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A Balanced Life?

For years, academics have studied it. Plenty of faculty members want it. And many of them don’t know how to get it.

Yes, I’m talking about the ever-elusive work-life balance. It’s a perennial topic of discussion among many professors, particularly women. So it wasn’t surprising that attendees at the recent Purdue University Conference for Pre-Tenure Women had some frank conversations about how to manage their role as faculty member while trying to have a satisfying family life.

“Work-life balance permeated every discussion that we had,” said Beverly Davenport Sypher, vice provost for faculty affairs at Purdue. “We provided a space for women to feel safe to talk about the issue.”

The conference was officially billed as an event that would give the 100 or so attendees a blueprint for a successful tenure bid. And sessions that helped demystify the process did take place. But a running undercurrent was that the academic workplace equals high stress.

“There’s this expectation that you will be a specialist and produce research that’s not only important to your discipline but important to the world — and maybe even commercially viable,” Ms. Sypher said. “Then you’re also teaching and then you might have a partner and you might be a parent or taking care of parents. There’s a lot of ‘Is it worth it? What do I have to give up? Can I do it?’ ”

Encouragement during the conference came in various forms: Among them, a behind-the-scenes look at the tenure process and its pitfalls from Ms. Sypher, from senior faculty members who reviewed CV’s, and from panelists who talked about their recent transition from graduate student to faculty member.

Jess White, an assistant professor of anthropology at Western Illinois University, was one of those panelists. She’s married to an academic and her husband was hired as a tenure-track professor at Western Illinois. Ms. White landed a post as a visiting assistant professor at the same institution in 2005 and then graduated with her Ph.D. the following year. It wasn’t until 2008 that her position was converted to the one she has now. Her career path, she said, is part of a trend that concerns her.

“Unfortunately, at some institutions, you tend to get this class of women who are the spouses of tenure-track husbands” and their career paths don’t always play out in the same way. But Ms. White, who had her first child in graduate school, has learned that, as a tenure-track faculty member, “you have to be looking ahead and thinking about what your next step is going to be so that you can prepare yourself for it.”

Part of that preparation begins during the job hunt, said Brenda Berkelaar, another conference panelist, who is an assistant professor in the communication-studies department at the University of Texas at Austin. One of her best pieces of advice: Don’t let generalizations about what a particular type of college might be like get in the way of where you go to begin your career.

“It really comes down to the department,” says Ms. Berkelaar, who came to UT-Austin this fall from another tenure-track position at Northeastern University. “Some of them have a lot of face-time requirements. For someone that has a young family or is taking care of parents, that won’t work.”

As Ms. Berkelaar settles into her new position, she’s thinking about how to prioritize her time on the road to tenure. “You’ve got to get really good at saying no to things,” she says.

Such a stance could make the difference in reversing the work-life struggles that fueled so many discussions at the Purdue conference.

“There’s sort of this expectation in academia still that to be successful you have to forget things like a personal life, forget about things like a family,” Ms. White says. “That’s not what women want and that’s not what many young men want.”

But here’s the question: What factors do you think make work-life balance so hard to achieve in academe, especially for junior faculty members? And to you seasoned professors, what advice do you give junior faculty — particularly women who are parents or who plan to be — on how to “make it all work?”

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