Saturday, August 4, 2012

Letters to My Daughter: About Your Career

Dear Alexa,

A few days ago, I read a blog post that quoted and linked to a study that addressed the question of whether or not medical school is a worthwhile investment for women. As I’m sure you’ll hear throughout your life, there is a wage disparity for men and women in the same profession, and it is this wage disparity for primary care physicians that caused researchers to ask this question. The researchers used a tool called the Net-Present-Value (NPV) calculation to assess the initial investment costs and the earnings of physicians and of physician assistants and compared the financial values of the two careers for both men and women. The results showed that the NPV of a career as a physician was, as expected, higher than the NPV of a career as a physician assistant for men. However, the results for women were opposite: Women who chose careers as physician assistants were better off financially than women who chose careers as physicians.

Why this disparity? That question often is answered in different ways, depending on the political and sociocultural leanings of the answerer. Feminists and liberals say that women earn less because of discrimination or because the workplace is structured to meet men’s needs, but not to meet women’s needs. Those with a more traditional and/or more conservative worldview, however, say that women earn less because they make different choices—they work fewer hours, they take extended time off for childbirth and child rearing, they forego more lucrative positions or promotions in order to meet their family obligations.

In the study cited here, it is obvious that the reason for the pay gap between male and female doctors is that male doctors work significantly more hours than do the female doctors. Is that because women freely make different choices, or is it because society forces them into different choices? I believe it’s the former. Women, like men, have choices. Women, like men, must deal with the consequences of their choices. Today’s feminist society does not force women into marriage or motherhood—if anything, today’s feminist society convinces women that they can have it all, that they don’t have to make choices. But the truth is that we all make choices, and every choice has a consequence. Every choice opens some doors and closes others; every choice makes some future options easier or more likely and makes other future options more difficult or less likely. It is our job as responsible adults to foresee the reasonable consequences of our choices and to choose accordingly. Of course sometimes unforeseen events occur, but most of our major decisions have predictable consequences that we should consider before making our choice.

Your father and I are raising you with the goal that you will have the ability and the wisdom to think about the consequences before you make choices. I wrote to you before about some of the things you should think through, know, and accept before you choose a husband.  Now I want to urge you to think carefully about your choice of career before you invest a lot of time or money into your training.

It would be easy for me to say to you, “Oh, you want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or the President of the United States? I have utter confidence in you, Daughter; I know you can do it—go pursue your dreams!” Much more difficult, but more honest and more loving, is the response that I hope I have the courage to give you: “I recognize that you want to help people live healthy lives, or fight for justice, or help our nation follow the right path. I commend you for that desire. And I do have faith in your ability, Daughter. But I question whether you’ve really thought through the implications of that choice for your life. Not just for your professional life, but for your whole life.”

You see, Alexa, your career does not exist in a vacuum. It is a part of your life, but it is not your entire life. Before you choose a career, there are some other things that you need to decide.

Is it a priority for you to get married? When you visualize your ideal life, are you a single woman, or are you a wife? If you prefer not to marry, then you will have as much time and energy as any man to devote to your career. So if you choose not to marry, the yes, absolutely, go pursue your dreams!

But it is a rare woman who does not want to marry. And if you do want to marry, you should consider the repercussions of any potential career on your marriage. If you want to marry, then pursue that dream—don’t fill your life so completely with career preparation that you don’t have time for a relationship that could lead to marriage. Don’t choose a career that will require you to work so many hours to recoup your initial investment that you don’t have time to devote to your husband.

If you marry, that also raises the possibility of children. There are some women who choose not to have children, who make that choice when they are young and who never have second thoughts. But it is much more common for a woman (and for a man) to want children. If you are like most women, and your husband is like most men, the two of you will want at least one child. So you must decide what kind of mother you want to be. This decision is best made alongside your husband, but you may need to choose your educational and career path before your find your husband—and if you feel strongly enough about the type of mother you want to be, then that may be a “deal breaker” issue in your romantic relationships; if you absolutely want to be a stay at home mother, then you should not be dating a man who insists that his wife will work outside the home and put their children in daycare, and if you absolutely refuse to be a stay at home mother, then you should not be dating a man who wants his wife to fulfill that role.

So what effect would your mothering decisions have on your career? Quite a large one! If you want to be a stay at home mother, then you need to be very careful to put yourself into a position in which you can afford to quit your job when your first child is born. Your father and I made this choice, although not until after we each as singles had made some less than ideal financial decisions. We knew when we married that we needed to fix our finances in order to get ourselves into a position where we didn’t need for me to earn money. I worked for pay when your father and I married, but we lived off his salary and used mine primarily to pay off our debts. By the time you were conceived, we were debt free and accustomed to living on his salary alone. I actually had quit my job over a year before you were conceived, so that I could follow your father to Egypt, where his career was taking us.

Did you notice the difference in terminology there? I quit my job for the sake of your father’s career. My job always was a short-term affair for me, although it was in a field that could have been a career had we made different choices. My identity was not wrapped up in my profession; I could leave it without it causing a fundamental change in how I thought of myself. It was a big adjustment, and a difficult one in some ways, but it was not so difficult as it would have been if I had invested more of myself into it.

The distinction between a job and a career is something you should consider: which one do you want? You will need to earn money before you marry, and probably after you marry as well. You and your husband may choose for you to continue earning money after your children are born, or you may choose to stay home with the children, or you may do both—working from home so that you can both earn money and be with your children. But you can earn money with either a job or a career. If you choose a career, you will invest in it. You will invest a lot of time and possibly a lot of money, if it requires specialized education. A career is difficult to walk away from. Choose a career only if you intend not to walk away from it. (Your father pointed out that there are some careers that can be put on hold while you walk away temporarily, intending to return to it once your children are in school; if that is your intention, choose a career for which that is a possibility.)

But if your sole or main focus will be the supporting of your husband, the raising of your children, and the keeping of your home, then choose a job. Choose a field that you can enter without investing a lot of time or money in education, so that you will not be obligated by loan repayment or by a sense of responsibility to those who trained you to continue in the field when you otherwise would leave. Choose a position that will not require you to work long hours or to travel away from home, so that your time will be available to your husband and your children. Choose a position that you enjoy, yes, and that allows you to contribute to the world in a positive way, but do not allow it to define you to the extent that you aren’t willing to walk away from it if that is what is best for your family. And accept that positions without heavy initial investments, without excessive hours, and without travel do not pay as much as positions with those things.

Choosing a career or a job is not as simple as merely pursuing something that you would enjoy doing during your working hours. You will have non-working hours, too. Consider those hours when deciding about your work. If you don’t, you may find yourself one of many women who want to stay home with the children, but who can’t because of large student loans. You may find yourself successful in your career, but without a husband, or with a husband whom you never see, or with children whom you barely know, because you work all the time. Consider your personal life when making decisions about your professional life.

Work-life balance is not something that you should consider only after you’re firmly established in a career. It is not something that your employer is obligated to provide for you. It’s something you obtain or forego based on the choices you make, often on the choices that you make before you even report for your first day of work. Choose wisely, Alexa.

And always remember, your mama and your daddy love you.



  1. I love this entry. I wish someone had told me this before I chose a career that engulfs most of my life. I feel like I have to schedule time for my family (which is sad). Now after having a beautiful son, do I finally see happiness beyond academic success. I wish I could plan around my job rather than my family. Unfortunately there is no going back. . . It is odd to say this, but I wish to stop climbing in the career ladder and maybe find a level where I can reach an "acceptable" balance between family and work.

    1. Oh, Tania, I'm sorry that you're in this position! It must be very difficult--and if you're the Tania I think you are, your son is absolutely adorable; even if your career is very important to you, it must be hard not to be able to spend as much time with him as you want. You're right that there is no going back, but have you looked into options for going forward? Do you have to stay in the position you're in, climbing the ladder, or would it be possible for you to stay in your field while moving to a position that didn't require so many hours, even if it meant no more advancements, less money, and/or less prestige?

  2. I could not disagree with you Deborah. You said everything perfectly! I love reading your journals.

  3. You said everything perfectly and I could not disagree with you Deborah. We all need balance in life. In fact, we crave for it. And same as Tania, how I wish there was someone who told these things to me but mine was, before getting married (choosing a sperm-donor in this regard. I call my ex like that).


Due to an excess of spam comments lately, I've enabled comment moderation and made it so that you can't comment anonymously--most of the spam comes from Anonymous. However, I love to hear what you think, and I hope you have an account you can use to log in and comment here. Even if we disagree, please leave me a comment. Just keep it family-friendly, please.