Life story: Jonas Obleser

Raising children does not require having a done-and-dusted career path.
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Jonas Obleser has been a chair in psychology at the University of Lübeck, Germany, since 2015. After a PhD in psychology at the University of Konstanz in 2004, he did two postdocs at University College London and the Max Planck Institute, Leipzig. He obtained a Max Planck Research Group Leader grant in 2011, during which he welcomed his first daughter in 2012. His second daughter was born in 2015.

A child's drawing of her parents teaching
Sarah Jessen (left) and Jonas Obleser (right) teaching in front of a packed lecture hall, as seen by their daughter Kira Jessen. Sarah and Jonas in fact never teach simultaneously. Image credit: Kira Jessen

How did you become a scientist parent?

Unsurprisingly, I became a scientist first. I studied and graduated in psychology at Konstanz, Germany. After a postdoc period at University College London, I moved to the Max Planck Institute, Leipzig, Germany. There, I fell in love with a PhD student eight years my junior, Sarah Jessen, who happened to work also at the Max Planck. In 2011, when Sarah was on the home stretch of writing up her thesis, we deemed the time was ripe for having a child – as simple as that. At the time of this decision, it was somewhat uncertain how Sarah’s career would look from thereon, but I was leading a well-funded independent research group with secured funding for another four years or so. This gave us probably enough confidence. Moreover, I had the chance to see in my elder siblings’ families that raising kids does not necessarily require a done-and-dusted, failsafe career path. In fact, to scientists who are thinking of having children, I would say: “Don’t be afraid, and take it easy.”

What support have you received as a parent?

Parents in Germany get reasonable support by the federal government. When Kira was born in 2012, my wife got a subsidiary maternal support of a few hundred euros per month for about half a year. When Kira was eight months, Sarah entered a new postdoc job and I took full-time parental leave for six months. This is supported by the German government, with up to two thirds of your last net salary – or a maximum of 1800€ – of Elterngeld (‘parent money’) per month. My employers were fully behind this. They prolonged my fixed-term contract by exactly the half year that I was taking parental leave, which was helpful. Of course, I also kept my office as group leader, and in fact I was going in regularly to see my lab members. I also met them with my child on playgrounds, in parks, cafés, etc. Our friends and family were very supportive of us both pursuing science and raising our first child.

When we had our second child, Emmy in 2015, we followed the almost exact same routine: a half-year ‘break’ for my wife. This time, she maintained her support from a Max Planck fellowship throughout that period and also regularly published papers. This was followed by a five-month reduced-work schedule for me, again with some financial support from the German government. My then-and-now employer, the University of Lübeck, has also been quite supportive. Both our kids have been enrolled in University-run childcare since 2015 and 2016, respectively, on an approximate 9–4 schedule.

What for you has been the most difficult aspect of balancing parenthood and science?

I perceive science, and all that is attached to it such as publishing, teaching, administration, as a very borderless, ill-defined ‘job’. I mostly enjoy what my job entails so much that it is hard to do it only there and then. In fact, paradoxically, it feels like I am both doing science all the time, and never doing it properly. My wife is better than me in this, but nevertheless, we both also pursue our jobs from home, temporally interspersed with caring about and hanging out with our kids.

So it all comes down to scheduling. This has been, and remains, the most challenging part for us: Who picks the kids up on which day? Are you going to that 4pm guest lecture, or should I? Oh, I should really submit that review tonight (when kids are in bed, that is) etc.

My wife might have a different take on this, and she is, without doubt, burdening more of the overall responsibilities than I do.

What can institutions do to support parents?

We have been very fortunate with our past and current employers, the Max Planck Society in Leipzig as well as the University of Lübeck, in that both institutions provide or subsidise child care on the premises or very close by. This is the single most important aspect of what a science employer can and should do to allow scientists and scientist couples to ‘run’ both their science and their families as seamlessly as possible.

What advantages and disadvantages are there to being a scientist and a parent, compared to other professions?

The single biggest advantage is that science does rarely require a very fixed presence – my classroom teaching is almost the only exception. Thus, the inevitable hazards that kids bring with them (being sick one morning; doctor runs; childcare pick-up times mid-afternoon) are much more compatible with still doing a great job in science than they might be in more presence-based or travel-intense jobs.

I think that, in comparison, being a father in science is easy. There are a lot of discussions about academic life, but the balance of flexibility and income should not be disregarded. Of course, I acknowledge that, being a male tenured professor in the German university system, I am not really in a position to comment on the difficulties other scientist parents, and especially non-tenured mothers, do face. By all accounts, however, I feel enormously privileged and grateful for the system I am allowed to work in and in which my kids are allowed to grow up.