ago, not two weeks before a bunch of deadlines. Some long term planning was necessary, and didn’t happen.
(Note to colleagues: Don’t reward the bad behavior)
Anyway, I’ll sum up this long digression. There are several reasons why academia isn’t often human-friendly, but one of those reasons is self-inflicted. If we did a better managing projects, department, consortia, and so on, much of the stress of academia could be reduced, family or no.

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12 Responses to Children, Childless, and Academia: The Need for Better Scientific Managers

  1. Grimalkin says:

    A great post! And it doesn’t even address the hardships faced by a family in which both parents are working in academia and untenured. One of my professors is going through major issues at the moment because his wife could only find work in a university halfway across the country. The kid, who they could share while they each took sabbaticals, is now with the mother.

  2. yttrai says:

    As a child-free scientist (industry, not academia) the quoted portion resonates deeply with me as well; especially since i was also the primary caregiver for an SO a few years ago who had cancer and was not expected to live.
    The negative effects that year had on my career were severe and significant; and the people who were the hardest on me were those with children – people whose schedules were even more affected by daycare and carpools than mine were.
    It was shocking and isolating to see how my personal responsibilities were completely meaningless to them, since it was an adult who i was caring for and not a child.

  3. PhysioProf says:

    At DrugMonkey, our entire philosophy is that science is, like any other profession, largely a matter of effective management: of time, of effort, of people, of resources. And we try to debunk the idea that science is a solitary pursuit of creative geniuses. We consider this debunking process really important for making the profession of science more hospitable for everyone, not just for well-off white dudes with wives at home.

  4. Jim Thomerson says:

    Now a professor emeritus, I have spent some time ruminating on my career in academia. Being a professor is an excellent job because, as a professor, I had so much control of my time and effort. I take it this is not a universal view.
    When I became department chair, I knew that “they” wanted more contol of my life than I cared to give. I worked on things I considered interesting and important, and things which must be accomplished or the sun won’t come up tomorrow (scheduling classes, for example.) The rest I ignored. It worked out fine.

  5. Janne says:

    Isn’t the basic problem that we choose managers for exactly the wrong reason? We take people who are researchers – the most brilliant, driven and hard-working ones, the people who not only can, but want to do a laser-like focus on one single aspect of science for months at a time, at the expense of friends, colleagues and any personal relationships – and those are the ones punted upwards to manage other people.
    The logic of “driven, focused researcher == people person with management skills” frankly eludes me. Of course we have a culture that puts little value on life outside work; we promote people in no small part because they have embraced this attitude. If we tend to promote people with no life outside research then why are we surprised and dismayed when that becomes the norm?
    Most other fields tend to get their management from the ranks of specialists, or people shifting from their previous field into management. It is seen as a skill set separate from and as valuable as any other field-specific skills. Academia is one of the few areas where this is not true. A parallel example is communication, where in most fields you have dedicated people for doing public and press communication; whereas in academia it is the reasearchers themselves that do it (and, as a result, tend to do it badly).

  6. Stephanie C says:

    As an academic who worked in non-profits for a few years and then moved back to academia, your post completely resonated with me. I’m now surrounded by poor managers and “efficiency” is not the name of the game. I came in wanting to make the most productive use of the resources I was being given in my job. Now, a year later, I realize I’ve been slogged down into the long slow burn of an academic. I take months to do projects that used to take me a week, when I’m dissatisfied with aspects of my job my “managers” are sympathetic but very few people around me have the organizational skills to make real change happen in my job. In my non-profit work, we were problem-and-solution driven. Our philosophy was “just try something.” Of course, the work coming out of academia has to be more carefully thought out, hence the slower pace and thoughtful approach. Yet, it could be more efficient and our time better-managed.

  7. Jim Thomerson says:

    Janne is not completely correct about how academic managers/administrators are chosen. In my experience, the majority of them are people who have failed as researchers, and may or may not be acceptable teachers. They become administrators because they are not particularly good at the other aspects of academia. I’d like to think Janne was correct in my case, but it was more just my turn in the barrel.

  8. Janne says:

    Jim, “managers” include PI’s, deans (which are elected from the faculty) and department heads, all of which got their posts due to their research results, but end up doing as much – or more – administration and personnel management as they do any research or teaching.

  9. Jim Thomerson says:

    Different strokes for different folks. I should clarify that I was at a regonal state university, not a major research institution. We did not elect chairs or deans, but rather recommended to higher authority where the final decision and appointment occurred. During the 32 years I spent in my department, about half the chairs had considerable research experience before they became chair. Most chairs served for three years. The deans I served under had some research credentials, but not much.

  10. Rugosa says:

    Any of your admin assists can tell you that academics can be hell to work for. I swear that the faculty have some secret office pool going on where they vie to give the AAs the most difficult task with the shortest deadline.

  11. Luna_the_cat says:

    Most of your post seems sound to me, except for one of the aspects of Dr. Crazy’s post that you like.
    Having kids
    the same as a pottery class.
    Having kids, as with caring for other human beings in any capacity, is also an act of social responsibility upon which future stability of the economy as a whole rests. Caring for disabled, ill or elderly family members also falls into this category, because just leaving such people to die is NOT an option, so someone has to care for them, and it is to the benefit of the individuals being cared for as well as unrelated taxpayers for family to be incharge of this. But, in a large sense, if people don’t choose to have kids, and/or are not involved in raising, caring for and teaching kids to be competent citizens, then society and the economy degrade hugely.
    Pottery class? If no-one in the world took any more pottery classes, we would still have an economy.
    How can you not get this distinction?
    Yeah, it’s a personal choice. It is, however, a personal choice with wide societal repercussions.

  12. Edward says:

    In my opinion, as a father and an academic, the part of being an academic that is hardest on family life is being forced to move about. I have 2 kids and the 1st was born when I was finishing my Ph.D. For my career, we moved so I could take a post-doc and continue in academics. My 2nd child was born while I was in that post-doc, and when that was up, I tried taking another position in the same town so that my family didn’t have to move again and leave behind the support network we had built up. In that 2nd position, I was treated as strictly 2nd class and made to feel miserable. I started looking for yet another position, and the choices wound up being moving to another country or another state – these were both excellent positions – but to get a good position, I had to move the family. I wound up opting for the position in another state, which was a another post-doc. We again began to settle down, the kids started school and made friends. However, as a post-doc, the position was not permanent. I was doing good work, but the policy was to not hire post docs as faculty. I was forced to search for another job and I got 3 excellent tenure-track offers at 3 of the best research universities with nice start-up packages – but the family got uprooted again. While I talked about each of these moves with my wife and discussed each of them at length, they became a contributing factor to our divorce (not the only factor, but definitely one of them). My family are pretty much all academics, and I’ve seen many times how academics forces people to make painful choices between moving for carrier and family. I honestly think that the system itself is anti-family and expects people to live a monastic life devoted to their subject.

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