Monday, February 4, 2019

It takes a "village"

- by Dan Bolnick

It has been claimed (including on this blog site), that to get your academic job you may need to be flexible about where you live. See, for example:


Faculty jobs are few and far between, and you take what you can get. Postdocs even more so. The result is that academics move around a lot. As a kid of an academic (my father was an economics professor who sometimes went off to consulting for US AID), we lived in North Carolina, Washington DC, Jakarta Indonesia, North Carolina again, north of Boston, then Lusaka Zambia, all before I went off to college and missed my parent's sojurns in Lilongwe, Maputo (where my dad is working at this very moment on a short-term post-retirement assignment), Fairfax Virginia, and Harare, before they moved back to Massachusetts. Since leaving the nest, I moved a few times too: from Zambia to Massachusetts for college, to Tanzania for Peace Corps, to California for grad school (I did my brief postdoc at UC Davis also, so didn't move), then Austin Texas, and now just recently Connecticut. 

Moving does many things, among them separating you from family and from friends. From your support network. I've lived either on a different continent than my parents, or >1/2 way across the continent from my parents, since I left for college in 1992.  I like my parents a lot, and enjoy seeing them, but the consequences of this mobile life only really began to sink in when my wife and I had kids. Sometimes, you just need family around. Hilary Clinton famously wrote that "it takes a village to raise a child". Usually that village is your extended family. Moving leaves the village behind. That's not a reason not to move, but it is a cost. The solution: find your village, in some form. 

This post is about a time when having the village around made a difference. Not a life or death difference, to be sure. The hurdle here is minor, but real. It is a tale of dual careers, work-life (im)balance, moving and family, and the compromises we choose to make.  It is also a glass-half-full or half-empty story. You can see this as a story of why academic life is complicated, but to be fair the following story would have been at least as challenging had it involved another kind of job. I see it as a story of why academic life is wonderfully flexible... but still benefits from help.

When we lived in Texas, our nearest family was an 8 hour drive away, my own parents a half continent away. Moving to Connecticut was partly about pursuing an environment I want to live in (fall, snow, better hiking access, etc), and partly about being closer to family. My in-laws moved from Oklahoma to join us, and my parents are an hour and 3/4 drive away. Close enough (because they are retired) to drop what they are doing and come to our rescue. In return, as they age, I'll be close enough (as an only child) to return the favor. So now, for the first time as a parent of a 10- and 7-yr old, my wife and I have family right here. Its very nice, it turns out. 

Here's how that played out, in practice. My wife was away at a working group meeting in coastal Georgia, playing with lemurs on an island. And simultaneously I had scheduled to have a prospective PhD  student visit. So normally in Texas I just wouldn't do this, because I can't take care of my kids and host a prospective properly at the same time. Here, we went ahead because my in-laws could meet the kids after school, take them to dinner then a magic show in town, then home to bed around when I got home from dinner with my lab group. That's the plan. Simple enough.

This week started bad: Kid1 got the flu.  Then I did. But we had our flu shots, and the fever passed within 1-2 days and we were fine. Okay, all systems go for the prospective visit (albeit with lots of hand santizer on my part). But then Friday morning one in-law is down with the fever also. Questionable whether they can get the kids in the afternoon. At the same time, I'm on my way to get my prospective student but her plane is delayed, which squeezes my intended morning meeting with her down to just a late lunch. Would I even have time to get her to campus and get back home to meet the kids?  Then the other in-law decides he can leave his sick spouse alone okay, and watch my kids. Okay, all systems go. I get the prospective student, we have a great lunch conversation,  then I drop her off with others for some meetings on campus. We'll have more time to talk at dinner. That's when I got the phone call: kid2 isn't feeling well. 

Here's where I start thinking, is it fair to leave a healthy in-law with a flu-ridden child? Probably not. Which means sprinting home and abandoning my prospective student who spent ages in airports & planes to visit. Not a good choice.  *** to be clear, this isn't a disaster scenario, nobody's life is at risk, it's just... suboptimal ****.    Then kid2 perks up, says she's okay for dinner and the magic show. No fever apparently.  All systems go.

I stay on campus for dinner with my lab. We have a good time, good food and conversation. Then I head home, to find kid2 running a fever. 

Here's where things stood: I was now home alone with a flu-ridden kid, my wife is away. And the next morning there's the departmental grad student symposium. My prospective student will be there, and we were hoping to have some more time to talk specifics of research directions. I really should show up, it'd be bad form to miss my first EEB UConn grad student symposium, and to leave my prospective student hanging. But... sick kid and spouse away.

My mom comes to the rescue: she drives down and is here at 9 AM Saturday morning, with lots of hand sanitizer, a face shield for herself and kid2, and a risk-accepting attitude. By 11 AM I'm in the car off to the department symposium. And I have fun talking with colleagues, hearing talks, and a great 2 hour conversation with the prospective student.

Kid2 is still recovering today (Monday) at home. My mom is still here watching her, and my wife returns home this evening. I wouldn't have been able to come to campus today without my mom's help. 

So that's the story. Nothing really epic or horrible. I know people whose kids have cancer, or whose parents are ailing, who face much more serious conflicts, often without the parental support network. Really, this is a story of privilege.  I am privileged that my kids have 4 grandparents, two living in the same town and 2 less than two hours away, all retired but healthy enough to be available. That privilege isn't accidental, we uprooted our family across the country to get it. But the benefit is real.

I want to be clear here that this isn't the only solution: you don't have to live near family to make it in academia. I mean, I went 10 years as a dual-academic-couple-with-kids in Texas, and we managed. Where there's a will, there's a way. You find your support network, you make your local village however you need to. But it is absolutely true that academics move, and when we move we make compromises between the many costs and benefits that we wish to have in our lives. 

If I didn't have the multi-layered support network, this would have played out very differently... because one set of in-laws got hit with the flu, I used two layers of safety net in dealing with my spouse being out of town and having a work commitment.  Had I lacked one or both safety nets, it would have been okay-ish.  Okay, in the sense that I could have told the visiting prospective student: sorry, I've got a sick kid. I know you flew all this way. I know I spent $300 for you to visit. But I can't do this today.  The result would have been disappointing for us both, a bit expensive for me. She might have decided this wasn't a place to come for grad studies, changing her life path and my own lab group.  But in the end, it can still be okay. So my final lesson is that although work-life balance can be challenging, and sometimes events happen that destabilize a balance you thought you had figured out, overall our line of work gives us great latitude to make on-the-fly adjustments to our schedules. Sick kid so I need to work at home? Okay, can do. A few emails to rearrange meetings, and its done. There are many careers where that is far, far harder.  

So see this story as a glass half full one: academia is a career path where work-life balance is a challenge, as it is in every career. But it comes with great flexibility. That said, if you can live near family... it helps.

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