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Quarterly summary: Identifying misplaced priorities in research

Posted on October 1, 2014 by

Our summer posts had a theme it seems – something we didn’t plan, but which has resulted in a small series of posts on misplaced priorities in academic research. From my post on academic bullying to Jonathan’s on the difficulties resulting from indirect costs levied by universities to our guest blogger Damien on hiring strategies in laboratories. The comments were plentiful and gave us a good indication that these problems (and proposed solutions) need to feature more frequently on the blog.

One of the comments (thanks David!) directed me to something I’d not heard of before: The Polymath Project, where problems in mathematics were crowd-sourced by Tim Gowers. This is a wonderful example of collective problem-solving ability. I wonder if it would have legs in the life sciences… But, as I mentioned in one of my posts this summer, life sciences seems to be focused on individual success/reward structures.

Jonathan and I will of course write much more about these topics in the future. But for now, let’s recap the summer’s posts:

Guest bloggers:

Damien Wilpitz:



Remember to follow on Twitter (@scienceadvocacy) and join the Facebook group to get up to date posts and other ramblings.

The math of academic research grant support doesn’t add up

Posted on September 22, 2014 by

In last week’s blog post (“How lab managers hire for science“), Damien raised an interesting point regarding best hiring practices for new academic faculty that I felt should be highlighted here. Damien recommends that when screening research-scientist candidates for the lab, principal investigators should “identify individuals who lack skills that a new investigator can provide. A candidate applying to medical school or to grad school will be seeking research skills and recommendations. Eliminate all other candidates who don’t fall into these categories. It’ll save time by eliminating applicants who are seeking alternative limiting resources, like higher pay” (my emphasis).

This is an interesting perspective for our site because Dave and I spend so much time advocating in favor of higher salaries for trainees, not lower. And still, Damien’s advice is not wrong. The reason is as follows, and I am using this year’s R00 National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant as an example:

On a 2014 R00 independent research grant awarded by the NIH to qualifying recipients upon securing their first independent academic faculty position, total costs are limited to $249,000/year for three years. From this the institution subtracts its indirect cost rate, which varies between institutions but at Brigham and Women’s Hospital is currently set at ~77% of direct costs. Briefly, yearly costs are calculated as follows:

[total cost] = [direct cost] + [indirect cost] = $249,000.00

[direct cost] = [total cost]/[1.(indirect cost rate)] = $249,000/1.77 = $140,677.97

[indirect cost] = 0.77*[direct cost] = 0.77*$140,677.97 = $108,322.03

Research budgets for academic scientists are limited to their direct costs. A budget is calculated per year, and includes the following major line items to which I have attached conservative costs based on my own career experiences:

[salary] = $75,000

[fringe benefits] = [fringe benefits rate]*[salary] = 0.35*$75,000.00 = $26,250.00

[publication cost] = [cost of publication]*[# of publications per year] = $5,000.00*2 = $10,000.00

[research cost] = [direct cost] – [salary] – [fringe] – [publication cost] = $140,677.97 – $75,000.00 – $26,250.00 – $10,000.00 = $29,427.97

In many American institutions such as mine, salary for academic research faculty is not supported by their departments or institutions, and must therefore be derived entirely from their research grants. To sustain research funding, academic faculty must spend the greater part of their time writing academic grants. The percentile rank up to which academic research grant applications in the U.S. will receive funding currently averages 12%. As a result, performing actual research becomes nearly impossible without the help of a junior research scientist (trainee).

The NIH has set minimum yearly salaries for trainees for fiscal year 2014 at the following:

[predoctoral] = $22,476.00

[postdoctoral, 0 years of experience] = $42,000.00

Remember that this is base salary and does not include fringe benefits. Despite the fact that salaries for academic research scientists are already low and do not increase with inflation, new faculty cannot afford to hire help without further institutional support. Nevertheless, academic output is measured by the number of peer-reviewed scientific publications, and the expectation for academic faculty at top-tier American research institutes is to publish at least two papers per year.

Institutional support (when it is available) typically takes the form of a one-time start-up package that supplements grant funding for 1-3 years. More often than not, start-up funds are used to purchase necessary equipment, and at best provide new academic faculty a short-term solution to funding their academic research program. New academic faculty are therefore expected to apply for (and receive) continued grant funding while maintaining a successful independent research program without help on less than $30,000/year.

Increasing research salaries, while desirable, is therefore not possible without an accompanying cap on institutional indirect cost rates. Efforts to do this have been met with strong resistance by top-tier American research institutions. The alternative is to increase academic research funding, which is not likely in the near term.

At the end of the day the numbers need to add up, and despite the strongest possible track record of past funding and publications, research plan and drive, the current math of research funding does not support a successful academic career.

How lab managers hire for science

Posted on September 16, 2014 by

We are very pleased this week to introduce a guest post from Damien Wilpitz, an experienced laboratory research manager at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Damien is also the founder and manager of Experimental Designs Consulting, a management consulting firm specifically tailored to new academic science faculty. His article this week (hopefully the first of many) focuses on a critical area where young investigators typically drop the ball – new hires.

Most academic life science investigators struggle in the early years of lab start-ups, not because of their science, but from poor lab management. Much of this mismanagement invariably comes from poorly managed teams. For example, we all know a postdoc, tech or grad student who doesn’t seem to be pulling their weight. We have no idea why the principal investigator keeps them around. They haven’t produced any data for months and they hardly come in.

Some investigators find it very challenging to manage difficult personalities or to fire people. These lackluster teams are usually put together by investigators who are the under stress to produce. Therefore they try to hire quickly and cut corners in the process. This is where mis-hires begin. The costs associated with mis-hires can be staggering.

The age-old saying goes, hire slowly and fire quickly. However time isn’t necessarily on the side of a young lab leader.

I’ve been a lab manager for the better part of two decades and consult on a regular basis with young investigators. I found solutions and trends that offer strategies to ensure a great hire and will save precious time.

1. Categorize candidates according to the lab’s strengths. Eliminate the rest.

To quickly filter through a lot of applicants, there should be key metrics or categories for screening applicants that play to the strengths of a new investigator. Identify individuals who lack skills that a new investigator can provide. A candidate applying to medical school or to grad school will be seeking research skills and recommendations.  Eliminate all other candidates who don’t fall into these categories. It’ll save time by eliminating applicants who are seeking alternative limiting resources, like higher pay.

2. Utilize technology to save time that would otherwise be wasted on scheduling.

Scheduling those in-person, face-to-face interviews can become a big time suck. Conduct preliminary interviews over the phone or via some form of video conferencing, i.e. Skype or Facetime. It’s more convenient for both the investigator and the candidate. Once you feel comfortable with candidates over a phone/Skype interview, you can then bring in the top two to three for a face-to-face interview.

3. Have an interview/dialogue with all references.

The third and most important strategy for hiring, and where spending time is actually important, is in the reference checks. I find principal investigators aren’t spending enough time on this part of the process. Reading a reference letter or email is not enough. It’s important to have a dialog with a prospective candidate’s references. This can create a clearer picture of the candidate. Letters and emails cannot convey the same level of intonations and emotions as human dialogue, and a lot of the most important information about a candidate can be inferred by reading between the lines.

I routinely use these strategies to help new and established investigators build strong solid teams. Great scientific teams start from hiring. By cultivating great teams through a purposeful recruitment process, your odds of continued success improve dramatically.

Scientists should strive to win the world cup, not the golden boot

Posted on September 10, 2014 by
It takes a team...

It takes a team…

The last four decades have seen a steady increase in the number of authors on scientific publications.  Since 1975, when there was on average 1.9 authors per paper, we have seen increases each decade to 3.12, 3.76, 4.61 and finally 5.12 authors per paper in the period 2010-2013. It is clear that science has become a team sport, yet our rewards mechanisms are still almost completely based on individual achievements.

Individuals get papers. Individuals get jobs. Individuals even get Nobel prizes. But… individuals don’t do science by themselves.

Many of my colleagues will know that I have a mountain/valley analogy for the authorship list of a life-science paper. The first and last author peaks are given the highest importance and the valley exists in between where the “others” live – higher up on either side is even marginally better.

But what are the consequences of this misaligned reward system?

Ambition trumps science

Everyone who is in a medical science lab (and probably others!) will be familiar with authorship discussions/battles. Horror stories emerge from research groups about “stealing the credit” or choices being made for “political/career reasons.” These incidents are not uncommon, but they are also subject to each person’s opinion. I often joke with my colleagues about how every research paper is actually 200% work because if you total each author’s perceived percentage contribution it would always exceed 100%. But the important first/last places are always claimed by the “leaders” – real or perceived – and this raises a whole range of sociological issues for how that is determined.

No reward for helping others

For me, this is by far the biggest problem. Imagine you are in research to reach a particular goal (e.g., cure breast cancer) and you work toward that goal by getting really good at a particular job that is essential to advancing cancer biology. Let’s imagine you develop a technique that lots of people use but one that rarely forms the main thrust of the “publishable story.” You have helped advance cancer research, but your academic career could be at risk (e.g., no first-author papers). If you do this at the postdoctoral stage of your academic career – you’re toast.

The logical career path therefore is to only work on projects that have the potential of being first-author papers. In other words, we actively discourage working together on a project. One possible solution is listing people as equal contributors (also known as joint first authorship), but this does not always work out so well for the second name listed. Indeed, this makes me wonder how things play out with joint first authorship between the sexes – my guess is that men more often lay claim to the pole position of a “joint” first author paper…

Academics could take some lessons from companies

Industry works almost completely differently when it comes to this – a defined goal is set (e.g., develop product X that can do job Y) and a team of people is assigned to achieve it. If there is a particular person that does an outstanding job, they get rewarded (maybe a promotion or a bonus), but you rarely see “wonder drug, designed by Jon.” While I can certainly appreciate the unpredictability of scientific research, there are still broad goals. Notably, industry also manages to figure out how to recruit and retain people as well making me wonder what metrics are used – they probably do not rely on first/ last author publications.

Looking forward

So, yes, there is a problem – but how do we solve it? Journals have started to request individual author contribution statements which is a good thing, but the vast majority of these simply say “did research” or “performed experiments” – hardly informative (or noticeable!) should you be on a hiring committee judging a scientist’s merit. A very interesting article in 2007 from PLoS Biology pitched the idea of splitting the impact factor of a paper across the authors by percentage contribution. This would have the added benefit of policing the number of and/or subsequent credit given to “ghost” contributors (those who gift a reagent or patient sample that is important to the paper, but really had no involvement in the paper itself).

At the end of the day – the public via government and charitable funding provides academics with a huge pot of money to help advance society through ideas, healthcare solutions, and technological breakthroughs. Our current rewards system is designed to get a single person working on each problem – and if it’s a big problem, many single people working individually with the person that gets there first getting the reward. Am I saying that an individual cannot have an excellent idea and pursue it through to completion? Absolutely not – but the reality of the situation is that society ends up better if we work together to win the world cup, not individually to get the golden boot.

The honour society: value in social exclusion

Posted on September 2, 2014 by

Dave published an excellent post last week where he compared the academy to the fashion industry for its general lack of innovation and conformist social exclusion. Today I thought I’d play devil’s advocate to Dave’s very well-received piece, which almost always lands me in trouble. In the interest of staving off the expected torrent of personal attacks on my character, let me begin by stating clearly that the views and opinions expressed in this article are not those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this or any other organization. Let’s begin.

Earlier this week I received the following email. One of many that typically goes unread, it had one interesting detail that caught my attention and ironically saved this communication from the trash bin.

Dear Dr. Jonathan N Thon,


We have been through your articles and we are enthralled to know about your reputation and commitment in the field of Psychology. We strongly believe that this potential research in the field of psychology would be beneficial to the people working in this field.

International Journal of School and Cognitive Psychology (IJSCP) invite you to submit a mini/full review manuscript on any topic of your choice related to our journal.

You might be interested in our latest issue.

Papers may be submitted from any discipline related to but not limited to Cognitive psychology, Mental process, Memory, learning, problem solving, Neuroscience, Attention, perception etc.

Please let me know if you require any more information. Awaiting for your reply,


Koyada. S

Assistant Managing Editor

for Editor-in-Chief

International Journal of School and Cognitive Psychology

It’s not typically my habit to so blatantly call out individuals or organizations for holding positions with which I disagree, but this correspondence needs to be publicized. Why? For starters I am not, nor have I ever been, a psychologist. I earned my PhD as a biochemist. I have drifted professionally to become a cell (more specifically, platelet) biologist. I maintain an active online presence and even a cursory Google search for my name would reveal that I have never published a paper in a psychology journal and am not qualified to academically review this field.

What’s worse, is that I’m tempted to believe that were I to submit a mini/full review manuscript to this journal, there is a high probability that it would be published. This is a single (albeit telling) example, but it prefaces a larger problem in higher education.

Academic specialties are by definition niche environments where active participants have more than a passing awareness of the other players in their field. This is why, in part, most of us who have ever submitted a manuscript for peer review have a fair idea of who reviewed it, despite having been blinded to our reviewers, and why the community assembles itself into cliques. The best protection against poor or bogus science in an age where just about anyone can publish in what (at least at first glance) may appear as a semi-reputable journal, is to excessively filter our content.

We do this in many ways, and some are more accessible than others. For lay audiences and newcomers to a field, the most reliable way to separate reputable science from the rest is by relying on the journal’s reputation. Some journals are better than others. Although a lot of papers are retracted from top-tier journals we like to cite and love to hate (e.g. Cell, Science, Nature, etc.), the likelihood that the data published in these manuscripts have been properly vetted and are reputable, accurate and impactful is significantly higher than were it coming from the International Journal of School and Cognitive Psychology (for example).

The other way is by relying on the reputation of the scientist or group. Oftentimes, newcomers will not know who the heavy hitters in their field are and must therefore fall back to their institution or (and yes, it happens) their country. Some institutions and some countries have better reputations for scientific integrity and quality research than others. These also vary dramatically by field, but there are a select few institutions in every country that have established strong reputations across the board. They are typically also the largest, best funded institutions and the two are not inextricably related.

Among the active players in a field there is a tendency to view more favourably work coming out of top groups than that of unfamiliar research programs. This is not a bad thing. Top groups have established their reputation for quality research and innovation over many years, often having made paradigm-changing discoveries that have stood the test of time, and there is a reason why all eyes turn to them when a new finding is made.

Is peer review without its faults? No. But allowing anyone to publish anything because they believe it to have merit is not the answer either. The fallout of peer review is that a lot of good ideas will not get published/funded because they don’t rise to an ever greater standard of proof. The alternative is bad science – and this is arguably worse.

Is the academy worse than the fashion industry for “following the leader”?

Posted on August 19, 2014 by

I hate to admit this, but I find an incredible number of scientific papers really boring. It seems that more and more, research papers are using the same sets of sexy and expensive tools without actually answering the question they set out to explore and overload their readers with “big data”. It further appears that this is the primary formula for getting published in big journals – and the nasty part of that whole business is that publishing big is controlled by an ever-diminishing fraction of the world’s scientists.

Remember when you were in high school, and there were popular ways to dress and popular places to be? It was difficult for some kids to afford to keep up while other non-conformists simply opted out of “being popular”. Eventually, we look back fondly at these people who didn’t follow along – many of them had a much better sense of self and preferences.  No matter how much the popular groups or trends pushed, some people just didn’t buckle and emerged many years later as cool people with novel ideas.

My fear is that the academy is subject to the same primitive bullying techniques resulting in social exclusion as a consequence of breaking rank. The system (unknowingly?) props up the careers of a cadre of researchers who are just really good at following along. The really sad corollary to this in the age of tight funding is that we lose the non-conformist kids who have the creative ideas of today and tomorrow. Surely universities are the place that should foster new and alternative ideas and approaches and be immune to such behaviour. Academic bullying is a problem and it’s squeezing the creativity and lifeblood out of science.

Let me explain how I see this operating. The three things that matter most to a scientist’s career progression are publications, grants, and personal reputation (e.g., the ability to attract the best PhDs and postdocs). All three are determined by a frighteningly small number of people who have the power to socially exclude for their own benefit (e.g., keep an idea out of the mainstream, promote the careers of the people they like, etc, etc). While they don’t necessarily do this, the power is theirs to wield.

How might this manifest itself? One example is that the experiments requested by reviewers are often expensive and technology-laden, only really performable at the top-flight institutions in the world (kinda like that new watch that everyone “must have”). Dan Tenen, a professor at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute jokingly refers to these as “Figure 5 – the experiments that the reviewer requested and never mean anything, but had to be done to get published”. While Dan’s lab is in the position to do the experiments and poke the fun at the process, this is sadly not the case for the vast majority of research labs. Not only does this process slow down science, but it also makes non-privileged scientists collaborate with the top dogs, thus reinforcing the circle. If the experiment addresses a fundamental flaw in the paper, fine – but I worry that this is not often the case.

Moreover, granting and funding agencies have “go to” people for peer review and one of the worst things they’ve done recently is made these panels public before applications are submitted. The “followers” will study these panels, look for what they’ve published and how they think and write their application to meet these criteria. Some people call this good strategic planning, I call it a unfortunate side effect of the need to survive. Again, we risk squeezing out the good novel ideas.

The challenge going forward must therefore be to create a scientific research environment where the pressure to publish falls a distant second to new idea generation and development of the human capital. At this juncture though, careers depend on papers, so scientists will do what it takes to get published…  sadly this all too often means towing the party line and not really exploring new ideas.

There are some interesting models out there for how to tackle this and I’ll be exploring those in future articles – for now though, ask yourself how representative our current system is when we often rely on the judgment of two to three experts chosen by a single journal editor or funding agency…

How to build Canada’s science and technology infrastructure

Posted on August 5, 2014 by


Government support of research and development should focus on expanding its ability to engage in early basic research, where justification for government intervention is strongest, while incentivizing programs that will help bring these discoveries to market. To better appreciate this point we need look no further than across our largest border. Over the last three decades American universities have taken on a greater role in research and development as many large corporations have shut down or repurposed their central research laboratories.

Bell Labs (a subsidiary of AT&T until 1995) is an excellent example. Founded in 1925, Bell Labs built the world’s most advanced and reliable telecommunications networks due to seminal scientific discoveries initially funded by a government grant of 50,000 Francs (~$250,000 in current dollars) awarded by the French government to Alexander Graham Bell in 1880. Because so much of their results spilled over to other firms and industries, the incentive for Bell Labs to continue to perform this kind of foundational, generic research began to wane as competition in the telecommunications industry arose in the 1980s and 1990s. In response, Bell Labs was restructured to focus on more incremental technological improvements with shorter-term payoffs.

Like Bell Labs, American companies have since continued to shift their corporate research and development to later-stage applied research and development in response to competition pressures, and between 1991 to 2008 basic research as a share of total corporate research and development funding in the United States had fallen by 3.2%, while applied research had fallen by 3.7%. In contrast, development’s share has increased by 6.9% (from the National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2010, appendix tables 4-7, 4-8, 4-9 and 4-10).

This is not only true of the U.S. but of Canada as well:

“Today, more than ever, successful innovations come from companies involved in partnership arrangements, whether with other firms or with knowledge institutions. This is a significant change from 40 or 50 years ago, when innovations generally came from large firms acting on their own.

In short, the innovation landscape has changed. And the rate of change is accelerating.”

- The Honourable Gary Goodyear (Minister of State, Science and Technology), 12th Annual Re$earch Money Conference. April 9, 2013

The prioritization of investment toward shorter-term, less fundamental research, such as ispresently being implemented by the Canadian government, stifle innovation by shrinking the knowledge pool that sustain later-stage research and development pipelines. In the U.S., universities currently perform 56% of all basic research, compared to 38% in 1960, which they pass on to the private sector in the form of patents. Between 1991 and 2009, licensing income in the U.S. increased from $1.9 million per institution to $13 million per institution, and new start-ups formed as a result of university research increased from 212 in 1994 to 685 in 2009 (see Richard Kordal, Arjun Sanga and Reid Smith, eds., AUTM Licensing Activity Survey: FY2009 Summary: A Survey Summary of Technology Licensing (and Related) Activity for U.S. Academic and Nonprofit Institutions and Technology Investment Firms; and Robert D. Atkinson and Scott M. Andes, The 2008 State New Economy Index:  Benchmarking Economic Transformation in the States.

The Expert Panel on Federal Support to Research and Development highlights this point by explaining that “the strength of the justification [for public support of research and development] declines as research activities progress through the various stages leading to commercialization – i.e., from basic research through to applied research, experimental development, and commercialization. The benefits of these successive activities are progressively more likely to be captured by the research and development performer, and there is correspondingly less likelihood of ‘spill-over’ to the larger economy.”

The Canadian government could not be better positioned to revitalize its science policy. Canadian postsecondary education is already recognized worldwide for its excellence, Canada presently graduates significantly more high-calibre research PhDs than it can gainfully employ, and the recent combination of automatic spending cuts the American public instituted to their federal budget this year, deadlocked Congress, and the diminishing support by the American government for the basic sciences has created a unique opportunity for Canada to reverse the brain-drain and establish itself as a world leader in knowledge market. By investing in more independent research positions that foster linkages between public and private sectors, re-evaluating the role scientists play in primary research institutions, restructuring patent laws to better reflect scientist contributions and incentive academics to partner with private companies to bring products to market, it is possible to leverage existing scientific infrastructure, bridge existing disconnects between research and development, and sling-shot Canadian innovation in the high technology sector into a dominant global role to drive economic growth in this country.

The Council of Canadian Academies ranked Canada’s science and technology as fourth in the world behind the U.S., the U.K. and Germany. It is time we start aiming for number one. Let this be this administration’s legacy.

Quarterly summary: Guest blogging continues to increase – join the fun!

Posted on July 22, 2014 by

Our guest blogging has finally started to ramp up to where we are getting numerous viewpoints on the key issues affecting early career researchers. We hope this momentum will continue and the Black Hole can be a place for people to express their opinions and generate discussion.

This quarter featured the following posts:

Erika / Jenn:

Brianne Kent:


Dave was busy over at Signals blog this quarter with some science posts on stem cells:

We hope that you’ve enjoyed the diversity over the past 6 months – do feel free to let us know your thoughts at and we’ll try to continue to adapt the Black Hole to the needs of the early career researcher community.

Remember to follow on Twitter (@scienceadvocacy) and join the Facebook group to get up to date posts and other ramblings. We hope our readers are enjoying summer to its fullest extent!

Basic research still the best bet to boost S&T innovation

Posted on July 2, 2014 by

In 2010 the federal government of Canada established an Expert Panel on Federal Support to Research and Development to provide advice on maximizing the effectiveness of federal support for basic research. To sustain the current level of prosperity Canada enjoys among first-world nations and maintain competitiveness in an increasingly challenging global context, the report specifies that significant advances are necessary in areas such as advanced materials, health, environmental sciences, and information and communications technologies (collectively classified as “high technology”).

Nevertheless, weak performance in business innovation and productivity growth (traditionally defined by BERD intensity) suggest that Canada is not well positioned to be an innovation leader. Among the report’s wide-ranging recommendations were a greater emphasis on direct support for business innovation, simplified program delivery and better access to risk capital for high-growth innovative firms.

There is good reason to be an innovation leader in the high technology industry. In the United States basic research has had an enormous impact on standard of living. A report by Edwin Mansfield cataloging the impact of academic research and industrial innovation on economic growth (Edwin Mansfield, “Academic Research and Industrial Innovation: An Update of Empirical Findings,” Research Policy 26, no. 7 (1998): 773-776) found that the social rate of return from investment in academic research was at least 40%. Likewise, a more recent study by the Science Coalition (Sparking Economic Growth: How Federally Funded University Research Creates Innovation, New Companies and Jobs, 2010) showed that “companies spun out of research universities have a far greater success rate than other companies.” Examples include Google, Medtronic and iRobot.

While these studies have provided the justification for public support of business research and development, the Expert Panel on Federal Support to Research and Development notes that “this justification is most compelling in instances where the activity is not likely to yield immediate profits or other benefits that can be limited to the individual research and development-performing firm, yet holds potential for longer-term benefits for society at large. Thus, the justification for government intervention is strongest in the case of basic research activities.”

Although the federal government appears to have understood that Canada’s long-term economic growth will be driven by science and innovation, their actions indicate otherwise. Doubling the size of the Industrial Research Assistance Program, shifting the funding priorities of the National Research Council away from basic research toward in favour of services that are driven by market and industry demand, promoting innovation through government procurement, investing in venture capital, and streamlining the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program) all fail to target basic early-stage research activities where justification for government intervention is strongest. Indeed, federal funding of the institutional costs of research for Canada’s universities average 23.3%, while the United States, United Kingdom and Australia provide 40-60%.

Federal stimulus packages designed to reposition Canada as an innovation leader should instead focus on expanding Canada’s ability to engage in early basic research while incentivizing programs that will help bring these discoveries to market. My next post will address how Canada can leverage this knowledge to strengthen its science and technology infrastructure.

The baby gap – who was that postdoc anyway?

Posted on June 16, 2014 by

Editor’s note: A few weeks back, Jenn and Erika shared their stories about being postdoctoral moms (here and here). Today the stories continue with a point by point entry and a Q & A response on the major challenges associated with the period away from the lab… 

A blank year on the CV
Child-rearing is an “acceptable delay” in training, and does not count towards eligibility requirements for Canadian federal fellowship funding opportunities – problem sorted right? Au contraire, friends, since private foundations and/or international positions do not always specify whether parental leave will count towards any limits in your post-PhD training period. However, even if the gap is explained in this way it also means that elements of your personal life will be made clear to prospective reviewers and employers. Legally this should not have an impact on their decisions to fund or hire you, but many debates have been sparked here and elsewhere as to how safely one can assume it will not factor into the decision.

Interrupted opportunities
Grant cycles, manuscript submission processes, field seasons, abstract deadlines and conferences…  the list goes on. Many of these elements will be “in progress” at the beginning or end of a parental leave. There are no specific guidelines on how to accommodate for this while you are away on leave, and it will depend on your situation and your supervisor. Erika will address this specifically in an upcoming post about the need for travel funding for postdocs on or returning from parental leave.

Science progresses
The work will carry on both in your lab and elsewhere. What happens to your project will depend on your supervisor and how quickly your particular research area is advancing. Perhaps it is reasonable to put the experiments on hold and wait for a year, or perhaps the collection of highly specialized models used for your project simply cannot ramp down and then back up in a year, or maybe you or your supervisor want to keep the data coming in with or without you. These are all highly individual issues that may require substantial coordination with your lab mates and supervisor, or even some personal sacrifice to ensure your departure has minimal effect on your success as a postdoc when you return. At the moment postdocs are on their own in mediating these potentially complicated issues, so in all likelihood a significant amount of flexibility will be required on their part to minimize the impact of up to 12 months of leave.  Hopefully you might get the same flexibility from your university, supervisor and lab mates – hopefully….

So what is it like to be away for a year?

Jenn: Honestly, I left on my last day with a tremendous sense of sadness, knowing I would never be the same when I came back. This is perhaps not the typical response for moms-to-be on their last days of work before parental leave! Many friends inquired that I must feel pleased to be finished with work for a while, to take a break. But that is just not how I felt. I really enjoy my job, the science and my colleagues. I liked the freedom of being able to work weekends and evenings, and never minded putting in long hours. Work was near the very top of my priority list, and I knew that was about to change and I had uneasy feelings about it. Many moms out there in the blogosphere have discussed the fact that, while we may have chosen (or struggled) to have a family and are thrilled and excited to become parents, it represents such a physical and life change that we can also experience a sense of loss for our former lives and lifestyles.

Overall, I’m pleased to report that it wasn’t as difficult to be away as I had anticipated. Once I had two infants to deal with, the lab rapidly faded into the background, which was comfortable enough since I knew it would reappear on my horizon. Having twins possibly forced me into essentially cutting off my “old” life more thoroughly than I had planned, and I enjoyed the elements of my new life as a mom (of course, I did not get around to writing that review though!) I did keep in touch with the odd email or contribution to writing, and even attended an important group meeting with a collaborator, with sleeping babies in tow in the stroller. I was keen to start poking around in the lab again as soon as was reasonable. My husband had a flexible schedule and therefore six months after the birth of my twins I was able to return to work one day per week while he was at home.

The government of Canada encourages a part-time return to work for folks on parental leave, as you may earn up to 25 percent of your weekly EI benefit without having anything deducted. Unfortunately UBC does not permit paid part-time work while on parental leave, despite the government policy, so it is dependent on your institution regulations. I was able to work it out with my supervisor that I would put in those days and when I returned to work I would start at four days per week until the time was made up in lieu. I was extremely motivated to keep my foot in the door at the lab, it was completely my choice, and I believe it made my transition back to full time work easier for myself and my family, as well as for the lab. Leaving the kids at home is a whole other kind of struggle, but I was on my way to finding a balance.

Erika: Having a baby doesn’t just impact your productivity for the duration of your parental leave. Every pregnancy is different and researcher activities differ widely. For example, I am a biologist who does both lab and field work that can involve dangerous chemicals and heavy lifting. I also had a high-risk pregnancy, was extremely ill during my first trimester and was on periodic bed rest in the second and third trimester. When I got pregnant I essentially stopped all lab work and only did very light field work on a couple of occasions. Instead, I focused on data analysis and writing manuscripts. I managed to submit four manuscripts while I was pregnant, which meant that I had four papers come out while I was on mat leave (making it look like I was still “productive” during that time).

Before I had my son, I had big plans to continue working on manuscripts in the evening once he was asleep, do data analysis during naps, catch up on reading papers while breastfeeding. Yahhhh…not so much! My son was not a good sleeper and I was up with him three to four times a night until he was over nine months-old. That being said, science doesn’t stop just because you are on maternity leave. I did manage to edit manuscripts from co-authors, submit revisions for manuscripts and even apply for a couple jobs. My philosophy was to turn down all reviewer requests and only focus on very important, time sensitive tasks. I decided to return to work two days a week once my son was 10 months-old in order to ease back into research. I really missed science and was just itching to get back into the swing of things. I’m really glad I did that because it gave me some extra flexibility for the first couple months once I returned to work full-time.

Other parents have different experiences entirely. Some babies sleep through the night by eight weeks and take 2.5 hour naps twice a day, so you may still be able to do a bit of work. Other babies may wake every hour for months on end. Some babies get sick and you may end up taking frequent, terrifying trips to the hospital. Again, you can’t predict how things will go for you. Just do your best and try to enjoy this time.

Our wish list – give support to postdocs taking leave.

  • Permit postdocs the choice to work part time. This allows them to add to their salary, to keep in contact with the lab, and to remain productive if they are interested in doing so. It may also be particularly useful in research professions where experiments, grant cycles and manuscript submissions may stretch on for months and may overlap with leave time.
  • Universities should offer some dedicated paternity leave – as in Quebec where five weeks are available – such that men may partake in the benefits of being at home with their brand new babies, and that taking leave for family reasons becomes less of a gender-specific issue. (Point of clarification: Maternity leave = 17 weeks of paid leave for new mothers; Parental leave = 35 weeks of paid leave for new parents that can be taken by either the mother or the father; Paternity leave = suggested period for new fathers to be taken shortly after babies are born).
  • Set up supportive IT services to permit postdocs to access data and libraries remotely. Note that Elsevier provides postdocs free access to books and journals on ScienceDirect for up to six months, which could be useful for postdocs on parental leave who are also between positions.
  • The creation of an Ombudsman would be helpful for mediating difficulties with individual lab policies regarding project allocations, and other circumstance-specific difficulties for postdocs and graduate students who take parental leave.

Things that worked for us:

  • Love it or hate it, productivity is primarily measured by publications and secondarily by conference presentations/invited presentations. Before you go on parental leave, submit as many manuscripts as possible. Offer to give guest lectures and departmental seminars.
  • Collaborate with people who will continue working with minor input from you while you are busy incubating and raising your baby.
  • Try to generate a backlog of data that is ready to be written up once you get pregnant, or when you return to work. This can help sustain you while you get new experiments started, plan field work etc…
  • Surround yourself with supportive, family-friendly people.
  • Find other parents who are in a similar situation. You need all the support and understanding you can get, especially during those early months.
  • Keep your expectations in check. Other parents can be particularly useful with feedback in this regard. It is very difficult to predict how much and what kind of work you will be able to do once you are pregnant or you have a happy / colicky / good sleeping / terrible sleeping / multiple-baby family at home!
  • Participate as much as you comfortably can, both in your work life and in your new parent life – there is much to be gained from both experiences, and they will impact each other.

What do readers think? Share your tips and ideas for supporting postdocs in the comment section below…