Thursday, June 23, 2011

Women, academia, tenure, children, life

Last week Valerie King and I, later joined by Cora Borradaile, had a conversation on skype about women, academic job choices, and tenure. Here is the transcript of our conversation.

[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Hi Val! Here's the quote you sent me from the Barnard Commencement speech.
Sheryl Sandberg
Chief operating officer, Facebook
Barnard College

Women almost never make one decision to leave the work force. It doesn't happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it's the last year of med school when they say, I'll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I'm going to want more balance one day. Maybe it's the fifth year in a law firm when they say, I'm not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I'm going to want kids eventually.These women don't even have relationships, and already they're finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don't yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back.

So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That's the only way, when that day comes, you'll even have a decision to make.

[06/17/11] Valerie King: When I read the quote, I felt it described to some extent what I had done myself. That is, I thought, I should get a job at a university where I could raise a family and get tenure at the same time, without worrying too much about it. I decided this even before I was marrried!
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Were you worried about not having time for a family if you went to a fiercely competitive place like, say, MIT?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I don't think I ever had the option to take a prof position at MIT but I did have an offer to go to Brown for example. Way before I did the postdocs and NEC stint.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Did you really think that a postdoc was a safer choice than Brown?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I was scared to take a permanent position somehow, being single. I think the family idea was always in the back of my mind.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: It's scary for a man too.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: You mean the idea of settling in one place?
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Yes, especially while still single.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Hmm, maybe you're right about that. But I do know that I wanted to go to a place where I could be reasonably sure of getting tenure while raising kids. I wonder if that quote actually contains good advice? I mean, when I think about the women who have done well, a lot of them have established themselves at research labs first and then gone straight to tenured jobs.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: You mean, Anna Karlin, Joan Feigenbaum,...?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Yup, I'm trying to think of examples. Can you imagine someone going to a high pressure place, trying to juggle children and tenure, getting denied tenure, and then having to look, with little kids?? When I had little kids, I would get maybe 4 hours of sleep, get up at 5:00 in the morning, start class preparation. I was a walking zombie, not really able to plan things, or do research much.
[[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: No, it's very stressful. I was so lucky that in France my job was tenured right away. I never had to face those worries. Also, I could take it easy when my children were very little. I joined CNRS, that had no teaching, in 1990, and stayed until 1997, and my children were born in 1991 and 1994. During those years, if they had a bad night's sleep, for example, I could sleep late in the morning. I taught a little bit every year, just for fun, but not much. My parents helped take care of the children when I traveled to conferences, and I could spend several months each year in the US (taking my children with me) visiting other departments and building research connections. The pay was minimal but it was an ideal position to get started in research, and the stress was inexistent. So that quote doesn't really resonate with me. I never had to make, or even face the possibility of having to make, hard choices between children and career.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Wow. So if one was to follow the advice given in that quote, one would just go off to a high stress place, and then when and if one had kids, and felt the pressure, one would just try to find another job, I guess.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: That requires a lot of trust that things will work out somehow. Maybe it's ok if there are things that you know you enjoy and are confident that you could always do. Some fallback plan. For example if you know you'd enjoy being a high school teacher, that's a fallback plan if your research career ambitions don't work out. I always knew I liked teaching, and that I could be good at teacher if I put my heart into it, so that was always my plan B...
06/17/11] Valerie King: I see. Go for the high risk position. Then fall back if it's necessary.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: You have a law degree: aren't there other things you would have done if academia didn't work out for you?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: It's hard to know. I certainly didn't think that way. Because law is not that different from academia. If I had stayed so many years away from the law, who would have hired me? And in Canada, being a US lawyer? It's also a competitive occupation.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: I have a friend, an academic, who had some interest in early childhood education and could imagine working in a kindergarten.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Have you heard of many academics around our age who are considering changing careers?
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Um... you mean, not becoming dean or provost or university president and all that stuff? Maria Klawe. David Dobkin.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Right. There's the admin route.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Right. Oh, horror!
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Horror for you?
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: (Yes). I have a neighbor, Richard Schwartz, a mathematician, who wrote a book for children that was bestseller on Amazon. Maybe he could switch and become a writer!
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Wow. I have a friend who is considering piecing together an alternate career made up of tutoring, teaching yoga, consulting.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Why?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I'm not sure. Too much stress. For me, it would be boredom of doing the same thing (teaching) in the same place with the same people year after year (20! years)
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: I admire Jon Kleinberg. The way in which he just moved forward in the direction he was interested in.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: What Kleinberg does though is not necessarily theoretical computer science. To some extent it's sociology
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: I agree, it's not necessarily TCS, but does that matter? Jon Kleinberg was not thinking about how other academics would see him, I think. He's just doing what interests him, whatever happens. It's daring. He wasn't advocating about how people ought to do research in this or that: he just does it. His attitude is great.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I think Les Valiant is the same, and great for the same reason.

[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Cora Borradaile is online. Should I invite her to join in?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Sure, is she interested?
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Hello?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Hi Cora!
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Hi Cora, welcome!
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Hi!
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: What's the stress when you have tenure? John Savage told me that if what I do is not satisfying, then I can always find other ways to find fulfillment in academia. For example, I could think about writing a book (technical or broader), or focus on advising first-year undergrads.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I find that when I'm teaching two courses at the same time, I'm kind of unable to do much extra. I seem to get caught up in the daily grind with teaching, admin etc. maybe since I still have my kids at home. I don't seem to have that much time for changing direction.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Oh I see. You can teach a different course, or sit on a different committee, or go to a different conference, but that's about the extent of your flexibility. Well, what would you like to do? If you had the time? Professionally, I mean.
06/17/11] Valerie King: I don't know. Maybe get out of the university.
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: When I hear these reasons for women "opting out" or "opting for a less high-profile position", it is almost always linked to kids, but there is something there even if kids aren't in the picture
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I'm reaching the age where the kids will be out of the house, so I'm contemplating what to do next. I suppose I would like to think and work on problems in a broader context. I'd love to be in a think tank.
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: i've started getting involved in Corvallis - that's been really satisfying - to help things happen in the city
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I've thought about getting involved with local planning in Victoria. What are you doing in Corvallis?
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Mostly it is boring meetings, but there is actually interesting issues and i can't help but think of mathematical solutions.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Like the stuff Pascal van Hentenryck does, constraint programming in real life?
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: More like route design, Claire. I'm involved in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy. There's room for really changing the structure of the city by putting in bike paths and multi-use paths. If you could drop all the traffic lights and one-way streets, how would you make traffic move? if you have X dollars, what is the best bicycle boulevard you could build? [06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Perfect for you!
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Yes! Unfortunately it's not a clean problem - too many rules and land-use issues
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I do think this is related to having children or not. With kids at home, I felt obligated to spend time with them in the evenings. Probably it was not a good idea to do this exclusively. The mother role together with the academic role was fine, totally consuming. I couldn't have imagined doing extra work. Though now I have time. And I did start to do some volunteer work around 6 years ago.

[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: So are you talking about replacing the outside-academia work, or replacing the academia work?
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: I was thinking academia. You're right, let's stay focused.
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: I might have not absorbed the whole of the earlier conversation - why are you dissatisfied with academia that makes you want to replace it?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: For me, it's because I'm bored with doing it for the past 20 years.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Me too but I won't say it
[06/17/11] Valerie King: You just did
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: No I didn't :)
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Why won't you say it?
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Well, I don't know. I'm not THAT bored. When I start discussing a problem with someone, it's always fun
[06/17/11] Valerie King: So the funny thing is that tenure doesn't change anything that much. People say you're like a trained rat.
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Dan Spielman told me it's worse when you have tenure
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Really? why?
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Because of the committee work and added letter writing (and there may have been other things that I don't remember)
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: He sounds like a very responsible person
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Oh there's a ton of stuff that fills up your time
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Heh
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: The thing is, if you start slacking, once you have tenure, nothing bad happens to you so it's your choice just how much time you spend on things; besides, if you give all your energy to work, how can they expect more?
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Maybe Dan can't say no.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: And then he feels obligated to do it
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I think the committee work is really up to the individual. Some people work hard on it, some don't. But I do feel obligated to write letters, help out my students, do some refereeing, etc.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Writing letters is a big and important chore. Helping students is fun for me. Refereeing... well... maybe I've done enough at this point. Better say no right away than let it drag for months because I'm not really into it, right?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Do you think we can stop refereeing now, with a clear conscience?
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Noooo! that would just mean more for the rest of us!
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: What do you mean, conscience? If you spend your time doing some other work, it's just replacing work by work. I hope that if we do more of the things we enjoy and less of the things we can't bear any more, our job will be more fun
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Really? But I thought no one wants to do this, so if we don't pitch in, it won't get done
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Maybe I'll stop refereeing
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: i've started counting ... for every paper I submit, I will review 3 papers and feel perfectly happy saying no to any requests after my quota is met
[06/17/11] Valerie King: What about program committees? Do you see any point of being on one of these?
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: I used to find that task really interesting: I've past that stage, I think, so I may say no from now on.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Every year, I agree to 1-3 or so. I don't like it either.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: I mean, why should you do anything? If boredom prevents you from doing your work, shouldn't you re-evaluate? Maybe eliminate the worst chores and emphasize others?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I don't know where this comes from. A desire to prove myself still?
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Val, I think that that's John Savage's point: you get to define the job. If you don't like it, re-define it.
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: You agree to 1-3 PC's EVERY year, Valerie?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Yes. You know, in my department, in other areas, people are doing a lot more than this. SODA, FOCS and STOC take a lot of time. Others take half as much or less.

06/17/11] Valerie King: Should we tie it up? I have to make dinner.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Ok, what do we conclude?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: We conclude that we're not sure about the quote. It seems it's very risky to do what she's proposing in academia.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Unless you have a plan B.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: And we need to take steps to keep up our interest. Change jobs, change the tasks we do, give up the things we don't like to do.
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: i have a problem with any advice that advocates work before all else - in the absence of the kid question
[06/17/11] Valerie King: I only get creative when the work is really on my mind, at least temporarily. This does interfere with kids though
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Work before all else? Did we advocate that? Even the quote, I think, advocated work before "the potential unknown". not work before something else that would be well-defined.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Right, Claire.
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: "Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there" isn't a healthy phrase for me
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Biker
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Haha
[06/17/11] Valerie King: It's hard to imagine research done that way. I have to take naps every few hours when I'm really working. But I am pretty one track minded. Maybe it's a question of personality.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: When I'm "really working", the social part of my life, limited as it is, takes a toll. I find find harder and harder to accept, with time. The thrill of understanding a mathematical structure, compared to the steady pleasure of seeing my kids or talking to regular people... the balance is changing. I can imagine stopping to do research at some point if I find something else that I love, even if it's not as much of an intellectual stimulation.
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: Something i've wondered - if you do "lean in" would you even recognize that your life could be different and you want to have kids or join a motorcycle gang or whatever it is? Would you be able to make such a change?
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Huh?
[06/17/11] Valerie King: And I was thinking I would do more research when the kids left. I don't know yet. I was also thinking of doing more sociological type research.
[06/17/11] Valerie King: Better end this.
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Ok. Bye?
[06/17/11] Glencora Borradaile: i have to run (not literally)
[06/17/11] Claire Mathieu: Ok, bye.


  1. There should be no job in which one must work at night and walk like a zombie during the day.

  2. I wanted to comment on the (self-imposed) censorship of some of my comments in this conversation:


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