Work-Parenting Stories

Work-Parenting Stories

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Traci Neilsen

My nonlinear career path as a mother acoustician

written February 2020

I was born when my parents were very young.   My mom dropped out of college to take care of me while Dad continued to get his Bachelor’s degree in Physics at Utah State University.  My mom devoted most of her time and energy to me, and subsequently to my five siblings, while my dad became an Air Force pilot and then a prestigious test pilot.  While supporting my dad in his career, my mom dedicated her life to teaching us, taking care of us, helping us explore the world, and showing by her example how to serve others.  When the youngest child was in school, my mom went to college part time and received her degree—something she had always wanted to do.

With this background, I always wanted to have a family and do the stay-at-home mom things that my mom had done.  With my mom’s encouragement, I also knew I had to finish my degree. As I went to college, however, I became aware of the potential conflict between trying to pursue an education and have the same amount of time with children as my mom had with me.  I did not know how it would work out.

I married during my first year of graduate school in Physics (Dec 1994) and was pregnant most of the third year (1996-97). While pregnant, I defended my Ph.D. prospectus on my computational underwater acoustics project and wondered if I should write up the research I’d done and stop with a Master’s degree.   The end of my pregnancy included taking final exams when I could barely squeeze my stomach into the desk, then six weeks of bed rest, getting a computer to work from home, a very supportive husband, and understanding research advisor.  In June 1997, our daughter was born. 

Although most newborns primarily sleep and nurse, she didn’t want to do either of those things.  The first weeks were very difficult, and I was very overwhelmed feeling like I would never be able to do anything again other than try to feed the baby and get her to sleep.  I remembered going to a lactation specialist and just sobbing from exhaustion as she tried to be encouraging.  I don’t remember what I told her, but I distinctly remember one of her comments: “If they want more women in science, they need to find a way to allow flexibility for mothers with young children.”  At the time it seemed like a nice thought, but I was not sure what would happen with my life.

With time, things smoothed out.  I told my colleagues at work that now I was only master of my schedule to “the first approximation” because all the details in the “higher-order terms” were controlled by the baby.  Nevertheless, I found that it was still possible for me to proceed with my Ph.D. program.  I could make progress on my computational research project from home. My husband’s grad school schedule was flexible enough that he could be with our daughter while I took my last class and met with my advisor and other colleagues.  My husband graduated (Aug 1999) a year before me and began a postdoctoral research position at the same university.  Slowly but steadily, I finished the research, wrote the dissertation and graduated (May 2000).  I didn’t know what would come next.

The Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), where I worked as a graduate student, had a considerable number of women scientists and engineers.  Although they were not my direct research advisors, these women provided role models for me.  At the time, the UT system provided health benefits to everyone employed 20 hours a week.  This rule was not only great for graduate students but also made it easier for some of the women to choose to reduce their hours when their children were young, without loss of benefits, and then return to full-time status.  Some of the women had worked full-time their entire careers, but others had cut back to part-time status when they felt the need to have more time with their children.  I explain this because I believe it laid the foundation for the offer I received for a part-time postdoctoral position.

I was quite astounded by this offer.  I didn’t know there could be such a thing as a part-time postdoc. I did know that I did not want to work full-time.  I was enjoying the time I had with my daughter, the long walks and talks, pushing the swings at the park, etc.  I was also pregnant again. But perhaps this part-time post-doc could work. I gratefully accepted the position and, to this day, continue to thank those who made it possible.

Our son was born six months into my postdoc (Jan 2001).  My understanding advisor allowed me to take time off and flexibility to begin working again as I could handle it.  Two years into my postdoctoral position, we moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana (July 2002) when my husband accepted his second postdoctoral position at Louisiana State University.  My advisor allowed me to telecommute about 10 hours/week to finish my project.  Then I started as a research scientist on a different project telecommuting and had our third child (March 2003).

When my husband finished his second postdoc, he was hired as a faculty member at Brigham Young University (BYU).  When we moved to Utah (August 2004), our children were 1 ½, 3 ½, and 7 years old.  Life was very busy.  I was asked if I wanted to teach a class at BYU.  This began a few years of teaching 1-2 classes a year, with the MWF morning schedule of drop of eldest at elementary school, drop of middle child at preschool, take youngest to campus and have a friend entertain her for an hour, then pick up the youngest and middle child and a few hours later the eldest.   I finished the telecommuting project and took a break from research just teaching a few classes each year as an adjunct professor during this busy time of life.

A few years later, when my youngest went to school, I spoke with the other BYU acoustics professors about perhaps supplementing the teaching by getting involved in research again.  None of them were doing underwater acoustics research, but they did have some funded projects that needed work done.  I began to learn about jet noise and slowly began contributing and then helping to mentor students on research.  For almost a decade, I worked as an adjunct instructor and part-time, soft-money researcher—another thing I couldn’t have imagined existed.

When my youngest was in ninth grade, BYU posted a physics faculty position opening (October 2017).  My husband and I did not have some grand master plan that I would apply for full-time faculty when our youngest child was in high school, but I received a strong impression that I should apply for this job.  It turned out to be the best possible year to apply. Although only one job was posted, a subsequent retirement announcement and a posting to NSF allowed for three new professors to be hired: One of them was me.

Since May 2018, I have been a full-time faculty member.  With this position, I need to show I can be the PI and lead research.  I have returned to my underwater acoustics roots.  My post-doc advisor asked me to collaborate with him and others in the underwater acoustics community have welcomed me back.  My first graduate students have been amazing, and our research is rolling along.

I attribute my ability to return to underwater acoustics research to my continued participation in the Acoustical Society of America (ASA).  For most of the past 20 years, I was able to attend at least one ASA meeting a year. Members who knew me when I was a student would check in with me and see how life was going.  They encouraged me and included me as part of the society even when I was only able to keep one toe in.  I have cherished the mentoring I have received from ASA members over the years and the friendships I have made.  I am grateful to have a professional home that has accepted me and allowed me to contribute as I have pursued my unusual career path.

When I pause long enough to think about how my life has unfolded, I am still surprised.   I didn’t know if I would need to stop my education when my children were born. I didn’t know if there was a way to work as a scientist part-time while raising my children.  I didn’t know what would come next.  We just took it one decision at a time.  At the birth of each child and as each opportunity arose, my husband and I prayerfully considered what to do.  Along the way I have been encouraged and assisted by many great mentors, students, and friends.

Life as a new faculty member is very busy.  I am amazed by those who are at this point in their career while having young children.  I applaud all who are doing their best to find harmony between their careers and their families.  I use the word harmony instead of balance intentionally.  Balance seems to imply that all the pieces are in one perfect arrangement—an unstable equilibrium—and that the slightest nudge will send all the pieces flying.  I like to think about work-family harmony instead because harmonies come in many varieties.  So many harmonies are beautiful as are all families. Harmonies ebb and flow just as our family and work responsibilities change over time.  Harmony is something that can come incrementally and is easier to find on some days than others.  I am grateful for the opportunity to share my story. I hope to encourage everyone to do the best they can, to find things that work, to see if they can allow flexibility, and to take it one step at a time as they strive to enjoy the journey. 

Lauren Ronsse

written January 2020

My story begins when I was in graduate school.  I was pursuing a PhD in architectural engineering with an emphasis in acoustics.  I was very dedicated to school, research, service in the professional world, and I was enjoying my work.  During this time, I went on my first date with my later-to-be husband, and he clearly recalls me stating that I was very happy with my professional life and future career and did not plan to have kids.  That was that.  (Note: A friend of mine also recalls this was my state of mind, so it must be true, although I now do not remember ever not wanting to have kids.  It’s funny how kids really do change everything.)  I also had a strong female role model in graduate school (my advisor, Dr. Lily Wang) who had kids while pursuing a professional career in acoustics.  She managed to be actively engaged in her children’s lives, work full-time, advance her career, and engage in leadership positions in professional societies.  It was inspiring to have her as a role model, and I thought there was no reason I should not do the same if I ever had kids. 

I finished grad school, got engaged to be married, took a postdoc doing acoustics research, and started applying for assistant professor positions in acoustics.  This was the plan, and everything was going well.

I finished my postdoc, got married, and started a tenure-track assistant professor position in acoustics.  I was enjoying my work: my students, my teaching, my research, my leadership in professional societies, and I was on-track to achieve tenure at my institution.  I was enjoying life in downtown Chicago: the operas, Broadway shows, ballets, restaurants, live music, the walking commute.  This was the plan, and everything was going well. 

Then, I had my first child in March of 2016.  This changed everything.  Suddenly, my life priorities changed and my vision for my future changed.  I finished the spring semester of work after my maternity leave, and I realized that I needed to spend more time with my son.  I could not work full-time while raising a baby.  I wanted more time with him.  I asked my institution for an extended leave of absence for the following fall semester to accommodate this, and I planned to return to work full-time the following spring.  They complied.  This was not the plan.  But I would soon return to the plan, so no worries.

While I was on my leave of absence, I temporarily relocated to Omaha for reasons related to my husband’s job and our extended family.  I was a full-time stay-at-home mom during this time.  As the time neared for us to return to Chicago (and for me to return to work full-time), we made the decision not to go back.  I was not ready to return to full-time work yet (I needed still more time with my son), my husband’s job no longer allowed him the flexibility to return to Chicago, and we needed to be close to family for a myriad of reasons.  This was not the plan, and this was the hardest decision I had made in my professional career to date.  I knew that I wanted more time with my son than a full-time job would allow, but I did not know what the next steps would be for me professionally (which was tough!).

During this time, I was still active with my leadership position as the Chair of the ASA Women in Acoustics Committee.  Dr. Traci Neilsen and others on the committee were very supportive and encouraged me to do what I thought was best for me and my family during this time.  This was very helpful and affirming for me, and it gave me some comfort to see others who had followed similar paths.

After a while, I felt something was missing.  I wanted to return to my career in acoustics, but I also wanted to continue spending time caring for my son, so I explored a variety of options.  I started working part-time as a Collaborating Consultant with an acoustical consulting firm and as an Industry Fellow, teaching acoustics classes, for the University of Nebraska.  Working part-time provided the perfect balance for me.  I had the time I needed to bond with my son and the professional engagement and interaction I needed to live-out my passion for acoustics.  This still was not the plan, but everything was going very well.

I had another baby boy in November 2018.  I anticipated that I would want ample time with him following his birth, so I made plans to return to life as a full-time stay-at-home mom for a while after he was born.  I returned to work part-time when he was nine-months old.  I am still working part-time while raising my two boys.  Life is busy, and I love it.  

A few lessons learned:

Be flexible.  If you discover that you want to spend more time with your children than a full-time work schedule will allow, do it.  If you want to pursue a professional career while having children, do it.  Be creative and open to professional opportunities that will allow you the flexibility you want or need as a parent.  These opportunities may not be as obvious or widely available, but they do exist, and the trouble it is to find them is worth it.  Seek out and find the right balance for you.  Find others who are pursuing or who have pursued a similar path and talk to them to find out what worked well and what didn’t.  There may (read will) be some trial and error along the way.  My life is so much fuller and more fulfilled with children than I could have ever imagined – they are the loves of my life, and they are worth it.