Wednesday, June 18, 2008

CS Family Values

One aspect of graduate school at Berkeley I recall quite clearly was the lack of children. Graduate students having children was and is generally quite rare, and I'm not sure that CS at Berkeley was much worse in that regard than anywhere else -- I'd be interested if readers have any pointers to stats on the issue, by field and/or by school. But it struck me even then that it seemed unusual for the faculty to have kids, particularly in the theory group.

I know there's the old advice -- still apparently prevalent in some circles -- not to have children until you get tenure. Though that advice seems less widespread these days, or perhaps just more young faculty are choosing to ignore it. (Or, perhaps, I'm just out of touch -- at Harvard, at least, the common case is for CS junior faculty to have kids.) [And apparently I may also be suffering sex bias; see this summary and this pointer to an NSF report, suggesting that the effect on tenure chances for men having children is small, but is much larger for women.]

Does having kids help or hurt one's work? I don't think there's a clear answer, that it probably depends on the individual (and that the effect, in any case, is probably overestimated). On the other hand, I think a career framework that pushes people to postpone or not have children is ultimately cutting off a substantial supply of raw talent, which can't be a good thing. If academia as a whole is moving away from that 20th (19th?) century mindset, I'm all in favor of it.

(An aside -- Chloe Elizabeth Mitzenmacher arrived last week, prompting some of these thoughts. Which, due to lack of sleep, might be even less coherent than average...)


Suresh Venkatasubramanian said...

congratulations ! Here at Utah, there are grad students with more kids than I have :)

Anonymous said...


As for your opening remark about Berkeley, having gone from MIT to Berkeley to Columbia, with stop-overs at Tsinghua, IBM and IPAM, it is my experience that it's primarily indeed a Berkeley thing :)

Anonymous said...

Randy Pausch had something to say on this (The Last Lecture). He says that (based on experience at Brown/Virginia/CMU) people with kids were graduating at least as fast as those without - partly because they forced themselves to be more focussed.

I can confirm the focus bit as someone with first hand experience - our daughter arrived a year and half before I graduated. However, what is left unsaid is the stress of being focussed and time-aware all the time... and this is something I still think about as a young faculty member.

Anonymous said...

At least at this point, the majority of the theory faculty at Berkeley have kids.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! Best of luck in your new endeavor!

For most of my time in graduate school, the norm seemed to be to wait. But, that's been changing over the past few years, with a lot of new arrivals.

Anonymous said...

Two observations on this. The first and most important thing is that this is as much a money issue as a time-to-do-research issue, because money translates into time. My wife pushed to finish her PhD (in the humanities) just before our first child was born, so I can vouch for the focus factor. But it sure was nice having her gainfully employed 4 months later, in a job that gave her on-campus housing, while I was still 3 years from a tenure decision. As an extra added benefit, my commute was nil and we had an endless supply of intelligent, responsible, inexpensive babysitters. Don't under-estimate the significance of material factors in thinking about this. Computer scientists who have consulting incomes can probably turn those into time too, and that may be related to any observed child-friendliness in our field.
The other general observation is that being a young professor with children can cause the perfectionist mentality we have about our research papers (gotta get it just right, or it won't get published, and then I won't get tenure) to get carried over to our parenting. Big mistake. Get used to the idea that little children are incredibly resilient, and providing them a few unintended opportunities to see life at its less than ideal will do them more good than harm in the long run, guilty as it may make you feel in the short run! Not to mention the good effect on everyone's mental health, the partner's and the children's as well as your own, of just being a little more relaxed.