The Eldest X-Gals

June 18, 2007

Both in our 40s, we met as new doctoral students and spotted each other's gray hair with relief. We shared the corner of an office and became fast friends. We are the most senior (in age) and least senior (in career level) of the X-Gals, a group of nine female biologists who banded together to support one another through the dissertation process.

The original members of the X-Gals had already finished their Ph.D.'s when they invited us to join; they wanted to reach out to the "next generation" of female graduate students. That we were 10 to 15 years older than most of them didn't seem to matter.

Karen: I finished my Ph.D. this spring. I am married to a tenured faculty member at a small university in the Midwest and am the mother of a daughter who was in elementary school when I launched my graduate career.

Mary Pat: I have been married for more than 20 years to a consultant whose business is finally taking off after years of financial struggle. We have no kids but are not without the constraints that come with aging and long-term relationships later in life. I finished my degree last fall and immediately started a postdoc across the country from my husband.

Are You Nuts?

The friendship and support of our younger X-Gals helped us survive the agonies of the degree process, and now we join them as early career scientists trying to find satisfying work with our brand new Ph.D.'s.

We both had successful careers in other fields before graduate school. They weren't dreadful jobs, but eventually Monday mornings became fundamentally depressing, and we wanted to do something about it. By happenstance we both discovered a passion and talent for biology. The theoretical and technical aspects promised by a graduate program were icing on the cake.

Graduate school became a burning goal, and our spouses supported us. They were doing what they loved for a living and thought we should, too. It was pure coincidence that we began the same program at the same time. Early on, we both figured we would end up as college professors or in research positions requiring an advanced degree. We were vague on the details but decided to worry about that later. Maybe not the wisest strategy but a typical one for graduate students.

We see some distinct advantages to starting graduate school later in life. We really wanted to be there, and our decisions were carefully considered. We had developed excellent work habits in our previous careers and knew how to work with diverse people; we were focused and motivated. We knew that things change and that what looks insurmountable today may be doable tomorrow. In short, we were mature.

But being latecomers to graduate school, we have learned, also presented some rather significant obstacles. Some were mere annoyances, such as family and friends who did not hesitate to tell us, repeatedly, that we were nuts. More pressing were the internal obstacles: too much mental clutter, brutal self-expectations, fear of failure, fear of asking for help. As older students, we coped with the same concerns as younger women (for example, childcare, the two-body problem), but also with aging parents and even our own age-related health issues and those of our spouses.

Probably the thorniest issue we confronted, of course, was having spouses entrenched in their careers in communities where we couldn't pursue a doctorate within a reasonable commute.

Karen: My husband and I originally planned to move the entire family to the location of my graduate program, but that unexpectedly proved unfeasible for him. The result was a prolonged, gut-wrenching separation, with my daughter spending several years first with one parent and then the other. In addition to the loneliness of separation (for both of us), that meant I was a single parent during much of my doctoral study, and when my personal guilt about that waned, my parents and in-laws were happy to remind me of it. In my final year, I had a two-month interruption in my studies when I had to move to my parents' town to help them during a medical crisis.

Mary Pat: Although my husband is self-employed, following me through multiple moves (first to a Ph.D. program, then to a postdoc, and up the career ladder) wasn't possible. I commuted back and forth throughout my graduate program to reconnect with my husband, pets, and much-beloved home life. With no kids, the separation was theoretically easier, but chronic absenteeism is tough on any marriage. There were some really bad times, with no "for the kids" justification to stay together. Amazingly, our marriage survived. Additionally, we faced a prolonged terminal illness of a close family member, and major medical emergencies for both my husband and me, fairly typical events that crop up later in life.

Now What?

We both made it, but we had to be adaptable. What we expected to work for us personally often didn't, and we had to make significant adjustments along the way. It was stressful and distracting to be away from our families, and so we both made the difficult choice to write our dissertations from home. We were both extremely fortunate in having a big-hearted adviser willing to accommodate our family demands.

Financially, that meant losing our assistantship support; and the cost of flying back and forth for laboratory work was considerable. We managed to scrape by with spousal financial support.

We don't want to minimize this: Finishing our dissertations long distance was extremely isolating, and we were both profoundly grateful for the support via e-mail of our fellow X-Gals. One of our fellow X-Gals had earlier moved across the country to be with her husband while finishing her dissertation, which helped convince us that if she could do it, we could, too.

You would think that earning the Ph.D. was the hardest part, but now we're not so sure. Admittedly we were very naïve in thinking that we would figure out the hiring process "later." Later is now. And there are many questions to answer: Will we find work in our fields, given our ages and geographical constraints? What is our "shelf life"? What are our options?

Mary Pat: I started looking for jobs a year ago while writing my dissertation. One of those applications morphed into a job offer for an academic postdoc, and a month after finishing my degree, I packed up and left my husband (again) to resume a long-distance marriage. We hope this separation will be our last. Fortunately, although my husband doesn't want to move repeatedly, he is willing to relocate once, as his design business is fairly portable now that he is better known professionally. I am lucky to be working as a postdoc in a region with many nonacademic opportunities for biologists. I have been feverishly looking at job lists, attending workshops in applied science, and taking every opportunity I can to meet people working in nonfaculty jobs in my field. I hope I can hang in personally until things work out for me professionally.

Karen: My circumstances are more immediately constrained by my daughter (now in high school) and my tenured husband. But kids grow up and leave for college, and tenured professors can move if the job is right. In the meantime, I am devoting my energy to staying "in the game." For me, the most obvious track would be to find a teaching job at my husband's university (odds are it would be a non-tenure-track position) or at one of the community colleges near my home. Neither option would provide job security or much opportunity to continue my research. Now that my dissertation is finished, I, too, will be exploring the nonacademic job market in my area.

More Skills?

A tenure-track job is still high on both of our lists but may not be in the cards. The best career opportunities for us may lie outside academe in fields such as conservation or environmental work, rather than in cutting-edge science or pure research.

We know the world does not owe us our dream jobs: We need to identify our options, make contacts, and think strategically about what other skills we might need to be competitive. It seems ridiculous to think that we would need more skills after a finishing a respected graduate program, but they can add polish to the total package we offer employers. We need to do things like change our CV's into résumés and attend workshops on lab management, endangered-species regulations, or science teaching strategies.

We embarked upon this journey because we loved biology. We don't know at this point if we will be able to find satisfying work in our field but we are going to try. Whenever we doubt ourselves, we think of what our fellow X-Gal Lucille said to naysayers who asked her, "Just what are you going to do with that degree?" Lucille said: "Just watch me."

Mary Pat Madrigal is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in the biological sciences who is working at a postdoctoral position at a university in the West. Karen McKinley is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in the biological sciences who is beginning her job search.