First things first: as anyone who has taken parental leave can surely attest to, things take longer than you think when little ones arrive in the house. Here I am more than halfway through my 3.5 months of parental leave and I’m only now sitting down to write about it for the first time (apologies to those who have been asking for updates!). As readers will know, I wrote about my impending parental leave earlier this year and set off a flurry of comments/emails (mostly supportive!) about the decision to take time off in the first year of my research lab’s existence. My partner (also a scientist) is currently back in the lab after taking the first five months off with our son. Overall, I can say it’s been a fantastic personal/family decision and I would not trade it in for the world. The impact on my career is yet to be determined, but my fingers are crossed that the negative impact will be minimal.
I figured it was best to break things down into manageable chunks for readers and today I am reflecting on the thought that’s been at the forefront of my mind when I dwell on the issue and really inspires the need for change in the system.
“I’m massively relieved that I’m not a postdoc”
Time and again, especially when I chat to colleagues with kids who are still postdocs, I am thankful to be taking leave as a group leader and not as a postdoctoral fellow. Perhaps I’m a glass-half-full type of person and compare in order to make myself feel positive about my own situation, but it seems to me that the hardest time to have kids in an academic career is during postdoctoral training (see previous posts on here from postdocs with kids). I also believe this is one of the major negative consequences of longer training times on the retention of female scientists – more to come on that in future posts for certain.
For now, I thought I would outline the three main reasons why I think it’s been a benefit to take leave during the group leader stage.
- Experiments are still getting done
When you run a lab, your people are still there – you can still touch base with them and things can still tick along. I’ll write future posts about strategies I’ve employed to help this along (some successful, others not so much), but it is definitely not as severe as pulling the lead person (the postdoctoral fellow) out of a project for a number of months.
- Much of my work is on a computer
Nap times are for getting jobs done around the house, but on a good day (e.g., today!) there is some time to squeeze in some computer work. If planned well, you can still be somewhat productive with things and since much of my work is now writing, reading and thinking (rather than performing experiments), the barrier to getting things done is much lower.
- I have some degree of certainty in my post
My job is funded for the next five years as a group leader (and this is often the length of first positions for research scientists). This means that no matter how difficult and unproductive this period is during my first year as a group leader, I have four more years to recover and I know how productive I can be in four years if necessary – the breathing room is an incredible luxury. Compare this to the situation of a postdoctoral fellow and you’ll see shorter terms (often rolling six month or yearly contracts), an inability to extend beyond the lifetime of a supervisor’s grant (thereby cutting the total research time short), a reduction in the eligibility for many “starting grants” based on years post-PhD or age, and an overall sense of career uncertainty (i.e., very few postdocs are going to get a group-leader job anyway).
This uncertainty drives decision-making about families and in a family of two academics often results in one of them leaving – and I can count on one finger the number of men I know who have left so the mother can run her research group. I don’t have enough digits to tally the number of women I know who have made that choice. At the end of the day though, there will never be an ideal time to have kids, but the postdoctoral stage seems the least ideal. For me this was age 28 through to 33. The average age for mothers to have their first child in Canada is 28.5 and over half are over 30 – notice a similarity in the timing? What a disgusting time to have virtually no career stability and low wages! Like I said, more to come on this in future posts too – in particular, how we can better support people at this uncertain time.
There remains a long list of other things to share with readers about parental leave, but nap time is almost over, so you’ll have to wait for the next instalment. These will definitely include “Strategies for keeping in touch with the lab” and “The benefits of mental vacations,” amongst other tidbits.
In the meantime, if readers feel strongly about this issue or others affecting early career researchers, please do consider writing something to share – we’re always keen to get new people on board to share their thoughts (and potential solutions!) on the problems facing young scientists.