Happy Homemaker, Ph.D.

A novice homemaker's attempts to use her engineering Ph.D. to serve her family

What’s a STEM Woman (At Home) to Do? – Part 1

Women are encouraged like never before to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but is the message balanced?

(Image source)

A reader comment to my post on What I Missed In College got me to thinking about the push to encourage girls to explore and enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.  This hit me even harder as I recently learned a five-year-old girl that I dearly love is headed to a STEM magnet school for kindergarten next year.

Don’t get me wrong.  I LOVE the STEM fields!  LOVE THEM!  I have studied them with excitement and vigor since at least 1991 and spent a combined ten years working as an engineer and teaching operations management (using math and problem solving in business applications).  I even found I loved applied statistics so much that I left my well-paying job and amazing friends to move to the desert to study for a Ph.D.!  So, why do I feel hesitation in embracing these programs for women?

I feel the message may be unbalanced.

That little five-year-old girl has been described most to me as a “little mother.”  She plays well with my oldest girl, but she adores and nurtures my youngest.  I think she’ll be beyond excited to hold my newest baby sometime this summer.  I can’t help but wonder if, in the midst of building projects with moving parts, getting excited about math, and performing hands-on experiments, she’ll also learn to ignore that part of her heart that loves to care for little children.  Will she, in a male-dominated field, lose her quiet, tender heart in an effort to achieve “success?”

Perhaps it’s my own story that gives me reservations for these girls.  There is no doubt in my mind that God has given me my interest in and aptitude for science, engineering, and statistics.  I cannot imagine pursuing a major other than Chemical Engineering as an undergrad even now, knowing I’d choose to switch to industrial engineering as a major in grad school, teach in a business college, and then stay home with my children.  I fully enjoyed, as a woman, being in the minority of the development engineering department I worked in.   I was able to support myself in the years before I was married.

During those years, I still had my focus that I had insisted on in college – that I wanted a job, not a career.  And I dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom, like my mom was, more than anything else.  Then, I went back to school full-time for my Ph.D., a path that I could not see ever going together with a family.  A year later, I married.

I’d love to say that marriage kept my aspirations grounded.  I now got to care for my husband, cooking meals, trying to keep house, and all of the domestic duties that I had mostly shoved aside for 29 years to make time for other pursuits.  Still, with being in a focused academic environment, I lost my vision.  I got distracted as I learned what I “should” be doing to be “successful” in the field of academia.  I learned what it took to be a tenure-track professor, and I learned how to do those things well.  Instead of just going through my classes and requirements, I sought out additional opportunities to gain experience in teaching, research, and service.  I started writing small grant proposals, presented my research at conferences, traveled to research meetings, gave several lectures to undergraduate students, and helped plan a research symposium on my campus.  I won awards for presentations.  I received the grant money.  I worked an intense internship and won the respect of my colleagues.  Before I graduated, I secured a teaching job at my alma mater, a dream come true for me.

Again, with “only” teaching required in this new position, I strove to keep the research and service parts of my vita full.  These efforts took away time and focus from my husband while providing additional stress as the teaching responsibilities were already more than I would consider “full-time” work.

By the time we discovered we were expecting our first child, I had been sucked in, and felt I couldn’t leave.  (Now, part of that was the calling to complete my dissertation work so I’d have my Ph.D., and I needed to stay with the university until that was complete.  That delay was my fault and a topic for another day.)  I was used to the income, the affirmation (Really?  Do I remember the days I’d read my TEVALs and cry?), the classroom, my own office on campus, and more.  I stayed a semester longer than I had to so I could try to teach a new course, an elective.    Looking back, it was probably an excuse.  I justified it many ways, and much of that last semester, I frantically searched for ways I could still remain engaged in the workforce or field part-time to keep my “foot in the door.”  I felt I needed an outlet for my well-developed skills.

And, then I came home to be that stay-at-home mom I had always dreamed of being.

In all my days of academic training, I don’t remember hearing anyone talk of how fulfilling that would be, save my mentor from my teaching internship during my doctoral program.  (I praise God for Linda!  I chose her for this reason.  I was trying to look for a family-friendly path.)

I can’t help but wonder, if I got distracted from what was really important – and what I really wanted – in a period of 5 years of academic immersion at ages 29-34, what will it be like for girls who are encouraged to enter STEM fields from much earlier ages?  Will their teachers also tell them how wonderful it will be to stay home and raise a family, should they be so blessed?

In my eighteen months at home, I haven’t missed being in the workforce.  I haven’t felt isolated.  I haven’t felt “unfulfilled” or unappreciated.  I have been full of the joy I hadn’t felt since before I started my Ph.D. studies!  I have treasured the moments with my young children.  I have savored the opportunities to pursue interests like cooking and writing that I didn’t have time for while working.  I have basked in the peace that comes from not having piles of papers to grade or the stress of hurrying between work and home, dropping a child off at day care, picking her up, and trying to fix a quick supper.  I have delighted in the pride my husband feels as I stay home to make our family a priority.  I’ve even enjoyed being on a smaller budget, being able to trust God in new ways again and seeing His faithfulness and provision.  I can’t imagine anything better than being right where I’m at, and I still get to engage in those STEM fields I love every day (see Part 2)!

So, for the girls and women out there with a passion for math or an excitement for science, I’m cheering for you, sisters!  But I’m also asking you to search your hearts and seek the Lord for what He has for you each season of your life.

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Being on the Flip Side of the Research – A Ph.D.’s Perspective as a Study Participant

Last month, instead of wheeling the stroller through my favorite engineering building to see this year’s Engineering Open House displays, we went as a family to some other parts of our local university for All-University Open House.  (This event is something I’ve delighted in since I was in high school and first came to explore the campus and programs with my family.  I usually make it a priority to at least see some of the engineering displays each April.)  Instead of my two-year-old being able to create a test tube of layered, colored liquids and be involved in the manufacture of a customized brownie (from the Chemical Engineering and Industrial Engineering departments last year, respectively), we began our adventure in the building that houses Human Ecology programs.  Little Clara seemed more intrigued by the playroom set up for Early Childhood Education, the inflatable vessel that whirled money around her (being used for some kind of time-value of money presentation), the balloons and train outside as we walked nearer to the College of Education, the sidewalk chalk near the Art department, the gardens and insect zoo, and the snacks she got as we learned how cattle feed is mixed in the College of Agriculture.  It was fun to take in the event as more of a family activity rather than me just getting a bit of an engineering fix.

While we were in the Human Ecology building, though, a woman, seeing my husband and I with our little ones, handed me a slip of paper calling for research participants in a study.  I fit the criteria.  With an incentive of a $50 gift card for attending an hour-long class and cooking two kid-friendly meals, I was interested.  I signed up.

I attended the class this week, and, as a researcher myself, I left with more questions than I came with.  Granted, this is a field (dietetics) that I’m not overly familiar with in terms of what kind of research is funded and published.  The hour-long class probably took 30 minutes, involved a last-minute location change, and included two handouts for recipe resources.  Copies of the slide presentation were not supplied.  The facilitator read from her notes, adding personal stories from time to time.  I wasn’t impressed by this, but it wasn’t too surprising either, as I figured the methodology of the study must require a certain text/presentation be given to all participants.  Our class was around 12 people, while they are hoping to find 120 participants.  The content focused on the benefits of eating vegetables, with information about different types of vegetables and ideas on how to make them more appealing to children.

A calendar was being passed around as I arrived (a couple of minutes late), and I learned that we were to cook the two meals alone in a condo near campus, rather than in our own homes.  I had pictured cooking at home and answering a survey about the cooking experience as well as how well it was received by my little ones.  Cooking off-site was not mentioned in the previous communications I’d had (info sheet, phone call, e-mail reminder).  Other moms asked if we got to taste the food we’d be preparing.  The answer was no.  Another surprise.  “So, is this just to see how easy the recipes are to prepare?” another participant asked.  “Yes.”  Very vague.  I asked about the funding source.  The FDA is funding this study that only includes our university.

I fully expect there to be hidden cameras set up in the condo, similar to the rooms set up to record how teams worked or how sales presentations were given in some of my previous universities.  I’m not sure if the lack of information is intentional (some studies need participants to be a little “in the dark” to avoid bias) or if it is just poor implementation.  Hearing the experiences and questions from the other participants, I think they may already have a biased sample of sorts.  (These moms sounded MUCH more conscientious about buying and preparing vegetables than I ever have been!)  Also, the connection between the class (focused on vegetables) and the recipes (something with fruit and a meatball recipe) seem unrelated.

So now, instead of just being interested in learning something new and acquiring a gift card, I’m a little more interested in reading the grant proposal, checking what kind of Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was needed, knowing what kind of methodology will be used in the analysis, and reading the final results.    I don’t have time to investigate that on my own, but I think I’ll be asking more questions when I go to cook next week.

And, I’ll be looking for those hidden cameras.

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In His Time

It was the Fourth of July.  I came downstairs to send a quick e-mail to my band director explaining that I may not be able to make it to the evening municipal band concert due to our plans to visit family out of town.  As I scanned my inbox, I saw a familiar name from years ago, a fellow student of my advisor for my master’s degree.

He was writing to let me know the paper I wrote based on my thesis was accepted.  He’s been a coauthor that has done the hard work of submitting the paper to a few journals over the last few years with no success until now.

Great news, right?!  Publications seem to be what is most highly esteemed in many faculty positions.  They are required for tenure and promotion – not that those matter much to me right now while I work at home raising my girls.

I was excited, very surprised (The study was limited and includes a research method that most engineers may not understand – qualitative systematic grounded theory – simply because words (not numbers) are the data to be analyzed.), and then — stumped.  My colleague asked me to send a bio to be included with the article.

I’ve dreaded this, knowing it would come sometime, but not thinking it would be so soon.  Affiliation: __ (blank)__.  I wonder what it says to people to see my name listed as first author and no affiliation with a company or university.

I wonder what it says about me that I care.  

I wanted to make sure my qualifications gave credibility to the paper.  I wanted to sound professional.  I also wanted to make sure I could honestly and joyfully describe my current career choice.  Honestly, I wished I had started my own company – even if I didn’t accept any business – just to have a name to list, to say I was a consultant or something.   But, I haven’t started a company yet.  I don’t have a name picked out.

So, here goes:

Dana K. is a stay-at-home mother of two beautiful daughters.  She earned her Ph.D. in industrial engineering with an emphasis in quality and reliability engineering… She has taught classes in operations management and quality management at ____ University and has several years of industrial experience…  Her research interests include industrial statistics, quality engineering, Six Sigma, and service operations management.

That first sentence is not something you see in many journal article bios.  I’ve never seen it before, anyway.  I pray that it will be a testimony that shows professional women in industry and academia that they do have a choice if they want to change directions in their lives.  That choice is very hard to see sometimes, for a variety of reasons.

And my late-night pondering makes me wonder if the previous rejections of this paper and now its acceptance have a very special, strategic timing.  While I feel almost naked thinking about my name printed without an affiliation, I think God may see that front page differently.  He makes all things beautiful in His time.  And I think that blank will be beautiful to Him.

~Dana

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