The Postpartum Interview

Today’s guest contributor is currently a postdoctoral fellow in New York City. She holds a PhD in Neuroscience, and her research interests include neuroanatomy and psychiatric disease. She has posted with us previously and is back in a two-part series to share her experiences with different job interviews around the time she became a new mother.

This past spring, I landed two phone interviews– one in academia, and one at a medical communications firm. The complication: I was 9 months pregnant at the time.

The phone interviews went well. When I was asked to come in person, I told both interviewers I was pregnant, due in a matter of weeks. The folks at the academic job said they were eager to fill the position, that there was some urgency, and asked me to get in touch as soon as I had given birth so we could schedule an interview then.

My beautiful baby came screaming into the world three days after his due date. We had some complications, but, while still in the hospital, I emailed the academic job to tell them my baby had arrived. They responded with a few potential dates I could come in to interview. The first date was only days away; the latest date was exactly 3 weeks after I had given birth. I agreed to come at that date. I didn’t get the impression that it would be acceptable to ask for a later date.

A few days passed before my baby was discharged from the hospital, and, thankfully (so thankfully), was pronounced healthy. Over the next few weeks, my husband and I passed through the typical but brutal hazing ritual that is early parenthood. Sleepless days and nights blurred together and were equal parts both immense gratitude for our precious child and immense fear we were going to accidentally do something to harm his impossibly tiny body.

Our sleep deprivation was unprecedented. Our newborn son wasn’t able to sleep on his own and cried continuously unless he was being rocked in our arms, walked around outside, or being driven in the car, so it wasn’t possible to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’. I had no idea I could actually survive on so little rest– instead of my normal 7 hours a night, I was getting around 7 hours of sleep in a week as my son alternated between crying and breastfeeding.

The interview date crept closer. Four days before its scheduled date, the director contacted me with a request that I prepare a talk on work I’d done years prior. So, in 20 minute intervals while my son napped or my husband rocked him, I pieced together Powerpoint slides from old talks I’d given, annoyed that this request hadn’t come in sooner.

The night before the interview, I discovered I still couldn’t fit into any of my pre-pregnancy professional clothes but my maternity clothes hung off me like overstretched Lycra bags. In a brain-fogged panic, I managed to get to a Banana Republic before it closed and handed a saleswoman my credit card in exchange for a grey sweater-dress.

The morning of the interview, my husband took my son out of the house for a walk at 6AM. I practiced my talk for an hour and slept for two, until my husband had to bring him back to be fed at 9AM. Those two hours were the longest uninterrupted stretch of sleep I had gotten since he was born.

My husband drove me to my interview with our newborn in the back seat and a bottle containing a few ounces of breastmilk I’d managed to pump. I hadn’t been given an itinerary so I wasn’t sure how long the day would be. My husband planned to drive the baby around while I was interviewing and I promised to text him with updates as often as I could.

The day started with my presentation. I didn’t have the energy to be nervous, and I surprised myself at how sensible I sounded. Feedback was very positive, and the questions were intelligent. I was then given the itinerary and discovered the rest of the day would proceed in a series of 5 one-hour interviews with various members of the department, followed by a meeting with an HR rep.

A department administrator toured me around the sprawling building. I trailed slowly behind her, finding it difficult to keep up. Between interviews, I went into the bathroom, where I texted my husband for updates on our son, changed the hospital-grade pads I was wearing as I was still bleeding profusely from the birth, attempted to relieve my painfully engorged breasts, and checked that none of my bodily fluids had soaked through my clothes.

Outside the building, my husband drove in circles around the parking lot for hours in the rain while our son cried and slept in his carseat.

The interviews were fairly standard and I think, if I weren’t so exhausted, I would have enjoyed talking science with the group. The only thing that caught me slightly unprepared was an interviewer who grilled me about brands and comparative prices of equipment and reagents I’d used in the past, but I diffused his line of questioning by telling him about cost-saving modifications to a protocol, which I later sent in a follow-up email.

Before I left, I met with the director, who thanked me for coming in so soon after giving birth, reiterated the urgency to fill the position, and told me they would let me know their hiring decision in the upcoming weeks.

Weeks, however, turned into months and spring warmed into summer. My son learned, blessedly, to sleep independently, outgrew his newborn clothes, and gave me his first unforgettable smile. I healed.

I sent emails with gentle enquiries as to the status of the hiring process. Various reasons for the delay were given: the director was on vacation, there was a grant deadline… as of this writing, no one has yet been hired although the job advertisement has been taken down. Clearly, the urgency to fill the position that mandated a candidate interview 3 weeks postpartum has evaporated.

A number of unanswerable questions lurk in my thoughts: Did I not do as well as I could have? Would it have gone better if I had asked to come in at a later date, when I was physically and mentally closer to my normal self? Did my status as a new mother influence the hiring decision (or lack thereof)? Was the hiring committee (all males) unaware of the endurance test they were putting me through, or was it a purposeful test of my dedication to my career?

And: Is academia, where it’s acceptable to expect a candidate to go through a grueling interview process 3 weeks postpartum, really a viable choice for my/our future?

Still, I’m glad I interviewed– even though the process tested my physical, intellectual, and emotional limits, I learned just how far my limits extend, and I know I would have regretted it if I hadn’t given it all I had for the professional opportunity this job presented. However, the experience left me with doubts about committing to a career in a field where such an ordeal would be asked for and expected of an applicant. Certainly, given the oversupply of PhDs and demand for academic jobs, this is par for the course. In this economic climate, department heads could probably line up flaming hoops for aspirational candidates to jump through on the lawns of their institutions, and we’d do it (and it would likely be the easiest part of the interview).

But is this a healthy field to continue to work in?

Next in the series: The interview question I was completely unprepared for

11 responses so far

  • I interviewed 6 weeks after an emergency c-section, so I definitely understand how awful your postpartum interview was. In my case, they did hire a different candidate, so it wasn't a pointless "hurry up and come" scheduling thing, but I still wondered if it was the timing, the life situation, or something else more in my control that led to that outcome. It sucks that you may have gotten jerked around like that, but I've been involved with failed searches before, so there are many reasons why that might be so.

    When it comes to consideration for people as people, I think that the main problem is the US work culture, and not academia per se. I know several people who interviewed at VERY inconvenient times (medical, pregnancy, and otherwise) because they really wanted the job, mostly outside of academia. For most industry positions I am familiar with, they interview until they hire. So if you want the job, you interview at their convenience. Or you take your chances that there will be an opening at a better time for you. US work culture treats people like interchangeable drones with no outside life. Academia is no different in this regard.

    Unfortunately, women bear the brunt of this, since they are the ones who get pregnant and breastfeed, and also are the ones most likely to have eldercare and childcare responsibilities outside of human biology.

  • EPJ says:

    Maybe, I've considered, that it is due to a convenient reduction of academia workforce since the money available for true higher education is rather dedicated to something else that is fitting to non-human plans.

    When you think about it in metaphoric terms it is like fertility at the faculty level is not wanted there, and that is a way to spread the subliminal message. And that is all what 'they' can do, be nice, but the message is forced through.

    Or that only a few selected individuals will occupy those positions because they bring benefits unrelated to the actual science and teaching and more to something else, like money.

    But all this misery of a situation can be fixed quick, there are even laws already written to handle treasury in the correct benefit of the population, and I think for more than 2 presidents.

    So go a find out at least some of what is going on about that.

  • peirama says:

    Congratulations on your baby and on getting interviews!

    How you were treated at your interview makes me really upset. I can see reasons for the school to bring you in at a specific time (although their later foot-dragging makes this less credible). However, they knew that they were bringing you out at a time when you had special needs, and they should have been accommodating. There should have been a schedule ahead of time. There should have been a time and place for pumping or breastfeeding. How can anyone expect mothers to want to be in academia when they can't even pretend to be family friendly for the interview!

  • Arlenna says:

    Oh my god, it is awful that they were so, SO insensitive to what you would need. I think I would not want to work with those people even if they did offer me a job--but I also know how this transition time feels and how you just don't know what will work out. I'm so sorry that you had to experience this, and I hope that you will get more interviews in much better places (academic or not!) where people act like non-asshole humans.

  • DJMH says:

    Ditto what Arlenna said. But I'd also add--a good way to find out if a prospective job is with a company you want to be with, is to ask them to intersperse pumping breaks into your schedule on an interview day. If they can't cope with that, you don't want to be around them anyhow.

    It's ok to ask for accommodation on an interview, as long as you're willing to accept that you may not get the job because of it if the people are horrors.

  • psywguest says:

    @prodigalacademic: Agreed, I realize US work culture can be fairly brutal in general and academia unfortunately isn't alone in its demands. I've heard similar tales from the fields of law and finance. But I can only speak from my own experience, and mine was in academia. I also found my experience egregious and a bit ironic for two reasons: 1) there is a LOT of lip service about needing more women in the upper echelons of academic science, and 2) I'm a biologist. You'd think that the intellectual knowledge biologists possess about human childbirth and its aftermath would perhaps at some level inform postpartum treatment but this didn't seem to translate.

    It may also bear mentioning that academia doesn't pay particularly well and, in contrast with other highly competitive fields, hiring a 24/7 postpartum support team is not an option for most postdocs.

    Regardless, just because things are this way doesn't mean they have to stay this way. I have reason to believe change is in the wind, and I hope that this wind sweeps out the stale corridors of academia. Stay tuned for next week's post...

    @EPJ: Yes, human reproductive biology does seem to be considered a female liability by many of those in the position to hire faculty. But intentional or implicit discrimination against such an enormous swath of the demographic in a field that researches human health can't be good for anyone. We should have learned this much at least from Tuskeegee.

    @peirama: Thank you!!! Motherhood rocks :).

    Yes, these accommodations should have been made. But I'm not sure they even occurred to the all-male search committee, and I felt, as the interviewee, that I was in too vulnerable a position to assert myself. However, should I ever find myself on the other side of this equation (or even on the sidelines of the process), I'll certainly speak up to make sure that the candidate's needs are met. These needs will vary for every mother/baby dyad in those early weeks but it should be recognized that it's not typically an easy time, and certain small considerations can make a large difference.

  • Dave says:

    As a male who has a 4 month old, I would prefer not to interview you so soon after birth. It's an incredibly important time that no job interview should compete with. It's ridiculous that were not more accommodating.

    And although I think you're right, I don't understand how dudes can be so insensitve, especially if they have been through the process themselves.

    Finally, I would move on. Doesn't sound like this job is yours.

  • psywguest says:

    @DJMH/Arlenna: Thanks for the words of support :). Although ideally I'd prefer not to work with a group that showed such a low level of empathy, the job description here looked like it had been tailored to my CV and it was within an easy commute from my husband's current job. It was the needle in a haystack... so, yeah, I probably would have interviewed even if Donald Trump and a resurrected Gaddafi were on the committee.

    I also figure that if I'm going to enact change in policy and/or perception, far easier to do so from a (tenured) position of power than as a relatively powerless postdoc.

    @Dave: Do you think this is a generational thing? I feel that fathers in our generation are sooo much more engaged, both with their partners and their children. There were a number of fathers and grandfathers on the search committee, but none had children under college-age.

  • Tim says:

    I think you should have taken the infant to the interview, and breastfed when needed. Normalise child bearing and child rearing.

    Toddler, no. 3 week old, yes.

    If I were organising an interview for someone I knew had just given birth, I would have misgivings if she turned up without the baby.

    Disclaimer: I am male, 49 years old, halfway through my PhD, not in the US, and never going to be invited to such an interview. And certainly never going to be conducting such an interview. My children are 4 and almost 2, and my wife and my sisters in law breastfeed wherever and whenever the babies want it.

  • In re-reading my comment, I realize I come across as unsympathetic. I apologize for that--the place you interviewed at sucked. For my post-partum interview, InterviewU knew I had recently given birth. When they scheduled the interview, they asked me if I needed anything before setting up the schedule, so I asked for (and received) 20-30 minute breaks every 2.5 to 3 hours to pump. I was stationed in a private locked office alone, and was able to wash up afterwards before continuing the interview. It was still incredibly exhausting (and awful to be away from my new baby--I had to fly far for the interview), but I did feel like the University at least made some attempt to accommodate my needs.

    A few years earlier, I went on industrial interviews where I had to sign things saying that I understood that people at the worksite had a higher than normal chance of miscarriage before doing the interview. Some places are good for their employees, some places treat their employees like crap. It is the general work culture, I think, and not anything unique to academia. It is one of the reasons why we interview--I would rather not have an academic job than work someplace soul destroying. Unfortunately, I think the work culture change is very, very slow. The big recession didn't help, since it let employers put more pressure on their employees to accept unreasonable demands. I am less optimistic about this than you are.

  • psywguest says:

    @Tim... I wouldn't have been allowed to interview if I brought my baby with me. It isn't culturally or professionally acceptable here in the US-- I can only imagine the looks of horror and shock on their faces if I had done so, as they radioed a security guard to escort me and baby out the door! 🙂 So cool that you live somewhere that this might not be met with absolute intolerance. It's absolutely beyond the pale here.

    @ProdigalAcademic- no apologies necessary! Wow, flying away from your 6-week old must have been incredibly difficult. I am glad to hear, however, that you were asked if any accommodations could be provided on your behalf. That question was never posed to me.

    I know change is slow, but I hold out a genuine hope that, as our generation advances to leadership roles, we'll create a more normalized work environment. I personally wouldn't model the behavior I've been subject to and observed in academia, terms of failing to address the human needs of staff. This sort of behavior creates a dysfunctional environment, burnout, and hemorrhaging of talent.

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