Ask the grumpies: Pumping and a job talk

R asks:

My situation is that I was just shortlisted for a TT position before Christmas and now the interview is coming up January 30. I am working on my slides and have read all of the “do’s and don’ts” available online, but none address my situation.

Like one of you I have two offspring and the younger is 14 months and still takes in 90% of his calories from breastmilk. Combine this with my oversupply issues and this means I have to pump every 4 hours for comfort. The last thing I want is to leak while meeting with someone or presenting.  I’ve asked and they’ve said the day will go from 8:30am until dinner starting at 6. This means potentially 3 pumping breaks I need to fit in (the interview is local and I am not staying at a hotel, but it is quite far from my home).

The secretary offered an office space but informed me that there are large windows so there will be no privacy, or told me the other option was the “large restroom” (after I specifically said no restrooms!). I wrote back and politely said that I am fine with a non-private space, my as long as others will not be uncomfortable or disturbed by the noise of the pump.

My other issue is that the schedule as they have structured it only has 30 minute breaks for me, and I need at least that to pump. I’ve asked for more time, but I don’t want to seem too demanding. Yes, I can multitask, but it is not very relaxing to be doing prep. while pumping (at least not for me), and sometimes I need to focus on one thing at a time.

Advice on how to handle this gracefully? Also, am I to avoid all mention of the offspring and details of family life during the day? Merci!


First off, the short advice.  Bring anti-histimines.  They’ll dry you up temporarily (not all the way, but they take the edge off and help prevent leaking).  Since you have an over-supply you won’t need to worry about making up for lost milk.

I’ve actually pumped all sorts of places… airport restrooms, my car, the worst recently was a restroom in a fancy new building at the Stanford business school where they ridiculously didn’t have electricity sockets near the sink so I had to do it on the floor next to the door.  (That was ridiculous, but I only needed to pump a little bit so I didn’t bother asking the organizers for an extra space– had I known the only outlet was on the floor I might have!)  If you’re worried about cleanliness, you can always pump and dump.  Yes, it would be nice if there were dedicated pumping rooms everywhere, but one has to be pragmatic.  I think the key is whether it is a one-time situation or a long term expectation of bathroom pumping.  Generally when I’m invited to give a talk some place while still needing to pump, a faculty member offers his (male-dominated field) office and I use that.  That may still happen, though it is odd that the secretary wasn’t able to arrange that for you in advance.  (Possibly a red flag, possibly not.)

What kind of prep do you think you’ll need to do during your interview?  What can you do to minimize the need to do any prep during the day?  Usually on job interviews I just needed a break so I didn’t have to talk to anybody or think about anything.  Pumping suits that pretty nicely.  Even without pumping, I’d warn against trying to fit anything in during breaks because talking to that many people and being “on” can be pretty exhausting.  So make sure your talk is prepared and practiced in advance.  And remember that you don’t need to know everything about everyone before talking with them– it is fine to ask people the same question, and it is fine to ask everybody what they like about working where they’re working and if it’s a research place, about their research.

As for  how to deal with scheduling questions gracefully, be super polite to that secretary when you get there.  Thank her graciously for setting everything up etc.  A little appreciation can go a long way when you’re asking for something a bit out of the ordinary.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say to avoid talking about the kids and family.  Not because it’s bad to talk about kids and family, but because when you’re talking about them you’re NOT talking about what’s important.  You want them to remember your stellar research.  Your great teaching ideas.  Your professionalism.  How you’re going to fit into their program.  Not cute stories about your adorable kids and amazing husband.  That’s not to say if they ask point blank you shouldn’t answer direct questions on how many kids you have, but that you should then follow-up that question with another question about the job.

Now, some parts of the interview may be more relaxed (usually food is involved), and don’t need to remain 100% focused on research.  Those are when you ask questions about the town and they tell you about the school system (whether you have kids or not) and so on.  But you live there so you already know all that stuff.  Still, you can chat about things you like in the area etc.  Stay upbeat and collegial.  And sneak in a little bit of fun research-related talk in there (interesting questions, stuff they’ve done etc.) too.

Grumpeteers, any advice?

23 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Pumping and a job talk”

  1. bogart Says:

    Hmmm. Yeah, my general experience of academic job interviews is pretty much no breaks (much less prep opportunities) whatsoever, like, I would need to point out that I might need the opportunity to pop into a bathroom to pee while walking from a meeting at one prospective colleague’s office to another, so (unless things have improved since I was doing this), I wouldn’t be the least surprised (or take offense) that that is not pro-actively planned for or enthusiastically embraced, even though there is a clear need for breaks (not, though, prep) in this case.

    Given the geographic circumstances described and R’s needs and concerns, I’m wondering whether it would be easier for R to spread the interview out over 2 days and whether that’s an option (e.g. arrive mid-afternoon one day, check into a hotel — possibly at R’s own expense — pump — go to a few meetings, pre-dinner break back at hotel and pump, then get the dinner over with, and then the rest the next day). If it’s desirable, R could always ask if this is an option, and if needed I think I’d frame this in terms of there being a professional commitment (surely there’s always some professional commitment or other that can benefit from your attention, even if it’s not absolutely essential that the attention be on 1/30) that has come up and that R needs to work around if possible.

    And, yeah. Obviously it’s silly not to expect people to ask about your kid(s) if they know you are taking pumping breaks, but I’d certainly keep those discussions as short and vague as possible, and try to re-direct conversations to work and professional interests as quickly and smoothly as feasible.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      When I was a junior assistant professor I always made sure to ask first off if the candidate needed a bathroom break (precisely because of such memories). I’ve been forgetting in my old age!

      • rented life Says:

        My favorite interviewers were ones who remembered I might need to pee or drink some water, especially after some long rides. Made me feel like they knew I was human.

  2. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    Oh, fun. My pump, too, has quite a passport. It is a bipartisan creature, having visited Harry Reid’s office, and the Koch industries. (Note, it wasn’t used in Harry Reid’s office – I wound up back at my hotel). It was examined in detail by an Indian customs officer who was trying to grasp exactly how this worked, and if it was for a baby, where was the baby? It has been used a lot in Amtrak train car bathrooms. A horrible, but sometimes necessary place to pump.
    Anyway, all this advice is good. You might want to make sure the batteries are good to go, so if you can’t find a working outlet, it’s not a problem. With batteries, you can hang your pump over the purse hook in a bathroom stall — in that case the point is not to produce enough for a feeding but to keep you from leaking. Even 5 minutes helps. Bring lots of nursing pads so you can change them frequently — not all drug stores carry them as I found out, to unfortunate effect, at one event. Fortunately, I had a scarf to cover up.
    My favorite technique is just to bring the baby. I’ve brought a sitter and a baby to a few events. Nursing a child discretely in a corner is actually much more doable and seems more normal to people than hauling out a pump. I’m not sure it would be a good idea for a job interview, though.

  3. Ana Says:

    Could you pump right before starting (in your car if need be) at 8:15, then pop into the bathroom after lunch (1pm) for a 15 minutes session and then again right before dinner around 5:30?. I LIKED to pump every 4 hours, but sometimes it was 4.5 or 5 and I was uncomfortable but OK (though I never had an oversupply and leaking issue…so maybe you can ignore me).
    I’m not saying you need to lie about it, if you want to say you are going to pump, that’s fine, but if you don’t feel like announcing it to all and sundry, just “going to the bathroom” should suffice.

  4. GMP Says:

    I’d say don’t count on any time to prep at all, pumping or not. You may get like 5-10 min before the talk to set up the computer but that’s it, and often individual meetings run long so even that time is often eaten up.
    I have pumped-and-dumped in restrooms more often than I can remember, most often at airports, on planes, a number of times during NSF panels, as well as during a seminar visit. I don’ really mind using restrooms, and having batteries is really key. Like N&M, I also had to pump in a public restroom but out of a stall when my batteries died and the only outlet was near a sink. I got some weird looks from some young girls. Oh well.
    I’d say you could probably only pump enough to not be uncomfortably engorged, so 10 min both sides together should suffice, once in the morning, once at lunch, and probably once right before dinner. Women always get asked about families even though they shouldn’t be, so be prepared.
    Good luck with the interview!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      One time at an airport I had to pump at the counter (I had like 5 min between flights because of a delay and was in pain) and some guy kept coming in to clean and then out and then in. The only maintenance person here at the office who doesn’t knock before opening my door is also male. *sigh* Good thing they’re just breasts.

      I bonded with some senior ladies at the National Press Club when I was pumping in the bathroom there a few years ago. :)

  5. Happy Says:

    I would second the “no prep, no bathroom breaks” feeling of most academic interviews. When younger colleagues ask me for advice on interviews, I suggest they bring their own bottle of beverage along and stash snacks in their hotel room because even meals are so “on” that it’s hard to find time to eat enough to not be starving at 10 at night (after the hotel’s restaurant is invariably closed). Having any breaks at all is out of the norm and while this situation isn’t ideal, it’s unlikely to say much about the working environment, in my experience.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      When we only see the candidate for 30 min at a time, if that, we tend to not realize that they’ve been holding it longer than 30 min! I was sooo good about bathroom breaks my first few years out, but much less good about it recently. (I am always good about beverages though because Midwestern politeness = offer food and drink. Southern too apparently.)

  6. Miser Mom Says:

    Here’s a somewhat different view of talking about kids. When I was on the job market as a single mom, I did a lot of interviews. I mentioned to one potential employer that I’d been on the road so much that I hadn’t seen my daughter in 2 weeks and I missed her.

    So, after asking my permission, the department members brought a lot of their own kids along to dinner. That was a blast, and it showed me that this was a place where family weren’t something that people felt they needed to keep hidden. I ended up taking a job here, adopting a bunch of kids, babysitting new colleagues’ kids, all while having a really successful career here.

    It’s not just about getting the job; it’s also about figuring out whether people are going to be accommodating or otherwise once you do get the job. I’d say if they have a problem with rearranging the interview so that you have time to pump, you have a right to worry a bit about what would happen once you’re in the tenure track, too.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      At a one day job interview, at least for a research position, I’m leery of talking about kids because that easily pushes out the things that actually do matter for making the hiring decision. We had one candidate the other year who was really into a hobby that several of our faculty members have and he spent his meetings with them talking about that hobby. The faculty members in question said he was a great guy to have a beer with, but they didn’t think he was that interested in research. He didn’t get an offer.

      After the job offer and before accepting it is a fantastic time to talk about families and work-life balance and hunting or whatever it is that you spend your time doing that isn’t work. I’m not saying to hide the kids, just to be very careful not to let them be what people remember about you instead of your research.

      • OMDG Says:

        I’ve had people react similarly when I told them I put my family on my CV for residency interviews. Here are the reasons I did it:

        1. If I match there, I will have to relocate my family. Therefore I need to know about things like where residents with families live, what most people do for childcare, length of daycare wait lists, quality of public schools, etc. There is no other opportunity for me to get that information than during some portion of the interview.
        2. I don’t want to work someplace that has a problem with me having a kid (and I can afford to be picky since I’m a good applicant).
        3. I never brought up my kids during my interviews, but occasionally an interviewer would. During one interview, that’s ALL they wanted to talk about; every time I steered the conversation back to my research they were like, “But wait, how did you do all these things with a kid?” or “Since you have a kid, you will want XYZ,” (which I did not want). I found it really useful.
        4. Some of my biggest strengths involve me getting sh*t done while having a kid. It would be a shame not to be able to talk about it at all.

        I think it definitely depends on the type of position, but I felt it was worth doing in this case.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        As a state school we really hate it when people put personal information on their cvs because that can get us into all sorts of trouble. As a favor to your search committee, please don’t do it. Sure, talk about it in the interview over a meal, but not on a piece of paper. Or in an email.

        The medical residency matching market is a little weird because you have to know your preferences prior to getting an offer so they can use Al Roth’s matching algorithm. In most markets you have plenty of time to ask these questions after the offer.

        An interview like #3 would be a place that I would not want to work. But some people have different preferences. I know a woman on the market in econ who loved all the invasive questions about her love life that I (and every other woman in our office) would have considered harassment. I go to work to work, not to talk about kids or boyfriends, and any assumptions that I can’t do something and have kids at the same time would be irritating as underlying assumptions even if I was able to give them a lesson in women doing it all. Reminds me of why my mom left her first TT job. (“You modern women, have a baby and just bounce right back”… right, because she had to pay her own substitute the week after I was born.)

        Also we’re not allowed to discriminate against women who do or don’t have children. If they prefer women who can get it all done with kids, they may be discriminating against the childless, or the unmarried. They may think your childbearing is done so you’re safe, but someone who hasn’t had kids yet isn’t. There’s a whole host of legal issues that discussing these things during an interview gets into. A good search committee will do its best to steer clear of them.

        Note: We tell EVERYBODY about the schools, activities, restaurants, grocery stores, etc. etc. etc. whether we think they have children or are planning to have children. Which is fine, so long as we tell everybody the same thing and don’t just tell women or just people with wedding rings etc.

      • OMDG Says:

        Well, like I said, I think it depends on the position you’re applying to. You are correct that the match is unique. Unfortunately, further contact with interviewers or program directors after the interview is not uncommonly completely verboten, therefore you have to get the information you need when you have the chance.

  7. Allyson Says:

    I had the pumping-during-interview experience for my last position, also driving distance but far. I borrowed a power inverter (old pump, no batteries) and pumped in my car before the interview. Luckily the search chair set up long breaks and they offered a faculty office from someone who was on sabbatical. I second the comments on not worrying about prep the day of, because you really can just ask similar questions to multiple people. Good luck!

  8. Cloud Says:

    One piece of practical advice- if you can’t guarantee a private place to pump, you can shove a very big scarf/shawl into your bag, and pump just about anywhere. I pumped at my seat on an airplane (seatbelt light on, and it was announced it would be on for quite some time). The dude sitting next to me didn’t even notice until I brought the little bottle of milk out. Then the look on his face was pretty funny. But he never saw any flesh, so he couldn’t really complain.

  9. Perpetua Says:

    Like Cloud, I’ve pumped discreetly in a large number of places by using a hand pump (on a bus!), rather than an electric pump. I hate to travel with an electric pump, so I always bring my little one and just dump. I’ve pumped on job interviews, but they’ve given me office space and a break (not related to the pumping, just being decent) so no one knew what I was doing. Once I had to ask someone in a place i was giving a talk. One thing I’ve discovered is that if you don’t feel comfortable asking specifically about “pumping”, you can say that you have a medical issue that requires X. They won’t ask any follow up questions (like ‘what kind of issue’) and they’ll work to accommodate you. The other thing is that even when the secretary is the one arranging the schedule, the chair of the search committee (whom you’ve already met, yes?) is involved in the scheduling. There’s no reason not to send an email to the search committee chair and say I have a medical issue that could require a few breaks in the day, I’m wondering if that could be worked into my schedule, etc. But I do think pumping in the bathroom might be where it’s at.

    I decided at 12 months, no more pumping! because I hated to pump when I traveled so much -I was always uncomfortable and engorged, no matter how often I pumped, without the baby there and substantial time to pump.

  10. femmefrugality Says:

    I’ve totally done the car thing before. If you’re self-conscious about it, I’ve used a blanket to cover up my top half when doing it that way. Or you could put in one of those windshield cover things that people use for the sun. I try to stay away from family talk in situations like that, because once I get started, I forget that people really don’t care how cute my kids are as I ramble on about the amazingness of toddlers for 20 minutes. It’s more of a restraint because of my own habits than a restraint because of the judgement of others.

  11. Mlhersh Says:

    My bigger concern would be why is there no private pumping space? While it is a short-term problem now, this could be a long-term issue later, especially if you have another child. Would you want to be addressing this issue every day for another 14+ months? If the interview goes well, I would ask a female in the college about this as a follow up question. The ability to breastfeed and pump at work would be a “must have” for me.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It is important to know if this is a long-term issue or just a short-term one day logistics thing.

      There’s no private pumping space in my department because everybody has hir own office, so it isn’t needed. We just close our blinds and pump at our desks with the door closed.

      (We did at one point have a student who was nursing and when she needed to she used the office of a faculty member who was on leave, but that’s rare given our demographics.)

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