Dear Hedy



Ask Hedy

Advice column for WICE:

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Dear Hedy:

How hard is it to have an academic career and raise a family?

How hard compared to what?  How hard is it, compared to staying home with the kids, and having no job at all?  For most women with PhDs in engineering, staying home for a decade with the kids is not the usual alternative.  The usual alternative is working in industry.  So let’s re-phrase the question to be: How hard is it to raise a family and have an academic career compared to having a career in industry?

When you put the question like that, I can point to many ways in which it’s easier to raise a family with an academic career.  Either way, you’re working pretty hard.  It’s usually more than 40 hours per week, either in academia or in industry.  The biggest difference is in flexibility and control.

Consider first the time scale of a single day.  Maybe at the company you’re expected to be there from 8 to 6, or at the least from 8 to 5. You don’t have a lot of flexibility with that.  It’s not easy to take off two hours in the middle of the day to attend your kid’s school play.  You have to get special permission for flex-time, allowing you to work some hours from home.  In academia, nobody keeps track of how many hours you’re around, or when or where.  As long as you get your work done, you’re fine.  Go to the school play, and then work at home after the kids are in bed to make up the time.  No problem in academia.  No one will even notice.  And if your kid is sick and you need to work from home for a day or two, it’s not a problem.  As long as you show up for lectures, you can do your other work on your own time, including at home.

Consider next the time scale of weeks.  In industry, your deadlines are usually imposed on you by your boss and/or your customer.  Suppose a product has to be delivered by May 1.  That delivery date determines that the month of April will be crunch time, maybe March too.  Suppose your kid is sick for a week in April.  That’s unfortunate, but May 1 is still the deadline, so you’re in trouble.  Consider the situation in academia.  May 1 is the conference submission deadline or proposaldeadline.  Well, you chose that conference or that funding agency as a
submission target, and you can un-choose it.  Your kid is sick for a week in April. So you take care of your kid and choose a different conference or a different funding agency, that’s all.  You get to choose the crunch times.  Industry doesn’t give you that level of flexibility.

And even on the time scale of months, you get to control the schedule.  If your son is having a bar mitzvah and you want one whole quarter off from teaching, schedule a sabbatical for that quarter. You generally don’t have this type of flexibility and control in an industry job.  I also like the fact that the university academic year is rather well aligned with the kids’ school year.  I may work 45-50 hours per week during the academic year, but I don’t teach over the summer, so I typically work 30-40 hours per week during the summer, depending on the week, just focusing on research or writing grant proposals.  So I can do summer activities with the kids.

I also have to point out that a non-trivial fraction of my workload, perhaps 10% to 30% depending on the year,  is completely my choice to take on.  When I choose to serve on a committee at the university, or review a paper for a journal, or serve as a journal editor, or take on a conference organizational role, those are all valid and important parts of my academic job, but they are also all tasks to which I can say NO.  I choose when to take on tasks of this type depending on many factors, especially the needs of my kids.

So I’d have to say, yes, it is hard to have an academic career and raise kids at the same time, but it’s not harder than a job in industry.  You have so much control and flexibility and choice in your job, that even though you work hard, you still get to enjoy being with the kids when you choose to.  Go ahead and take the kids to the beach or the orthodontist or whatever else you need to do… just be prepared to log back into the computer after the little munchkins are in bed.


Dear Hedy:

I will be graduating with my Ph.D. in the next 6 months and would like a career in academia. What advice can you give me on applying for jobs?



Dear Academic-in-Training

First, find out what is involved in an academic job and see if this is truly the job for you. Academic jobs are quite competitive and can be a beauty contest. Your beauty is in your record. Published journal papers will help separate you from the pack when you apply for an academic job.

There is no magic number of journal papers, but I would say it’s good to  aim for three journal papers on your curriculum vitae (CV) when you apply. Good reference letters from established faculty in the search area are also important.

When looking for work, don’t hide your head in the sand. Ask your advisor and PhD committee members to evaluate your CV. If it is already in good shape they will tell you. If not, and academia is your calling, you might consider a post-doc position to expand and strengthen your record.

Once you feel the record is strong enough you you can focus on the next
two tasks:

1. Looking for openings

2. Writing your application.

Jobs are first shown on department websites. They are also advertised broadly and appear in such venues as Academic Keys ( and in IEEE Spectrum. Also note that not all universities are the same. Some universities focus on research while others focus on undergraduate teaching. When you write your application, tailor it to the target university.

The application consists of:
1) A cover letter, with a brief statement on why you would like the position and why you would be a good fit for that

2) A statement of research, where you explain how your thesis work contributed to the field. It is good to address a general technical audience but also make sure you can clearly convince the expert that what you did is new. In addition lay out a credible initial research plan. Let the reader know how you plan to continue your research through graduate student advising and proposals.

3) A statement of teaching, where you say what undergraduate classes and graduate classes you could teach and/or develop.

4)Last, but not least, your CV, listing your publications, work experience, honors and awards. Here you can also list your references, though with most electronic
applications the list will be entered separately.

Finally, do not be shy. If you meet someone at a conference or meeting who belongs to the department you wish to join, introduce yourself, ask questions, be likable, have fun.

Good luck! And if at first you don’t succeed, don’t despair. It’s a tough market and it may take time.