UPDATED: March 15, 2015, at 12:46 a.m.
Ryan D. Enos starts most of his days in the dark at 5 a.m., with coffee. Enos, an assistant professor of government, cherishes these sacred quiet hours before his wife and 23-month-old daughter wake up. He uses that time to send emails and do research he might otherwise not have time for during the busy day. When the weather’s better and the Charles River isn’t frozen, Enos sometimes wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to row for a couple of hours, heading back home just in time for sunrise. Either way, he’s out the front door and in his CGIS office a few blocks away by around 8:30 a.m. Once there, he shuts his door. It’s time to work.
Enos is one of 160 tenure-track faculty at Harvard’s flagship school, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He moved to Cambridge with his wife in 2009 and accepted a position at Harvard in 2010. Several years into Harvard’s tenure track—which is infamous in the academic world for its rigor and selectivity—Enos is uncertain about his future at the University. Unlike many junior faculty, he and his wife own a home in Cambridge, but Enos does not plan to buy a larger house suitable for a family any time soon.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to go through the investment process of buying a larger home because there’s just that sort of uncertainty around it,” Enos says. He speaks quickly and energetically in his bright office, but with deep bags under his eyes; he is visibly tired. “[That uncertainty] affects decisions about whether we’re going to expand our family.”
In short, junior faculty members say, navigating the tenure track at Harvard is a family affair. Many of these faculty members are newly-minted Ph.D. recipients starting their first jobs after about a decade of pursuing their degrees. As a result, they enter the rigorous tenure track with very little savings in the bank. The next seven or so years for these faculty members are arguably the most crucial in their careers as academics: They must push out as much quality research as possible over that span of time to vie for a spot on the roster of the world’s foremost scholars. Additionally, many junior faculty will be required to teach courses for the first time, an added workload that catches many by surprise.
For many, these years on the tenure track directly coincide with the years associated with starting a family. Anxieties around the struggle to carve out time for productive academic work while taking care of young children, feelings of falling short on responsibilities in both work and life, and the uncertainty of tenure are part of the system that will simply never go away.
While University administrators make extensive efforts to ease the many burdens placed on junior faculty—such as granting financial aid for child care or extensions on the tenure clock—some say Harvard does not go far enough. Harvard-affiliated child care services remain impacted, leaving many faculty members scrambling for last-minute care, passing their children from spouse to nanny to babysitter until the situation stabilizes. Real estate costs in Cambridge are only rising, and many new faculty do not have enough savings to afford houses in the area. And despite all their best efforts, despite stretching the hours of every day to their maximums on each end to care for their children and churn out as much research as possible, faculty will never be able to make more time.
For the most part, junior faculty agree on one thing: While on the tenure track, there is no such thing as work-life balance.
A mile east of Harvard Yard, several people rush out of a condominium complex on Pleasant Street that is tucked away in a peaceful residential neighborhood near Central Square. It’s 9 a.m. on a gray Thursday morning, and some may be late for work, but others drift through the neighborhood’s streets more leisurely. A man walking his dog strolls back into the complex. A few women push strollers down the main road, heading toward the snow-covered Charles River.
The Pleasant Street condominiums are one of the most visible means by which the University accommodates its faculty, literally. Many occupants of the building, which is Harvard-owned, are junior faculty members—in accordance with its guidelines, occupants must be either University faculty or senior level administrators. Individual units are priced below market value, and the University guarantees that it will buy a unit back should a seller not find another buyer within 90 days. These policies make the housing accessible for a junior faculty member’s salary.
A number of University and school-specific offices work with Harvard faculty to find them housing—like the units on Pleasant Street—search for job opportunities for prospective faculty’s spouses and determine eligibility for maternity leave and parental teaching relief. The University’s Office for Faculty Development and Diversity, an umbrella office headed by Graduate School of Education professor Judith D. Singer, was created to offer faculty mentorship, assist faculty with balancing their work and outside lives, and ensure that the University is a comfortable and welcoming environment for all of its professors. Individual schools, too, have their own local offices focused on their respective faculties, like the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Office for Faculty Affairs and Planning.
Administrators in these offices understand that life as a junior faculty member is, to say the least, difficult.
“I’m not going to say it’s not stressful being on a contract of fixed length knowing you have to produce a body of work...that will have you standing against the most excellent person in your field within this very short timeline,” Singer says. “That’s stressful. It’s not as if you can just do a good job and continue. You have to do an outstanding job.”
Singer rose through the ranks after she was made an assistant professor in 1984, before Harvard even had an established tenure track. At the time, few professors were hired internally, and expectations for being awarded tenure were opaque. Today, she estimates that roughly two-thirds of tenure promotions come internally from within Harvard.
To Singer, establishing the track within the last decade has made the biggest positive difference for faculty seeking tenure, because now procedures are clearer than ever before. The changes allow candidates to have a better grasp on what work they should prioritize.
Besides facilitating a tenure track, the University actively works to provide financial assistance and mentorship to faculty members to make them feel welcome and encourage them to remain at Harvard. Individual schools may offer to assist senior faculty with paying mortgages, and they often provide housing supplements to junior faculty to offset expensive housing or apartment costs. And although the University will not create new positions for faculty members’ spouses, schools will work with individual families to help find spouses jobs at Harvard or nearby as a means of trying to recruit or retain that faculty member.
For faculty with families, the University outlines “floor” policies for each school. Schools must offer at least eight weeks of maternity leave for female faculty. Schools may offer parental teaching relief, which in FAS allows faculty to spend either one semester teaching no courses or one full year teaching only half of their normal course load. Junior faculty are also automatically granted one-year tenure clock extensions for each child they have or adopt while on the track, but only for up to two children. While faculty can turn down the offer, the intention behind the extension is to ensure that child rearing does not cut into overall work “productivity,” according to Dean for Faculty Affairs and Planning Nina Zipser.
“Our assumption is that they can do it,” Zipser says. “We’re going to do everything we can to help them get there.”
Matthew D. Schwartz, an associate professor of physics, reclines in his seat in his sleek office on the fourth floor of the Jefferson Laboratory, appearing relaxed. But Schwartz, who is in his final year of the tenure track (the final review period), is under a lot of pressure and facing a very uncertain future. A year from now, or less, he could be packing up this office to leave his employer of seven years, completely uprooting his family—that is, if he doesn’t make the final cut.
Although in recent years Harvard has tried to clarify the expectations and procedures of the tenure track, the nature of the system still breeds stressful insecurity.
When each of Schwartz’s two children—now 1 and 3 years old, respectively—were born, he, like every other tenure-track faculty member at Harvard who becomes a parent, was automatically given the option of extending his “tenure clock” by one year. This meant that he would have an additional year on the track so his parental responsibilities would not detract from his overall time spent researching and teaching.
But unlike many of his peers, he declined.
“That’s in conflict with the desire to just get it over with so you can buy a house and just move on with your life,” Schwartz says, adding that he would have bought a house a long time ago, but the uncertainty around getting tenure has precluded his family from committing to that kind of investment. “I feel like I’m in a bit of limbo. With my family, we just want to settle down and know where we are going to live.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be here next year,” he says, shrugging. His wife has a solid career in Boston, so if denied tenure but offered a job elsewhere, like on the West Coast, Schwartz says his family will face a “tough decision.”
Enos agrees. He says junior faculty often choose to delay a number of important life decisions, like buying a house or even starting a family, until after their tenure case has been heard.
“The uncertainty around tenure is kind of the cloud that hangs around junior faculty here, and that does tend to affect the kinds of investments you want to make,” he says.
While the University has made a conscious effort to make public what it can about the tenure track and communicate its expectations, these clarifications do not guarantee a professor tenure.
Harvard’s ladder is often considered one of the most rigorous in the world. According to the 2014 FAS Dean’s report, 48 percent of all associate professors in FAS who started their typically four to five years appointments between 2003-2010 received tenure. Out of 23 candidates reviewed for tenure during the 2012-2013 academic year, 14 received appointments, according to the 2013-2014 Faculty Development and Diversity report.
Various deans at Harvard have implemented mentorship systems to mitigate the tenure track’s stress, but these cannot fully ease the burdens placed on junior faculty.
“It won’t completely get rid of the anxiety because [junior faculty] still do need to reach the bar in teaching and research and get promoted, but we want to help them,” says Zipser, referring to the formal and informal mentoring FAS provides to junior faculty. Her voice is soft and kind, but there is a resigned seriousness to it. The University only tenures the world’s most prolific scholars. No exceptions.
FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, who received tenure from Harvard after first joining the school as an instructor in 1992, recalls the anxieties he faced during his own time seeking tenure at Harvard and what he has observed among colleagues.
“Many of us cope with it in different ways,” Smith says. “It gets complicated by the fact that, do you have a spouse that works or not, do you have children you’re uprooting, or not, do have family in the area?”
The deeper the roots in the area, many faculty members say, the more difficult it is if a tenure case is denied.
The stress of moving to a new place with an unclear job future is compounded when faculty’s spouses are also looking for employment.
Faculty members say securing employment for spouses greatly affects Harvard’s ability to recruit new junior hires. Even more difficult are cases of couples composed of two academics, who both may be engaged in the same job search for positions at universities.
Smith, who says spousal hiring is a “big issue,” emphasizes that FAS hires primarily on the basis of scholarship.
“Our approach to this has always been: We’ll help to try and make sure that we can make it as easy as possible for the family to transition, but we’re hiring faculty because they are the best faculty we can hire in a particular area,” says Smith. “That’s our first and foremost thing we do.”
Zipser and Singer emphasize that FAS and the University will not create new positions to accommodate spouses. Instead, FAS and other individual schools try to help faculty spouses network and search for opportunities both in the Boston area and at Harvard.
For E. Crate Herbert, who’s married to History professor Ian J. Miller, those services proved helpful; she now works as interim assistant dean of development for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences/FAS and previously worked at the School of Public Health. But for others, finding jobs for their spouses, especially in academia, is not as easy.
Biology professor Hopi E. Hoekstra moved to Cambridge from sunny San Diego, Calif., in 2007 to work as an associate professor at Harvard. She met her future husband, who was then a full professor at University College London, about a year after she arrived at Harvard. Hoekstra says it was difficult for her husband, James Mallet—who is now a distinguished lecturer in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology—to secure a job at the University. That difficulty was made greater by the fact that both were being recruited by Stanford at the time, which provided them with a tempting offer.
“For us it was very difficult, and I think probably the only time I have been unhappy at Harvard was dealing with that,” Hoekstra says of the choice, adding that she’s seen a number of colleagues depart from the University because their spouses were unable to secure appointments. “I don’t think Harvard does a particularly good job with this, but I think that’s in part because there’s no good solution.”
Hoekstra’s voice betrays no sign of prior frustrations, but she does pause for a moment, ruminating on her decision to remain at Harvard despite the “two body problem.”
“I think Jim and I, for a while, were seen as a target,” she says. “I got a lot of calls saying, ‘Well, Jim doesn’t have a full position. Why don’t you consider moving here?’ I think that’s actually a pretty good strategy from a lot of universities.”
Married Philosophy professors Bernhard Nickel and Susanna C. Siegel were on the academic job market together around 2005, when Nickel had just completed his Ph.D. at MIT and Siegel was up for tenure review at Harvard. Both ended up working at Harvard—Nickel as an assistant professor in 2006, and Siegel as a tenured professor starting in 2005—but being on the job market together created a lot of anxiety for his family, Nickel says.
“It was totally up in the air whether we would stay in Cambridge,” he says, adding that searching for his first job in academia was more stressful than undergoing tenure.
“After that year, I needed to go get a root canal because I was grinding my teeth so much,” Nickel says.
Passersby can usually find children playing outside of the Harvard Yard Child Care Center, housed in the lower level of Vanserg Hall near the Divinity School, a few times each day. On this gray February afternoon, however, the icy grounds surrounding the building are empty. Nancy Fredericks, director of the center, explains that if the external temperature dips below a certain threshold, state law mandates that children stay inside.
A University employee enters Fredericks’s office, which is small and littered with stuffed animals and toys, to inform her that he plans to shovel the snow on their sidewalk in a few minutes. She reaches across her desk for an electrical tool he can use to break through the hardened ice and thanks him.
The University helps the daycare center with maintenance like snow shoveling and plumbing, Fredericks explains. The center, for its part, gives child care priority first to Harvard faculty members, and then to other affiliates, like graduate students and staff members.
Even though faculty have priority for child care in each of the six Harvard-affiliated centers scattered across its campus, demand far exceeds the number of available spots. According to Fredericks, her center offers 55 spots total, for children up to kindergarten-age, but the majority of those spaces are usually filled when it comes time for enrollment. Many of those spots belong to children of professors who work in the same building, just floors above. The last Fredericks approached the Office of Work Life Resources asking for a list of all prospective children, she received more than 500 names, just for her individual child care center. In total, the six child care centers offer about 400 spots for the entire University.
The limited amount of affordable child care in Cambridge increases stress for junior faculty members who both seek tenure and rear children, making the already challenging attempt at work-life balance even harder.
“The thing I would love to do is generate more child care facilities here,” Smith says, adding that it’s a priority for his office. “We’ve got to find a way to make that work.”
Enos says he and his wife tried to get their daughter into Harvard-affiliated child care, but could never get her off the waiting list and thus opted for private daycare instead. After all, time passes even while on a waitlist, and faculty need to find alternative care immediately.
Exorbitant child care costs add to the stress. According to data from Harvard Human Resources, some centers charge $2,700 per month for one child depending on his or her age, which can add up to a cumulalitve cost of around $20,000-25,000 a year for one child, comparable to the price tag of a year of some colleges’ tuition.
Nickel, whose daughter is now 10 years old, says academia is unique in that faculty on the tenure track cannot take significant time off in order to care for their children and try to reduce child care costs.
“I couldn’t just take, say, three or fours years off and try to get back into it. That’s basically impossible,” Nickel says. “We just accepted that in the first few years a lot of our take home pay would just go to child care.”
Though the central Office for Faculty Development and Diversity provides between $5,000 and $20,000 in financial assistance through initiatives like the Ladder Access Program to faculty members whose combined family income does not meet a certain threshold, the office only awards between 50 to 70 grants per year. Other grants, like a small fund to help faculty find child care while traveling for research or conferences, mitigate financial problems, but they never fully address them.
"We just accepted that in the first few years a lot of our take home pay would just go to child care," says Bernhard Nickel, a professor of philosophy.
Fredericks says she has observed difficulties like these among faculty members in her year and a half as director of the Harvard Yard Child Care Center.
“I think it’s a struggle for them sometimes to find an opening, I believe it’s a struggle to come up with the costs, which can be on the high end,” she says.
Fredericks adds that these struggles are intensified when faculty must scramble for backup care on days when the center unexpectedly closes, especially since faculty don’t often have extended family in the area.
“It is a balancing act for them,” Fredericks says.
While most junior faculty share the anxieties of searching for affordable housing and childcare, many professors argue that the burdens of child rearing and finding time for research fall more heavily on women.
The 2013 Faculty Climate Survey, released last May, reports that about 30 percent of female respondents across the University feel like they have to work harder to be perceived as legitimate scholars and that less than half of female respondents think their working environment is “at least as good as for male faculty.”
Additionally, some faculty members—male and female alike—worry that women on the tenure track may drop the program because of unique stresses related to childbearing and rearing, which some argue are more intensive than the burdens placed on male faculty members with children.
“It’s a timing issue,” says associate professor of Environmental Science and Engineering Elsie M. Sunderland, who says she believes females must often carve out more time from research in order to care for their children than male peers must. “If you’re on a tenure track [as a woman] and you have small children, then work-life balance is fairly complicated.”
Sometimes women put off starting a family until after their case is reviewed, which is often when they are 40 years or older. Some others drop off the track midway through. According to the University’s Faculty Development and Diversity Report from last year, 24 percent of all senior faculty in the University are female, and 37 percent of all junior faculty are female. Altogether, women comprise 28 percent of faculty at Harvard. Additionally, in the 2012-2013 academic year, 66 percent of women up for review that year received tenure, compared to 74 percent of men.
Harvard does have a maternity leave policy of at least eight weeks, and its parental teaching relief policies are gender-neutral, meaning that both men and women are granted the same options for course reduction. But some professors wonder whether these policies truly offer equity to both genders.
“It would be possible to make the argument that female and male members of the faculty experience parental leave differently,” associate professor of History Kelly A. O’Neill says. “Some are able to be more productive during that time than, for example, a mother who is breastfeeding or taking care of her child.”
Smith says that although men often stay home to take care of their children, the majority of the time women bear the greater burden of rearing children and must sacrifice crucial research time to care for them.
“I unfortunately think more often than not, the woman who is getting the parental leave is using it a as parental leave, and others might be able to get some research done during it,” Smith says. “I think we’re still steps much better by recognizing that we need a parental leave.”
Walk down the cobblestone streets bordering the Quad or through residential neighborhoods near Harvard Square and the Charles River, and it’s likely that any given single-family home there costs more than a million dollars, according to real estate agent Charles P. Cherney ’89 of Hammond Residential Real Estate.
If child care costs set junior faculty back significantly, even considering purchasing a home in Cambridge seems like a far-off fantasy. When recently-hired faculty members move to the Greater Boston area, most with few savings, they often do not expect the skyrocketing housing and rental costs in the region.
The search for affordable real estate is a challenge common to all junior faculty, whether or not they have children.
The average single-family home in Cambridge sells for nearly $1.5 million, according to Cherney, making the area “one of the hottest real estate markets” in the region. Condominium units typically sell for around $660,000, and the average monthly rent on a two-bedroom apartment is anywhere from $1,800 to $2,600.
Not only are the homes pricey—they go fast.
“It’s hard to afford something, but even if you have the coin to win the game...you may not,” Cherney says. “It’s especially difficult right now to be a buyer.”
Faculty members who want to live in Cambridge often find themselves competing in bidding wars for a place to live, and according to Cherney, the average house sells for 107 percent of its list price as of early March.
“It’s really competitive,” Sunderland says. “You have to move really fast when you find something that’s nice.” Sunderland leans forward in her chair, her face framed by the mounted photos of her two young children on the wall behind her. She recalls that when she and her husband, who is not an academic, found a home they were interested in, they had to make an offer within 24 hours.
As a result of the competitive market and sky-high costs, many faculty members, especially younger junior faculty with lower salaries, must search for homes outside of Cambridge. Enos, for his part, says that he thinks junior faculty salaries are “out of sync” with housing costs in Cambridge.
Others say they look for homes outside of Cambridge in places like Brookline or Belmont to put their children in those public school districts, which rank higher than the Massachusetts state average on metrics such as college readiness, math proficiency, and English proficiency.
Harvard offers financial assistance and real estate advising to its ladder faculty, though some junior faculty posit that the University helps senior faculty to a greater extent. Individual schools determine how they will assist their faculty; for example, in FAS, senior faculty members may receive no-interest loans, and junior faculty may receive housing supplements. The University also has a number of properties spread across the Cambridge and its surrounding region, including the condominium complexes at Pleasant Street and Concord Avenue.
Astronomy professor David Charbonneau, who received tenure in 2010 after arriving at the University in 2004, says he received little housing assistance as a junior faculty member. But now, Charbonneau, who lives in Brookline, says Harvard has helped his family pay the mortgage on their house.
“I think it would be impossible for us to think about buying a place in the Boston area without that,” Charbonneau says.
However, reflecting on his years as a junior faculty member starting out with “no savings,” Charbonneau says he thinks Harvard could do more to help junior faculty with the exorbitant housing costs.
“Harvard is very good about helping people manage costs in the Boston area. But then...I think it’s a little disproportionate,” Charbonneau says. “I think it would help if we could move some of that to help junior faculty along.”
The combination of scrambling for limited child care, searching for housing in an expensive region, and navigating the tenure track makes for a stressful lifestyle.
Most junior faculty would agree that they need more hours in the day to give adequate attention to research, teaching, and their families. Many professors wake up early in the morning, hours before their children, to squeeze out as much work as possible before getting to their offices. After children go to bed at night, they’re back at their desks until 1 or 2 a.m. Despite working long days, faculty say they will still never get everything done.
“Be a good researcher, be a good teacher, be a good parent and husband, pick two,” says Nickel, laughing. Toys and games find snug spots between philosophy texts on his bookcases—his daughter, who usually walks to his office after school ends, often has to wait for her father to get out of meetings, so he’s made the place “kid-friendly” for her.
“It’s just a constant fact about this lifestyle, that you’re going to fall short,” he says candidly.
While junior faculty say their schedules allow them a great deal of flexibility, the demands of the tenure track undermine that flexibility. Before review, junior faculty are expected to churn out their best work—for some, that means a second book. For others, that means intensive lab research—and also teaching and leading courses. For many new faculty members, teaching is a surprising and unexpected time drain. “Service work” for the University, like sitting on committees or taking on administrative roles, and constant travel for panels and conferences also detract from the amount of time faculty are able to spend on research.
“There is fabulous flexibility—that’s one of the best things about it,” O’Neill says. “The flipside is that your work is never done, so it can and will permeate every moment of your existence if you allow it.”
In her office on a Thursday morning, Sunderland glances back at her computer, where a pile of emails await her. She woke up at 4 a.m. to read papers to prepare for a panel she’ll sit on this afternoon, and every second she can spend chipping away at a little more work is monumental.
“There aren’t clear boundaries between work and not work, because you end up in academia because you are consumed by some sort of thing that you’re very passionate [about],” she says. “That’s not a 9-to-5 job.”
Sunderland folds and unfolds her hands.
“Work-life balance, I think, is a funny term when you have two children under the age of 5,” she says. “In any occupation it would be really hard to have a balance, and in this one, it’s basically impossible.”
Scrawled drawings or photographs of children dotting the walls, mounted next to bookcases full of textbooks and manuals, are common fixtures in the offices of faculty with young children.
Charbonneau frames his four daughters’ drawings—bright flowers, colorful scribbles—and hangs them on the wall in his office at the Center for Astrophysics, next to a chalkboard that’s usually covered with equations. Hoekstra, too, hangs her son’s art on the colorful walls of her office in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. One drawing looks like a unicorn.
Their schedules may be vastly different than those of other occupations, but Harvard faculty members, like all other parents, must deal with the fact their children are always growing older.
“I want to be home,” Smith says, pausing and sighing as he remembers his own experience two decades ago navigating Harvard’s tenure system. “I don’t necessarily want to be traveling when great events happen in my kids’ lives. How do you balance that during those years as a tenure track faculty member where you’re really trying to get your scholarship pushed forward?”
He adds, staring straight ahead: “It’s a non-trivial balancing act.”
O’Neill, the associate professor in history, sleeps four and a half to five hours each night so she can spend as much time with her two young children as possible—that is, when she’s actually home.
“The biggest challenge about being a faculty member with a family is dealing with the feeling of guilt,” says O’Neill, her bright blue eyes betraying no sign of the years of sleep deprivation. “It’s either you’re going to be wracked by guilt because you’re spending more months away from your family, or you’re going to be wracked by guilt at not meeting your own expectations of your work.”
Professors and administrators acknowledge that Harvard could better mitigate these stresses, but will never be able to fully resolve them. And while children eventually grow up, the stress of balancing research, teaching, and family life still continues to some extent for senior faculty.
Though University Professor Stephen Greenblatt has had tenure for years and his youngest son is 13 years old, he says that his feelings haven’t changed since raising an infant, and that the age-old trial of parenthood remains the same.
“It’s not so much of he needs taking care of the way a 6-year old would need taking care of, it’s that he’s not going to be 13 again,” says Greenblatt, who is 71. He kicks his feet up on his desk and leans back in his chair, hands behind his head, eyes closed. He has to rush to an FAS Faculty meeting in 15 minutes, before which he must answer some emails and make final edits to a letter of recommendation he has written. Life as a junior faculty member is long over for Greenblatt, but the hectic days, the time crunch to finish research while teaching and advising students, certainly remain.
This afternoon, however, he’s taking things slow.
“It’s less that he needs me than I need him,” Greenblatt says, sighing. “I don’t want to lose that, I don’t want to let this slip away.”