Cutting Edge > Early Career > Finding Your Balance > Boering profile

Dr. Kristie Boering

University of California, Berkeley

Most of the information on this page is from an interview conducted by Carol Ormand on February 24, 2006.

Kristie Boering is a professor in both the departments of Earth and Planetary Science and Chemistry at Berkeley. She and her students study the coupling of atmospheric chemistry and climate, on Earth and on other planets. The University of California at Berkeley is one of the premiere campuses of the University of California system.

Kristie maintains a very active, externally-funded research program, currently supervising seven graduate students, and occasionally involving undergraduates in her research as well. She teaches one class for undergraduates per semester; because of her joint appointment, she teaches one class in each department each year. In addition, she also serves on committees and in professional organizations. (Kristie points out that, as a young woman, she is often asked to serve on committees, especially search committees, to help achieve a better gender and age balance. While it's good that people want to see a better representation on such committees, it means that women are asked to do this kind of service more often than men are.) Kristie is also married, and the mother of two young boys (Milo, age 4, and one-year-old Zachary). Zachary was born just a few days after she submitted her tenure package.

Making choices

Kristie jokes that her hobby is trying to find time to sleep—a common sentiment for parents of young children. Nonetheless, she points out that even before she had kids, as a new faculty member, she faced a situation that was new for her: she had so many responsibilities that she could no longer get everything done on time. She has never been a procrastinator, but things just don't get done until they have to. Facing that situation, she has come to the realization that some deadlines are more important than others, and that some things may not have to get done at all. Sometimes, she says, you miss deadlines. Just let them go. That's a hard thing for high-achievers to learn to do.

The difficulty of meeting deadlines is accentuated, of course, for parents, especially of young children. Kristie chose to have her children pre-tenure, while she was still relatively young. However, she did wait until after her first two years of her faculty appointment, so that she could get her lab up and running, recruit some graduate students, and get a little teaching experience before starting her family. She recommends that new faculty wait a couple of years, if they can, before becoming parents. Nonetheless, she knows successful faculty members who had babies as they started their academic careers. It can be done; it's just more challenging.

Hire people to do what you don't have time for

When Kristie was a new faculty member, she got some great advice from a colleague at USC: be sure to include summer salary in your proposals and pay yourself first, even before paying your graduate students if need be. Your students can be teaching assistants, if it comes down to that, but you need to pay people to clean your house, do your taxes, do your yard work, and do all of the other things that you just don't need to do yourself in order to be a successful advisor. [Fortunately, Kristie has had enough funding to do this without affecting her graduate students so far!]

When their first child was born, Kristie and her husband, Professor Ronald Cohen, hired a part-time nanny. (At Berkeley, faculty and staff kids born during the summer are ironically not eligible to go to the childcare center on campus, because they are not old enough at the start of the semester. So Kristie and Ronald had to find another childcare option.) Getting a nanny was great; because she was very experienced, she helped Kristie learn how to care for her baby. After that first year, Milo went into the campus childcare center, which has really great staff.

When they had their second child, they hired an au pair. This was a wonderful situation; while she was less experienced at childcare than Kristie, she learned quickly. She also functioned as a "mother's helper," another adult in the house who could help out with many kinds of tasks. An au pair is much more affordable than a nanny, so Kristie recommends them to parents who already have one child but are planning to have another—an experienced parent can teach an au pair how to care for an infant.

Advice for new faculty members

If you are a new faculty member, and you plan to have children, Kristie strongly recommends that you find out what your institution's family leave policy is. Keep in mind that policies sometimes change, and many places have more than one option. One implication of this is that your chair might not know everything that you are entitled to, or what all of your options are—be sure you ask someone who does!

When her kids were born, Kristie chose an option called "active service, modified duties": she got relief from her teaching responsibilities, but continued with her research. Also, Kristie took one year off of her tenure clock, and recommends that anyone who thinks they might need to do that to go ahead and do it. If you decide later that you don't need the extra time, nobody will make you wait—but you can't go back and ask for extra time at the last minute.

Advice for graduate students planning on academic careers

If you plan to have a family and believe that a smaller college would necessarily be more family friendly, think again: Kristie recommends that you seriously consider a career at a large research university. For one thing, you'll have graduate students, who can keep your research program moving forward even while you take some time to recover from childbirth and focus on your baby. Larger schools are also more likely to have other faculty members who can cover your courses when you need time off from your teaching duties. And finally, larger universities have the resources to maintain very reasonable family leave plans, and those options are getting better all the time. For example: as of January 1st, the University of California gives ALL new parents (mothers and fathers, birth or adoptive parents) one semester off from teaching, at no cost to their department. Birth mothers get two semesters off.

Five or six years ago, Kristie participated in a study of which women in academia were more likely to have children—faculty at two year colleges, four year colleges, or universities. The researchers conducting the study were surprised to discover that women at larger universities were the most likely to have children. Of course, family-friendly policies are very college and university dependent. But don't rule out careers at research-oriented universities if you want to have kids.