One of the things I love about being a woman is how much we can support each other. I’m part of a couple “mom” groups on Facebook, where moms ask questions, offer support, and share funny stories. Through that I came in contact with Kate, and she graciously agreed to fill us in on her life as a university professor, a wife, a mom, and a pretty cool human. Reading her story gives me all the nerdy academic counselor good vibes, I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did!
What is your job title? Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles
What is your general job description? I am a professor! I teach both graduate and undergraduate students at a 4-year public University.
What did you study in college? In college I was a Sociology major and a theater minor. Both were due to a mild quarter-life crisis I had my freshman year. Both of my parents are physicians and when my sister turned out to be a writer, I guess I subconsciously took on the responsibility to carry on the profession. I entered college as psychology major set to go pre-med but did miserably in the classes and was really struggling. One weekend my dad came to visit me and said, “you don’t have to be a doctor.” It has been over ten years since he said that and I still remember his exact words. A weight was lifted and I went off to find a subject that interested me and where I could have fun and explore. I would figure out the rest later.
Was there anything about your education that surprised you? So much! I have always been a planner. The type-A, I know what I am eating for breakfast next Thursday kind of planner. Along with that, I always knew what I would do when I grew up and through my education. What has surprised me about my education was how many times my plan changed. After choosing sociology (I probably would have chosen communication studies, but my school didn’t have it), I watched the video Killing Us Softly by Jean Killbourne and immediately set my sights on working in advertising. Dr. Killbourne talks about media’s effects on women and I knew that I wanted to change the way that the media marketed to women and children. I knew that I wanted to have a positive effect on the world, and changing the marketing world was how I was going to do it. Having no experience with advertising, I continued my education at Boston University and earned an MA in Advertising. While I was there, however, I learned to ask questions and think critically and analyze the world around me. I learned that I was not interested in creating the ad, but rather in analyzing the effects of the ad. For the first time in my life, I was told that I was a logical thinker who was, dare say it, good at math! It turns out that the very class that made me drop out of pre-med, was the exact class in grad school that would change the trajectory of my career. That class was quantitative research methods and I actually teach it now! After graduating from my master’s program, my statistics professor put in a good word for me and I started working in market research. I loved the subject and found the work interesting but as a career it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t helping or bettering the world and I was having no effect on the way that the media markets to women and children. To answer that call, I needed to go back to school and get a PhD in mass communication and teach the next generation of advertising executives, which is just what I did next.
How does your education relate to what you do at work? It relates 100%. For starters, you need a PhD to teach at the university-level. Next, I was brought to my current university to essentially create a major in mass communication. We are in Los Angeles and over 80% of our students want to go into creative fields, with advertising and Public Relations at the top of that list. Over the last four years we have been creating and implementing changes to our department and I now we have a Mass Communication option within our communication studies major with classes advertising, public relations, media literacy, media effects, children and media, mass communication theory, etc. All of the subjects I loved in school. We have even rolled out our student-run marketing agency this semester that was modeled after one I participated in while at Boston University.
What specific aspects of your education prepared you for your career? That is an interesting question given what I do… I think it all did. All of my steps and missteps make me a better teacher – each of my changes in the road allows me to better relate to my students. In addition, one of the best things I learned in college was how to learn. I was really struggling at the beginning of college and when I finally went to seek help the counselor taught me about learning styles. The counseling I received showed me that I am an auditory learner and it didn’t matter how much reading I did to catch up, if I missed a class, I was going to be in trouble. The different types of learning are now at the center of my teaching philosophy. My education also shaped my research interests and led to my MA, which then guided me toward a PhD in mass communication.
Was your degree the only path to get this job? A PhD is required for all tenure-track 4-year universities. It is possible to be tenure track at a Community College with a master’s degree, and at some Universities it is possible to be non-tenure track with a Master’s degree in Communication. This is different depending on the field.
What are your plans for continuing in your profession? I am finally at the end! There is no more formal schooling left in my profession. Obviously I am always learning, reading new research, and attending conferences but after nearly 26 years of my life in school (kindergarten through PhD) I am finally done!
What is rewarding about your job? I genuinely adore my job. I am excited to go into the office every day. What is rewarding: Getting to open young minds and expose them to concepts they were unfamiliar to, or getting to see that “ah ha!” moment when it clicks. I love learning from my students and expanding my own understanding of the material. It is exceptionally rewarding to share my love of the material with my students and watch them fall in love. I also make a huge point to include students in my research and presentations, and watching the pride in their eyes when I invite them on a project in awesome. Finally, I work at a minority-serving institution and many of our students are first-generation college students. It is incredibly rewarding to watch them learn and grow, and ultimately go on to graduate school, which was never in the cards before. What excites me: I am one of the lucky professionals whose job drastically changes every 16-weeks (each new semester), I love the new challenges, the new classes, and the new students who come into my life every term. I am also always excited to see how the students are going to use and apply the class material. These are the things that have me falling in love with my career over and over again.
What are some of the challenges of your job? I would say the biggest and most unexpected challenge of my job is that I face sexism every single day. You wouldn’t think that would be the case at a liberal and wonderful university, and it is not from the faculty or staff, but the students! For example, my female colleagues and I have to constantly remind the students to refer to us as “dr” and not “mrs” while our male counterparts never have to worry. In addition, I am often told by our graduate students that, “in order to be better you should teach more like [male professor].” It isn’t intentional, and if I pointed it out, I am sure the students would be apologetic, but our culture is one of male dominance. Historically there have always been more male professors than female, and I suppose that once you get to a certain level in our society, men are what is expected. While I have never experienced sexism as much as I do now, I should have seen it coming. When I got pregnant for the first time in graduate school, I was in my third year of my PhD program and had completed all of my course work and was set to defend my prospectus, I told the [female] department head that I was pregnant and she first response was, “there is no way you are going to graduate.” Clearly, and thankfully, she was wrong and I completed my degree one week after my son’s first birthday. Luckily for me I am now in a very supportive department and when I became pregnant with my second son during my first year at the school my colleagues exclaimed, “what a great time to have a baby!” of course they were completely wrong, but they knew what I hadn’t yet realized – that they would always be there for me and supportive of my family.
How do you balance work with your other life obligations and goals? This one took me a few years to get. I am incredibly fortunate in that my hours are extremely flexible. If I am not in the classroom or in office hours, I can be working from anywhere. Because of that, I get to be with my children (ages 2.5 and 4.5) A LOT. Last year my schedule was: 35 hours a week alone with the boys and 35 hours a week in my office (Not including time that my husband and I were both home together). It was exhausting. But more than the fact that I was working 70-hour weeks, I had no time for myself. After I weaned my youngest I decided it was time for a change. I reclaimed my body and my time and I started Pilates. It has been a totally game-changer! I go at night and it gives me dedicated hours every week that are not with my kids, at home, or at work and I have finally reached that work-life balance that everyone dreams of. When I am in Pilates I can’t be thinking about work or the kids – I can’t think of anything but the move! I also realized that I have always loved being a student, so these classes allow me back into that role.
I also have an incredibly supportive department of peers who always have my back, and who value each other and our time. I have found that who you work with makes such a difference in this life and I have found some great people.
Do you feel like your career is very conducive to balancing those other things? Yes, 100%. My career allows me to be extremely flexible, for example, I never work on Fridays. I am trying to check my e-mail less frequently, but for the most part Fridays are for gymnastics class, Target runs, and doctors appointments! For me, I am truly a working-mom and after nearly 5 years, I don’t feel guilty about that anymore. I am so much better with my children when I am working. Over the years I have taken summer months off to be with them and it isn’t good for any of us!
What do you think could change in your field in order to make balance more possible? Really nothing. One thing that could be improved is the tenure process and timing. I am tenure track, which means that I am under review every year until year six when I go up for tenure, and hopefully get it, meaning full job security and more pay. Conveniently enough, that will also be the year that both of my children are in public school full-time and I will have more time away from them and fewer childcare expenses! But nothing can be perfect and being a professor comes pretty close!
What benefits does your work offer in regards to maternity leave and family needs? For both of my pregnancies I received 6-weeks paid maternity leave, but I only work during the academic calendar and that is when the 6-weeks comes. To explain: my older son was born at the end of March, 6 weeks before the end of the semester and I didn’t go back to work until the fall. My second son was born in the summer, but my maternity leave didn’t start until the fall. What that means in reality is that I got 5 months off for both babies. In addition, I work in a very supportive department, so even after I came back, my colleagues worked with me to find a schedule that worked with my family.
What advice do you have for other women who are pursuing this field? Do it! Don’t shy away from the work or the time. In the end, it will absolutely be worth it and you get to pursue an interest with full passion. Also, the advice I was given was to have a child while in grad school. It was great advice! I would wait until your course work is completed if possible, but you will never have more time than in the last few years of your PhD program. Good luck!