I’m Dr. Mom, Regardless of my Employer

Eileen Ahlin, Assistant Professor, Penn State University

Academia is my second career; one I began with a 2 ½ year-old and a newborn in tow. Being Dr. Mom has always been part of my journey and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I’d go so far as to say that being Dr. Mom outside of academia helped me navigate the tenure-track.

Before my advisor knew I was pregnant, he asked what I planned to do with all my free time after I received my doctorate. He knew that as a part-time student who was also working full-time, I had a lot on my plate. He also knew I planned to continue working full-time at the research firm where I had been for more than a decade, as part of my repayment to them for assisting with tuition costs. But what he didn’t know is that I planned to fill my newfound spare time with the rollercoaster ride of parenthood.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, were thoughts about whether it would be possible to have both a successful career and be a mom. But, from where I stood at the time, I saw many moms at my company doing just that – having their cake and eating it, too.

After what I affectionately call my “indentured servitude” (I really liked the company I worked for and was grateful for their support), I felt it was time to take my chances on the academic job market. It was my long-term goal, and I didn’t want to wait too long after my Ph.D. had been minted to make the switch. Once on the job market, I became attuned to the stories others shared about the struggles associated with academic motherhoodand wondered if there was enough time in the day to do both jobs; and do them well. These stories had me worried, but they also didn’t sit well with me; something didn’t seem right.

Perhaps I was naïve (or stubborn, or both), but I couldn’t place why the experience as a working mom in academia would be any different than being a working mom in any other professional realm. While employed in industry, I traveled, worked long hours, held conference calls at off hours, and had looming deadlines with clients. As part of my job, I also wrote a lot (often under deadline) and published scholarly work. Why would academia be any different?

I know this is not the case for everyone, though my experience as a working mom in academia so far has not been that different from when I was working in industry. Perhaps it was that early experience as Dr. Mom that prepared me to successfully navigate working as an academic mom.

For the first few years, while on the tenure-track and getting my research program and course offerings well underway, I operated the same way I had while employed in industry. I worked a steady 8a/9a to 5p/6pduring the week, depending on child care, and as needed checked emails and wrapped up loose ends after the kids were asleep. Weekend naptime was another golden opportunity to catch up or tackle small administrative tasks.

The summer months provided even more time to devote to research and course prep. I continued to work normal “business hours” during the summers of those early tenure-track years to gain momentum on my publications and hone my classes. Flexibility is a bonus in academia, but only if you use it to your advantage.