Doctoral Student, Scholar, Baby Sitter?

November 08, 2004

When I was a graduate student attending my first academic conference, I met up with a bunch of fellow Ph.D. candidates, most of them female, for a late-night get-together in a hotel bar. We were talking about our hopes and fears. One woman from a top program was speaking at the other end of the table with a tone of lament mingled with exasperation, "And when my adviser looks at me, I know he's thinking about just one thing!"

I anticipated a sordid revelation. The table hushed as she took a breath and then blurted out, "Baby-sitting!" There was laughter, followed by nods of sympathetic understanding.

The professor-graduate student relationship has been well chronicled on this site, with situations ranging from the happy to the horrifying. In the latter case, graduate students have related their oppression and exploitation by demonic advisers and cruel committees, from flagrant inattention to far too much attention of the wrong kind.

But the particular example of exploitation that I learned about that night, and have explored since then, is only marginally on the radar of most master's and doctoral-degree programs.

It is a gender issue, of course. No male graduate student I know has ever been asked to watch any academic's 2-year-old. Once, on a bet from my female graduate-student pals, I asked one of my professors if she needed baby-sitting and volunteered my services. She, a full-credentialed feminist, looked as if I had offered to bake her toddlers in a pie.

Since that time I've raised the topic in conversation both with female students and newly minted Ph.D.'s. I also have observed the subject from the other side -- from the perspective of a professor with kids.

Obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong or unethical with a graduate student's watching the children of a professor. And I've never heard of "forced baby-sitting" listed under a student's harassment complaint against a professor. Typically, the baby-sitting issue becomes problematic only under certain conditions.

If you find yourself on either side of the equation -- as the graduate-student-turned-baby-sitter or the professor soliciting such services -- here's the first question to ask: Do the interactions and conversations between the student and the professor revolve around children and child-care, at the expense of professional and academic subjects?

An assistant professor I know recalled her doctoral-student days when one of her professors always steered the conversation to kids in general and his kids in particular -- no matter the situation, whether she was meeting him during office hours to discuss a class paper or casually in the halls. He even brought up his kids during her actual dissertation defense.

My friend commented, "I only baby-sat the brats once, but he thought I wanted to relive the experience forever! Even today, when I see him at a conference, I know he'll pin me down to chat about them."

A female graduate student at a small program tells me, "I resent that my adviser spends more time in our conversations on child-care issues than he does responding to the chapter in my dissertation that he's supposed to be reviewing."

And an associate professor whose husband was in the same graduate school recalls, "Our college was in a small town, so my husband's and my kids played with the professors' kids and went to the same school as they did. But they would never talk to him about child issues. With me, it was 80 percent of what we talked about."

The second key consideration: Does the graduate student (usually female in this situation) feel that her "value" in the program is being weighed, partially or (worse) wholly, in direct relation to her availability and skill as a baby-sitter?

A newly minted female doctoral student tells me, "I avoided providing child-care for professors because I sensed that they would look at me differently and see me not as a student or an assistant but as a playpal for their kids."

Another story comes from a first-year grad student: "I show up at the department and a professor welcomes me by saying, 'I bet you are great with kids!'"

In my own program, my best friend recounted how she baby-sat for a professor's daughters and when he and his wife came home, she was in the midst of playing "dress-up Barbie" with their girls. Afterward, she felt that whenever the professor looked at her, he was secretly thinking, "This isn't a scholar. It's a girl who plays with dolls."

Indeed, if your professors view you as the person who lost to a 5-year-old at Chutes and Ladders, will they take your dissertation seriously?

The final consideration, and perhaps the most important, is the resentment that female graduate students may feel if they perceive that a professor's request for child-care services comes as extortion, not through mutual agreement.

The graduate students I spoke to, both in my own school days and today, note that "baby-sitting blackmail" can be either subtle or overt; in the former case, as one friend put it, "You have a professor pointedly mention how hard it is to find good child-care, and they drop lots of hints about how grateful they would be to find 'that special person' to watch their angels every Friday night."

Others told tales of ham-fisted demands: "We really need you on Saturday. Can we count on you?" Several of my friends also noted that once you've agreed to baby-sit for your professor's children, it may lead to increasingly frequent requests.

That is problematic for graduate students who don't necessarily have set schedules and who often, as we professors know, have periods where they need to shut out the world and not be diverted from their scholarly work for repeated readings of The Cat in the Hat.

Now that I am a professor with children, I appreciate the complexity of this issue more fully. On the one hand, graduate students are, in many ways, the perfect baby sitters: We know them intimately, our university has already practically done a background check on them, and they are definitely less flighty than the teenager down the street.

Since we are academics, we like the idea that a nascent "doctor of philosophy" is supervising our kids. When my wife and I came home once from an evening out, our elder daughter announced to us that she and the graduate student who had been watching her had had great fun playing "match the great paintings with the great artists" game. Now that's quality entertainment.

Still, based on the experiences of my friends in graduate school and the doctoral students with whom I come into contact all over the country now, I've become very careful about deprofessionalizing the relationship with a graduate student. In my 10 years as an academic, my wife and I have befriended many students but have asked only one of them to watch our children. We always try to err on the side of respecting their time and dignity.

In all, this is an issue that is best addressed by awareness and sensitivity. Graduate students need to be respected, as professionals and colleagues-in-training. We should be wary about acting in any way that might even remotely seem to diminish their value and status as scholars and teachers.

Baby-sitting can be a fun, harmless experience for the graduate student, and an easy way to make a little extra cash. But it can also lead to a downward spiral of ego-deflation and exploitation.

The simplest tips for avoiding such problems are these: Never bully, never blackmail. Consider the time that you know students need for their many professional obligations. Keep conversations balanced in favor of academics and careers. Above all, make all graduate students feel that they are being appraised for their academic work, not for their surrogate parenting skills.

David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and a senior fellow at its Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs.