Webinar Report: Being a scientist and a parent

How can researchers build family friendly careers?

Moderator: Jeanne Salje, Group Leader, Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok; Adjunct Assistant Professor, Public Health Research Institute of Rutgers University; and member of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group.

Speakers: Margarita Calvo, Assistant Professor, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and member of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group; Galit Lahav, Professor and Chair, Harvard Medical School; David Kent, Group Leader, Wellcome MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute; and Dave Smith, Professor of Chemistry, University of York.

Many early-career researchers worry that starting a family will have a detrimental effect on their careers. To show that this is not the case, the webinar speakers answered questions from the audience that addressed some common concerns:

Can you be a researcher without working 60 hours a week?

Short answer: yes. Childcare duties mean that Dave Smith is never at work before 9am or after 5pm, and he has never asked the members of his lab to stay late or work weekends. “Scientific work is about productivity, not hours spent at the bench”, he believes. Galit Lahav agrees: “I don’t think anyone can be productive and focused for 12 hours a day. Breaks are super important in order to be creative and to do well”. And the advantage of having children is that they force you to take a break.

How do you manage your time?

Many researchers benefit from being able to work flexibly. Several of our panellists divide their time into blocks of ‘work time’ and ‘family time’, and are strict about preventing the two from overlapping. Set yourself realistic goals for what you can do in each block, but don’t get too caught up in planning: the best way to accomplish tasks is to “just start doing things”, says David Kent. Lahav also suggests looking for tasks that you can drop, delegate or outsource – both at work and at home.

What should you look for at an interview?

Remember that it is inappropriate for an employer to ask about your family plans during an interview. However, you should have plenty of opportunity to suss out whether the group is family friendly and supportive. Ask questions about their schedules. Do they hold meetings in the evening? Is there an expectation that you have to work long hours regularly? If so, it might not be the right working environment for a parent.

Should you tell anyone that you’re planning to have children...

This is entirely down to your own preference, but you might find it helpful to talk to someone at your institute about various practicalities. “As PIs we should try to encourage people to be very honest and very open”, says Margarita Calvo. If you’re not comfortable talking to your PI, find another senior member of your department. “This is where the power of a second mentor for PhDs and postdocs can come in”, says Kent: “someone who is not your direct supervisor, but has a partially invested interest in your success”. But remember that such conversations are for advice only: “I don’t think anyone should ask permission from their PI to become pregnant”, says Lahav.

... and when should you have the discussion?

For health and safety reasons it’s best to discuss a pregnancy as early as possible with someone senior – but this does not have to be your PI. Somewhere in your institute there should be information available about the health risks that lab work may pose during different stages of pregnancy, although these resources can sometimes be frustratingly difficult to find.
In some circumstances you may also want support from your employers before having a child. IVF can take a physical and emotional toll, and if you’re adopting you’ll usually have to attend many appointments during working hours.

Will it work out?

Even with the best time management skills, there will still be times when parenting will be hard. The overwhelming advice from the panellists is to not be hard on yourself. At the same time, bear in mind that just because our panellists all have successful careers and enriching family lives, that doesn’t mean it works for everyone. “Academia is not the only path”, emphasises Jeanne Salje. Make the career decision that is best for you, “whether those decisions are made for professional reasons or because you want to spend more time with your children”. Both are valid justifications.

Find out more

Over 30 other researchers share their stories of family life in the Scientist and Parent collection.

We welcome comments, questions and feedback. Please annotate publicly on the article or contact us at hello [at] elifesciences [dot] org.

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