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Married Scientists and the Name Change Dilemma

When scientists talk to each other, we end up referencing literature by tossing around names of authors and dates of publications. Our own body of work becomes tied to our names, and I think most of us recall the day we finally became “Pubmed-able,” that is, when our name appeared as an author in Pubmed for the first time.


So what happens when you change your name as a scientist?


I recently got married and was faced with this decision, one which many scientists before me have faced. Should I take my spouse’s last name? Am I a bad feminist if I do? Does it show a lack of family unity if I don’t? Will my publication record get lost in the shuffle? These questions of course have significance for all working women, but I contest that the decision has an even larger impact for scientists, as our careers rely on publications for advancement.


The married female professionals I know have all navigated this decision differently. Some have kept their name, some have changed it, some hyphenate, some use one name professionally and another personally. And of course, there is a trend towards men taking their wife’s name, or couples fusing their surnames or choosing a new one altogether. I consulted my PI, who is married but kept her name, about my decision. At the time, I was toying with the idea of professionally keeping my maiden name, but changing it for legal and personal purposes. I liked the idea of not totally saying goodbye to my pre-marriage identity, and that the publication I’m on as well as blog posts under my maiden name would always be easy to find for interviewers during job hunts down the line. She advised me that it was absolutely MY decision to make, but that she personally felt it would make more sense to commit to one name everywhere, as it is impossible to completely separate our work and home lives. This resonated with me—the scientist in me does not go away when I go home (my husband can vouch for this by detailing the times he has heard me talk about mouse infections at the dinner table). Likewise, my work is impacted by my personal experiences.


And so, for a variety of reasons and after thoughtful deliberation, I dropped my former middle name and moved my maiden name to that spot, and took my husband’s name as my last name. I’ve learned some practical ways to handle a name change; the ORCID is a clever way to tie together your work over time, and bolding your name in publications on a C.V. helps avoid problems as well. In going from Meredith Gray Wright to Meredith Wright Whitaker, I feel I have the opportunity to “rebrand,” and I’m at a place in my career where I’m excited to think about who Meredith Whitaker is and who she will be. For those with a deeper publication record prior to marriage, or who already have their last name emblazoned on Eppendorf racks as a principal investigator, it could be a different result.


My ORCID profile still shows work published under my maiden name despite my name change.


At the end of the day, taking your spouse’s name is an extremely personal decision, one that ought to be entirely up to you. It is your name, and your identity, and it is the most feminist thing you can do to make a decision that is all your own. I feel grateful to the female scientists who came before me that made me feel comfortable to keep my name if I wished. I’m fortunate to have married a man who never pressured me either way. And I’m glad I learned about tools like ORCID which make me feel I am not risking the loss of my previous work by making the choice that I did (cue me imagining myself singing my ORCID number like Jean Valjean sings his identifier). I encourage others navigating this choice to consult their married mentors, reflect on what matters to them, and explore the ORCID.



Featured Image is one of the author’s wedding photos, taken by Thomas Beaman of Thomas Beaman Photography.




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