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Female College Students: What You Need to Know

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In my opinion, young women in college have much higher stakes to consider when it comes to choosing a major.

College girl in her graduation gown
Dr. Cara Gardenswartz: In college, I debated between applying for Ph.D. programs in psychology or becoming a lawyer. Inspired by an Abnormal Psychology course at the University of Pennsylvania, I chose the psychology route. Had I taken legal studies that semester, I likely would have chosen law. A decade and a half later, most of my friends who happened to be pre-law are now stay-at-home moms.

It is wonderful to choose to be at home with your children should you be able to afford to do so. But here is the glitch -- many of my "retired" lawyer friends wish they had chosen career paths that would have allowed them to balance work and family life. And law, like many other professions chosen by college- and master's-educated women, is typically not a "mom-friendly" destination. For instance, for women who want to make partner at a law firm, they learned -- once they became moms -- that they would have to choose between their family or their firm, if they wanted to make partner or maintain the respect of their clients/coworkers.

I feel fortunate that when I flipped the coin, it landed on heads -- I wound up in a career that allows me to choose my own hours in private practice, which semester I will teach at university, and so on. I have a full-time, customized-hours job, yet I spend every Monday and Friday afternoon with my son, and every Monday volunteering at his school. Flexibility for me has been essential to motherhood.

A friend said the following to me: "My father is a dentist. Dentistry is a great field for women -- hours are reasonable and can be flexible. When I was about 10 years old, I said I wanted to be a lawyer. When I made that announcement at 10 years old, it definitely was not well-reasoned; it was probably based on my limited knowledge of possible careers -- I thought the choices were doctor, lawyer, and teacher.

"My parents never tried to talk me out of it. They never even suggested that I should be a dentist and potentially go into practice with my dad. They actively tried to get both of my brothers into dentistry because they thought it was a solid career and they would have my father to help them get on their feet. Twenty years later, when I first became a mom and was really struggling with being a part-time lawyer, I became friends with another mother who is a dentist. She was working two days a week in her own dental practice. That seemed like a perfect career and balance to me. At that point, I wondered why my parents had never even suggested this to me and I confronted them (half-joking, but sort of annoyed). They said, 'you always said you wanted to go into law.'

"It is kind of ironic that my parents, who provide endless advice and opinions (both solicited and unsolicited), shied away from giving career advice. Maybe even the most opinionated people don't want to discourage their daughters from having a career goal and working hard to get there (maybe it seems chauvinistic or they think we'll get mad). My brother is going into practice with my dad, and I am now retiring."

In their twenties, most women are not visualizing what their life will look like in their thirties and forties. They are excited about their future careers, and work hard to achieve their goals. So very hard. Especially considering how short their career "life" might last if they don't choose mom-friendly or flexible professions.

The following sentence makes even me cringe -- but I think it has to be said. I believe there should be some sort of program aimed at educating college women on their career options covering life-work-motherhood balance. Yes, men should be given the same rights. But statistics show that most college-educated men work full-time and don't abandon their careers to be stay-at-home dads.

Yesterday, my last working mom friend from college gave notice at her firm. I am the last one standing. I think she will love being with her kids! I just wish she had more options within her field. Or that she had been educated earlier on about the limitations and benefits of the various paths as a future mother.

next: Pick a Gender, Any Gender
15 comments so far | Post a comment now
Black Iris November 18, 2009, 5:24 AM

I think you are being too pessimistic about law. I have a friend who left her firm and took time off to be with her children, but in the end she got a part-time job as a lawyer in a small firm.

I also think we shouldn’t see it as a disaster if women take time off to stay home full-time for a while.

What we really need is to change the workplace to be more family-friendly. Telling women to stay out of certain careers isn’t the best solution.

Sara November 18, 2009, 8:37 AM

I agree with Iris

I’ve got a friend that is working part time doing contract work for a business.

No you’re not going to be able to be a big powerful lawyer and still have a life, but the same is true for any career.

michelle November 18, 2009, 10:06 AM

Agree with Iris. How terrible that you would suggest teaching women to limit themselves to fit the unreasonable work/life expectations we face today, rather than giving them enough advance awareness and self-confidence to change it. What about teaching college women how to negotiate and how to go out and get the career path and flexibility they want? We know this works. You say that lots of female lawyers you know left the field, but what you didn’t say (maybe because you didn’t bother to do any research or ask anyone who stayed) was that as more and more women go into the legal profession, firms are being forced to change.

Julie Baird November 18, 2009, 10:36 AM

I think that there is a good point here. We are asking these “kids” to decide what they want to do with their lives in terms of a career. If we feel they are qualified to that at their tender age then they need to understand the realities of life and how their decisions could affect the rest of their lives. Careers these days are all about transferable skills and some professions are more transferable than others. My degree is in Chemistry, yet I worked in Personal Development for 20 years and now coach students in time management and study skills. Even when someone has a passion for their career they need to keep an open mind about how to make it work for them and their life style.
I do think we need to change things in the work places, but let’s get real ladies, we need to deal in current realities too.

Stephanie November 18, 2009, 11:20 AM

I am in lawschool, and will make time for my family…PLUS teach and work in a firm!

My husband will be home with the children, we’ve already talked about it…

messymom November 18, 2009, 11:33 AM

If only I had this information back in college my carrer would have been mom friendly- perhaps

Dr Gardenswartz November 18, 2009, 12:24 PM

This article uses law as an exanple only- just to clarify

marge R. November 18, 2009, 12:30 PM

Great advice which to me, translates into BE AWARE, think ahead, consider all. If someone is intent on, for example, a partner goal-oriented law career and goes forth knowingly - good for them. If someone decides a simple, less lucrative and perhaps part-time small office law career is perfect for them, great! Whatever the personal career choice be, it should be made with eyes wide open to what future might bring. So whether one agrees or not with Dr. Gardenswartz, be grateful to her for the alert!!!

Luisa November 18, 2009, 1:20 PM

I wholeheartedly agree with Marge R and thank the Doctor for the heads-up. My parents always advised that I not rush into decisions and look at the big picture. Like so many daughters, I wish I had paid more attention. My career today is very differnt than what I set out to do - actuary in large insurance company - all consuming. My income now will never be what it was but I am lucky to have fell into something that works for me and with flexible hours — not everyone can!
I will print and save this ‘professional opinion’ to share with my daughters when the time is right as I know they will think harder about what the doctor has to say than mom’s advice. Not that they disrespect me but rather that I give out so much advice, they don’t give it full attention. Wish I had listened more attentively.

B November 18, 2009, 5:00 PM

I think the message to women can be “You can have it all, just not all at once.” I see to many people trying to have everything at once and generally, that doesn’t work very well. But if women set out with the mindset that they will have the things they want in sequence, perhaps the needed foresight will be a result. .

julia November 19, 2009, 10:52 AM

I wish I had this advice and thought it all through before rushing into studies based on what I though would be my future career. It did not work for me with balancing my time and caused me a great deal of aggravation.

Ruby November 20, 2009, 2:02 PM

Great Advice but only problem is how to we get our daughters to concentrate on what we are saying, like the idea about reading with them and discussing the article which comes from a professional rather than mom.

psychiatrist November 21, 2009, 10:13 AM

“I liked your article. I think in general employers are not as friendly as they ought to be when it comes to working part time and balancing work/family. There are exceptions, ofcourse. My wife had a job running the institutional research department of a City College and was forced to either work full time or leave. She even offered to work 3/4 time but the Dean in charge of the department was very chauvinistic about it. It is too bad because she singlehandedly transformed that department from an unrespected office with two employees doing the minimum institutional research requirements into a 10 employee thriving research department. Her 3/4 time would have been triple time for most city college employees. It is unfortunate that “he” was not able to see the wisdom in this option.”

Kristin November 23, 2009, 2:37 PM

As sad as it is, this is what we’re up against. Works for me either way—I’m studying to teach music!

Marianne December 1, 2009, 4:33 PM

Since leaving high school, attending UCLA has always been my dream. Then, 1 month before I was ready to transfer from a community college to UCLA, I found out I was pregnant. This seems like a sorry circumstance, but it’s actually turned out to be a really great thing. I’m glad that it’s early and now I can really plan for the kind of life suited to my current situation and what I eventually wanted anyways. A lot of women my age (early 20’s) plan like their situation is going to be the same forever- single, unattached, and strongly focused on career development (myself included prior to my pregnancy). I’m 5 months pregnant and I don’t know if my feelings are reflective of other pregnant mothers, but my focus has shifted from my (as of yet, undeveloped) career to my still-developing unborn child. Of course, i’m not saying that all ambitions and wishes to better myself go out the window,only that i’m going to find a career best suited to MY needs and MY focus.

I agree with Dr. Gardenswartz that women deserve options and a full view of possible career routes before it’s too late or they’ve invested too much in their chosen vocation. Women deserve to be educated on the different career paths that are more flexible to family life and if anyone knows where I can get this information, please let me know!!!

(I’ve already written too much, but it must be said- I will be transferring from UCLA to a university closer to family and with more social support. I do not view this as a relinquishment of a dream, but rather a realization of a dream that I was denying myself, for reasons too numerous and complex to discuss here.)

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