The Scarcity of Married Mormon Women in Graduate School

29 Jul

My long research trip in Great Britain has made me start thinking about the difficulties that academic life presents to those with families.  Because my research is as much about Britain and its colonies as it is the United States, a significant portion of my research has to be done abroad.   I have been in Britain doing the preliminary stages of research since May and I plan to be here till September.  The problem: I’m married, and my husband has a job that keeps him in the States and more specifically in Michigan.  We skype and chat on the internet, but it’s still tough.  When I told my husband I was doing a panel called Complicating Domesticities and Sexuality in the Empire, he laughed and suggested I do a presentation on how academic life and research has complicated my own domesticity.  Unfortunately, it won’t get much better when I return to the States.  I’ll be in Michigan for a few months and then off to Utah.  Again, without my husband.

I try to keep in mind, though, that my research is a privilege.  I’m luck.  I also remember that this would be nearly impossible with kids.  One of the reasons why I haven’t had children yet is I knew I was going to graduate school, that I would have to do research, and that my husband’s career path combined with mine would make it difficult to have a baby until I had finished the research portion of my degree.  I can’t imagine having a baby by myself while trying to do research of leaving my child in Michigan while I traipse across the country.

All of this has made me wonder about graduate school and the Mormon family.  On the one hand, there seems to be plenty of male Mormon graduate students with families.  On the other hand, I know few married Mormon women who are also graduate students.  I wonder if the fact that many Mormon women chose to stay at home makes it easier for their husbands to be graduate students AND to have families.  There’s someone to take care of the kids and the fact that their wives stay at home means that it is easier for them to follow their husbands when research takes them to Utah, to Britain, to California, to wherever.  Mormon women, however, rarely have stay-at-home spouses.  They would be in the situation which I can’t imagine — forced to leave their kids or their husband or to switch the focus of their research so it demanded no travel.

I’m wondering what are the experiences of married female Mormon graduate students.  Is the situation as dire as I have painted it?  What is the ratio of female to male married graduate students?  How could we change the expectations of graduate school to accommodate more married women with kids?  I realize that my comments are confined to graduate work that requires travel and extensive archival or field research, but it still seems relevant.

21 Responses to “The Scarcity of Married Mormon Women in Graduate School”

  1. E July 29, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    I can’t see any way to change graduate school to better accomodate parents who have no stay-at-home spouse, especially if a lot of travel is required. You just have to do the work, and it’s time-consuming, and it will inevitably involve separation from children.

  2. Alberti's Window July 29, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    I’m curious to know how many Mormon women undertake graduate school at a later age, after their kids are older. I received my Master’s degree a few years ago (and I currently am an adjunct professor), but decided against getting a PhD after I became pregnant at the end of my Master’s program. Knowing my personality, I wouldn’t be a very good mother if I was in school. I love school and research way too much, and I know that school would take precedence over parenting. (And who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t be a good parent if I got a PhD and landed a demanding tenure-track position. Right now an adjunct position seems ideal for a young mom.)

    All this being said, I know of a few Mormon mothers who chose to get their PhDs after their children were older (either teenagers or college-age). This seems like a more viable option for me, and I wonder if others are considering the same thing.

  3. Amanda5245 July 29, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    @ E – It just seems like the responsibility and sacrifice falls disproportionately on women. And as a result, the number of women, especially married women in academia, is lower. This limits the numbers of perspectives offered.

    @Alberti’s Window – That’s an interesting idea. It does certainly seem more plausible and manageable. I wonder also about what the experiences are of people who wait on the job market and in the classroom. There would seem to be certain benefits — more experience, maturity, etc., but I can also imagine a lot of ageism.

  4. E July 29, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

    I would agree that the responsibility (for parenting) and sacrifice (of graduate education) falls disproportionately on women (in general). My point was that no matter how graduate school is structured, it is highly demanding and so is parenting children. My view is that the reality of this is not really all that alterable.

  5. EmmaNadine July 30, 2011 at 12:44 am #

    It’s doable, it just takes a lot of struggle and dedication. I had my son the day after I finished by doctoral exams, took two years off basically because he had some health problems that needed dedicated attention, and then wrote my dissertation over the next two years while teaching a 4-4-4 course load. I defended and got offered a tenure track position within a month of each other.

    I would say though, that I have a very egalitarian husband who shouldered a lot of the load at home when my schedule got overwhelming, and I have the best kid in the world! Also, I have a very strong testimony that me working is Heavenly Father’s will for me which helps deal with some of the cultural pressure.

    I wonder though, if these sorts of issues make LDS women more likely to pursue professional graduate degrees (e.g. MPA, MBA, MPP) rather than research based degrees that have more travel and time commitments built into them.

  6. Michelle July 30, 2011 at 4:29 am #

    I hope to someday go back to school, but I am content waiting until my kiddos are out of the house. I do have an MBA, but got that before I met hubby. I also am glad we had kids when we did because health issues hit that made it so I couldn’t have more.

    I have thought about going back to school earlier than that, but I, too, know that it would pull me away from my kids too much. There are times and seasons and I’ve become a lot more comfortable with that as I have settled into momhood over the years.

    I do have a friend who did a second Master’s a class or two at a time, spread over four years. She fit it in during naps and at night. I think there are some programs that provide such flexibility, and I think creative and flexible couples could make it work if that is what feels right.

  7. amanda5245 July 30, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    @E – I guess I’m just not able to be complacent about the gender dynamics that make it more difficult for married women with kids to attend graduate school than married men with kids. I do think there are things that graduate schools and society in general could change to make school more mom friendly. Some are quite simple, such as designating areas as being breast feeding centers, allowing mothers more flexibility in bringing their children to events, etc. Others would be more complex such as changing who is expected to make the sacrifices so that there are more equal numbers of mothers and fathers in graduate school.

    @EmmaNadine – Your ability to survive that schedule overwhelms and amazes me. There are some people who can do it; I’m not sure I could.

    @Michelle – There are indeed more flexible universities. What I’ve discovered, though, is that they tend to be the ones without prestige attached, which in a lot of academic disciplines is more important than it should be. I was advised when I was considering graduate school that I needed to go to a top 10 school if possible, a top 25 if not, if I wanted to have a chance at getting a job. One of the things that might need to be changed if we want to create a system in which graduate school is equally possible for men and women is the emphasis on prestige. My life would be much simpler if I was going to school in Utah, but I was told — and to recognize my own agency in this, chose — to go outside Utah to maximize my employment opportunities after graduate school.

  8. Michelle July 30, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    “One of the things that might need to be changed if we want to create a system in which graduate school is equally possible for men and women is the emphasis on prestige.”

    Interesting thoughts. I think this could be good for lots of reasons. I’m all for making education more accessible and equal across the board. I think the coming decades have some interesting changes that could be coming to the realm of education.

    Also, Elder Cook talked about making the workplace more family-friendly. I wonder if there are things people can do to encourage educational institutions as well.

    In the meantime, your comment illustrates the tensions that must be dealt with. No matter which way you choose, there will be sacrifices.

  9. Steve Fleming July 30, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    My wife took a job travelling for work (about 10 days a month) when I started my Ph.D. program. So I watch the kids (4) while she’s gone and do grad school.

  10. Naismith July 30, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

    Do we have any evidence that Mormon moms are less represented in grad school than non-LDS married moms? I remember many presentations at my state university and professional conferences about the issue.

    I did a master’s degree when my then-youngest started kindergarten. I didn’t take all the classes I wanted, because I limited courses to those when the kids were in school, or when my husband was home.

    I was later offered a fellowship for a doctorate but turned it down because I feel that there are more jobs at the masters level and I’ve been able to do everything I want professionally.

  11. CS July 31, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    There is a flipside to this question: one picks, to some extent, what is studied. I’m at a fun crossroads where my dissertation project could be international (based in France), comparative, or just based in the U.S. As I make this decision (which will be affected, no doubt, by whatever funding I receive), my husband is starting a second degree, which will possibly require us to remain in the same place for a while. So what do I pick? We (read: married graduate student women who desire families, not just Mormon women) all choose our dissertation topics, and we all have a variety of things to consider in the process. My dissertation adviser and one of my professors both had children while dissertating. They made decisions regarding their research topic, location, and methodology that allowed such a choice. So how do we defend the choices that separate us from those we love?

  12. Kristine August 1, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    I don’t think this is (much) more of a problem for Mormon women than others: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Academic-Motherhood/64073/

  13. Michelle August 1, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    Interesting article, Kristine. Thanks.

    Here’s another article that I think engages some of the more mainstream Mormon side of questions about career path choices for women. I know not everyone will agree with her, but I think it’s great that someone is willing to engage the tensions that many LDS women deal with (whether they admit it or not, whether they like it or not).

    http://www.byui.edu/perspective/v7n2pdf/v7n2_hurley.pdf

  14. ethesis August 2, 2011 at 1:57 am #

    Well, my last ward had three women get their CRNA and one guy who got his MPA (except a doctorate in that program). The women in graduate school had a three to one edge on the men.

  15. Becca August 6, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit, having recently joined the ranks of married female graduate students. There are actually a lot of other married (or partnered) women in my department, and a few even have kids. I’m not sure what the policy is about taking infants to attend or teach classes; if I had a kid I think I would try to get away with it. For now, I have to avoid getting pregnant while I’m taking heavy drug regimens so I can travel for my dissertation work.

    It’s strange, but my graduate school provides free health insurance for single students and for the entire immediate families of students with children, but not for the spouses of students without children. In short, my husband and I are paying a substantial sum for his health insurance, but the moment I get pregnant it’s free for all of us. For couples where the husband is the student, that creates a pretty strong incentive for the wife to get pregnant– “having their free baby” as people call it here. Of course, it’s much harder to take advantage of that when the wife is the student and has to put her education on hold.

    Compared to most settings, I think graduate school is pretty conducive to egalitarian task and child-care sharing if both spouses are committed to that. Still, on average, I think it’s probably easier to be a married male student than a married female one, largely because the expectation placed on men to “provide” financially compromises their ability to alleviate domestic pressures on a busy student wife. Chances are, if you’re a female graduate student, your husband is also a student or has a full time job, so you’re likely to be splitting up cooking, cleaning, errands, etc. Somehow, it’s just not very acceptable for a husband to stay home doing the bulk of the housework while working part time, although that’s considered rather progressive when it applies to wives.

  16. Becca August 6, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    In other words, I’d posit that (children aside) part of what makes it tricky to be a married female student is that there tends to be more total work going on in the relationship than if the man were the student. So even if a couple is splitting all of their responsibilities fairly, the woman is doing more work than she would if her husband were the student, and often more than if she were single.

  17. Amanda5245 August 13, 2011 at 4:00 am #

    Thanks for your comments everyone. I’d agree that the problem isn’t unique to Mormonism, but I would argue that Mormonism’s emphasis on family and early marriage makes the problem more relevant within that community. I also think this is a problem related to the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Although professional degrees require a lot of work, then don’t require the same amount of field work. A friend of mine travels to Costa Rica for their work and catches crocodiles every summer for their MA in biology. Another works on French history and has to spend long periods doing research there. I realize that people have to accept and justify the choices they make to their families, but I think giving up means accepting that no married women with children will work on European, Asian, or African history, which seems awful to me. Women, especially married women offer a different perspective.

  18. Julie August 17, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    Sorry, I stumbled upon this so late – it’s probably not even worth leaving a comment, but I couldn’t resist because it speaks to something I deal with everyday.

    I am a graduate student in a PhD program. I started my masters program pregnant – had a child my second semester, brought her to classes with me and even taught with her (she was only 6-10 weeks old) and she slept the whole time in a carrier while I taught.

    I had my second child the first year of my PhD program and again brought her to class with me right after she was born. They are now 3.5 and 1.5 and I am in the process of writing my exams.

    We live in a place where there are many graduate student families in our LDS ward – I am only one of two women graduate students with children. What has always troubled me watching and talking with other families in our ward is the way many male graduate students work a “9-5” day despite the flexibility academic work gives you, to leave their spouses at home caring for the kids. I never have that luxury and I’m not sure I would take it if I did. It’s hard for me to hear these male students complaining about how rough it is when I know from being in their homes as a visiting teacher, they don’t do much of the cooking, cleaning or childcare. I know that this may be the arrangement that works for their family and I respect that. I just wish there was a little more space to crack open traditional ideas about what is possible in families.

    • Em August 19, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

      Julie, are you the Julie I think you are??? 😉 I’m also sorry to be late to the conversation, but I’m fascinated by the content on this blog – it’s a new find for me!

      “I wonder if the fact that many Mormon women chose to stay at home makes it easier for their husbands to be graduate students AND to have families. ”

      AB. SO. LUTE. LY. Just my anecdotal observations, but most of the men who fit that description (LDS grad-student husbands with children) with whom I have interacted actually have it a bit easier than the single male students in my department….they have someone who arranges all their meals, washes their clothes, cleans their living space……ALL FOR FREE! And while they do have children, their wives do most or all of the child care.

      Like Julie, I respect what works for these families, fully recognizing that we all choose our own lives. But I get frustrated when the men complain to me, because I know that I complete my work under completely different circumstances…it still gets done, even though I have more demands on my time than they do, because of their comparably luxurious existence. (While my husband does an EXCELLENT job of sharing the load, he has a full-time job…makes things a little more difficult!)

      I’m currently ABD, starting the first year (hopefully to continue until the dissertation is done!) of a 4-4 load instructor position. I had my first child in the second semester of my MA, and my second child just after I finished my coursework for the PhD….I nursed a newborn and prepared for qualifying exams. Glad to not be in that moment any more. The situation right now works well for us, and I find time to write while I’m on campus. But I’ve had to reconcile myself to the fact that I will probably not defend my dissertation on the same timeline as the other students of my entering class.

  19. Abigail September 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    I’m currently in my 4th year of my PhD program with an 8 month old son and while I think it is definitely VERY tough to balance demands of baby and research I keep thinking what is the alternative?
    1. Not have a baby (clearly I would not choose this– my son is next to his father the LOVE OF MY LIFE).
    2. Work a traditional 9-5 job with 0 flexibility– um WAY rougher IMO.
    3. Not work

    Given my other alternatives I have to say that I think life as an academic mother is pretty grand. Sure I am constantly exhausted, but I’m getting to do two things that I love simultaneously. Having previously worked in industry I know that as an academic I am getting to spend WAY more time with my son than I otherwise would and at the end of the day I am judged on my output rather than hours logged. Currently I work about 30 hours per week and am producing as much as my colleagues who work 60. Why? 1. Probably most of the credit goes to Heavenly Father supporting my efforts but 2. because I don’t waste time on u-tube, go to pointless meetings or obsess way longer than is necessary over exactly how a sentence should be worded.

    For me the key has been to decide first how much time am I willing to devote to research/work. Then I stick to it and don’t worry if some weeks I’m not as productive as others because I know that the balance I’m maintaining is what I’ve chosen for myself. And at the end of the day if my “work-life-balalnce” doesn’t earn me tenure– so be it– I’ll have no regrets about how I spent my time. On the other hand if there were ever an industry where I thought being sucessful in both career and family were possible THIS IS IT.

  20. Jerri-Lynne July 23, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    I am LDS, married and mother to two children ages 3 and 6. I recently finished a graduate degree in educational leadership. I could not have accomplished this without my Heavenly Father, my husband and a wonderful extended family. I chose a program that was delivered through a cohort model in my community so I never left town. My research was all done online. The hard part will be maybe never using my knowledge to its full potential in this life because the jobs that would use do not fit my lifestyle. I teach but am I ready for all those extra hours? Maybe the Lord has need of me?

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