Getting a research career established with small babies

noprofileimageyetSoapbox Science posts blogs about women in science. Often, women are uncomfortable with speaking out about the challenges and problems they face in their careers. Speaking out or asking questions about balancing work and family life may signify lack of commitment to the job. The following blog has been sent to us for publication: it is taken verbaitum from an email by a female academic with two children to a colleague, just after that colleague announced she was pregnant and wrote asking for advice about combining babies with the early stages of establishing an independent research career. 


“After hearing your wonderful news this morning (congratulations again!) I have been reflecting on the challenges of establishing an academic career while having babies and young children. Firstly some caveats. This is not advice. Everyone’s experience of motherhood is different. What works depends on what the baby is like, your partner’s job, what support family can provide, your financial circumstances and most of all….what feels right. Writing this I am struck by just how lucky I have been with how much help our families have been able to give us and I also am so blessed by having a partner who has been as involved in raising our children as I have. Of course not everyone has this. Finally I am really aware that this reads as if everything was simple and straightforward and I knew it was all going to work out for career and family. This isn’t true.

I think it is vital to be honest-taking a big chunk away from research while having kids can certainly knock back an academic career (& can even knock it totally off track). You hear advice from people (usually not academics) saying you have to protect your maternity leave and not do any work when you are on leave. Maybe that works for other careers but I honestly believe that it isn’t always possible or desirable for someone wanting a career leading their own research. I am not suggesting you work work work while the baby is small (the number 1 priority must be relishing this amazing time together) but for many of us there will be certain opportunities which you have to grab when they come along. I heard I had got through the 1st round of a grant a couple of weeks after my 2nd child was born and had 6 weeks to submit the full proposal. There were certainly challenges (e.g. my university finance department wouldn’t communicate with me as I was on maternity leave!) but I got the grant written and it was funded. This meant I came back from maternity leave to a fully funded research project with a post-doc and I lived off data collected from that grant pretty much until he started school. If I had not made that investment while on maternity leave I would have wasted all earlier preparation I had put into that project and would have needed to start designing new projects and collaborations when I got back from maternity leave (much more stressful than just getting stuck into a funded project). Having said that I hope it is possible to take a step back from research for a few years while the children are small and then slot back in. This isn’t the approach I took though so I can only speak from my experience.

Maybe I have an odd view on this but I view my teaching, running courses etc as something I do ‘for the university’ (though many of these aspects of my job I do enjoy in many ways as much as research). My research I do for me (though of course it also benefits the university). As academics we are our own brand. To get the next grant, get papers published, get invited to act as editor, onto grant panels etc etc your reputation is vital. The good thing is academia is pretty meritocratic, BUT the bad thing is no one thinks ‘ahh she is actually quite productive given the maternity leave and the part time status etc etc’. Outside your own university (where HR should make sure these things are properly accounted for) you are judged on your productivity per se, not your productivity pro rata. This might not be the way it should be but to some extent it is.

BUT there are many positive things about combining academia and motherhood. Firstly there has been a huge amount of attention given to the issue of why women don’t progress in academia which has resulted in many universities bending over backwards to support those returning from maternity leave (as it sounds like yours have done-6 months of no teaching after maternity leave is great!). You could almost say things are easier for a new mother in academia than a new father. You get time off teaching (maternity leave) so any energy you have can be given to your research AND promotion panels/ref submissions etc can take into account an expected drop in productivity. A fully involved new father is often just as tired but there are no special measures to help him when his research productivity drops.

Another positive thing is academia is entirely output focused. No one cares how long you spend working, where you work (with some limitations-field work is obviously an extra challenge) etc etc. What matters is what you produce. This is really positive and helpful.

A third positive is that many babies do also sleep quite a lot (though not always when you need them to!). Maternity leave with my second child (and the teaching free time I was so blessed to get after coming back) was in fact one of the most academically productive times I have had. The total break from teaching and course admin was brilliant. I didn’t work many hours (certainly not traditional ‘work’ in front of a computer). But I found long walks with a baby in a sling were a great chance to really think.

Some tips (though see caveats above about not wanting to give advice!):
1) Never over-explain. No one needs to know why you are not able to read a draft of a paper/PhD chapter/grant proposal at that moment. Colleagues don’t care that your baby is teething (OK so this is a bit harsh but it is a good assumption to make-you can talk about these things with friends and family). Rather than sending a long email explaining why you haven’t done x, y or z, just don’t answer the email for an extra day or so (the chances are they won’t notice) and then get it done.
2) Prioritise getting the best possible and most flexible child-care possible. Great child-care that you trust will make working so much more possible. I got my 1st job in academia a few weeks before giving birth the 1st time. I didn’t get formal maternity leave as started work at 32 weeks (and the legal aspects were not relevant to me anyway; trust had been placed in me by an academic I greatly respected, the opportunity was amazing and I loved the work). The challenge was then how to get the work done with a tiny baby. Our solution was that a mother from the village with a baby a similar age came over for a couple of days a week with her baby and she looked after both babies together in my home while I worked upstairs. She could call me if the baby needed a feed. This worked brilliantly for both of us-she earned a bit of money while looking after her own baby, while I was able to get work done while being close to my baby. As kids grow the ‘get the best and most flexible child care you can afford’ rule has stayed really important. When our 2nd was born and I was on maternity leave it would have been financially best to take our older one out of nursery. However she loved it there, was settled and her life was disrupted enough by having a new baby in her life. ALSO if she was still in nursery I could sleep when the baby slept or (when I had the energy) work on the grant I was writing. It was financially inefficient in the short run, but the best possible solution for us as a family.
3) Make full use of any help family and friends are offering. When my 1st was born I had just started a project in a university far away. I needed to make the most of this by actually being there quite a bit (the work has led to a whole bunch of interesting papers and really made a difference to the development of my career, if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have those papers). My wonderful mother travelled across the whole country to care for the baby during my trips. She would go for walks around the campus and pop in to see me whenever the baby needed a feed. It worked for her as she wanted to see her grandchild and it wasn’t actually that much further to travel to see me there than at home. It worked for me (obviously!). The only downside was cost (luckily my mother was able and willing to very kindly pay the costs of her travel, accommodation etc).  Thinking back now I am realising just how much my mother has done making it possible for me to take up these vital career development opportunities. In addition my parents in law have come over one day a week every week since the kids were born (truly heroic as they live more than an hour away). I can’t say how valuable this has been and fully recognise not everyone has this.

4) My final (and most important) tip is: ‘Take everything a parent says whose kids are more than 3 months older than yours with a large pinch of salt’. WE HAVE FORGOTTEN WHAT IT IS REALLY LIKE!”


This contribution has been written by an academic working in ecology at a UK University, who would like to remain anonymous.

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