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Lotte Meteyard has been a lecturer at the University of Reading since 2010. She did her PhD from 2004 to 2007 at University College London, followed by a postdoc in 2008 at the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge. From 2008 to 2010 she retrained as a speech and language therapist. She got married in 2012 and had her first child in 2015.
Like most academics, I spent most of my twenties in university. My first degree is in psychology, and then I gained funding for a Master’s and PhD in psycholinguistics and cognitive science. After my PhD, I completed a one-year postdoc position. There, I saw an amazing talk by a clinical neuropsychologist, Barbara Wilson, about the challenges of being both a clinician and a researcher. I had been questioning whether I wanted to stay in academia, and I knew that I had to follow a combined clinical-academic path or I would never be happy in my work. I therefore chose to step sideways to retrain as a speech and language therapist. After retraining, I got a job as a lecturer in a research active department that teaches speech and language therapist programmes. I had been in my lecturing post for four years when I fell pregnant.
I met my husband when I was a PhD student and he was a postdoc in the same department. We made choices to stay together. For example, when I was looking for postdoctoral positions, I turned down an interview for a job that would have been too far away and my partner and I discussed whether we could make it work. When I got my lectureship, my husband and I moved to where my job was, and he looked for work there. We were together for 10 years before having a baby. We were never sure if we wanted to have children, but as I started to approach 35, we decided that we wanted to try. I was lucky to fall pregnant within six months.
I received four months paid maternity leave at full salary at my institution. I also had access to 10 ‘keeping in touch’ days to ease my return to work, which were paid at my usual salary and available to take whenever I wanted to. I chose to use them in the run up to returning to work.
In terms of support from my country (UK), I was entitled to 12 months maternity leave, which I could share with my partner. We split it so that I took 10 months, and he took two. This allowed him to also have parental leave, and care for our child full time for a period, which made it easier for me to return to work.
As for family support, my husband and I divide childcare duties, for example nursery pick up and drop off or cooking. Our extended family is accessible for some childcare with enough notice (grandma lives 1.5 hours away), and when we visit.
Our friends and relatives have been present to offer moral and emotional support, and we can spend time with them and their children of similar ages.
In general, I am less able to do things ‘at the drop of hat’, for example meet immovable deadlines. I can no longer work extra-hours, evenings and weekends at short notice, or re-arrange my schedule last minute.
For two years I didn’t attend a conference. I didn’t want to be apart from my child and to travel away from my family. I also felt that it wouldn’t have been fair on my husband, who is also working, if I did travel away for long periods. This has got easier as our child has got older.
I made the single biggest change myself – after one year returning from maternity leave, I reduced my hours from full-time to part-time (four days), and accepted that I was going to be less productive.
More broadly, I believe all grant funders and funding sources should have a provision for parental leave. All line managers should consider how to keep researchers involved in projects if they go on parental leave and make clear plans. I was lucky that I had a tenured, full-time post at the time in which I fell pregnant. I have colleagues who have had children during their postdoctoral training and it has been scary at times. If they are on short-term contracts, or being paid from multiple sources, they sometimes don’t know if they will get paid during maternity leave or if they have a job to go back to. For example, how will they get what they are entitled to if their funding comes from outside the university and there is no clear provision for parental leave? What will happen if they go on parental leave during a 12-month contract? How will this affect their job prospects and their contribution to the project? This is often dependent on how good their line manager is in making provision, and keeping them involved. It is actually possible to contribute to research whilst being on parental leave, but this is not often considered or explored properly.
There is never going to be a perfect time. If you want to have children, then go ahead and try. Make sure you have open and frank discussions with your partner about how childcare duties will be arranged and what each of you needs. You will have to compromise. Make sure you keep having this discussion as things change.
Inherent flexibility in working hours is definitely an advantage: for the most part I am still master of my own time.
However, pressure to publish and win grants, as well as immovable deadlines, are serious disadvantages. There is very little consideration or ‘wiggle room’ given if you have ‘unproductive’ periods.
Finally, sometimes work arrangements are not clearly formalised, so it’s not clear how your contribution to a project will be recognised, managed or accounted for if you go on leave.