August 2012

Balancing act

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.”

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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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