August 2012

Balancing act

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.

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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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