Tenure-tracked or Mommy-tracked?


I love Science, in particular Chemistry and I can talk in depth profile-faculty-stephanie-macquarrieabout these topics for hours. I also have plenty of experience with scientific writing. This however, is my first real shot at writing a blog, I follow lots of blogs on different topics and it seems the best ones have well incorporated humor or sarcasm… I’ve been told I am not really funny (although I do know some pretty kick-ass chemistry jokes) or sarcastic (that last comment was not), but I am passionate and I love teaching, so I thought I would give it a go and see what happens.  

I am one of those really lucky people who do what they love for their job. I am an Assistant Chemistry Professor at a small research intensive undergraduate university. On top of having the best job in the world, I also have the three best kids in the world and a pretty awesome partner to go along with all of that.  Of course getting to this point was not a walk in the park, I had to work hard and overcome some pretty significant barriers along the way.

I grew up in a small town in NS with very encouraging parents who luckily pushed me towards science and constantly told me I could be anything I wanted to be and I believed it. I credit them with granting me the gift of stubbornness that has taken me far in my life.

My high school science teacher was disinterested in science and had a clear intolerance for girls who believed they should pursue a science career. I recall one particular occasion when he informed the class that the boys would likely do better because they were able to solve problems, while the girls were only capable of memorization. I considered this a challenge to prove that he was wrong.

Long story short, I completed my BSc at MtA and went on to Virginia Tech to do a PhD in organic chemistry. Along the way I had discovered a real passion for two things chemistry and teaching. I wanted to teach people WHY I love chemistry and why it is so much more than what is taught in most chemistry highschool texts.  I decided early on that I would follow the academic route and become a Chemistry Professor.

A very important thing happened to me during my undergraduate studies – I met and fell in love with someone, but not just anyone – this particular person was extremely supportive of my goals and future aspirations – this was a really important factor in realizing my future career. I was in graduate school when we got married and almost immediately I started receiving unsolicited advice “don’t have children until you finish” cautioned my friend.  I nodded easily; I was 25 and had no plans of children immediately. Research, socializing, our puppies took up most of my time anyways.

I was nearly finished my doctoral thesis on the academic trail towards becoming a professor.  When a faculty member advised me “don’t have children until you get tenure”… This time the nod didn’t come so easily, I was heading into a 4 year post-doc before I was to even enter academics and even then Tenure is typically a five to seven year process, and my husband and I wanted a family. It was 2004! Did I really have to choose between a career in academics and a family? More unsolicited advice came my way “these are not the years for distractions, the languor of pregnancy, the time-consuming demands of infants and young children”, “You have to be a serious scholar, go to conferences, publish, advise students, serve on university committees” “Establish yourself as a teacher and a researcher, Children will interfere with this!”

I understood that the next few years after my Ph.D. were going to crucial for developing momentum and establishing my academic reputation, it was also the time I wanted to have children!  When was their going to be a good time? Why should academics be different than other career paths where women could be successful at work and at home?  Wouldn’t time management and a supportive family structure make both possible?

 So, my stubborn streak kicked in and my husband and I planned for our first child I was writing my thesis and looking for a post-doc and as far as “best time” scenarios went, we considered this ours.  

I also felt it was important to set a precedent, prove that you can have a family and proceed with a career in academics, especially in chemistry.  Role models for young women in my situation were in high demand, in fact in the 9 years I spent in post-secondary education I had very few female science professors and at that time none of them had children. It really did seem like an all boys club. It became clear to me that more women had to pave the way and show that it can be done. 

 We welcomed our first born in April of 2005 and I was excited to begin sharing the news with my friends, colleagues and family. Balancing out the excitement that rained from family members and friends were several comments I received from some colleagues and professors, including “Don’t worry, this isn’t the worst thing that could happen, you will manage to get through this” followed up with advice about considering other more family friendly career options….

The funny thing is I had always considered an academic career a fairly family friendly choice up until this point.  I knew lots of hard work would be involved, but I also saw plenty of flexibility in hours.

Honestly, it has been a bit of a balancing act and both aspects of my life have often required creative time management skills and long hours, yet anything worth having is worth working hard for. This is just as true for having children as it is for following your career path.

I finished my post-doc in 2009, I published, I lectured and I traveled to conferences (often with my very supportive husband and wonderful son in tow). In 2009 I became a Chemistry Professor at CBU and I had my second child. It was amazing how much had changed in those five years, it was easier to find other women in similar situations, I received a lot less “advice”, times were changing and still are changing for the better. Support systems exist. Four years into my academic career and we welcomed our third and final family member into the world. I have to admit when the time came to announce that I was pregnant with my third I was much more relaxed. I felt like this really was a convenient time to have a baby – finally! I wasn’t finishing my Ph.D., or starting a new career. I had established myself in my position, had some experience with babies already and I knew it would be a welcomed announcement at work. However, I was 35, not yet tenured and if I had waited until this time to start my family it is more biologically unlikely I would of been able to have three amazing children.

Now I lecture, run a research program and travel to conferences, sit on the PTA and read bed time stories.

Every part of my life is very rewarding in its own way, and often the two complement each other. If I end up pulling out my hair because a reaction isn’t working in the lab  there is no better stress relief than reading Curious George to your four year old and delighting in her giggles…Having my children immersed in an academic environment isn’t hurting either. On a recent snow day, my 8 year old came to the University with me, where we visited a giant fish tank, took a few books out of the library and had lunch in the cafeteria. At the end of the day he told me “ I was the luckiest mommy to have such a fun job!” And I couldn’t agree more.

Sure I used to have great stretches of time to work. Now I have research thoughts while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.   I can’t imagine doing anything else. I really love what I do, and a lot of that has to do with working in a supportive environment both at work and at home. I want to spend more time encouraging young women to pursue their career goals without having to sacrifice a family life. Now more programs are being developed, more information is available to help women early in their careers balance work and parenting, so that they never have to choose between the tenure track and the mommy track. 

Along the way I have been so fortunate to meet many Women Scientists, some with challenging stories, others with remarkable confidence, all of which make excellent mentors for young women considering science. I want to share this blog with them and I have asked them to write an entry and I will post one each month from a different woman scientist in a different scientific career, perhaps along with a thought or two of my own – I kind of enjoyed my first go at blogging!


My three “distractions”



2 thoughts on “Tenure-tracked or Mommy-tracked?

  1. Jaime

    Hi Stephanie! I really enjoyed reading your blog and I have to say that I could relate to some of what you went through. I also had to bring out my stubborn side when I was in medical school and was told that I “had” to take more than 3 months of maternity leave (which would mean I would have to postpone graduation by a year) because taking less than 3 months would sacrifice bonding with my baby. This was 2005! I told them I would take a week of maternity and there was nothing they could do about it. They conceded at that point and I ended up taking 6 weeks of maternity and my bond with Kate is just fine! I’m happy that Andrew and I didn’t wait to have kids – I couldn’t imagine my life without them. Congrats on your job and family!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s