Site Review: Having an Academic Career and a Baby at UC Davis

This is an honest and sometimes gritty look at academic life from the perspective of female faculty members who decided to take on parenthood while juggling the 60- to 70-hour workweek of academia.

This Web site, which was assembled by the Women's Resources and Research Center at the University of California, Davis, at the urging of a tenured faculty member, is a collection of first-person accounts from current or recent faculty members at UC Davis. (All names have been withheld, although all accounts are extremely detailed and personal.)

Some of these faculty accounts are optimistic and upbeat (while still realistic), whereas some are very painful. One faculty member, for example, recounts what it was like to lose her husband to cancer 1 month before her daughter was born and how that affected her teaching schedule when she returned to work. Many recount the odd juxtaposition of academic expectations with the reality of a newborn who doesn't sleep through the night, or the rare occasion when they had to bring their infant to class.

The personal accounts from female faculty members cover everything from maternity leave, teaching and committee workloads, medical leave, what to do if you need to take medical leave BEFORE your delivery date, fellow department members' receptiveness to parenting responsibilities, and more.

By most standards, the faculty members who shared their experiences seemed to indicate that they received fairly enthusiastic support from most of their colleagues. The primary confusion was associated with finding the best way to request or arrange reduced teaching loads, or maternity leave, especially when it was necessary to take disability or medical leave before delivery.

Most faculty members in this study reported that although their department chairs approached their situation with the best of intentions, the chairs (mostly males of a different generation) did not always provide useful information. This was not necessarily the chairs' fault, as several faculty indicated, as the rules had changed. As one faculty member advises, "I think it is really, really, really important that the childbearing leave policies are discussed with all the department chairs."

The topic of the tenure clock was discussed by nearly all. Should you take advantage of the UC statute that says you can delay it? Or is it better to keep going and not stop it, especially for second or third children?

Faculty members also recount the extremely bureaucratic process by which they had to request reduced teaching and service loads (service being a requirement for promotion and tenure, such as serving on study sections, university committees, and review committees for publications). Some also had to fight to shift the scheduled dates for their performance reviews.

Some questions the faculty members pose from their real-life experiences:

  • Why don't men get paternity leave (16 weeks)? One faculty member recounts how her husband had to step down as chair of his department after they had premature twins because both parents were needed full-time for several months. The wife was allowed to take off several months; the husband was only allowed a couple of weeks.

  • Why isn't there a standard policy for providing extra funds to cover teaching help for a faculty member who is on leave? Several faculty members recount how they resumed teaching much earlier than they would have expected because their departments lacked funds to bring in outside help ... and they didn't want to "strand" students who needed to take their classes to graduate.

  • Why isn't there a policy regarding reduced teaching or service duties for expecting faculty members? Says one faculty member, "The university policy on childbearing leave, while more generous than most, is aimed at providing new mothers with leave after the baby's birth and does not take into account problem pregnancies that require bed rest or develop other complications."

Many faculty members advise having babies during the summer, which allows parents more time to adapt their teaching and research schedules to the new arrivals.

Finally, a former faculty member recounts the steps that went into her decision to resign her position at the university after having her first child. She says the decision to stop full-time teaching and research was difficult, but clear to her, because to do science well, she would need to continue with 60- to 80-hour workweeks--and ignore her child.

Our recommendation: If you're a postdoc and are thinking of pursuing the academic track, READ THIS NOW. If you're a faculty member and are thinking of having your first (or second or third) child, READ THIS NOW. Granted, UC Davis is just one academic institution out of many. Compared to some, its maternity/paternity policies may seem either prehistoric or enlightened. But that's not the point--the personal experiences of these faculty members are invaluable.

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