I have had many conversations with women over the years about the personal and life choices involved in their pursuit of higher education and academic careers. For example: how we decide what kind of funding opportunities to pursue; what kinds of research projects to undertake; when, if, and how to have children; how to accommodate our partners’ careers; what kinds of jobs to apply for, what quality of life factors we consider when accepting or declining job offers; and how and at what speed we advance our careers.
The Task Force is doing impressive research on the systemic disadvantages facing women in achieving the discipline’s norms for career advancement and success. To complement that work, I think there is a need to discuss the many ways in which women are building careers in political science defined by a broader set of goals than those encompassed by the normative image of an academic career.
To initiate a conversation about these diverse goals, I consider the questions below as they apply to my own career and life trajectory.
- What are your “own terms” for success? What life goals have you chosen to pursue alongside your professional goals? How have you defined your success and/or advancement in the field?
- How does your definition of success and/or advancement in the field differ from what you perceive to be the discipline’s definition of success or advancement?
- Have you been supported in the ways you would have liked? If not, what kind of support would you have liked to receive?
- Are you currently grappling with a choice that you think women must confront differently than men?
I got married just out of college and my partner and I applied to graduate programs at the same time. We made the decision about what school to attend based on two factors: first, where we could attend together; and second, where we were offered the best financial support. This ultimately meant turning down several top tier schools in my field.
Early in my graduate school experience I was offered the opportunity to teach. I quickly realized how passionate I was about teaching — preferring, actually, the teaching to my studies and research agenda. Still, I was committed to my research and to completing my PhD.
I was also committed to starting a family while in my twenties and decided to pursue this life goal while in graduate school. Our first child was born a few months after I defended my dissertation prospectus. Although nervous about presenting this news to my advisors, a year later I informed them that my husband and I would be moving back across the country to be close to our families. This was a goal my partner and I were committed to despite the potential risk to my funding. I continued to write my thesis from the opposite coast and began working as an adjunct faculty member.
Another year later I pleaded with my advisors to schedule my dissertation defense during the last week my doctor would allow me to fly before the anticipated birth of my second child. I had been concerned that waiting would jeopardize my ability to ever complete my PhD. The last time I ever spoke with my full committee they encouraged me to begin working on turning the dissertation into a book. Although I understood this to be the next logical step and an expectation of me, I doubted that I would be able to do so while teaching and raising two young children.
Although I was never questioned about any of these choices by my advisors, I recognized a kind of puzzlement. I presume it appeared to them that I was severely limiting my chances to achieve success in the more traditional mold of a tenure-track position, publication, and expertise in my niche study of “Truth Commissions.” Fair or not, to this day I worry that I am perceived as a poor return on their investment.
The reality is that my choices did result in a disconnect with the field. I quickly lost touch with my graduate school cohort and professors. Any networking connections I may have had couldn’t withstand the geographic reality. I did not turn my dissertation into a book. After several years of working as an adjunct I applied for a rare local full time community college position because: a) it was close, and b) some quick research on community colleges suggested they value teaching. Applying for this job turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made but it did not come without trade-offs.
My genuine interest in staying up to date in the literature quickly confronted the reality of being a community college professor: a teaching load of five classes a semester, limited access to databases and other essential resources, lack of funding for travel or professional development, and a demanding work culture prioritizing student engagement and success over academic contribution. With no funding or mandate to remain active, my memberships and participation in disciplinary organizations lapsed and I stopped keeping up with the literature.
For many years I focused exclusively on a task that was deeply satisfying to me both personally and as a political scientist because it was very tangible: educating people of all ages and backgrounds, many first generation college students, about the American system of governance. At the same time that I was deeply engaged in building this career, my family was putting down roots; we bought a home, had a third child, made friends, and got involved in our community. We spend much of our free time with our families. And yet, I had a nagging feeling that I was not adequately fulfilling the expectations of my academic title.
Several years ago I found my way back to the American Political Science Association. I was inspired by a desire to increase community college representation within the discipline. At that point in my career I was tenured, very involved in the community college system, and had been awarded a Fulbright. Recently I moved into a new administrative position that I genuinely enjoy. Our family is healthy and happy.
In almost any environment I feel successful and advanced in my career…except at APSA. This may reflect a real or perceived elitism in academia that stigmatizes community colleges. More than likely I have actually internalized the “gap” between my learned expectations of advancement as compared to my own experience. I don’t think I am alone in doing so.
This brings us back to the reason for this column and my hope that we can broaden our working definition of “success.” Please share your story! Send reflections up to 1,000 words to Radu Simion (firstname.lastname@example.org). Anonymous responses are fine. Guest posts will be moderated and posted regularly.
Thank you to Frances Rosenbluth, Mala Htun, Kathleen Thelen, Jane Mansbridge, and Jennifer Hochschild for their interest in giving voice to multiple perspectives on the Status of Women. Much appreciation also to Rhea Myerscough and Anne Gillman for their encouragement, feedback, and inspirational accomplishments.