Do babies mattter?TopMentoring for academic
leadershipWomen professors with children

Women engineering professors with children: some personal perspectives

Chair Pam Cosman, UCSD
Panel Marc Goulden, Principal Analyst, Graduate Division,
Sangeeta Bhatia, Associate Professor, UCSD Bioengineering
Pamela Cosman, Professor, UCSD Electrical Engineering
Melany Hunt, Professor, Caltech, Mechanical Engineering
Sara Wadia-Fascetti, Associate Professor, Civil and ,
Environmental Engineering Northeastern University


This session was intended to provide some advice, anecdotes, perspectives, and information about combining children with an academic engineering career. Obviously children are of concern to both parents and not just women faculty, but equally obviously the workload is different with childbirth and women historically have borne the brunt of childcare. All but one of the panelists in this session were women, but men participated actively in the discussions.

The first main topic concerns the timing of children- should one have babies during one's graduate student years, during a postdoc, as a faculty member pre-tenure, or should one wait until after tenure? The second main topic concerns strategies for balancing work and family once a baby has arrived.

Timing of Children

The session began with a presentation by Dr. Marc Goulden, who presented a wealth of data on pipeline issues in academic careers, including how the timing of children impacts academic careers differently for men and for women. Chapter * details his presentation. Here, we present the personal anecdotes from the other four speakers in the session.

Personal perspectives on timing babies during an
academic career

Prof. Cosman has four children. Benjamin was born in the 4th year of her Ph.D. program, and Rafael was born at the very start of her postdoc year. Technically, Rafael was born when she was still a graduate student; it was the week after she turned in the very final version of her dissertation, and 6 days before she marched in the graduation ceremony. But we can count that as the start of her postdoc. Gilead was born during her years as a faculty member pre-tenure, and Ilan was born after she got tenure.

Having a baby as a graduate student can be a particularly good time to do it, providing that a few things are true. First, your adviser needs to be the type of person who is understanding of the situation, and needs to allow you some flexibility in your work hours for some months, and should be the sort of adviser who will not be upset about a slight dip in your productivity. Of course, this is the sort of adviser you want to work for in any case, regardless of whether you are planning to have a baby or not. For example, there was a case where a male student took a 5-week summer vacation, which had been approved by his adviser. A week after his return, his mother died, and the student took off an additional 5 weeks to spend with his father and siblings. The student therefore had off 10 weeks with pay, and there was a noticeable dip in productivity in the months that followed. The adviser was understanding of the situation, and allowed the time off with pay, and was not upset about the dip in productivity. So, this sort of adviser is good to have in any case, and not just for pregnant students.

Second, it is hard to have a baby while still taking classes. So if a graduate student wants to have a baby, it might be wise to do it after the required courses are finished. The inflexible hours of lectures and exams can be difficult to reconcile with the unpredictable schedule of a newborn. Even after the baby is a few months old, there may be unpredictable terrible nights of sleep intermingled good nights, as well as health issues that crop up, and other unexpected irregular events. This can often fit in well with doing research (assuming the research is not something that must be done on a fixed daily schedule) but is likely to be harder to fit in with taking classes.

Third, the graduate student mother needs to have the financial resources to pay for child care, which often means having a husband who has a real income, as opposed to a graduate student stipend.

Under these circumstances, having a baby while in grad school can be the best time to do it! The difficulty or ease of having a baby as an untenured faculty member depends largely on the maternity policy of the particular university (see the next section on policies). Having a baby post-tenure can be more stressful than having one during grad school (assuming of course that during grad school one had the right combination of supportive adviser and adequate finances and so forth) but is less stressful than having one pre-tenure. Prof. Cosman's third child was born when she was still untenured, and she had the option of extending the tenure clock by one year. She did not need the extension of time (in fact, she was offered tenure early) but she was pleased to know that the option was there. It was also helpful that the decision to extend or not extend the tenure clock was not one that had to be made when the baby was born. It was possible to wait and see how the research turned out over the next couple of years.

Prof. Bhatia had her daughter after getting tenure. Prof. Wadia-Fascetti also had her two children after she got tenure. For the first one she had a quarter of maternity leave, immediately followed by a quarter of teaching buy-out, immediately followed by summer and a year of planned Sabbatical leave. This was followed by her 2nd child, and therefore another quarter of maternity leave. So this amounted to two full years away from teaching. While it was wonderful to have all that time off, there was some issue of other faculty members being resentful, and it was a little hard to get back into the swing of things. The first quarter back was difficult, but gradually things got better.
Professor Hunt is a professor and Executive Officer for Mechanical Engineering at Caltech; she is married with two children. Caltech is an unusual institution, because it is very small and science-focused with a long history of being an all-male institution. Caltech was founded in 1891 as Throop University, and originally had a grammar and high-school, a business school, a teacher-training program, a college of science and technology, and enrolled female students. In 1907, the trustees decided to narrow the focus of the school to science and technology, eliminating the other programs and the female students, and renaming it Throop Polytechnic Institute (this split plays a role in my story of work-family balance). The school was renamed again in 1920 to California Institute of Technology, which maintained an all-male professorial faculty until 1969. A year later, undergraduate women were admitted to Caltech.

In engineering, the first woman faculty member was hired in 1987; Professor Hunt was the second woman, hired in 1988. At that time, Caltech did not have a maternity program for faculty, and surprisingly she was asked her views on this issue during an early interview. In approximately 1990, the first child was born to a Caltech woman faculty member. Professor Hunt's children were born in 1993 and 1996.

One daughter is a pre-tenure baby, and the other is post-tenure. Both children are happy, healthy, loving and confident, without visible scarring from the tenure process. In comparing the experiences, however, it was much easier to have a child in the post-tenure years, then in the pre-tenure period. Dr. Hunt took an extensive sabbatical plus leave with the second child, with little break for the first; she was more confident, relaxed, and comfortable with the second child. However, even knowing that it's tough having a child during the pre-tenure process, a woman should not feel discouraged from having a child during this time. The choice of having a child is an extremely personal decision. If you feel that you're at a point in your life when you want to start or expand your family, you should make that decision without putting undue pressure on yourself about tenure. Prof. Hunt found that most of her colleagues either didn't seem to think about her pre-tenure family decision, or else were supportive of her decision to have a child.

University childbearing policies:

There was some discussion during the session on policies for graduate student maternity leaves. On the one hand, there are disadvantages to leaving the matter up to the kindliness of the adviser.
It can be quite a hit to an adviser to require the adviser to pay the stipend of a graduate student during a maternity leave. The adviser pays out the grant support and loses the student's productivity during this time, which might be particularly difficult for the adviser to absorb if he/she is a new assistant professor. There is therefore a strong argument in favor of having a policy which mandates what a graduate student can get (stipend and time off) for a maternity leave, and having some or all of this paid for by the university, rather than having the financial burden fall entirely on the adviser. On the other hand, some advisers are quite generous, and what a graduate student might get unofficially in terms of a maternity leave might be considerably more generous and flexible than a rigid policy would mandate. For example, in one case a student had two weeks off completely, and then came back to work about 3 hours per day, gradually ramping up to 4, 5, 6 and then 8 hours per day over a period of 3 or 4 months. The student received her usual stipend, and this was seen as being in lieu of an annual vacation. The student enjoyed being able to "clear her head" for a few hours a day away from the newborn baby, and she had the advantage of not completely losing touch with her research, which might have happened with a conventional maternity leave. In industry, it is typical for a woman to have 6 or 8 weeks off for maternity leave, and then to come back full time. This type of "step function" is often much harder for the mother to handle physically and emotionally than a "ramp function" and it may mean less overall productivity from the company's point of view also, since the employee can completely lose touch with her prior work, another employee may have to be re-deployed to cover the missing worker, etc. The flexibility of the "ramp function" is something that is often well suited to graduate student life, and to academic life in general. So this is a strong argument for leaving this matter as a gray area, and not imposing a rigid policy formula which might well involve a "step function" approach to the graduate student's work.

At the faculty level, the ease of having a child depends heavily on the maternity policy. As a typical case, one school allowed a one-quarter relief from teaching, as well as a one-year extension on the tenure clock. For many people, the dip in productivity that comes from having a baby does not amount to, say, a reduction by one full year of work over the course of 5 years. So having a baby together with a one-year extension on the tenure clock may actually represent a genuine increase in the hours spent advancing one's case for tenure. A recent change in the policy at the UC schools means that the default position is no longer that the woman faculty member must request the year extension. Rather, the tenure clock will be automatically extended by a year, and the woman faculty member can request that the tenure limit revert back to its original shorter value. This means that the onus is no longer on the woman to request the extension, and the perception has changed of what is the "normal" thing to do.

There was some discussion during the session about a paternity policy. At the UC schools, male faculty as well as female faculty can request the "active service/modified duties" status that can be in the quarter when a child is born or adopted. This means they will get one quarter off from teaching as well. Very few male faculty request this type of paternity leave. It is not known how many male faculty members abuse this policy (for example, by using the quarter off to go to conferences and on a national seminar tour, while their non-university non-working wife takes care of the child) but Dr. Goulden felt the number was quite small.

Strategies for managing work/life after
having kids

It was interesting to note the contradictions in perspectives on the work/family balance among the different speakers. There is not one single equation for success in these sorts of situations. What works best for one professor/mother depends on individual factors of personality, family constraints, work constraints and so forth. Here we present an amalgamation of the different points of view and pieces of advice.

Strategies at home

Child care:

Some of the speakers have nannies who come in to the house to take care of the children. Others have relied instead on a day care or pre-school situation during the pre-school years.
Prof. Hunt feels fortunate that her children have been cared for and educated within a five minute walk of her office. Caltech has an on-site day care center (started in 1972 and founded by a group of faculty wives and Caltech staff members), which enrolls children from 6 months to 5 years of age. While her girls were young, she was very active in the Children's Center at Caltech serving on the board for a total 4 years with 3 years as the president. It is a high-quality program; it was a terrific resource during the early years.

Her children now attend Polytechnic School, which is near the southwestern corner of campus. This school was started as the spin-off from the Throop Polytechnic years. It is a private independent school with children from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Her children have enjoyed their years at Poly, and she is able to easily run over for the occasional class play, skinned knee, choir performance, student-teacher conference, etc.

Most of the speakers made similar comments about the flexibility of academic life. Academic jobs offer flexibility that you can't find in many other professions. This flexibility is a great asset in child rearing. Certain commitments such as lectures and office hours cannot be switched around freely, but other time during the day is spent doing research, or meeting with individual graduate students, where there is tremendous flexibility in the scheduling. This has the advantage of allowing faculty parents to attend events at their children's school or pre-school relatively easily, more easily than most women in industry would find it.

Prof. Cosman has a nanny/housekeeper who comes in to her home each work day. This has the advantage that the nanny can wash the dishes and do the laundry while the 1-year-old is sleeping. Prof. Cosman feels it is an enormous benefit to have the housework done, so she can devote her home time to being with the children.

Prof. Wadia-Fascetti commented on the importance of reliability in child care, and of always having a back-up plan in case the main plan falls through. Part of Prof. Cosman's back-up plan is to never teach a class earlier than 10:00 in the morning. In case one wakes up in the morning to find that the nanny is sick, and can't come to work (happens less than once per year), one needs a bit of time to react, and to activate plan B, and with teaching an 8 AM class there would be no time to react.

Give up on some things:

When people talk about whether it is possible to "do it all" the answer depends on what you mean by "all" . If what you mean by "all" is having an exciting, intellectually stimulating career, and also having a loving family with which one can enjoy plenty of time, then the answer is yes, it is possible to have it all. But the answer is NO if the "all" means the above two items, plus also the following: (a) having a house which is at all times ready to be photographed inside and out for Architectural Digest, (b) keeping up with all your pre-children hobbies of bonsai-cultivation, ballroom dancing, rock climbing, and tae kwon do, (c) spending lots of quality time alone with your spouse, and (d) throwing dinner parties and entertaining your friends regularly with haute cuisine and decorations that would teach Martha a thing or two. In short, having kids and a career will be about all that can be done, and (a),(b),(c), and (d) will largely have to go by the wayside.
In essence, this is a matter of redefining one's priorities at home, after the arrival of a child. As discussed below, the same kind of redefining priorities takes place at work as well, after a child is born. Professor Bhatia commented that before having a baby, her priorities at home (that is, everything not pertaining to work) were her marriage, taking care of herself, her house, extended family, and friends. After having a baby, the baby became the number one priority, while the house and the friends became tremendously reduced in importance.

Professor Cosman concurred with this sentiment, giving examples such as postponing a car wash (car washes are never needed, because it rains in December) and ignoring the spots in the carpet (carpet spots should be literally beneath one's notice).

Shared responsibilities:

Whenever possible, find ways of sharing the jobs that need to be done. Professor Hunt commented that she drives a big mini-van and carries a big purse, neither of which she would do if she didn't have children. They are symbolic of the types of choices that we make. Although she doesn't need the minivan just for her own two kids, she believes in carpooling and is happy to drive other children because she knows that her children may be in need of a ride in the near future. The big purse is the family carry-all.

In a similar vein, Professor Cosman commented that she issues almost all of her dinner invitations as potluck dinners. While this may not be considered the height of elegance by some, it allows her to enjoy lots of social time with friends and family, without having to leave work early to get the cooking done, or having to stay up to midnight the night before. In any case, guests are going to feel bound to bring something, and better that they should bring something useful instead of a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine.

Time for self and spouse:

Everyone agreed that it was important to maintain some time for yourself (for example, having time for exercise) and for your spouse (occasionally going out on dates). As Dr. Goulden's data on faculty divorce rates showed, academic life can put a lot of stress on a marriage, and it is important to go out with one's spouse! Professor Wadia-Fascetti said she tries to have regular Friday nights out with her husband. Professor Cosman wishes she could have regular date nights! But even just putting the toddler in the stroller and walking around the block with her husband can feel like a nice micro-date.

Strategies at work:

A number of topics were discussed about work, including re-ordering one's priorities at work after the arrival of a baby, travel, off-loading responsibilities, and planning.

New prioritization:

After having a child, all the speakers agreed that priorities at work got re-examined. For example, Professor Bhatia had a pre-baby list of priorities that began with Research (funding, managing a lab, publishing), next had Teaching (writing books, classroom teaching, and Web-based materials), and then Service (at the department, university, and national levels). After having a baby, the tasks of managing a lab, as well as all components of teaching and service were reduced in importance. Only publishing and maintaining funding were still considered of prime importance.


All the speakers addressed the difficulties of travel. There was huge variation in opinion. Professor Hunt said she traveled extensively, and thought that it was important professionally to do so. Frequently she would cut down on the number of days of travel, however, going to just one or two days of a conference, rather than attending the full conference. The opinion of several people was that professional networking is valuable, and presenting seminars at other universities is a very useful way of building visibility and making connections with people who will write tenure letters. Professor Bhatia said that she made typically one overnight trip per month, usually 3 days with 2 nights. In addition she would make some trips that did not include overnights. At the opposite extreme, Professor Cosman said she made only one professional trip each year, and in fact had no travel at all in some years. She did not think it was particularly important professionally to go to conferences or to present seminars at other universities. Students can be sent to conferences, and in that way the research will still gain visibility. The students are always happy to go, since that way they can travel a bit, as well as getting some visibility for themselves. One thing most speakers agreed on was the need for planning trips in advance, and the need for careful coordination with one's spouse.

Several speakers commented on the fact that an academic job allows for plenty of family travel. Because the university schedule is well lined up with children's school schedules, most faculty members can take 2-3 weeks of summer travel with the kids, as well as a week during winter break, and various smaller trips at other times.


It's tremendously helpful if one can delegate some jobs to a competent lab manager or administrative assistant. Most faculty members have assistants who do copying for classes, handle travel arrangements and reimbursements, and purchase office supplies at the bookstore. But sometimes assistants are under-used, and with a little thought, one can often find various additional ways in which they can help out: designing the faculty member's Web site, getting books from the library, downloading papers off the Web, making handsome electronic drawings of circuit diagrams for the exams, etc. For those faculty members who maintain laboratories or computers, investing money in competent help such as computer system administrators or lab managers can be a very wise choice.

Planning and anticipating:

Some people commented on the need for advance planning, and never leaving things for the last minute. For example, some male faculty members might prepare their lectures in the few hours before they actually give the lecture. For a woman faculty member with children, that might be a risky thing to do. Suppose the child wakes up sick, and has to be taken to the doctor? Even if one has a nanny, the nanny cannot take the child to the doctor. Or suppose the nanny is sick, and doesn't show up, and some back-up child care plan needs to be activated involving a grandparent or friend. The lecture preparation time vanishes. So, things always need to be done in advance, because the faculty Mom knows she can't count on the hours to be there necessarily on any particular morning, unless of course the father is the first line of defense against unexpected events of this type.


The rewards of an academic life are many: the job is intellectually
stimulating, and you work on a problem you love. It's flexible and customizable, and you have the self-determination that comes from having no boss, and from choosing what you work on. You have the satisfaction of knowing that you are contributing to the knowledge of the human race, and you are training the next generation of scientists and inventors.

From the point of view of having children, the rewards of being a professor and Mom are also numerous. The work week and work day are flexible, so you can go to school performances and sports events and parent-teacher conferences, without having to punch a time clock, and in fact without having to notify anyone that you are leaving, and without having to account for your time to anyone. The children are exposed to all sorts of fascinating intellectual topics from an early age; they learn to appreciate the questions and the approach to answers that a mind devoted to the pursuit of new knowledge produces. Also the children of engineering faculty Moms do not grow up with some of the stereotypical notions of women that other segments of the population may have, e.g., that girls can't do math, and that a woman's place is in the home.

Prof. Cosman said that her boys love math and science, and they consider it a treat when she teaches them some topic in electrical engineering. When the boys talk about sending secret coded messages to their friends at school, they know whereof they speak (ciphers, error control coding, encryption, etc.) Prof. Wadia-Fascetti gave her opinion on academia as "Let it all bounce off because it's the best job in the world and it's worth it!" And Prof. Hunt's youngest daughter wrote a Mother's Day card in which she described the things her Mom does: "Mom works, reads, swims, makes lasagna, drinks Diet Coke, and loves me and my family."

May 9, 2005

Do babies mattter?TopMentoring for academic
leadershipWomen professors with children