Being An Academic Dad

Michael Ford, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin- OshKosh

To be honest, I never new it was unique having young kids while in graduate school, or while on the tenure track. My oldest son (age 9) was born while I was working on my master’s, and my second son (age 6) was born while I pursued my PhD. Having young children while building an academic career is all I ever knew. But after more than five years in the academy, and more than a little reflection, quite a few things stand out.

In general, some parts of academia are just harder with kids.

Academic conferences, for example, are rarely multi-day affairs full of networking; it takes careful logistical planning and family sacrifice just to attend. Even then, I often swoop in, give my talk, and head home. I once had a senior scholar tell me I was acting like an invited speaker rather than an Assistant Professor. What he saw as arrogance was actually me doing everything I could to make it work.

Having kids also places limits on who will work with you in graduate school. What I thought were innocent conversations about my family were, I came to find, scholars feeling me out about my ability to dedicate myself to their work. Some professors made clear they could not work with me because of my other commitments. 

Finally, having young ones changed the calculus of the job market for me. Each academic parent’s situation is unique, but for me the prospect of moving across the country in pursuit of a higher status academic job became untenable once the kids settled into school.

While, some things are harder in academia with kids, there have been professional advantages. My time management skills for example: Procrastination is not an option when every hour in your day is accounted for. Deadlines mean something. Being rooted in a community has also helped me to build the relationships and research partnerships that allow me to make the professional impact I want to make. Overall, recognizing that family commitments can limit some opportunities makes me appreciative of the opportunities I can take advantage of.

Lastly, being an academic dad puts the value of my support networks into clear focus. For me it starts with a supportive partner who masterfully balances her professional and family ambitions. I am forever grateful for my advisor, and other professors, who saw my being a father as part of who I am, not a professional liability.

And the best part, I have two awesome kids who appear in the dedication of a dissertation and a book. How cool is that?