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The Inexact Science of being a Parent Scientist

Posted By Connections Editor, Friday, November 6, 2015
Updated: Monday, November 2, 2015

The Inexact Science of being a Parent Scientist

Stephen Sykes and the NIC members


If you have children, are about to, or have ever thought about doing so, you have probably come across some type of article or book that aims to dissect and solve the daunting task of balancing work and family. These pieces often raise several important hurdles accompanied by numerous helpful suggestions, however, they rarely touch upon the challenges that are unique to being the “Parent Scientist”. In addition to the variables that all potential parents must contemplate – such as money, what school district to live in, arranging daycare, how close should they live to parents, et cetera – those of us in the academic science realm also need to contend with factors such as the unusual work hours, the current instability of scientific funding, lengthy training periods and the possibility of frequently changing residencies (domestically or internationally). We here at the new investigator committee (NIC) are by no means certified family advisers, but we thought that having a few Parent Scientists from different parts of the world to answer a few standard questions on being a parent and an academic scientist might be of interest to those of you who are about to become or who have internally debated becoming and even possibly those of you who are already Parent Scientists.

Has your career path in academic science impacted your decision whether or not to have children?
During my out-of-lab experiences with other scientists (e.g. dinners, drinks, etc.) the topic of children often comes up and I am always interested to learn whether their career in science has impacted their philosophy on parenthood. In my experience, people fall into one of three categories: The All-In (always wanted to have children), the All-out (never wanted children) and the most common, the oscillators (those who are not yet sure).


Dr. Mick Milsom of the HI-STEM institute at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg was All-in: “My wife and I knew that we wanted to have kids regardless of where our careers took us and we ended up having three boys born in three different countries.” Dr. Simona Lodato of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute at Harvard University and her husband were also All-in: “As a couple of scientists that always wanted children we did not plan to have our kids around our careers.” Dr. Lodato also added: “from a practical perspective, it would have been impossible to synch our career paths, publications and deadlines with the plan of building our family”.

Dr. Kena Flores-Figueroa of the Oncological Research Unit at the Mexican Institute of Social Health was an All-out that defected to an All-in: “I thought I had decided not to have children until my "maternity gene" betrayed me. I just woke up one day wanting to have kids. I can't explained why I suddenly changed, it just happened.” I was an oscillator. Prior to entering a PhD program, I remember feeling that I wanted to have children, however, once I had reached my 2nd or 3rd year this feeling was challenged by my career aspirations to become an academic scientist. I would mentally debate variables such as the lengthy training period of academic scientists (and the low income that comes along with it), the mental distractions that come with parenthood, spending less time in lab and questioning whether my passion for science would diminish. However, somewhere close to the end of my PhD my perspective changed again, I began to think “I can do this Science “thing” and I DO want kids” – a little over a year later I was changing diapers.

As a former oscillator I always envy those who are All-in or All-out because they just know without question! For other oscillators out there, I would recommend pondering the advice of Dr. Flores-Figueroa who suggests: “I would say that in my experience it is more important to decide whether or not you want to be a parent than to think what will happen to your career; because you can't predict that until it happens. You can be a great scientist with kids or without them.”

Has having children impacted your research life?
The uncommon schedule of the common scientist
No matter what industry you work in, children are life-changing events. Having children alters the way you perceive and live in the world, how you plan your finances, daily life and work schedule. After polling numerous scientists, the aspect of the academic science life-style that is most commonly impacted by parenthood seems to be the lab schedule. Let’s face it, as Scientists we keep some pretty unconventional – some may even say bizarre – work hours. The terms 9 – 5 or TGIF (Thank goodness it’s Friday) do not really apply to us. As I touched upon earlier, prior to being a parent I thought to myself “how could I possibly accomplish all that I need to get done in lab and still have time to take care of a child?”

If you have ever felt the same way, take some solace in the fact that the independence that we have as academic scientists can be an advantage. Take the example of Dr. Ayako Nakamura-Ishizu of the Cancer Science Institute at the National University of Singapore: “After having kids I shifted my schedule earlier by about 2 hours. This was to avoid the morning traffic to take my kids to childcare and also be able to make some time in the evening to be with them.” Dr. Flores-Figueroa took a similar approach where she also shifted her hours and developed an efficient, regimented schedule where she divides her lab day into dedicated blocks for thinking/writing, meetings and experiments. Dr. Sofie Singbrant-Söderberg echoed the importance of scheduling efficiency “Having children forces you to prioritize your time differently – not being able to spend (as many) late nights in the lab makes you very efficient, and I get much more done during a day now than I used to when time was not an issue.”

The schedule for most academic scientists is extremely malleable compared to those who are required to work specific hours/shifts. This flexibility can be a huge asset when you have children, because as noted by Dr. Nakamura-Ishizu “A lot of unpredictable things happen while raising kids. They get spontaneous fevers, injuries; you have to cancel whatever experiment and rush home. Once they reach elementary school, they don't get sick so often but you have to contribute to school events during the day, go to parent teacher meetings or arrange play dates.”

The ballad of the travelling scientist
One of the many great aspects of our industry is that we are afforded the opportunity and often encouraged to train in different cities, both domestic and international. These opportunities provide us the ability to absorb and immerse into the novel perspectives of a new scientific community. However, leaving the comforts of a home city means passing up the supportive network of family members, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, which can be of great assistance to new parents.

However, most have their partner and it is also possible to build a new non-relative support network. Dr. Singbrant-Söderberg emphasizes that success as a parent scientist “requires a supportive partner, both for male and female scientists.” Reinforcing this statement, Dr. Milsom expressed that his ability to have kids while completing his post-doctoral training “was only possible because my wife took a six year break from her teaching career to stay at home and look after the kids (and me!).” Another good strategy for managing lab schedules and navigating the unpredictable nature of little ones can be to find other academic scientists who share a similar life situation – either in your lab or in another neighbourhood lab. Dr. Nakamura-Ishizu suggests “For [unpredictable child-related events], I think it may be good if you work in a team where you have someone to cover for you”. Indeed, Dr. Lodato and one of her colleagues who was also becoming a first time parent arranged to share a child caregiver (Nanny) as well as cover each other during times of child-related emergencies. While this symbiotic arrangement not only provided stability to their respective lab schedules, Dr. Lodato also emphasized that sharing a caregiver “was a great opportunity to save money and also a fantastic bonding experience for the kids and the [four parents]!”
If you are considering having children but are also experiencing anxiety about the impact children can have on you career, seeking the advice or simply observing those who have been a successful parent scientist can be reassuring. Dr. Singbrant-Söderberg emphasizes that this may be particularly applicable to female scientists: “I think it is very important to have more female role models in science showing that it is possible to combine a scientific career with having a family”. My PhD advisor and his wife, also an academic scientist, had two children during the end of their fellowships/beginning of their assistant professorships. I found watching them balance their careers and kids reassuring, especially towards the end of my PhD when I began considering parenthood again.

The fiscal cliff of parenthood
A major concern of almost all new parents is how to cope with the child-related costs. In many countries, the primary financial hit comes from daily childcare. My son was born in Boston, Massachusetts where daycare costs commonly run in the ballpark of $2000 (after tax dollars) per month for one child – a figure that when I first discovered nearly gave me a stroke. In fact, for families with multiple children it is often more affordable for one parent to be a stay-at-home parent. While this strategy is more affordable it does not necessarily alleviate the financial stress as highlighted by Dr. Milsom: “At times, it was pretty tough getting by on one postdoc salary and, even now my wife has been back at work for over 3 years, I still don’t think we have fully recovered financially compared to my peers who stayed in one place. In general, the lack of provision of cheap childcare spaces is definitely something that negatively impacts on the retention of talented scientists within academia”. One possible solution to high childcare costs is to split the cost of dedicated caregivers as I had mentioned above.

Alternatively, if you are interested in having children and working abroad there are countries that provide a financially supportive environment for new parents. Take the example of Dr. Nakamura-Ishizu who relocated to Singapore for her post-doctoral training: “Singapore allows you to employ live-in helpers (Nannies) at a low cost. It works pretty well; you don't have to do household work (no cooking, no laundry, no cleaning the house) and you can reallocate this time toward quality time with your children after you return home from work. So I guess, searching for research jobs in Asia may be one good option for working women researchers.” Dr. Singbrant-Söderberg provides another example of a supportive country: “I had our first child during my PhD, which is relatively easy in Sweden. We have a very generous parental leave system where the parents can share more than a year of paid leave, hence called parental instead of maternal leave. But more importantly, Sweden has a heavily subsidized childcare making it possible for a not so wealthy PhD student to pay for childcare.”

Coping with parental leave
I have had several colleagues, both women and men, who have expressed anxiety about being out of lab for maternity and in some cases paternity leave. While this is a common concern, here is some great advice for coping and negotiating paternal leave. Dr. Singbrant-Söderberg advocates trying “not to lose too much time in the lab. During my first parental leave I still came into the lab a few days per month to transplant and bleed mice and keep the projects going.” Expanding on her experience, Dr. Singbrant-Söderberg also shared that “During my second period of parental leave I didn’t have any ongoing experiments, but instead used the time to write a manuscript and apply for funding”. Dr. Flores also recommends planning ahead: “Maternity leave is an important thing to consider and my advice is to build a support network before you even think on having kids. You need to hire independent students and a good technician; or spend time to strengthen your relationships with the lab manager and other students if you are a post-doc or PhD student.”

To be or not to be a Parent Scientist
This summary is by no means an all-encompassing or even extensive analysis of all the considerations that come with being a parent scientist but hopefully it helps open the conversation – both internal and external. For those academic scientists who are debating whether or not to become a parent I would like to provide one last anecdote: I remember when I first thought about being a parent, I said to myself “I need (X) amount of dollars in the bank before I want to have children”. Well, after a few years I quickly realized that if I were to wait until I had enough money to have a child then I would most likely be attending their high school graduation at some point during my eighth decade. I raise this point just to say that having children will impact your life as an academic scientist, so if you do want to be a parent scientist, try not to fret too much on aligning all the variables into a perfect orientation before doing so – because raising children in no way, shape or form is an exact science.

We would like to thank our interviewees Dr. Kena Flores-Figueroa, Dr. Simona Lodato, Dr. Mick Milsom, Dr. Ayako Nakamura-Ishizu and Dr. Sofie Singbrant-Söderberg as well as Dr. Chun Zhou, and Esteban Martinez for their input and editing.

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