I was talking to another (more junior, female) post-doc the other day about juggling childcare and working part-time. I said it’s working well in general but next time (I’m currently pregnant with baby two) I will be taking off the maximum amount of time which is 12 months plus accrued leave. Her response was astonishment that I will be away from work for so long…How will I keep up with research? I’ll fall behind on publications, my boss might not like it…To me this list of reasons for not taking more than a few months off is reminiscent of the ridcululous advice I was given when my daughter was born: If you don’t put her down you’ll be carrying her to school when she’s 10, if you nurse her to sleep she’ll never learn to sleep by herself, you’ll turn her into a spoilt brat if you respond to her cries straight away….
After my first pregnancy I took 11 months off . I made the most of my time away from work, as I’ll do this time around. When I went back to work I changed to part-time hours, as did my partner. I read papers during my leave. I also had meetings with my PhD student and PI every six weeks or so. I took my daughter along to most of these meetings unless her dad was able to look after her while taking a long lunch break (he’s not a scientist but used to work in a building nearby).
During my first maternity leave only three papers that had a direct impact on my research were published. There were a few others that were of interest. I read more papers in the year I had off than I have ever read in a year while working. As with falling behind on publications, if you are productive before taking any leave, you will be afterwards too. A year off is not going to change that. In fact, I seem to be more productive while on leave than when I’m doing experiments because I have time to get away from the laboratory and reflect on the results I have so far and how I am going to take my project and career forward. (Maybe everyone should spend a week or two working from home once in a while to reflect on their work and how to take it forward.) A few months into my last maternity leave I was an author on a paper published in the Journal of Immunology (see here) and this time, two weeks into my leave another paper was submitted and a third is being written. I am also writing a project grant to extend my current contract and having meetings with another PI every 6 to 8 weeks to set up a collaboration. I have already told him that I will be bringing my son along to these meetings and if I need to I will nurse him during the meeting. Having children himself, he was happy with that.
When do I have the time to do this? I enjoy work enough to read papers while the children sleep and also while they are having some time alone with their dad. Life isn’t all about work though. There are other things I enjoy doing too such as gardening and getting back into running (see other blog here – a work in progress!).
My boss not liking that I’m taking so much time off? He doesn’t have a problem with it. Besides, even if he did, taking 52 weeks off is my right.
Work will always be there but it’s important to spend time with the family and children grow up so fast.
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Publish or perish
Why are we always get told we need publications in Nature or Science for progression? Why is there a need to move around? ‘Two papers a year as a first author in journals with an impact factor over 7.’ How many times have I heard this? Carrying out experiments, especially in vivo work, takes time and a lot of money. These experiments need to be repeated many times and different techniques need to be used to answer the same question to make sure the results are robust. There is a lot of pressure to publish so it’s no wonder papers are then retracted (see here, here and here). Many scientists also have short-term contracts. My contract has been 2 years for the past 4 years. This time, I took 11 months maternity leave 9 months into my current contract. I now have 13 months left to apply for a grant to further my contract and therefore keep my job. To do this I need results. Positive results in a grant application show the project has a high rate of success and therefore a good chance of eventually being published.
Lectureship or Fellowship?
For the last few years I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to apply for fellowships. I now have over 6 years experience as a post-doc so I’m considered too experienced for many and therefore am no longer eligible. I recently asked for advice about applying for a lectureship. At this point I had done the core teaching course and taken first year tutorials for a few years. Guess what I was told by a senior academic? Do you have first author papers in Science or Nature? No, but I have teaching experience! I could just apply for other post-doc positions that are available but I have been working on macrophages for years now and do not want to change projects. I enjoy the work and I like the people I work with. Besides, the same issues will still be there – short-term contract with no job security.
Scientists who have moved laboratories, or even better – countries – also seem to be given a preference when it comes to fellowship or lectureship applications. It’s a good way of making connections, networking and experiencing how different labs approach problems, which techniques they use and how those techniques are carried out. I moved from Coventry to Cardiff and then moved to Bristol to take up my post-doc position 8 years ago. During my time in Bristol I met my partner, bought a house and had a child. Moving labs will cause a lot of upheaval for my family and I don’t think I need to. The research questions I am interested in answering can be done here. Moving just is not a realistic option for me and my family. We would have to sell our house, my partner will have to find another job and my daughter will have to be resettled in another nursery (it took two months to settle her in). Also, the grandparents might longer be able to help with childcare, increasing our expenses and meaning more time away from her family for our toddler. Alternatively we could move to a location between both of our places of work. We’d probably have to buy two cars (currently we walk everywhere or hire a car if required). We’d probably have a long commute which negates the reason for working part-time which is to spend time with my daughter. I just can’t see any positives to relocating.
Outreach activities are not helping my career advancement
Another criteria should be dissemination of research findings. I don’t just mean conferences and peer-reviewed publications but also writing for the non-scientists. The tax payers and people who donate to charities that fund research need to know how their money is being spent. This can include public engagement/outreach activities with schools, trying to inspire the next generation of scientists or events with adults such as Pint of Science. Public engagement seems to be the phrase of the moment but in reality, it does not count towards academic progression. Only papers matter.
For me, although research is what I love doing there does not seem to be a future in it for me so I’ll keep applying for grants for now but I’ll also be looking for another job. I’m 33 now but I will be leaving research before I’m 40.
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