Degree In Sight

Five years ago, Christine Yeh, PhD, unintentionally cracked up a school counseling class at the Teachers College of Columbia University. Yeh--who had given birth to her first child, Lark, now 5, just three months before--prided herself on presenting a professional appearance. So, when she noticed her students laughing, she asked them what was so funny. They pointed out that her socks didn't match, and she was wearing different shoes--only one of which was a high heel.

"I was able to embrace my humanity at that moment," said Yeh.

Two years later and soon after the birth of her second daughter, Skye, Yeh received tenure.

Sleep deprivation and subsequent fashion missteps are common experiences among those who balance motherhood and an academic career, said panelists at a session sponsored by APAGS at APA's 2007 Annual Convention. However, parenthood can also benefit your career by broadening your life perspective and giving you a chance to see human development in action, said Yeh, who is now a professor at the University of San Francisco.

"It actually centered me in a way that was really important," said Yeh. "Rather than getting caught up in finishing an article or prepping for a class, I felt this peace and joy that I hadn't experienced before."

Early-career baby blues

Seventy percent of psychology students are women, and--as women are often children's primary caregivers--that means that psychologists increasingly juggle the demands of "mom-hood" and "academic-hood."

Striking this balance as a student may be particularly difficult, panelists said.

For instance, Susan Ramirez and her husband had their son, Dillon, in March 2006, in her third year of the counseling psychology program at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. She went back to teaching two weeks later, because lacking maternity leave, if she didn't teach, she'd lose her stipend.

Nursing a baby with no day care, preparing to defend her thesis and teaching courses left Ramirez without any time for herself, she said. And while she worked hard to make time for teaching, satisfying competing demands was challenging, she says, recalling one particularly negative evaluation.

"A student wrote, 'You were great before you had a baby,'" Ramirez said.

Overall, being a mom gave her a greater perspective on life, Ramirez said, adding that after her son was born, she finally understood what "tears of joy" were.

"Whatever happens with my education, if my son's in good health, that's what's most important," she said.

Anne Chan, a counseling psychology student at Stanford University whose son Aren was born eight days after she defended her dissertation proposal, shared similar difficulties. Chan now admits that she didn't realize what she was getting into, describing how she brought her dissertation materials to the hospital.

Her son was a colicky baby, and Chan said she now understands why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture.

Looking back on days when she didn't even have time to brush her teeth, Chan said she wished she'd been more open to offers of help from friends and colleagues.

"If anyone offers you anything, just take it," she said.

However, collecting data and writing a dissertation while she cared for her infant son gave Chan much-needed intellectual stimulation, she said.

Tenure-track hurdles

For professors, the demands of motherhood are just as tough. But judging from the experience of Lisa Suzuki, PhD, who was in her late 30s and on her way to becoming a tenured professor at New York University when she gave birth to her daughter, Kaitlyn, flexibility on the part of an academic department goes a long way.

Her department chair came in one day and looked to see if Suzuki's office was big enough for a portable crib. Later, her chair took Kaitlyn to meetings, giving Suzuki a chance to catch up on her work.

Suzuki freed up additional time for research by obtaining a Goddard Award, which allowed her to take a break from teaching and beef up her case for tenure.

Suzuki's daughter, who attended the convention session and was invited to sit with her on the dais, has become part of her professional life. In fact, when Kaitlyn was younger, Suzuki regularly brought her to a developmental psychology class, so the students could observe an early phase of development.

There's no one point in one's career where having a baby is easy, but it's always possible, Suzuki said.

"When students come to me who are thinking about having a child, my answer is always: 'Yes, things will work out,'" Suzuki said.

“When students come to me who are thinking about having a child, my answer is always: ‘Yes, things will work out.’”

Lisa Suzuki
New York University