World’s Okayest Academic: on taking maternity leave as a grad student

“I had one mom who emailed her dissertation to her committee from the labor recovery room!” That’s what my (well-intentioned, lovely) midwife told me on three separate occasions. Her story joined what seem like infinite others about junior faculty nursing one-handed while typing with the other, new mothers trading the well-known “sleep while they sleep” advice for a few more minutes on their latest chapter draft, and generally trying (with mixed success) to keep from falling behind. Even in the semi-anonymous social networking spheres where academic mothers go for support, this academic version of the “supermom” seems to be tacitly accepted.

my favorite “World’s Okayest Mom” mug and the baby’s spoon post-canine intervention

This is not to say that we aren’t all aware that the academic job market is structured in such a way that women are disproportionately penalized for having children (whether in inaccurate assumptions about productivity loss or in measures of productivity that disproportionately privilege childless academics and fathers), but it seems to be treated as an incontestable reality that no one can hope to effectively resist. You can, of course, drop out. Many do. Or you can push through and hope that you will be one of the lucky few who makes it anyway.


I was pretty stressed out about this choice a couple of weeks ago. I am close, very close, to being done with a dissertation draft that I think is good enough to actually defend. I am also close, very very close, to my due date for my second child. And that had resulted in the birth of my next child being my de facto deadline for the dissertation so that I can avoid the worst repercussions of productivity loss that are the reality of the first weeks (months) of labor-recovery-and-parenting-a-newborn. It would still be great if it works out that way, but if it doesn’t, you won’t find me sitting on a hospital cot emailing my committee. I do have an incredibly supportive adviser and committee, but it wasn’t their support that finally woke me to the ways I had internalized the oppressive dichotomy of super-aca-mom or failure. For that, I have to thank Victoria.

Victoria was in middle school when she had the baby that led me to recruit her for my Master’s research back in 2010. She was small-bodied and serious, and I struggled to establish rapport in our interview when I couldn’t get her to crack a smile. Speaking quietly but clearly, she told me that she never asked her mom for help at night when her new baby woke crying. Although she lived with her mother and sister, she did her utmost to avoid asking them for any help beyond what she needed to be able to continue attending school (for which there was no daycare, nor any support resources of any kind). She did not go out with friends. She studied and she raised her baby and she felt that she had ruined her own life.

She was, in some ways, the exception among the teen moms of my study. She was the youngest, not just chronologically (14), but socially (everyone else had at least started high school) and she had no age-mates who shared her experience. Although my other informants did not share Victoria’s sense of failure, they did share her desire to communicate how little help they sought or accepted and universally credited their new identities as mothers as inspiring a desire to complete (or in some cases, return to) school.

As I interviewed them, I became more and more disturbed by their sense of accountability for being successful students and mothers within a system that told them over and over again that they did not belong there, or anywhere. But, for all that they might have internalized responsibility for oppressive circumstances, they, like most young parents, found ways to resist, too. I was most impressed by a young woman who turned what her school likely wanted to be a “warning” roundtable of young parents into an opportunity to build solidarity and share success stories.

Building on the work of feminist social scientists concerned about similar dynamics since the 1980s, I attempted to translate all this into observations about “age and citizenship” in my Master’s thesis, and then used those observations to develop the research questions for my PhD. Mostly I thought of myself as leaving the public indignation for academics for whom political activism was a more central identity, but at some level, I also accepted those structures as a reality I could do little to change. When I became a parent myself, I thought often of my MA informants, but mostly while reflecting on my relative privilege: how much easier my age made it for me to request and accept help from my parents and in-laws, for example, and how much easier having a partner out of school and halfway through his career made it for me to balance professional and parent identities. I swore to myself I would resist social pressure to define my mothering through self-sacrifice and proudly bought myself a mug that read, “World’s Okayest Mom.”

Lately, as I reach the end of my second pregnancy, I find myself thinking again about the lessons I learned from my informants. Many of the challenges of transitioning from grad school to junior faculty are similar: at the top of the list are a promise that self-sacrifice is the only reasonable path to inhabiting a good academic position and the suggestion that lower productivity is a result of (poor) personal choices or irrational priorities. There is plenty of advice out there for new graduates on how to make the most of the competitive and generally crappy market, but little of it really challenges the ideologies of personal accountability for structural inequality. Which is where the lessons from my informants came in again. This time I want to honor their experiences by rejecting the implication that I can take credit for the privilege that led to my easier first experience of parenthood. I still have plenty of privilege, of course, notwithstanding my anxiety dreams about future productivity loss costing me a slim chance in a bad job market. But today, I reject the normalization of steady and undisrupted academic trajectory and embrace, at least temporarily, a new identity: “World’s Okayest Academic.”

Scrivener: a grad student review

NSF Word Cloud

Look! I made this from my NSF DDIG application!

I just submitted an application to the NSF DDIG*. It’s a big grant and a big deal and getting it in makes me a very happy camper. I had already done a lot of writing for it in Word, which is where I had done all my grant writing previously. But I was feeling a definite need for a Fresh Start, and so I downloaded a trial version of Scrivener** so I could stare at a new kind of blank page.

I had heard that Scrivener is a pretty impressive writing management system from novelists and other academics. They were correct.

The first awesome thing was that I imported all the grant writing I had already done into folders in the Grant Collection I started. That meant that whenever I wanted to check or copy some previous writing I could zip quickly between a preloaded list, instead of sifting through the eight million heavy, slow Word windows I had been dealing with before. It  reminded me of the light touch and organization of Journler, except with a much more fluid import. It worked so well that I added folders for reference and dumped in a number of grant guidelines from various online sources. Not only were they super easy to navigate, they were also super easy to search from within the application I was writing. Major bonus.

Screenshot of my Grant collection in ScrivenerThe second awesome thing – which Scrivener markets first – is that they have existing templates you can use. These templates are nice in terms of organizing your thoughts and writing and breaking the work ahead of you into a bare bones outline that you can then mess around with so it best suits you. In fact, I found these sub-documents and folders a MUCH more useful way to outline and organize than the more typical outlining within a document. Unfortunately, if you DO want to outline within a doc, Scrivener’s bullet formatting is only mediocre. But if I am really itching for that kind of structure, I prefer to use Opal (which I can later import into Scrivener if I feel like it).

The third awesome thing is that I can highlight and/or compile my different sub-documents in different ways, which I found particularly useful in checking maximum lengths for different sub-sections of my application.

I am not yet writing my dissertation, of course, but I have no doubt that the recommendations I’ve gotten from peers for its utility are not overstated.

The biggest disadvantages I have run into thus far are formatting related. This is true for reference notation (though someone more dedicated than I may have found good work arounds for this), for text-based outlining within a document, and – worst of all – for making tables. The commenting and footnoting features are acceptable (to me) but nothing to write home about.

Overall, I would recommend this to every grad student ever. At a reasonable $45 (or less if you’ve got a coupon from NaNoWriMo like me), it’s a solid investment. There may be a little bit of a learning curve for people intimidated by technology, but I think those people might end up being its biggest fans in the end.

* That’s the National Science Foundation’s Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, for those of you not in the loop.
** They give you 30 non-consecutive days of trial with the full program, which I highly recommend taking advantage of.

Grant Tip #14: Take notes on your awesomeness

Most Interesting Grant Writer in the WorldToday’s post is brought to you by my frankly tepid Intellectual Merit section in my current NSF application.

As it turns out, intellectual merit is pretty much my thing. Interest in how the theoretical implications of my work is going to Revolutionize Anthropology* is my main motivation for this project and I AM excited about it. But being excited about the project and writing like I’m excited about the project (particularly in the emotionally sterile style of grant writing) are two different things. But there’s help! In her excellent feedback on my application, my adviser left the comment,

This section should try to capture the enthusiasm expressed by your committee members at your comprehensive examination. Did you jot any notes in your defense re: our comments on the contributions made by your dissertation?

And the answer is, not really. I tried to make sure I wrote down all the areas that needed improvement, but while I certainly enjoyed the praise I received, I didn’t keep it for posterity. And now I really wish I had. Because if I had good notes about what I did right? They would be pretty much directly ripped off for these sections trying to demonstrate my worthiness for thousands of dollars worth of support.

So! If you have yet to hear from your committee on your work, be prepared!

* okay, okay, maybe just age and citizenship

Comps Strategies: Write fragments, take naps

nap-time with the pup

nap-time with the pup

As careful readers of this blog may have already surmised, I rely heavily on structure for writing. I organize my note-taking with a rubric, each entry carefully tagged and labelled in Evernote, I brainstorm with the mindmapping software VUE, and painstakingly outline in Opal. When it comes time to write, I like to have both the forest and the trees held firmly and mind and move forward. Towards this end, I spent the first day of comps carefully outlining all my essays.

But for whatever reason, this time the blank page defeated me. I felt stuck, despite my careful outlines. What saved me was a strategy that many people use already, but my friend had to remind me of: “don’t be afraid to write fragments that you can work at connecting later.” You know what you want to say about some pieces, he reminded me, even if you’re struggling to hold the whole thing in your mind. It worked.

It is also true that when I feel stuck, I often try to “keep pushing” and get nowhere. Advice from a highly practical friend* provided the solution: take naps. Not only do they keep me from wearing myself out doing nothing, they are also obviously the best thing ever on their own merits.

Any other advice for surmounting moments of stuck is welcome!

* She wears “eating pants” to big dinners. ‘Nuff said.

Comps: Day 1

There are many different ways to do comps*, but in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona students have 3 weeks to write 50 double-spaced pages in response to questions asked by the members of their committees.**

My three weeks started about 15 minutes ago. Following my advisor’s advice, I am spending my first day outlining all of the questions. That way, when I start the Serious Outlining that proceeds Real Writing, I won’t be stuck after finishing my last question but will have a clear direction already set (and open to adjustment). In more detail, here’s what that will look like.

Step 1. Break down each question into its constituent parts. If there aren’t constituent parts inherent to the framing of the question, attempt to add them your self.

Step 2. For each part of each question, make note of all the citations you think you might want to draw upon in your answer. This is in response to my advisor’s suggestion that, fundamentally, you need to show you have a good grasp on what you’ve read.

Step 3. For each committee member’s question, identify 2-3 key examples from the appropriate bibliography to illustrate your argument and use as a connection point for the other readings. This is also a response to my advisor’s point that there’s really not enough space for more examples than that, and while its good to gesture at the scope it is also (maybe more) important to demonstrate depth.

Step 4. Watch a movie. In my last bit of asking around, a few people told me that lots of people watch a lot of movies during comps – something about intense focus for long chunks of time needing inversely intense passivity when not writing. Also naps.



* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** It is understood that they have spent a significant amount of time preparing for this (indeed, bibliographies and statements must be submitted in advance). Also, this is followed by an oral examination a couple of weeks after the written portion ends.

Comps as Rite of Passage

I was planning on writing a follow up to my last post on comps* preparation tips, but there was really one one thing I wanted to say:

Try not to stress out. 

Of course, I wanted to say it because I was totally failing. Despite efforts to keep up with the basics**, enlisting the help of a caretaker***, and getting other people to help me with my non-comps work****, I was still feeling sick with stress and generally struggling to stay on track because I was psyching myself out. What actually did help was reframing the comps process for myself as a rite of passage.

Maidenhood Ceremony, my favorite rite of passage yet

Maidenhood Ceremony, my favorite rite of passage yet

And, amazingly, it has helped a lot with managing my stress. Whereas I can – and do – always second guess my academic preparedness and the adequacy of my self-discipline, this frame refocused my attention on completely different aspects of the process. I’ve been through a few major rites of passage in my life – I got married in 2006, I had a maidenhood ceremony in 1996, I got baptized in 1994 – and there are commonalities that I found very soothing.

  • You can’t ever really be prepared. That’s kind of the point. You can center and ready yourself, but the rite itself is beyond your control. Since a great deal of my stress around comps comes from trying to control it, I find this to be a major relief.
  • Some challenges aren’t that meaningful. It’s not just about testing your knowledge, the structure of the thing also introduces challenges that have nothing to do with whether you are qualified to be a PhD candidate. Whether it’s 3 weeks of nonstop writing or a day of fasting, some of the challenges are just arbitrary, and for me that provides some respite for feeling intimidated by them.
  • The rite is actually for me. Even though other people are participating, helping, guiding, and ultimately judging me, the point is creating a ritual that marks my transition into another stage. I need to not lose sight of the forest (yes, I’m prepared to be a PhD candidate and do my fieldwork) for the trees (what if I don’t say what this professor expects to hear!?).

One final thing I realized is that, because of my particular background, I have had a lot of agency in the structures and practices of all my rites of passage up until this point – why stop now? Instead of just trying to control myself to meet their expectations, I want to think about how to make this really mine. Maybe I’ll spend some time designing a comps outfit for orals. Maybe I’ll go to happy hour after I finish each question. Maybe I’ll take a ridiculous photo of myself every day of the process and post it. If you have other ideas, please share them! Help me make this a ritual worth loving memory.

* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** exercise, food, and sleep
*** You know what stuff you let drop when you get stressed (in my case, eating healthily and getting exercise), so ask someone else to help you stay on track – maybe even bring you food like you just had a baby. Maybe take regular walks with you.
**** This tip came from my adviser, and she was talking about my TA responsibilities and encouraging me to ask my coworkers to help me with grading and even cover my classes while I’m in comps.

Comps Preparation Tips

I will be taking comps* in about a month and so these days my full attention is on making sure I’m as prepared as I can be. Now you, hypothetical reader, can benefit from my reflection on the process. Here’s what I think a person starting to think about preparing for comps will need to know and do:

  1. Ask your peers. Before I started the process, it all seemed really opaque to me, so I informally interviewed some friends (ok, with a notebook) and realized that it was confusing because in fact it was not exactly an entirely uniform process. Along the way, I was also able to identify what elements ARE actually uniform here (but which vary from department to department, so I won’t bother mentioning here).
  2. Design your committee. Some people may not have as many choices about who to have, but I had the privilege of having a bunch of brilliant people to choose from. Things I considered included:
    • how much time/attention each professor would provide to guide me (based off of their personality type, workload, and reviews from students – it is probably not a coincidence that most of my committee is younger faculty)
    • the interpersonal dynamics of the group (things go more smoothly if everyone likes talking to each other)
    • what topical overlap we have and, more importantly, whether our theoretical orientation to the topic overlapped (while stretching myself intellectually is a good thing, I don’t want to find myself in the profoundly frustrating position of writing against my own theoretical inclinations because of a fundamental difference in approach with my comps questioner)
  3. Talk to your committee. That was a challenge for me. I think it would have helped if I had scheduled out how many conversations I wanted to have and how often. Planning a schedule of when I wanted to ask specific questions (e.g., “how do you design a comps question?” or “how many drafts of a comps statement do you usually ask for?” or “here’s where I am in the reading preparation, how does this sound to you?”) would have helped.
  4. Organize the crap out of your preparation. Figure out the last possible date for you to take comps and work backwards filling in the dates (I needed my adviser to make this calendar). Figure out how much you are going to have to read for each professor and create a syllabus for yourself – ideally you can do this as an independent study. Create internal deadlines, and include preparatory assignments. My adviser asks me to synthesize groups of books rather than simply creating an annotated bibliography and I have found this incredibly useful. I expect to take full chunks from that writing later.
  5. Read like the wind. Sure, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get to read everything you want to in the detail you had hoped. But this is advice for the preparation stage, so I think it’s still valid.
  6. Take notes on everything you read. I use a notetaking rubric that helps me stay on track that I already wrote about.**

If you are reading this and you are post-comps, please leave me your advice!

* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** edited to add this because Mr. Masson was totally right, it does make it a million times easier later, but it is really tempting to skip.