The Grind: Mama PhD? Yes, I can!

This is a long overdue follow-up to a previous commentary on “Going To Ethiopia (Or Can Parents Really Have It All?).” I managed to spend three weeks in Ethiopia in January teaching African Art and taking in the sights, sounds, and smiles of Addis Ababa. Some of my readers followed my journey via this website and Facebook on my experiences I titled “Notes from Addis.” It was a successful trip, and I am sure that I will return. Being a Mama PhD abroad is only possible through the immeasurable support of my husband who holds down the fort for me during my absences.

My family at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College. Fall 2012.
My family at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College. Fall 2012. Photo by Judith Black.

What many of my readers did not know was that I was also on the job market. The academic job market is no joke. For those outside of higher education, the fact that the entire process from initial application to phone interview to campus interview to rejection/offer can take up to six months. So, in the midst of my world travel, I had the added pleasure/stress of pursuing tenure-track positions across the country. This process required even more days away from home almost as soon as I returned from Africa. In the midst of it all–teaching, parenting, interviewing–I did land a job. If you’ve already taken a look at my title, you know that I managed to land a place on the impressive (and therefore humbling) faculty in the Department of Art at Wellesley College as an Assistant Professor of Art, the Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora, specifically. Phew!

What I think many find particularly significant is that I did this with two small children. Due to my previous posts on this website, my little ones were no secret to my potential employers, including Wellesley College. One of my friends commented on how surprised she was that I didn’t just talk about my kids, but that I joyfully marched them around campus in full view of my colleagues (my kids kind of think the campus is an extended playground)! Actually, what she said was, “If it were me, I would have kicked them in the bushes.” Ok, that sounds cruel, but I understood her concern. Kids take up an immense amount of time, critical time to write, research, attend meetings, teach, write some more, especially when you’re trying to land tenure. What can I say? I’m a proud Mama PhD! I learned a long time ago when I decided to have my first child while I was writing my dissertation that academia was going to have to accept me with all of my grown-up responsibilities of raising a family during my childbearing years. On the flip side, I have had to rise to the challenge of accepting the demands of academia with my family in tow.

While many men do take on a lot of the responsibility for child-rearing, women tend to take on the bulk of the work of raising children, especially in academia due to our flexible schedules. Even when it comes to parental leave for the birth of a child, men tend to use the time to advance their research while most women use that time to, you know, take care of her newborn (See “On Parental Leave, Men Have It Easier,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 7, 2005). For any woman struggling to advance a career in academia with a family, it is no secret that the balancing act takes the support of one’s immediate family, extended family, neighbors, friends, near and far to manage. As I juggle the summer schedule, self-imposed deadlines for articles and fall class prep are my motivation in the midst of camp and daycare drop-offs and pickups. Early mornings, late nights, and weekend work-days are the only way to accomplish my goals. Again, the supportive husband pictured above has made this compromise feasible.

My daughter spent a week taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I dropped her off and picked her up most days. An exhausting and fulfilling opportunity.
My daughter spent a week taking classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I dropped her off and picked her up most days. An exhausting and fulfilling opportunity.

I lean on my local “village” of neighbors (’cause it takes one to raise a child, right?) who are willing to take care of my kids in a pinch. Other times, I may just whine to my mom on the phone 200 miles away. The knowledge that I have peers and mentors who are also enduring (or who have already survived) similar situations comforts me in the midst of the struggle.

Two recent events this spring highlight a network of women who remind me that I am strong enough and human enough to do what I need/want to do as a Mama PhD. First, one my GFF’s (Grad Friend Forever), Tanya Pohrt, the Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale University Art Gallery, defended her dissertation at the University of Delaware. She was the final member of our cohort of five who completed the doctoral program in the Department of Art History. I, along with two other GFF’s, surprised her when she emerged from the room. We each have two kids each. We each have jobs in either academia or museums. We each know the challenges faced to accomplish this tremendous accomplishment. We thought it important to mark the occasion together as fellow Mama PhDs!

The second event was Wellesley College’s 2013 Commencement. My colleagues at Wellesley are extraordinary. Again, I am humbled to join the ranks of the faculty here. I was grateful to take a photo with my fellow female scholars of African descent. Certainly scholars of color face additional stressors due to race and institutional racism in order to not only complete the PhD, but also to thrive in academia. [I’ll save my comments on race perhaps for another post. In the meantime, see the recent publication, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia.]

Drs. Brenna Greer, Layli Maparyan, Filomina Steady, Tracey Cameron, Angela Carpenter and Nikki Greene. May 2013. Copyright Nikki A. Greene.
Drs. Brenna Greer, Layli Maparyan, Filomina Steady, Tracey Cameron, Angela Carpenter and Nikki Greene at Wellesley College. May 2013. Copyright Nikki A. Greene.

This picture will continue to remind me that there are women who struggle and achieve by my side (single, married, with and without children). I thank all of these women–friends, colleagues, neighbors–who make being a Mama PhD not only possible, but a thrill.

The Grind: Your 10 Reasons to Finish That DANG Dissertation!

Many of my friends know about my “10 Dissertation Cognitions.” In 2006, I typed up 10 reasons to finish my dissertation on a single sheet of resumé paper. Last week, a more recent GFF (aka Grad Friend Forever) told me that she actually made her own and posted it in her office as she’s racing to the finish line next spring. I thought that I’d finally share this tip publicly.

I kept the list posted  in front of  my desk. I’d glance at it every now and then for inspiration, especially during those times of “writer’s block.” I wrote each cognition in a different font in order to at least make it visually interesting (it was on my wall for three years). I’d put an expected completion date underneath the title. I’d change the date every few months when I fell behind (i.e October 15, 2007, summer 2008…). Unfortunately, every goal took longer than expected, but having the schedule kept me pressing forward.  I like to share this with folks because I think one should always keep in mind why one bothers with continuing, especially when it gets tough (i.e. baby, family health crisis, relationship trouble, etc.). I’ve had my share of struggles (See “I was a poor black kid…”), and I was not going to give up so far in the game (See “From poor black kid…to Art Historian?!). Ultimately, when you decide you want to finish, you’ll finish. You’ll know when you arrive at that place. You’ll do everything in your power to get it done: extra babysitting for your little ones, writing through the weekends, staying up late and/or getting up early. In the meantime, write a schedule. Then, ultimately, just write!

If all that fails, a different GFF, Associate Prof. Adrian Duran, just reminded me of our advisor’s wisdom about finishing the dissertation:

“It’s a hoop. Jump through it and you can start the rest of your life.”

~Ann Eden Gibson, Ph.D 

(Ok, so it also really helps to have a brilliant, supportive advisor)

Nikki A. Greene

Dissertation Topic:

The Rhythm of Glue, Grease and Grime:

Indexicality in the Works of Romare Bearden,

David Hammons, and Renée Stout


 The Rhythm of Writing My Dissertation: Why It’s Important that I Write…and Finish!

  1. When completed, my dissertation will be very good.
  2. Reading and writing about my topic is fun.
  3. This time is precious, and I will use it well.
  4. I wrote a good Masters Thesis, and so I know I can write a dissertation.
  5. I’m preparing a wonderful, diversified career for myself.
  6. The more work I do on the dissertation now, the more fun I will have with our baby.
  7. I will be Dr. Nikki A. Greene, and I will therefore have my own identity that will help me become a better, more fulfilled mother.
  8. I will enjoy a tremendous sense of completion and accomplishment.
  9. Completing my dissertation will please Simeon (my husband), and it will be a source of pride for both of us.
  10. LEGACY: I am setting an example for my children and my entire family.

If you come up with your own set of cognitions, I’d love to hear about them. Even one or two could inspire others. Please share!

Part of my LEGACY checking out a final draft of my dissertation, March 2009

Click here, for more about being on The Grind.

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