My dissertation was my first baby

I was a graduate student attending an informal academic gathering. The topic of conversation: childbearing. I mentioned wanting to have kids. An older male professor responds, “Well, your dissertation is your first baby.”

He intended the comment to be humorous and delivered it like the common wisdom it once was in academia. I was offended but swallowed my protest.

I regret not calling him out on it because I’ve come to discover in the years since that the “academia first, personal life second” attitude harms both academics who intend to become parents and those who don’t. Can we agree on these things: (1) a university landscape populated purely by single-minded academics with similar reproductive trajectories is less rich than one that allows members to draw fulfillment both within and outside of academia; (2) everyone has a right to a personal life regardless of stage of academic career or family status; and following from these, (3) obstacles that keep graduate students from having children when they want to should be addressed.

Despite my aversion to the implications of the professor’s statement, the idea of a dissertation baby appealed to me, and I decided to co-opt the term.

Now, I’m not going to suggest writing a dissertation is on the same order of magnitude as having a child. Creating a human being, raising that person to adulthood, being accountable 24/7 seems a much more onerous task and a level of responsibility I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to engage. But there are parts of writing a dissertation I think must be like childbearing: the thrill of finding a research question and witnessing the dissertation develop into something more than you’d imagined.

I first felt I’d stumbled upon something that could become my dissertation on the same day the tree-sitters were removed from the oak grove across from my department at UC Berkeley. For close to two years, they’d been protesting the university’s decision to cut down the oaks and build an athletic facility. On this day, there was only one tree left standing, and contractors were building scaffolding around it to assist with the removal of four protestors gathered at the top.

A few of us from the department watched from a balcony across the street. The construction proceeded slowly, and while we were waiting, I showed a professor some graphs I’d made about gender differences in variability in life span.

“Interesting, I’ve never seen this before,” he said.

This is something every graduate student longs to hear. Finding a research question that pushes the edge of human knowledge is a major obstacle to writing a dissertation.

The scaffolding was built, the tree-sitters removed, the seed of my dissertation planted. It was the beginning of my fourth year, and over the next two years, I broadened my research question, reviewed the literature, made a lot more graphs, and wrote everything up. There were days where I had major breakthroughs, but for the most part, writing a dissertation is a slow plod toward the finish line. I PhinisheD in May of 2010.

I stopped by my old department last month when I was visiting the Bay Area. I chatted with a couple people and then went up to the attic. The library there houses the only print copy of my dissertation. I felt compelled to hold it.

Partly, I wanted to make amends because at times I’ve felt like a neglectful mother for not having tried harder to publish my dissertation results in an academic journal. I know my unwillingness was a sign academia was not the right fit for me, but I still feel guilty. And this guilt makes me feel unworthy of taking on new projects like the novel. I have difficulty trusting myself because I haven’t taken every project I’ve started to completion.

Holding my dissertation in the attic, I didn’t feel guilty. I felt reassured. I produced a dissertation baby, and if I work hard at it, I can make a novel baby too. And if the urge strikes me to have a human baby, I can try to do that as well, whenever it feels right.


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