August 2012

Balancing act

Early-career scientists discuss the challenges of juggling work and family life

Often I wonder if I am really being a good enough mother […] alternatively, I wonder if I am doing good enough research to come across as a serious researcher.

– Anonymous assistant professor 

Academic science does not have a reputation for being family friendly. The competition for jobs and grants and the clash of biological and tenure clocks seem to be fueling a pervasive fear that a career in science and a satisfying family life are mutually exclusive.

This has consequences for science. A study published last year found that nearly half of female faculty and a quarter of male faculty felt their careers in science had prevented them from having as many children as they would like (1). Having fewer children than desired was even more common among postdoctoral fellows, and such feelings were the only significant predictor of whether they were planning to seek careers outside of science.

Whatever the causes and consequences of this fear, I think we need to hear more from those at the center of the issue: early-career scientists with young children. So on behalf of all those friends who are standing at the brink of parenthood and professional success, I asked 25 postdocs and untenured faculty, both men and women, to share their perspectives and advice on being scientist-parents. What are the challenges? What strategies do they use to cope? And most importantly, what advice do they have for all those fearful would-be parents?

There were many different kinds of challenges that the respondents described, but recurring themes were sleep deprivation, unpredictable schedules, guilt and negative judgment from colleagues. Some were worried about the instability of academic jobs. Some struggled with finances, and one had relied on food stamps.

But overwhelmingly, the biggest challenge was a shortage of time.

Welkin Pope, a research assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh with one child and one on the way, likened becoming a parent to getting a second, time-consuming job on top of an existing, equally time-consuming job.

Josh Anzinger, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, became a parent during postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health. He pointed out that even though all his time is spent either working or being a parent, there is still no way to get everything done, saying, “Unfortunately, this puts you at a disadvantage if you’re pursuing an academic career. Academics is not a family-friendly job.”

In addition to time management, many respondents were concerned about inequitable access to benefits, such as leave and day care, for postdocs and graduate students, especially for those who lacked employee status at their institutions (2). In such cases, legislation that is designed to protect employees may not apply, consistent benefits policies may not exist, and access to employee resources like on-site day care, employee parking and dependent health-care coverage may be limited.

Even when the rules are clear, they are often inadequate. Only 23 percent of institutions in the Association of American Universities provide postdocs with a policy of six weeks of paid maternity leave (3). Graduate students, who often don’t have the financial resources to go without pay, fare even worse. Only 13 percent of institutions provide six weeks of paid maternity leave, and 3 percent provide one week of paid parental leave to fathers.

These kinds of problems are typically handled by negotiation between the student or fellow and his or her mentor. Like most of the respondents, Pope was grateful for her mentor’s generous support. “But not everyone is so lucky,” she warned. “We need institution-level support.”

Strategies for dealing with the challenges of parenthood were incredibly diverse. Some of the respondents arranged for family day care, shared a nanny, used on-site day care, or relied on nonworking or flexible spouses. They created their own support networks by seeking out other parents on campus. They negotiated help at work from lab mates and passed projects along to collaborators. They managed their time with the help of meticulous planning and task prioritization. They never worked at home or often worked at home; they kept very strict working hours or very flexible ones; they went to work very early or late.

The only strategy that was universally popular was taking advantage of the flexibility of academia.

Faculty members have more control over their work tasks and hours than many other professionals. Flexibility is also the positive flipside to the informal work status of postdocs and graduate students. For example, many respondents mentioned negotiating flexible working arrangements with their mentors. Pope gradually transitioned her focus toward bioinformatic work, which improved the predictability of her schedule and allowed her to work from home one day a week. Even though she still worked full time, she said, it made a big difference just to have one morning when she didn’t have to get her family ready or have to “lug the breast pump around.”

Access to this kind of flexibility is not just a luxury. A large body of research across many kinds of workplaces consistently indicates the importance of workplace flexibility, and workers with access to flexible work practices have both greater job satisfaction and fewer mental-health issues (4).

Finally, I asked the scientist-parents what advice they would give to early-stage scientists thinking about becoming parents. Despite the inevitable differences of opinion and idiosyncrasies of personal advice, three pieces of advice were offered repeatedly.

The first was that parents should have realistic expectations. Bridgette Hagerty, an assistant professor at York College of Pennsylvania, cautioned that “you need to recognize that everything will take longer than it used to, and you may need to make small sacrifices in terms of how much you accomplish.”

The benefit of realistic expectations is also supported by the results of a study presented last year that found that working mothers who held the attitude that they would be able to balance their work and family lives with ease were at more risk for depression than those who anticipated difficulties (5).

Accepting that the balance of work and family commitments is different every day and is different for different people is also a crucial step in letting go of the idea that there is some perfect balance that every parent must strive for. Bridgette Hagerty had to train herself not to feel guilty about making time for her daughter. “Recognizing the fact I can still be a good professor despite choosing to not work during every free moment of my day has been the best strategy to maintain sanity,” she said.

Another common recommendation for postdocs and graduate students was to choose potential mentors very carefully. One respondent, who chose to remain anonymous, recounted her approach to interviewing for postdoctoral positions. “I looked for good science, of course, but I also looked for PIs with kids and for labs where other postdocs and students had kids. I figured if several people in the lab had children, then it was a family-friendly lab.”

However, Michael O’Donnell, a postdoc at the University of Washington, pointed out that, even though his three mentors during his time as a parent-researcher have each had very different family lives, they were all incredibly supportive of his own. “The important point is to never assume that someone will behave in a certain way just because of who you think they are,” he said.

The final piece of advice was strikingly popular, with almost the same words used by each person who gave it: There is never a “good” time to start a family.

Emily Holt, an assistant professor at Utah Valley University, explained what this means. “I know many academicians that waited to have kids until after they got their faculty position or even after earning tenure. Clearly risk of complications with pregnancy, and even conception, increases with age, so this can be a risky proposition. Alternatively, if you have your children early, you can feel tugged at all ends with no end in sight.”

“Just go for it,” is what Anzinger would tell those thinking of starting a family. “It’s going to be very rough, but it is well worth it.”

Compared with the practical challenges, the rewards of parenthood are much harder to describe in a brief survey, but all the respondents emphasized that they had made the right decision.

Hagerty wrote to me, “I would make the same choices if given the chance to go back in time. Being a mother and a biologist are both essential parts of who I am, and I am so very fortunate to have the chance to fulfill both those roles.”

Here is a sampling of the respondents’ perspectives, edited for style and clarity.

Life never stops

Photo of Philip  Morton and his childrenMy oldest daughter was born while I was working on my Ph.D. Since my wife was also a graduate student, neither of us qualified for maternity or paternity leave, and we only were allowed 10 sick days. We had to be creative with our schedules. I took the morning work shift, and my wife the afternoon. Many times I would be getting into the lab at 4 a.m. This brought about challenges when I needed to meet with others, coordinate schedules with other people, or appear at work without spit-up all over my shirt. It also brought about extreme tiredness and disorientation. My second daughter was born while I was writing my dissertation. Again, my wife and I did not qualify for leave since we were graduate students, so again we would take shifts. However, this time I would take my daughter with me to work. I would strap her to my chest in one of those baby carriers, write while she slept, feed and change her, and repeat. It worked out pretty well.

I think the best advice I could give to someone thinking of starting a family is: It is never a good time. Life never stops, and if you are one of those people who want to wait for a good time before you have kids, you are going to be waiting a long time, because a good time won’t happen; or, if it does, I wouldn’t bet on your reproductive parts still functioning at their optimum. 

– Philip Morton is a postdoc at the University of Oklahoma
Biological Station and the father of two daughters.

Talk to your adviser

Photo of Catherine Konopka and her sonThe most difficult thing was finding good affordable day care, which is true no matter what profession you are in. In Seattle, there is a shortage of day-care facilities with wait lists as long as a few years. This is not hyperbole. We couldn’t find a day care with openings, so we decided to team up with another family and start a nanny share, where one nanny watches the two kids at the same time. But nannies are expensive, so we invented an arrangement. The nanny watched the kids three days per week. I watched them one day per week, and the other mom watched them one day per week. That way we could afford the nanny, and I got to spend an extra day with my son. It worked because I have a very understanding adviser who didn’t mind if I didn’t come into lab on Thursdays for 1.5 years. His attitude is, “You are on a salary. Just get your work done.” My lab mates were also pretty great with starting cultures for me so that I could be ready to go the next day.

Talk to your adviser ahead of time to see what his or her attitude is toward flexibility. When I interviewed for my postdoc, I didn’t come out and ask him, but I did talk to members of the lab with kids and ask them how they worked out their work-life balance. Also, work out the details of maternity or paternity leave and subsequent child-care flexibility early in your pregnancy, so if there are any issues they can get worked out ahead of time. If your adviser isn’t being reasonable in your eyes, perhaps there is someone else you can talk to – the head of the department or another professor. 

– Catherine Konopka is a postdoc at the University of Washington,
has one son and is expecting a second child.



Let go of the guilt

Photo of Jeanne Garbarino and her familyI first become pregnant during my last year of grad school, and many of my student peers wondered if I was sabotaging all that I had worked for. This line of thinking is grossly unfortunate in that it perpetuates the stereotype that you cannot have children and be a scientific researcher. Also, most grad and postdoc programs are not fully prepared to support women who decide to start a family while in training, and I would like to see that change!

The hardest part for me was realizing and accepting that work-life balance is highly fickle and quite often unpredictable (you can’t do anything about a puking kid on the morning of your big meeting or experiment) and to let go of the guilt involved with doing one over the other. But once someone told me that I need not apologize for doing what I had to do – that goes for work and family – I felt better about my decisions. My advice would be never to let anyone else dictate what is and what is not best for you. If you do let someone tell you how you should live your life, you are basically being bullied. And no one likes a bully. 

– Jeanne Garbarino is a postdoc at the Rockefeller University
and the mother of two daughters.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank all the scientists who took time out of their busy lives to respond to my questions. I would particularly like to acknowledge my fellow scholars in the Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching IV program.

  1. 1. Ecklund, E. H. & Lincoln, A. E. PLoS ONE 6(8): e22590 (2011).
  2. 2. Flint, Ehm K. et al. The Postdoc’s Guide to Pregancy and Maternity Leave and The Postdoc’s Guide to Paternity Leave (2011).
  3. 3. Goulden, M. et al. Staying Competitive: Patching America’s Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences (2009).
  4. 4. Tang, C.-Y. & Wadsworth, S. M. National study of the changing workforce (2008).
  5. 5. Leupp, K. M. Even Supermoms Get the Blues: Employment, Gender Attitudes and Depression (2011).


Photo of Cristy GellingCristy Gelling ( is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh and a writer at Bitesize Bio. Follow her on Twitter at


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