The write time

Some women pursue PhDs and motherhood

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kristen Green
Globe Correspondent / June 2, 2008

Terra Barnes is a 29-year-old neuroscientist working toward her doctorate at the Graybiel Laboratory at MIT, one of the most prestigious in the country. She's also a smitten mother of 9-month-old Brayden.

Changing diapers and performing brain surgeries don't exactly go together, but Barnes felt she didn't have a choice. She wanted to have a baby, and she needed to finish her dissertation.

She's still figuring out how to make it work. While she's at the lab, she focuses on her cutting-edge research on the striatum, the part of the brain damaged in diseases such as Parkinson's. Sometimes she brings Brayden to the office, where she analyzes data while he naps. When he awakes, she holds him on her lap while typing, lets him play at her feet, or hands him off to eager co-workers.

Doctoral candidates are more likely to have babies these days for the simple reason that women make up a greater percentage of doctorate recipients than they did 30 years ago: 49 percent in 2005-06, compared to 24 percent in 1976-77, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The number of women being awarded PhDs has steadily increased from 8,000 in 1976 to more than 27,000 in 2005-06.

Some women say having a child during graduate school is appealing because their schedules offer flexibility. They figure potential employers won't be concerned with how long it took them to get their dissertation done. And they know once they get hired as postdoctorates, they'll be too busy trying to get articles published in high-quality journals to have a child.

But juggling the responsibilities of parenting and writing dissertations can be challenging. Last month the website Inside Higher Ed launched a blog called "Mama, PhD" to address the intense interest in balancing a family with an academic career. The editor, Scott Jaschik, said it is "a huge issue" for young academics.

"They want to know how this can work," Jaschik said. "They're trying to figure out: 'If I have a kid, am I never going to finish my dissertation? Will I never have a job?' "

How to make life easier for student mothers is an issue Harvard is trying to address. A student committee at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences reported this spring that new mothers returned to school before they were ready because of financial concerns, worries about insurance and research responsibilities, and that a "troubling number" received negative reactions to their status as parents from advisers and teaching supervisors.

The committee recommended that the school adopt a policy that would provide child-care assistance. It also recommended that Harvard let students take up to a one-year leave to care for a baby by enabling them to stop the clock on their dissertations, keep their health insurance, receive stipends, and, upon their return to school, provide them flexibility in course work and teaching positions.

Melissa Mazmanian, a 32-year-old PhD candidate at MIT's Sloan School of Management, expected to have trouble getting pregnant, and she wasn't willing to wait until she had completed her degree to try. As a graduate student she has control over her life in a way she knows she won't after she launches her academic career.

But being pregnant and completing her research wasn't as easy as she expected. After driving an hour to a New Hampshire business where she was interviewing employees about company-issued BlackBerries, she regularly took a catnap before going inside. On one occasion, she fell asleep in a meeting.

But sometimes pregnancy benefited her, too. The employees were more willing to talk to her about how to maintain a work/life balance when she was sitting across from them with a pregnant belly.

Mazmanian spends a minimum of four hours a day in coffee shops near her Somerville apartment reviewing interview transcripts and preparing to write her dissertation. Her mother, who moved temporarily from California to help care for Zabelle, often stops by the coffee shop so that Mazmanian can hug her 1-year-old daughter.

"I want to have a career. I want to finish this," Mazmanian said. "At the same time, I love being a mom."

Warigia Bowman, a PhD candidate at Harvard Kennedy School, has found it difficult to balance the responsibilities of being a mother and a doctoral student.

Bowman gave birth to her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Mariamu, while she was doing fieldwork. She plans to submit her dissertation about telecommunications policy in East African countries before her second child is born in August.

Working toward a doctorate at one of the most prestigious schools in the world hasn't been the ideal setting to have children, she conceded. Bowman, who begins a job as an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi in September, feels there is insufficient support for mothers who are pursuing their doctorates.

"Everyone is continuously asking me how I can get anything done. The model is you work until midnight every day, which I did before I had the baby," she said. "I just don't have enough time. I basically really rely on day care and baby sitters to give me time to get my work done."

She works from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and puts in a full day on Saturdays, too. She tries to be efficient, eating lunch at her desk and ignoring phone calls. At night, she feeds Mariamu dinner and reads to her before putting her daughter to bed and crashing herself.

But Bowman, 39, figures if she hadn't had children while at Harvard, it wouldn't have happened, and being a mother wasn't an experience she was willing to give up. But she wasn't going to pass up the degree either.

"You only get a chance to get a PhD at Harvard once," she said.

While these dissertation-seeking mothers say they are motivated to finish their degrees, the babies have made them reconsider their career plans.

Mazmanian, who plans to graduate next May, said she is thinking about doing a one-year post-doctorate in Boston as a way to transition from student to tenure-track professor. She said when she begins her job search next year, she will be looking for schools where people "are open about their families and it's not something they have to hide."

Barnes, who hopes to complete her dissertation by October, has bought a house in St. Louis, where her parents live. Despite previous plans to take a postdoctorate position wherever was best for her career, she decided to go home so her parents can help care for Brayden while she pursues a part-time post-doc there - if she can find a professor willing to go along. Barnes said she's always loved doing brain research but "I love being with my baby even more."

Bowman struggles with her decision to reject a visiting professor position at a more prestigious school. She said she didn't think she could put in the work required with a newborn.

"I had to make the choice that was the best choice for the family," she said. "Believe me, I cried over it. I cried salty tears."

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