Life story: Tom Monie

Balancing the need to network and showcase your scientific work with the demands of parenthood is a difficult act.

Tom Monie is the Academic Director for STEM at the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education, and a dad of four. His first two children were born during his first and second postdocs at Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge, while his third and fourth arrived when he was the recipient of a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellowship in Cambridge. He moved to his current position in October 2016.

A family on an outing
Tom's children on a day trip. Image credit: Marianne Monie.

How did you become a scientist and a parent?

I finished my PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2002, and moved to Hitchin in order to start a postdoc at Imperial College London. My wife and I married immediately after my PhD finished and our first child was born in 2005, nine months before the end of my postdoc position. For the remainder of my time at Imperial, I adapted my working hours to approximately 07:30am to 15:30pm so I could avoid rush hour and shorten my commute to an hour and fifteen minutes. My supervisor was fully on board with this arrangement.

I returned to Cambridge in early 2006 to start a second postdoc position, and I got my commute down to about one hour. Shortly after this my wife returned to work in London, and reduced her hours to three days a week. I covered drop-off and pick-up from childcare when she was at work, and I compensated by working longer hours on the other days.

In 2007, when our second child was about six months, we relocated to Cambridge and that put an end to the long commute. My wife had resigned from her employment after her maternity leave in order to become self-employed and have greater flexibility around childcare. During this time she also chaired a national charity. I was awarded a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development fellowship in 2008, and my supervisor was fully supportive of a flexible working pattern to allow me to maintain involvement with childcare responsibilities when necessary. Our third and fourth children were born during that time, in 2009 and 2012.

By the time we welcomed our last child, I was about to enter the last year of my fellowship. I’d been unsuccessful in securing a lectureship within the University, but as a family, moving away from Cambridge was not something we wanted to do. I had not received much support from my original department as my research area didn’t seem to fit the direction they wanted to travel in and my publication record lacked sufficient ‘high impact’ papers. Eventually, I changed host department and I went half-time from March 2013 to March 2014, when my funding ran out. At this time my wife went back to work half-time: her working hours gradually increased, and we shared childcare responsibilities.

Ultimately, I secured a full-time postdoctoral position, and we employed a part-time nanny for two years to help take care of the children. Once all four were in full-time education, we stopped having a nanny and since then we juggle the school drop-off and pick-up requirements. I moved out of research in October 2016 to work at the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education.

What support have you had access to?

Each time a child was born I received two weeks of paternity leave on full pay, and then took two additional weeks of annual leave. We had no support from family or friends.

I think it is important to not be afraid to ask for help, and in particular, to find an appropriate mentor for advice and guidance. In fact, I believe that receiving mentorship to help with prioritisation of both career and life goals would be useful; so would having support networks of other parents at similar career stages.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being both a scientist and a parent?

Both parenthood and science are highly time demanding if they’re to be done properly. Ironically, the flexibility that most scientists have in their jobs is possibly both the biggest advantage AND disadvantage. It’s wonderful knowing that it is perfectly doable to take time off to attend school events, or to look after an ill child, because the work can be done outside of normal hours. The problem then is that you end up working at times that are not sensible, not efficient and that impinge on other parts of your life. “I’ll just do it this evening or at the weekend...” is not the most effective way of finding a work-life balance. Protect your time, both for work and family life: be willing to say no.

One challenge I faced as a scientist is that I forwent many opportunities to network, to go to conferences, or to speak about my work because I did not want to be an absent parent. Ultimately this meant that I hadn’t made the connections and networks I needed to in order to progress my research career. Less nepotism in recruitment practices would probably be an important change to improve the lives of scientist parents, along with an acknowledgment that longer-term positions with greater security would allow scientist parents to be ultimately more productive and more likely to stay in research.