April M. Griffin sprints the two blocks to the E branch train, clutching the stroller’s handles as it rattles down the sidewalk. It’s 7:20 a.m.—an hour later than it should be.
—We’re going fast, mommy!
—Yes, we’re going fast.
She coos the words—peering over the stroller at her four-year-old son Miles as they race past the American Brewery Lofts towards the Heath Street station. Developers have tried to gentrify this part of Jamaica Plain by making apartments of the one-time brewery, and of the old Jefferson School that she and Miles call home.
The trolley is deserted. Heath Street is the first stop, and besides, it’s still early for most commuters.
April’s grown familiar with the E branch. She finished her bachelor’s eight stops away at Northeastern—classes at night, lab work during the day. Down the same tracks is the Whelan Lab at Harvard Medical School, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in virology. In between was Miles, who is, at present, in a garrulous sort of mood.
She leans over, listening. His words are difficult to make out.
—You want chicken nuggets?!
Miles giggles joyously. He turned four last week, but his speech development is lagging, and while April understands him, Miles is often unintelligible to outsiders. When the problem was first flagged a couple years ago, he could speak only a few words. “I just wanted him to say ‘Mommy,’” April remembers.
She’s worried he’s not hearing enough English at daycare, which is run by an elderly Spanish-speaking woman from Colombia. Harvard has six affiliated daycare centers, plus two more that serve the Longwood Medical Area. It sounds like a lot, but with over 2,000 faculty, 12,000 staff, and 12,000 graduate students, demand outstrips supply. In 2007, then-Harvard professor and diversity dean Lisa L. Martin called childcare at Harvard “a crisis situation,” and estimated that the University’s capacity could only meet half its demand. A few dozen slots have been added in recent years, but many centers still have months-long waiting lists.
And the problems don’t end there. The centers charge between $1,423 and $2,453 a month for full-time infant care—prices that would command roughly two-thirds of the average stipend allotted to students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, pre-tax. Harvard launched a pilot program in 2006 that gives student parents an additional sum of up to $5,000 toward the cost of University-affiliated childcare—still leaving much of the expense uncovered for many parents. The program was extended through this year, but its renewal is now in doubt amid the bouts of cost-cutting that have followed Harvard’s $11 billion loss during the recent market crash. The Medical School has also shown a willingness to help, giving April $3,500 a year for outside childcare. But even at an inexpensive family daycare, that doesn’t pay the bills.
Miles and April get off the T and make a beeline for the Dunkin’ Donuts. April gets coffee. Miles gets munchkins, which he has to eat before they reach the daycare, housed in an apartment building on Alphonsus Street. There, he and several other children spend their days in a small, green-carpeted room on the 10th floor, complete with toys, diapers, and a window, among other amenities. The whole thing costs $160 a week. At 7:40, Miles is the first to arrive.
“You get what you pay for. They’re confined to one room. There’s no English. They don’t get to go outside,” April says, adding with a smile. “But he is loved. He’s so loved.” Miles has been a regular since he was seven months old, since the day April started graduate school—for the first time, at least.
Downstairs, a cigarette is in her hand before she reaches the lobby doors.
THE HOUSING LOTTERY
Across the river, biology graduate student Sebastián Vélez is weaving his bike through morning rush hour, his six-year-old daughter in tow. Their finances are better now than they’ve been in years. Mariana’s clothes come from stores, instead of the Salvation Army. She gets a piano lesson once a week. And last year, Sebastián even took her and her step-sister, whom he also helps support, to Niagara Falls for a weekend. Not long ago, Sebastián won the equivalent of the grad student lottery: He became a resident tutor.
The highly coveted post in one of Harvard’s undergraduate Houses comes with an apartment, a set number of meals per week, and a convenient location—five minutes by bike from his lab and 10 from Mariana’s elementary school, where Sebastián is pedaling now.
When he matriculated in 2004, the University gave Sebastián a one-time grant and suggested he apply to be a resident tutor. He did. But for three years, he received rejection after rejection. Once, he was offered a non-resident tutorship—which came with a small number of meals but no housing. The job didn’t seem worth it, so he turned it down. It was a decision he’d later regret. Houses often pick resident tutors from the non-resident pool because the masters and House staff are already familiar with them, but Sebastián says nobody told him that at first. Having a child also hurt his chances, he says, and particularly at Kirkland, which hasn’t been deleaded and so cannot house children five or younger. Since he became a tutor, other student parents have started asking Sebastián for advice on their applications. “I tell them, ‘Disappear your children. Then you might have a shot,’” he says.
Might. Because, children aside, the demand for tutor positions is so great that landing the job is more improbable than being admitted to Harvard in the first place. This year, Kirkland House has openings for two people; 316 applied.
Sebastián credits the position with saving his grad school career, but there are downsides. Tutor duties take time away from research. So do the sophomore advising coordinator, teaching fellow, and exam grader positions he holds to earn a little more. This week, he received an e-mail from Kirkland saying he and Mariana have gone over their meal quota and will have to cut back. And for a while this semester, the students across the wall from Mariana’s room were having particularly loud sex.
Whenever the moaning started, Sebastián picked his daughter up and moved her to the common room couch, where he normally sleeps. There he waited, lights off, listening for the amorous racket to die down. It’s nights like these when he wondered (and still wonders) whether the Ph.D. is really worth it. Whether it’s selfish of him to put her through this. Whether he should just e-mail the House, his lab, everyone to say that he’s had it. She’ll never be six again.
When the sounds finally stop, he carries his sleeping daughter back to her room.
AN ACADEMIC ANOMALY
At the Medical School’s Whelan Lab, April is the first to arrive. Miles has a doctor’s appointment in Cambridge at 1:45, so she needs to get started.
The lab bench is a familiar space for April, who has been doing scientific research since she was 14. Back then, a minority research scholarship provided escape from a deteriorating home life. Her father was a part-time taxi driver and musician, though that’s not exactly how she describes it: “He was a drug addict, that’s what he did,” she says, pausing. “He also drove a taxi part-time.” With her parents in the middle of a protracted divorce, the lab was a retreat. And she fell in love with the science.
At the age of 13, April began her freshman year at the notoriously troubled Denver West High School. Off to college at the precocious age of 16, she studied molecular biology for five semesters at the University of Colorado, Boulder before taking time off to do research. She spent the next several years as a journeywoman scientist, first in Colorado, then Buffalo, then the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and back to Buffalo again. At one point, she took a second job as a jazz lounge hostess to pay the bills. She joined the Kirchhausen Lab at Harvard Medical School in 2002 and began night classes at Northeastern to finish her degree.
She discovered she was pregnant around the time she got her diploma. So she decided to go to grad school. “It wasn’t my first thought: ‘Oh, it’s positive! Guess I’ll get my Ph.D.,’” she laughs. But April wanted to be able to provide for her son, and she had always hoped to get a doctorate. It was now or never.
It’s 8:47 and a set of cells is ready to be transfected. April is in the process of creating mutants of the rabies-like virus she’s studying. She pipettes in snippets of mutant DNA, which will enter the cells, altering their cellular genome to express viral proteins.
Black, female, and a single parent, April is herself an anomaly in the ivory tower. There are around 250 student parents in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—a number that represents fewer than 7 percent of the school’s roughly 3,700 students. Black, female scientists are rarer. Single parents are rarer still.
But as improbable as April’s path is now, it would have been laughably absurd a generation ago. In the 1960s, only a tenth of U.S. doctoral degrees went to women, and few of those were awarded outside the fields of education or the humanities.
Today, that figure is 45 percent. The academy’s doors are being thrown open as never before to diverse populations of aspiring scholars.
Yet in other ways, academia has been slow to change. The sea change in professional gender roles has not come with a similarly dramatic shift in how graduate programs function. When Ph.D. candidates were married males with stay-at-home wives, they could afford to have children without derailing their careers. Now, many—and particularly many women—feel pressure to choose between family and profession or those who choose both climb the faculty ladder with their hands tied. The result is an exodus of women at every stage of the academic pipeline. The higher you climb, the fewer there are.
In 2005, while April was finishing her bachelor’s, women made up less than a quarter of the tenured faculty at 10 of Harvard’s 13 primary divisions, with exceptions coming only in the humanities, divinity, and education. That January, Harvard’s then-President Lawrence H. Summers shone an inadvertent spotlight on the issue by delivering a now-infamous speech suggesting “innate” gender differences as a possible explanation for the scant number of female scientists and mathematicians at the top of their fields. The firestorm these comments generated put pressure on Harvard and its embattled leader to demonstrate a greater commitment to diversifying Harvard’s ranks. Task forces and committees convened, diversity offices were formed, and reports commissioned.
At the graduate student level, this meant the baby problem began to get traction, according to Christine D. Wenc, a History of Science grad student who was particularly active in the parent community at the time of Summers’ remarks. The statistics were telling: nationwide, women with children are less likely to enter the tenure-track, less likely to receive tenure, and more likely to leave academia entirely than their childless or male counterparts. And surveys at Harvard and elsewhere suggest that students with children, and particularly women, can face a discouraging environment. In a 2008 survey of the University’s student parents, 25 percent of respondents reported having advisers who were unsupportive of their family decisions. Just months before the Summers remarks, Wenc had helped found the Student-Parents Organization, which reaped the benefits of the new publicity. But it wasn’t enough to save her own graduate career. Just semesters later, after years of trying to juggle her career and her family, Wenc’s dreams of a Ph.D. were a thing of the past. “I just said, ‘forget it,’ I can’t do this’—it was way too hard and expensive,” Wenc recalls. “And I was just completely fried.”
April is still hanging on. She initially started her Ph.D. when Miles was seven months old, but quickly felt overwhelmed. “It lasted a month and a half. He wasn’t sleeping, I couldn’t keep up with classes, milk was everywhere,” she says. “It just didn’t work.” Her adviser suggested she take a year off and return when Miles was older. So April took a job at a lab to help support herself, and by the time she returned, they had found a routine that worked.
Today is a little different, though. She has to pick Miles up at daycare and take him to University Health Services in Cambridge for his four-year physical. That’s two hours out of her day at least, which means less time for science. At 10:10, she sets the cells aside to incubate for five hours, which should give her enough time to take Miles to his 1:45 appointment and return by the end of the incubation.
As she’s about to leave to pick Miles up from daycare, she receives an e-mail over the student-parents list-serv. The message is from history grad student Meredith Quinn. It begins:
I just received the following e-mail indicating that GSAS is ending the program to assist with day care tuition. I don’t know if there’s anything that can be done about this. Does anyone have a sense of how these decisions might be reversed?
Miles began crying outside the doctor’s office and would not stop. It seems, for a moment, as if two blue Fisher-Price-style rocking horses in the waiting room might lull him into silence. But after a couple seconds, the wailing begins anew. A few weeks ago, Miles, who is allergic to peanuts, visited the hospital with anaphylactic shock after eating peanut butter at his dad’s place. The experience appears to have poisoned his opinion of the medical profession.
The nurse enters, greeting the bawling four-year-old with great enthusiasm. But Mr. Miles is unamused. He won’t stand still on the scale or against the wall to be weighed and measured. After a few minutes of screaming, April gets on the scale with him so the nurse can do her work by subtraction.
Suddenly, a merciful break in the tears. The rolls of cartoon stickers on the wall have caught the young man’s attention. April gets him an Elmo sticker, which seems to do the trick until she tries to place it on Miles’ shirt, eliciting another bout of sobs.
—You want Elmo on your face?
He draws the word out despondently. April relents, and Elmo takes up residence on his left cheek.
—Oh, that’s good. I like that. That’s the new look.
Miles tries to share the wealth.
—No, Mommy doesn’t want Elmo. Mommy has make-up on.
April and the nurse discuss the speech therapy Miles has been receiving through the Boston Public Schools. He’s made progress, though April tells the nurse that other people can only understand 20 percent of what he says. He hasn’t had much success at sentences either. Miles gestures for another sticker, and now, Spongebob Squarepants is on his other cheek. They discuss the hospitalization, and the nurse asks whether his father has since cleared all the peanut butter out of his place. “He better have,” April responds. Oblivious, Miles flips through an oversized book of cars and trucks.
“What are you going to do about his S-H-O-T-S,” the nurse asks, pausing dramatically before she surreptitiously spells the dreaded plural noun. This hadn’t occurred to April.
—How many are there?
April’s voices rises with dismay. It’s more than she’d realized. Miles needs blood work too to be able to enroll in public school next year. This is going to take longer than she had hoped. “I may need to leave him a little longer at daycare today,” she sighs. The nurse leaves to prepare the shots. Mr. Miles begins demanding more stickers. Three, four, five.
—Five is enough.
Mr. Miles has the upper hand. Another sticker. He’s collecting.
In walks the nurse to find her patient covered in square cartoon portraits.
—Oh my goodness, you’re the sticker man!
She gives the sticker man four shots, rapid fire.
UHS provides them a coupon for an ice cream cone at the Ben & Jerry’s a block away, so Miles gets a scoop of cookies & cream with rainbow sprinkles. It’s 20 to three. As they stand in line, April studies the daycare e-mail chain on her iPhone. Miles is calling her name, but she’s lost in thought and takes several seconds to respond each time.
She can’t figure out whether her grant will be affected. The check for February hasn’t arrived yet, and she wonders now whether the funds have already been cut. She’ll quit smoking if they have, she says, though that will come nowhere near making up the $3,500 deficit.
The M2 shuttle back to the Medical School won’t arrive for another 20 minutes, so April and Miles get on the T. By then, the ice cream has restored Miles to his jovial self, but April spends the ride staring silently out the window of the T.
At 3:10, the red line train crosses into Boston. Back at the lab, her incubation has just finished.
THE SLIPPERY LADDER
Sebastián Vélez—biology graduate student, resident tutor, assistant resident dean, sophomore advising coordinator, Life Sciences 1b test grader, and teaching fellow for “OEB 51: Biology and Evolution of Invertebrate Animals”—arrives in his Cambridge lab after dropping Mariana at school.
He’s hoping to finally run the computer analysis on some DNA he’s collected for his dissertation on arachnids. It should have been done by now, but he keeps getting side-tracked by Mariana or by one of the other jobs he’s taken to supplement his stipend. This week, his invertebrate class had a lab on mollusks. Tuesday, he had to prep it. Wednesday, he had to supervise it. Today, he has to clean it.
He was lucky to get this job. Sebastián was initially third in line for OEB 51, but by some stroke of luck, the first two applicants dropped. And he needs the money.
Workload varies widely for teaching positions. Intro life sciences courses are notoriously intensive, with labs, problem sets, office hours, and multiple meetings a week. Then there’s a graduate seminar in his department in which the TF is tasked only with ordering pizza.
OEB 51 isn’t Life Sciences 1b, but it isn’t the pizza course either. After the students leave lab, the samples need to be shuttled carefully back to their proper locations elsewhere in the complex. The tables need to be cleaned. With a paper towel and solution he wipes over one bench after another after another in the deserted room. It’s an hour out of his day, and here and there, the hours add up.
“It was a bad week,” he says, mournfully surveying the newly glistening benches. “This lab took too much time.” This afternoon is his research group’s weekly meeting, where he’ll be expected to detail the progress on his own work. He has little to report.
If Sebastián can’t keep up with his peers, whatever hopes he has of landing a faculty position will evaporate. For a time, he managed to churn out research despite the myriad handicaps. He’s already had his name on nine publications—an impressive total for a Ph.D. student. His second year, when Mariana was two, he won the Joseph R. Levenson Teaching Prize—awarded to one teaching fellow each year. The genetic analysis he conducts requires him to be on-call for extended periods of time, so he saved himself hours by working after school or on the weekends, and taking Mariana along. While she waited one day, Sebastián gave Mariana expired labels to play with. Labeling is sacrosanct in Sebastián’s field; incorrectly labeled samples can and have ruined entire experiments, which is presumably what one of his fellow grad students was thinking when he alerted a higher-up to Mariana’s presence. The policy was clear: Mariana had to go. Since then, he says, his productivity has plummeted.
“People who don’t have children do not understand how little things throw you off...They don’t think like a parent. ‘You cannot bring your daughter to work?’ That really fucks you up,” Sebastián says. “Really, I’m still reeling from it.”
Now, he’s worried a faculty spot might be out of reach—particularly because the one-year postdoctoral jobs that are often prerequisites come with little job security or pay—a dangerous road to choose with a child to support.
Sebastián first fell in love with biology at the University of Puerto Rico, not far from where he was born. His eyes light up as he recounts reading Harvard luminary Stephen J. Gould’s account of the Burgess Fossils, which hold an exalted place in the pantheon of evolutionary biology. Four weeks ago, he taught a class using those very fossils. “For someone like me, it’s like carrying Bono’s guitar, if you’re a rock fan,” he says. “That’s not measured in salary.” He was starstruck too when he first met E.O. Wilson, a giant in the field of biology. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard professor had attended a lecture Sebastián gave and dropped by to discuss a paper he thought would interest the first-year student. They talked and Wilson told Sebastián to come to him if ever he needed help.
Back then, times were tougher. He hadn’t yet received tutor housing, and Mariana needed daycare. His budget was strained to the breaking point and he found himself unable to pay for his daughter’s health insurance. In desperation, he turned to Wilson, who helped him foot the bill. “Find me another instance of a professor doing that for a student,” Sebastián says. “These people are really out to help me.”
Still, climbing the academic ladder with a kindergartner in tow is extremely difficult, so he’s begun looking at administrative positions. Every day he gets an e-mail with non-academic job openings in his field. Sometimes they pay decently, sometimes less so. Rarely are they good options. Today’s offering is with the National Park Service at $37,000 a year. “See, there are jobs,” Sebastián remarks. “But then, this is the problem. It’s in Oregon.” And only for a year.
For now, he has more immediate concerns. His stipend won’t cover summer expenses, when Mariana will need daycare again. So he’s been applying to summer administrative positions in the Houses or in the Harvard Summer School. If he lucks out and is hired, of course, that will mean less time for research. Nobody has gotten back to him yet.
“It’s the anxiety that kills you,” he says.
‘AROUND THE HOOD’
Back in the Whelan Lab, April is labeling petri dishes with a permanent marker—preparing to infect her cells. Then she hurries to the lab bench for another step and back to the fume hood, which keeps the chemicals she works with contained. The doctor’s appointment has put her behind schedule.
To her left, a gaggle of Ph.D. students chat—one of them seated at the second fume hood, the other two standing around. “See all that small chat?” she says, gesturing to the three students on a trip back to the bench. “I don’t do it.”
That’s not entirely true. April does talk with her labmates while she does her experiments, but it is clear she’s not looking for detours. “By no means do I hang around the hood,” she says, a note of pride in her voice.
This seems innocuous, even admirable, but it also touches on the social isolation that comes with having children in a place where childlessness is the norm. Sure, April’s proud she refrains from extended chit-chat, but she also wishes she had social time with her peers. Instead, she lives a double life, and neither one much cares about the other. The other students aren’t particularly interested in Miles, and Miles couldn’t be less interested in a glycine clusters. She tries, though. One of the people in the lab had been stuck with a needle earlier in the day, which brought a coterie of safety officials to the lab. April offers solace.
—If it makes you feel any better, Miles had to get four shots today.
Her colleague laughs good-naturedly in response: “When I get a shot, I have 15 people looking at me to see that the shot was approved.”
She’s missing out on more than leisure, though. Social and departmental events can be critical to advancement in the academic community. Take this passage from the description of April’s Ph.D. program, posted on the Virology Web site: “Seminars, student journal clubs, and program retreats are an integral part of the scientific and educational experience of the Virology Program. Therefore, students are expected to attend and participate fully in all of these activities.”
April can’t, of course. The program tries to make accommodations, but they’re not lying when they call such programs “integral.” Networking and community activities can make a difference in a competitive environment where every contact counts.
She does have one hour a week when she can be social. There’s a beer hour for students every Friday at 5 p.m., and Miles can stay in daycare until 6 or 6:15. At the end of an exhausting week, with little promise of respite ahead, April looks forward to that hour. She doesn’t like beer, but if there’s wine or hard alcohol, she’s “all over it.” Last Friday, they had rum and coke. At 6, there was half a bottle left so she took some home. She was still feeling it when her head hit the pillow.
At 6:30 p.m., April finally leaves the Medical School to pick up Miles. He’s the only child left, still with two stickers on his knees from the doctor’s office, though they’re mostly peeled off by now.
Together they get on the T going outbound. Today was bad but likely a good indication of what she can expect next year. Miles starts kindergarten in September. The school begins too late and ends too early for April’s work day, which means she will have to drop him in daycare early, go to the lab, then move him from daycare to school, then back to the lab, then move him from school to daycare, then back to the lab, and finally pick him up to go home. Not to mention the prospect of losing the daycare grant. Recently, the anxiety has taken a physical toll on April. “The day he turned 4, I woke up puking my brains out because I was scared,” she says. “Not that this is easy, but it’s easier.”
Recent years have not been without organized efforts at improvement. In 2008, the Student-Parents Organization and a group of students led by Kyle M. Brown, then-president of Harvard’s Graduate Student Council, assembled a survey and a set of recommendations concerning parental accommodation that they presented to Harvard administrators. Only mixed success has followed. GSAS has helped reinforce an official but sometimes unheeded policy allowing students who have a child during school an extra year to finish their dissertations. The pilot grant program for Harvard childcare also emerged from the group’s earlier lobbying, as did an expansion in health insurance options for dependents.
But stipends still lapse in some departments if students take time off to have a child, which means student parents can find themselves running out of money at the worst possible time. The 2008 survey showed that stipends are cut off during parental leave for over 90 percent of student parents in Harvard’s humanities departments. That figure is over 50 percent for the social sciences, though lower for the hard sciences, where grant funding keeps the stipend money flowing.
April and Miles are lucky enough to draw their living from a science department. They get off the train at Heath Street. Miles hops out of the stroller and runs ahead, donning a snow hat with a large ‘H,’ colored crimson.
April smiles again, the worries falling momentarily away as they reach the one-time elementary school they call home.
“This boy is destined for great things. I look at pictures of Obama when he was little,” she says, hopeful again. “This is the next president of the United States. I’m just trying to stay on his good side.”
The next day, April will learn that daycare grants have only been cut for Harvard-affiliated childcare centers. Miles’ daycare, back on the 10th floor of the apartment building on Alphonsus St. has no such affiliation. But the person who administers her subsidy cautions that it too may soon arrive on the chopping block. A month later, Sebastián’s department will agree to give him two months of summer support, but of course, he still doesn’t know what he’ll do after he gets his degree. Uncertainty, it seems, is the perennial affliction of parent Ph.D.s.
And these are in some respects success stories. Harvard gives April two scholarships. Sebastián has the tutor program, and one year, a professor paid Mariana’s health insurance. Yet it’s still a daily struggle.
Does academia lose something valuable if April or Sebastián or the other parents at Harvard and elsewhere are squeezed out? The same week Harvard revealed it would end existing daycare grants for graduate students at its own centers, University President Drew G. Faust sent an e-mail to the entire Harvard community reviewing the institution’s progress on diversity since 2005. She cites in her message a principle adopted by two of the task forces convened in the wake of the Summers remarks. “A diverse faculty is a strong faculty because it emerges from the broadest possible consideration of available talent,” Faust wrote, quoting their conclusions. “The development, recruitment and support of outstanding faculty...provide the essential foundation of a great university.”
In which case, should Harvard and its peers be doing more to ease the burden? Sebastián’s department recently told him they would cover some of his summer, but next year, when he plans to finish his degree, he might leave the lab entirely. He says he can’t compete with the students who come in refreshed at 10 in the morning and stay until midnight. And providing for Mariana means jumping from one 12-month post-doc to the next—a common route to a faculty spot—is likewise worrisome. He may try his hand at administrative positions. At least they’re stable.
“I’m not ungrateful, but it’s still shit, man,” he says. “It’s still very, very hard.”