When Your Graduate Students Have Babies

Should advisers keep silent or raise the family issue early on?

Zsolt Botykai / Creative Commons

September 02, 2014

More than two dozen doctoral students have chosen me as their dissertation adviser over the years, but only one ever interviewed me for the job. Let’s call her Diana. She and I knew each other already, of course. She had taken one of my courses and done wonderfully well. I was excited at the prospect of working with her.

One moment stands out from our conversation. I was telling Diana that she would be the CEO of her own dissertation—and of her whole graduate education—and that I would do my best to support her and guide her through the decisions that she would have to make over the coming years. "You may choose to start a family while you’re in graduate school," I said to Diana, "or you may not. Whatever your decision, my job will be to support you and help you reach your goals."

I saw that comment register on Diana’s face. A few days later, she officially chose me as her adviser.

Diana told me a few years later that my willingness to raise the question of children had helped her make up her mind. I try to initiate that sort of honest exchange with advisees from the start because I believe that I have to. The length of graduate school, coupled with where it usually falls in students’ lives, makes raising the issue a necessity. Average time-to-degree for a Ph.D. in the humanities stands at about nine years in the United States. That’s a staggering and disgraceful span, but it’s also a reality. If someone starts graduate school right after college—which I do not recommend, by the way—then she will finish in her 30s. People have important life decisions to make during that time, and it’s artificial to pretend otherwise, not to mention ethically questionable.

There has been much salutary discussion recently about how graduate students who want to have families should confront those logistical difficulties and do what’s right for themselves. Amen to that. But that conversation—started, I should note, by graduate students—generally avoids the question of what the adviser should do when graduate students face those life questions. It’s as if there’s an implicit assumption that advisers, acting out of either malice or ignorance, will sabotage their students’ best-laid family plans.

For my own part, I believe that most advisers mean well. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they know what to do.

The life decisions that my advisees face, including whether (or when) to have children, ought not to be any of my business. That’s essentially what I told Diana. Of course, I could have said nothing at all about it. One might argue that keeping silent would have been the best way to show that such things are not my affair. But such a passive approach seems wrong, and the reason has a lot to do with the shape of the adviser-student relationship.

I chose to speak up because, like it or not, I play a role in my graduate students’ whole lives, not just the dissertation part. Diana depended on me in a way that was professional and personal at the same time. Her thesis—and her long preparation for the job market, including the familiar decisions about what to publish and how to balance article and dissertation writing—took up a large chunk of her time. So my actions as her dissertation director affected her whole life, not just her thesis.

Acknowledging that fact is part of my job as a student’s adviser. Just as second-wave feminists recognized that the personal and the political could not be separated, graduate advisers should likewise accept the inextricability of the personal and the professional. If I fail to recognize that personal decisions are marbled together with professional ones (by, for example, saying nothing about the possibility of children), I’m not making those personal issues go away. I’m just avoiding them. Moreover, students like Diana wouldn’t know the reason for my silence, and so questions would still hang suspended between us.

Thus a paradox: Even though Diana’s decision about whether to have children was none of my business, I had to make it my business to tell her so. That’s because my support is important to her emotional well-being and therefore to her professional progress. It’s a sorry statement about the professional world of graduate school that I have to go out of my way to state something about someone else’s personal life that ought to be obvious, but the situation is hardly unique. Other professions in the United States are likewise unevolved. The only difference may be that we professors think that we’re more progressive than we actually are, at least in this area.

Diana later described my statement of support as "contractual." That may sound dry and businesslike, but it’s exactly what I’m looking for. My professional commitment to support Diana’s personal decisions cements the relationship between us in a way that is both professional and personal.

Diana went on to have two children, one on each side of a dissertation fellowship that she won. This past summer she defended her excellent thesis, one of the best I’ve advised. She plans to test the academic job market this fall. Her story isn’t over, of course, nor is my part in it. But I believe that neither of us harbors any significant regrets about how we’ve together shaped the professional—and personal—arc she’s chosen.

The choices now before Diana—and many other graduate students—are polarized in ways that most of us take for granted. The world of professors’ jobs is split between "serious," all-consuming, tenure-track jobs and poorly paid, contingent adjunct work.

That split is thoroughly gendered. The recent and already influential book Do Babies Matter?, by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas H. Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden (Rutgers, 2013), unveils a disturbing picture of gender and family in the ivory tower. The authors found that women make up a majority of adjunct and other part-time faculty members, and that mothers of young children tend to remain locked in second-­tier positions or leave academe altogether. Those who aspire to tenure-track jobs are statistically very likely to be passed over. Thus, fewer women than men occupy the tenure-track ranks, and the women are less likely than their male colleagues to be married and to have children. In effect, men get rewarded economically for having children, while women pay a price. Consequently, even though women make up a majority of the faculty in many fields (including Diana’s and mine), the implicit professorial stereotype continues to be a man with children and a wife at home to care for them.

Professors mostly lean left, so I doubt that many of us are comfortable supporting a retrograde system that treats our graduate students so badly, but we do. We have to change it not only administratively but also at the ground level of the adviser-­student relationship itself.

"Meet your students where they are" may be a pedagogical cliché, but it applies here. You don’t have to teach or advise graduate students to know that they don’t all have the same talents. That’s obvious. But they don’t all have the same professional aims, either, and that’s less obvious because most graduate education is designed as though they did. Not all graduate students want to be professors. And some of those who do also want to become parents.

There’s plenty that advisers can do to help graduate students who decide to become parents. Telling them that it’s OK, however silly it may feel to say so out loud, is important. But it’s only a first step. Advisers can also help by alerting students to any university benefits available to them, such as parental leave. (You might think that students would be aware of such things, but that’s not always the case. I recently delighted a pregnant graduate student—not Diana—simply by alerting her to the possibility of maternity leave. It hadn’t occurred to her because neither the program nor the university did enough to make her aware of such entitlements. And the authors of Do Babies Matter? make clear that such scenarios are typical.)

Graduate students make life-altering decisions and balance competing responsibilities on the long road to their degrees. Advisers need to be aware of those personal pressures and make a point of raising them, even if—perhaps especially if—their advisees don’t. Parenting is only a case in point. The larger point is that graduate education needs to shed its one-mold-fits-all design. And advising, if it’s to be worthy of the name, must avoid the dogmatic form that follows such inflexible design.

Treat graduate students as adults with lives, suggests Bruce M. Shore in his valuable new book, The Graduate Advisor Handbook (Chicago, 2014). Advisers who don’t acknowledge the personal aspects of their students’ lives are (and here’s that paradox again) acting unprofessionally. We need to support our students as they seek their own kinds of lives—and the best way to help them take the measure of their whole lives is to reconcile the personal and the professional.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Now on Twitter: @LCassuto.