Friday, August 03, 2007


Yesterday I had a little meeting with a student who is exploring potential members of his PhD committee and wanted to know my interest and if I'd be a good fit and all that. He seems interesting and motivated and whatever, and the conversation was cool. (He's 36, so he asked better questions than most students who are right out of undergrad.)

And then, towards the end, he said, "I just have one more question for you, and I hope you don't take it the wrong way. Do you have children? Are you planning to someday?"

And I was like, "Buh?" But then said, well, my husband and I are expecting a kid in October . . .um, but what difference does it make?

He kind of hinted that he really wanted people on his committee who were going to have the right level of focus, and then he mentioned something about having had knee surgery . . . I wasn't sure what any of that meant and decided not to probe any further; maybe he'd had a bad experience at some point, or something . . . I later mentioned that I've worked hard with my grad students this summer to make sure they were all on really solid ground before the fall begins, so that when I am out of the office towards the end of the semester it won't inhibit their progress in any way, and he said that he found that attitude "really encouraging."

I had no idea what he was really getting at. Nobody has ever asked me anything like that in one of those conversations about committee interest.

And for a while after he left, I felt vaguely unsettled by the conversation but couldn't figure out what exactly it was that was bothering me, aside from it's general inappropriateness. But eventually I put my finger on it.

He was either trying to ascertain (a) something about my value system and whether or not I have a life outside of work, or, (b) whether or not I would take my role seriously if I were on his committee, or if I'm just here for jollies and all my focus is someplace else.

I resent the implication that what he actually asked would address either one of those questions. I also suspect he would not ask the same question of a male professor.

What if I had a very rich and active social life? What if I did a lot of volunteer work? What if I had no kids or plans for kids but I was caring for an elderly parent, or a disabled spouse? Or I was planning to go on sabbatical next year? Or I was in the middle of a horrible divorce? Or any other thing, among the million things that can mess with a person's schedule or plans or can impact whether or not they work 70 hours a week. Surely at his age he would realize that every life comes with some surprises and disruptions, and you just deal with them as they come.

If he's concerned that I'm a woman and so probably my career is just something I am taking seriously temporarily, then, that would really make me angry. I have of course encountered this attitude more than once, but it still shocks me, especially when it's coming from men of more or less my same generation (which, interestingly, it was in every case).


~profgrrrrl~ said...

Ugh, that would make me really not want to be on that committee. What does it matter if you have kids? And what an assumption that if you did you might devote less time to his project?

We had a student who probed faculty and gave them a list of "requirements" for serving as committee member and main adviser, including specifying the number of hours each week we should devote to him and his project. I didn't have the opportunity to turn him down (I lacked the required "10+ years directing doctoral dissertations"), but was pleased when many of my senior colleagues did and then collectively commented that someone needed to call the dude on the cluephone.

Irie said...

I'm not sure if he's arrogant or just an ass. Probably a bit of both, I'm guessing.

Ms.PhD said...

Aren't you showing? Maybe he was just trying to ask, clumsily, whether you're pregnant and when you're due?

Having worked with an advisor who was caring for an elderly parent, a sick child, and getting divorced all at the same time;
and having worked with a man whose wife had their first child when i was in the lab;
neither of whom was available when I needed them;

I think what he should have asked was whether you were sure you had time to be on his committee and whether you were committed come hell or high water.

The last thing he needs is to pick you and then have you miss meetings because of unforseen complications from giving birth or something awful like that. I'm just guessing what might be going on in his tiny little mind.

Agreed that you can't ask these things of male professors, and we can any of us have unforseen personal things interrupt our working schedules.... pushing stupid things like other people's committees down to the very bottom of the priority list.

Agreed that if he had a real question he should have figured out a way to ask it instead of being obliquely sexist.

He does sound sexist. Maybe he didn't mean to. Not sure I would care to invest the time to find out.

I love profgrrrrl's description of the student who wanted to require his committee members to be, you know, committed. This made me laugh. I do wish we had some way to punish bad advisers who are chronically absent or unhelpful.

My committee members were okay, not spectacular or always there when I needed them, but generally pretty good. Not sure I can take any credit for choosing them wisely, I think that was one rare area where I actually just got lucky and managed not to piss them all off.

Anonymous said...

Aren't you showing?

Well, not really, if you've never met me before, and you're only looking at me from the front and I'm sitting behind my desk and I'm wearing a black shirt. He's not the only person who has not noticed recently, so I think it's possible he really didn't know.

Profgrrrrl's story (which I, too, very much enjoyed) makes me wonder what these students think the committee members are supposed to be doing. I have seen a range of things, from "be available as a resource in that person's specific area of expertise" to "see you at the defense" but rarely anything more committed than that. I mean, it's not my project, and I have my own grad students to worry about, know what I mean?

mom said...

Grrr. Oh my God, I would totally give him a talking to -- not a chance to explain, just a talking to -- that your personal life is none of his business and if he is concerned that you might not be adequately focused, he should certainly go elsewhere. God, when it was me, I went trembling to ask, will yo serve on my committee (most gracious one). That's bad too, but at least I wasn't a prick!

That's even worse with the "I like your shoes" comments I get on teaching evaluations.

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