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.”