Women’s Experiences with Parenting During Doctoral Education: Impact on Career Trajectory

Rebecca G. Mirick, Stephanie P Wladkowski
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 089-110

This study explored the experiences of women doctoral students and their perceptions of the impact of this experience on their academic careers.

While more women than men graduate from doctoral programs in all non-STEM fields, women are more likely to take non-tenure positions or positions at less prestigious programs such as community colleges or teaching focused institutions. This creates a lack of diversity at research intensive programs as well as potentially highlighting gender inequities within the pipeline from doctoral education to full professorship. The source of these differences in career outcomes are not fully understood, and it is unclear whether mothers are self-selecting away from research intensive positions, they are less able to obtain the required professional training for these experiences, perhaps in part due to a lack of university based supports, or they experience discrimination based on gender biases around caregiving.

In this cross-sectional, descriptive study, women doctoral students and graduates (N=777) completed a survey about their experiences as doctoral student mothers.

Little is known about the availability of supports for doctoral student mothers across fields, or their experiences with parenting during their doctoral programs. This study provides a broader view of doctoral student mothers’ perspectives as well as their understanding of the impact of their doctoral education experience on their career trajectories.

Participants reported informal supports were often available (e.g. flexibility (57.1%), peer support (42.9%)) but identified a need for subsidized childcare (67.7%) and paid leave (53.3%). Many found motherhood decreased productivity (70.1%) and 55.8% said it impacted their career, including a new definition of an “ideal” position, changed career goals, professional development opportunities, being less competitive job candidates, delays in completing their program and entering the job market and a positive impact on career.

Implications for doctoral programs are the need for more formal family-friendly policies, including subsidized childcare and conference travel support, improving the quality of mentoring for these students and facilitating access to a diverse array of professional development opportunities.

These findings suggest that there are multiple, complex factors impacting women’s career trajectory post-graduation once they have children. Researchers should consider multiple pathways to career decisions for women with children. In addition, these findings suggest that researchers exploring this topic should consider both field of study and whether women have a child at the point of program entry.

An underrepresentation of women in prestigious academic positions and leadership positions has a negative impact on young women who desire an academic career. The lack of women with children in these positions creates a problematic lack of diversity in leadership and a dearth of role models for women students with children. The benefits of diversity in leadership are well known. These findings can be used by doctoral programs and academic institutions to increase gender and parental status diversity in these positions, to the benefit of students, faculty, departments, and institutions.

Future research should explore the impact of supports on measures of doctoral student success (e.g. publications, conference presentations) and the impact of these experiences on students’ careers following graduation.

parenting, doctoral education, motherhood, supports, academia
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