August 2012

Balancing act

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.


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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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