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.”

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THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING THIS! I am not a biologist, but this was passed to me by a colleague. Very nearly all of the challenges I have faced since becoming a parent as a post-doc have been addressed here. I would like to echo other comments in that I am nearly certain I will leave academia, but I am also nearly certain I will return later in my career as a more experienced, confident, and laid-back professional. Two facets of parenthood not included here are the aspects of unexpected pregnancy and early termination of pregnancy. These also present unique challenges. In sum, I would suggest to others that developing a close-knit, diverse network of scientist/parent and parent supporters is paramount to success in both of these roles.


The scientific community as a whole - men AND women need to have this issue brought to the forefront of discussion. Don't even get me started on the lack of jobs, generally poor salary and benefit structure, pressure to get funded, publish 4-5 peer-reviewed manuscripts a year in addition to having to have a real "come to Jesus" moment when it comes to deciding whether or not you can not only afford to have a child much less take time to raise one. Over the past 5 years as a postdoc almost everyone I know, including myself are just clawing our way to get the hell out of science - whether it be academia, industry or government, with the general consensus being that the pressure and lack of opportunities in this economic climate are simply not worth it anymore. Disenchantment is the best word to describe it. R.O.


Thank you for providing air to this issue. The lack of paid postpartum leave is appalling, especially when sick/vacation time is limited as during student/postdoc years. I had one child while a postdoc, and a second as a staff scientist. I've had to realize that no matter what I do, I'm going to feel guilty about shortchanging some aspect of life. Move past it- that isn't productive and won't help you towards your goal, or so I tell myself daily! For me, the biggest factor in success is having an understanding and incredibly helpful partner, especially as he is the one that usually gets shortchanged first. I'd also point out that issues affecting men/dad and women/moms overlap, but are divergent- an obvious example is access to pumping facilities. I also suspect that moms harbor more guilt at being away from their child, but perhaps that is just my perception. Christina B in Oklahoma



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