Home > women in math > Advice for young women math professors

Advice for young women math professors

January 27, 2013

I’ve been here at the Nebraska conference for undergrad women in math for a couple of days now. There are quite a few grad students and young professors as well and I’m finding myself giving a few pieces of advice over and over again to the new female professors. I thought I’d write them down here too.

Obviously you can take this advice or leave it.

  1. Ban guilt from your child-rearing experience. The tenure system being what it is, it’s just impossible for you to work enough, including research, and to spend 4 hours a day with an awake baby. Instead think of it this way: it takes a village to raise a child, and this is the time when it’s more village than mom, which is ok. Make sure they are in loving environments, have super nice babysitters, get the best daycare you can, and stop worrying about being a crappy mom. Turns out you’ll have plenty of time to do awesome things with your kids and in the meantime they need you to be a role model, which means pursuing your dreams.
  2. I’m not suggesting working too much either – having a really set schedule which allows time for work during daycare and then time for family before and after is great, and your students and colleagues will just need to accept that you are available during working hours and not otherwise. Don’t apologize for this, just do your job, and don’t assume people are judging you for it either. 
  3. I met a ton of women who seem to have taken on all of the household duties and are overwhelmed by them, especially when they also have small children. First of all, lower your standards. Houses can be messy, it doesn’t actually kill anyone if you ignore an upturned lego box because you want to go think about math. Second, budget a housecleaner – one woman described how she and her husband decided to sell their car but kept their housekeeper, and I fully endorse this trade-off. Third, sit down with your partner and write a list of chores and split them up. It’s not sexy but it works. Finally, be sure your kids help as soon as they can. Turns out kids can make their own school lunches starting when they’re 8 if the ingredients are readily available.
  4. Personally I never do more volunteering at the kids’ schools than my husband as a matter of principle. And it also turns out my husband never does any. This makes me a bitch but also saves me a ton of time. Consider it.
  5. Make time for something other than kids and work. Carve it out with a knife if necessary. It will be worth it and will keep you sane and remembering why you made this plan.
  6. Also don’t forget to have dates with your partner.
  7. Finally, if you ultimately decide it’s not working, remember you have lots of options with a math Ph.D. – don’t underestimate yourself and your options.

I hope that’s helpful!

Categories: women in math
  1. January 27, 2013 at 9:05 am

    My daughter was three months old when we moved cross-country and I started my tenure-track job. She’s two and a half now — not quite ready for making lunch (but she loves cracking eggs!) But I wanted to say that your list so far rings true with me, and I wish I’d seen it years ago. It seems to me to be good advice for all young math professors.

    Another piece of advice I received on the same subject: learn how to type with one hand. Perhaps someone out there can design the Dvorak of one-handed keyboards…of course, Google just showed me this:


    One person reportedly got up to 85 wpm, and another reportedly got up to 40 wpm with a single hour of tutorial. Now I’m dying to try one, but it’s rather pricy.

    And a piece of advice of my own: if your partner has a typical 2000+ hours per year day job, you will feel pressure to increase your contributions to child-rearing, housework, etc. over the summer, imposed both by yourself and your partner. For me, this was acceptable — I gladly increased my contributions substantially in both areas and thereby got in a lot of good bonding with my daughter and my house. However, it meant I had unpredictable on-campus hours over the summer and that there were fewer of them than during the year. My small department (7 of us) was fine with this. But I have a friend whose department was not fine with it, and he eventually ended up leaving academia and altogether. I’d suggest asking during the hiring process, especially of a small department, what sort of expectations they have for your physical presence during the summer, regardless of the quality of work you get done during that time.


  2. JSE
    January 27, 2013 at 11:26 am

    I agree with Barry that much of this is good advice for young men in academic math as well as young women. The thing is, when you’re a young man in math, the whole world is already giving you this advice, and unequivocally rewarding you for following it.


    • barryrsmith
      January 27, 2013 at 11:10 pm

      In my present state as an untenured parent, I can state unequivocally that the whole (working) world most definitely is NOT advising young parents in academia of either gender to 2) not work too much, 5) make time for things other than kids and work, or 6) make time for date night. That’s why I was glad to see Cathy doing it. I agree that (stereotypically) points 1 and 3 can be easier for men to adopt without social penalty. Nevertheless, I like all of her points.


  3. Noneya
    January 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    How about some more non-child rearing biased advice?


  4. Judy Walker
    January 28, 2013 at 10:24 am

    I agree with almost all of this, and have given similar advice on many occasions. I want to offer a counter-point, though, to the advice on volunteering at the kids’ school. There are a lot of ways in which parents are asked to volunteer. Some, like stuffing information into folders for students to take home on Fridays, are best left to non-working parents. But others, like showing up for a classroom party, can be a very good use of time: it’s a one hour, self-contained commitment, and you have the opportunity to meet your kids’ classmates and some of their parents. I like having some friends who are not mathematicians and even who are not academics, and it can sometimes be difficult to meet such people. At this point, many of my closest friends are parents of my kids’ friends, and in many cases I’ve met these folks through school events.


    • January 28, 2013 at 10:25 am

      Agreed, and I don’t think of that as volunteering. I enjoy going to “family breakfasts” with my kids and my husband. 🙂


  5. Anna
    January 30, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    A lot of what is being said resonates with me and I was not wise enough to ignore the volunteering at the school bit. My partner traveled on business all the time which added to the mix. All I can say is that I got through those years and my kids turned out really well. One of them pointed me to this site!
    One advice I have for two career (academic or otherwise) families with young children is to get help managing your finances. Take the trouble to find a financial advisor that will nag you to do the right things at the right time. Find someone that will do a comprehensive job of reviewing all aspects of finances: insurance, estate planning, education planning, taxes, investments and retirement. Yes, a lot of us feel, we understand this stuff and can do it ourselves. But things have a way of falling through the cracks. How many people with young children have a will? Who will get custody of the children if something happens to the couple. These are easy things to overlook.
    There are organizations such as the FPA and NAPFA that you can use to search for and interview planners. Find a good one and use their services.


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