Focusing on Metrics That Matter

I recently provided a cover blurb for the new book Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia. Written by Bowdoin professors Rachel Connelly and Kristen Ghodsee, the book covers how to navigate various stages of an academic career while maintaining a full personal life.

There are certain lines that I disagree with, such as “Don’t plan to be as productive during your pregnancy or during the six months after the birth of your child as you usually are. There may be things that you can do during that time, but original writing is probably not a reasonable expectation.” But this may just be more personal experience. I wrote the manuscripts of both 168 Hours and All the Money in the World (off to copy-editing this week!) while pregnant. And there are plenty of parts I really do like, such as their admonition that women who don’t want to pursue a career in academia (with all its perks and challenges) not blame that solely on motherhood. Connelly has four children and Ghodsee spent much of her career as a single mother, and they got tenure.

I also liked their very specific instructions on what to include in a tenure dossier. This is not just good advice for women academics, but for anyone in any field. If you want to make it in a competitive field, you need to figure out the metrics that matter, and focus on them. Spending extra hours grading papers is probably not going to be rewarded. Having one “perfect” review published is not as good as 4-5 really solid good ones. You have to do some committee assignments, but be smart about seeking out the ones where you can contribute and where your hard work will be rewarded. Have lots of irons in the fire, because some slow-moving peer reviewers will sit on your papers for years. Figure out what kind of research gets published, and do that kind of research.

Women (and men) who succeed in academia focus on what matters. This was most humorously apparent in an obstacle Connelly and Ghodsee encountered while writing this book. They sent out surveys to lots of academics who were also mothers, intending to get data on their experiences. “However, of the formal surveys that we sent out, we only received eleven completed responses,” they write.

It turns out that women focused on the metrics that matter don’t spend precious time filling out random surveys. Perhaps too bad from the perspective of those of us who like new data, but understandable all the same!

5 thoughts on “Focusing on Metrics That Matter

  1. While I think this is good advice for people who want to succeed in the traditional way, I think there is something to be said about redefining success. As you say in 168 Hours, your career should be something you’re passionate about or else it’s going to be very hard to succeed. You should want to think about your career while you’re taking a shower or taking a walk. I know plenty of people who like aspects of what they do, but don’t like the aspects of what it takes to succeed in the traditional sense. While I have not read the book you mentioned, my favorite teachers in college and graduate school were those that really took the time to get to know their students and teach in an interesting way. While publishing in Nature magazine is surely deemed to be successful and getting tenure is definitely obtaining “success” in the traditional sense…there is something to be said about the professor who foregoes the cutting edge research and spends (what one may consider a disproportionate amount of time) with a student. Maybe his/her success is in holding office hours and the student having an “aha” moment. Or a student comment that “I was never interested in X subject until I took a class with Professor Y.” Maybe it’s the legacy that you leave on in terms of excited new students than a trail of published (and potentially forgettable) articles.

    1. @EB- thanks for your comment. One should definitely not go into academia unless you are passionate about the career! Because it is a really tough road to follow, whether you have children or not. I don’t necessarily think that great teaching and great research have to be at odds. Some people are good at both. That said, there is a certain reality in academia in that after you have tenure you can do whatever you want (including spending all your time teaching if you wanted, holding extensive office hours, inducing aha moments, etc.). Before that, you can’t. And if you don’t get tenure, you will probably not get the chance to create great teaching relationships, because you’ll be moving from university to university on adjunct contracts, not sure if you’ll have a desk, what you’ll be teaching, etc. This may be a fundamental problem with academia (Naomi Schafer Riley has a great new book out called The Faculty Lounges that calls for the abolition of the tenure system) and there are some pioneering universities which are rewarding teaching as much as research. At those universities (and Bowdoin, where the authors of Professor Mommy work) then you should put serious effort into teaching as well. But for now, unless you plan to completely change academia, the order has to be first tenure, then hoist the Jolly Roger.

  2. Laura,
    Thanks so much for your endorsement on our book, Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia. You are right that much of our message to women in academics easily translates to all women seeking to have a balanced life that includes more than one passion. Having been a faculty member for more than 25 years I continue to be amazed at how many young faculty (men and women alike) don’t really understand what they need to do to achieve tenure. I like how you have characterized it as “focusing on the metrics that matters.”

    I wanted to comment briefly on the issue of writing while pregnant because I think this too is a broader issue that affects all working women on the road to motherhood. In fact, Kristen wrote most of her dissertation while pregnant and I have done substantial new statistical work and written about it while pregnant (which is a good thing since with four kids and one miscarriage I have spent more than three years pregnant). So you are completely right, we were being a bit dramatic. But the point we were trying to make is that women often plan for periods of reduced productivity at work after childbirth(note: you are being productive making breast milk, bonding with your baby etc) but don’t think about the period of disability related to the actual pregnancy. I was young when I was pregnant with my first child and none of my friends had yet had babies so I had very little information about the disabilities related to pregnancy. No one told me I would be exhausted for the first three months. I wrongly thought since I was a healthy person I wouldn’t have morning sickness (what a terrible misnomer, I was sick morning, noon and night that first time.) I also thought since I was less sick with the second and even less sick with the third that the fourth would be a breeze. Wrong!! I was so sick in the beginning with the fourth baby that I had to stop teaching in the middle of the semester for six weeks.

    Our goal is not to scare women away from pregnancy but we need to allow for the possibility of periods (even extended periods) of reduced productivity and not beat ourselves up if it happens. Adding a sense that “I am not getting anything done!” to the pure physiological effects of pregnancy is a formula for despair.

    Throughout our book, Professor Mommy, our message is that it is better to know what you are getting into than not and that it is better to talk openly about it to other women. It is time to let the disabilities related to pregnancy out of the closet, accept them and work around them.

    1. @Rachel- Thanks so much for your comment (and thanks for your book, and your economics research as well). Yes, pregnancy is one of those “Your Mileage May Vary” life events. I’ve been really fortunate in being able to write books while pregnant, and run through my three pregnancies as well (29 weeks and going strong!) but I’ve had friends who’ve had morning sickness or prescribed bed rest or hospitalization that precludes much of anything. So it’s hard to know ahead of time what you’ll be dealing with. It is good to talk about these things, though it’s always a fine line between knowing that pregnancy can be a difficult time and paternalistic policies forcing people not to do things “for their own good” during pregnancy.
      As for the tenure point – yes! I think a lot of people think academia would be a great career because they like reading and thinking, and then they suddenly learn that, oh yeah, I have to produce independent original scholarship. I need a certain number of publications — something that is hard to guarantee (I can attest as a writer) unless you have a lot of irons in the fire. It’s wonderful that Professor Mommy spells these things out.

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