Archive for: September, 2016

Part-time work in academia

Having it all can be a bit controversial. You can have it, or you can’t have it, you should have it or you shouldn’t.

I’m pretty sure I don’t want it all, but I do want a little bit of everything. Which brings us to a recent development in my career, part time work.

I personally feel that the current standard for work, either 40 hours a week or work as much as you can fit in without completely losing it, is for the most part unnecessary, unhelpful, and unsustainable for a happy and productive life. In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now we would be working much shorter weeks, perhaps as low as 15 hour work weeks*. Studies have shown that a 6 hour work day increases health without decreasing productivity **. So why do we continue to do it? There are a number of practical reasons and a number of cultural reasons. Universal healthcare would go a long way toward changing the practical reasons, though of course there are other hurdles. What about the cultural reasons? How does one change a culture? What if we ignore the societal pressures and find a way to make it work for ourselves?

My interest in part time doesn’t mean that I am not interested in working. It just means that there are only so many hours in a day and in a week and I’d like to spend more of those with my children. They grow so fast and I am afraid I am going to regret having spent so much time at work when they’re older. I also need time to maintain my health and make sure I’m sane enough to enjoy my time with them and be patient with myself and my family.

So after talking myself out of it for over a year, I recently took the plunge. I realized (with some help from a University provided therapist – definitely something every school should have and promote) that nothing was ever going to feel like the perfect decision and sometimes you just have to treat life as an experiment and try things. So I ignored all of my doubts, summoned my courage, and walked into my PI’s office.

“I’d like to request to work 4 days a week 80% time,” I said. “Can I think about it?” he replied.

I waited anxiously from the morning until I saw him leave for the day at 5pm. All night I stressed. Is he going to fire me? Is he going to say yes? What will I do if he says no?

I got summoned to his office the next morning. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” he told me. He proceeded to explain how he knew many of the most prominent women-in-science thought leaders in the country. The thing they’d ask, he said, was what I want for my career. So before he would give me his answer he wanted me to answer this question.

“Why,” I asked, “have you not asked me this before? I have been a postdoc for over four years. Why is it important now when it hasn’t been before?” He said some things about how he’s talked about it with other people in the lab*** but did not answer the question. He told me he that he had an answer that he thought I’d like but he didn’t want to tell me until after we had the discussion about my future. He said not to tell him now but to think about it. So off I went. To think about my future. Because that’s something that had never occurred to me to do until he asked. Obviously.

The next day, despite my fears of him not taking me seriously, I admitted that I did not think that the amount of time I wanted to commit to my family was compatible with being a PI. To my relief, and my chagrin, he agreed. He commented that when he was a young father he spent no time with his children. He questioned how the only person in the lab still considering tenure track, a woman with a young child, does it.

My mind revolted and split in two. I am pro women in science! I am as passionate about that as I am about science! Mothers should be able to be successful professors! Am I living up to a terrible stereotype? What am I doing? But…thank goodness he isn’t rejecting me for not being on the path to tenure track.

Once we got this discussion out of the way he told me his plan, a 3 month trial of the 80% schedule. If everything goes well, if I am productive, we will continue that way. So that is where I am. Three weeks in I am loving the arrangement.

I want to have a positive impact on the next generation of scientists. I do not, however, want to be a successful principal investigator at the cost of my quality of life. I hope instead I can help to make part-time science more mainstream in my own little way. When the goal is not “freedom at any cost” but instead “reasonable flexibility” the gains are smaller and the precise definition of “a win” is more vague. If I can be productive at this level and go on to have a successful career in something, I hope I can provide a positive example of of a balance that works for me.

 

*https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/sep/01/economics

**http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-10/the-six-hour-workday-works-in-europe-what-about-america

***How is this relevant to me?


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I get it now: Reflections of a seasonal stay at home mom

I used to balk at the prospect of staying at home with my child. My mother in-law has frequently and less than gently suggested and touted the benefits of staying home with her own small children. “I’m a busy body,” I would respond, and “I like to feel like I have value outside the home.” I frequently reposted articles to Facebook that touted the benefits of staying in the workforce, partially to reinforce my decision. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/how-much-does-it-cost-to-leave-the-workforce-to-care-for-a-child-a-lot-more-than-you-think/). I’d vehemently disagree when people argued that childcare is too expensive to allow them to work. (Here’s my math: 2 kids in daycare at an average of $1,000/month is $24,000 dollars a year: A lot of money, definitely, but certainly not more than the annual income of many of my colleagues.)

I work part time as a high school teacher. I love the work, but the pay (especially as a part-timer) is admittedly low. Many perks counterbalance my small paycheck. Among these are ample breaks; I get every holiday off, plus two weeks at Christmas, a week for spring break and 10 weeks off in the summer. I cherish these breaks, both for my own sanity and the precious time with my small daughter (and soon to arrive baby boy!).

The first few weeks of summer, I often feel antsy. I frantically clean the house during naptime and create projects for myself. I organize, weed the yard and bake healthy muffins. Within a few weeks, though, my toddler and I get into the groove. I read books, listen to podcasts and frequent the neighborhood park. I make regular trips to Target, and we never run out of diapers or paper towels. I make dinner every night, get the laundry done at a non-frantic pace, and get us packed and unpacked from a multitude of summer trips. When my husband gets home in the evening, instead of flitting around the house to finish our chores and prepare for the next day as we do during the school year, we spend quality time together. We reflect on our days and plan for our future. We pour over the unreasonable number of photos and videos of our daughter I’ve accumulated in a short 10 hours, and climb into bed content instead of exhausted. My husband recently commented, “I feel like I’m on break, too,” despite working 55+ hours per week.

As a result, this summer, I have for the first time really, truly understood why many families choose to have one parent stay home (and I don’t think it’s usually financial). With one of us home, our relationship is better and our life is less stressful. We have time to chat about our days and energy to go out to dinner occasionally just the two of us (without feeling like our daughter lives in childcare).

I’m certainly not ready to leave the workforce. A lifetime of internal dialogue regarding the benefits of working when combined with a deep love for my work in science education is not outweighed by my recent revelations. However, I vow to be relinquish my previously judgment over those who choose to do this life differently than I have and to be more open minded. Maybe one day I’ll be a full time stay at home mom. Or maybe I’ll work full time. But for now, I’m thankful for this season.


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The Interview Question I Was Completely Unprepared For

Sep 06 2016 Published by under industry vs academia, Interview, job search, motherhood

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.

At 9 months pregnant, I had two promising phone interviews. One was for an academic job. The other was for a medical communications firm.

Given my advanced pregnancy, and how unpredictable babies’ arrivals can be, my contact at the medical communications firm decided not to attempt to schedule a formal interview, and instead she proposed we meet and talk at a coffee shop after work one evening.

She bought us both hot chocolates, and we found a quiet place to talk. I’d researched as much as I could about the firm, but was still surprised when she told me about the breadth of work that comprised medical communications. It was, as I was aware, communication of drug information in a comprehensive way to the public and prescribing physicians. But, as I learned, it also encompassed communication about science to clinicians to inform trial design, presenting clinical data to businessmen and women, and even branched into regulatory affairs. I found myself growing increasingly excited about the potential impact I could have in this career field, and how much I could learn.

But then she gently turned the questions to me, pressing for information about my own background and career thus far. All went well and fairly predictably until she asked me a question I never anticipated.

“What can we do to support you in your role as a new mother?”

“I’m sorry?” I responded, thinking, ‘This is a trick question!’

“Well, if we go forward with this, we’d want to make this position work for you. We want to provide the support necessary for you to be successful here. What do you think you would need from us?”

I think I opened and closed my mouth a few times. I just could not think of what to say.

“Do you think you would want to start part-time?” she prompted, “Or maybe work from home a few days a week?”

I was floored. Was this not a trick question? Was she seriously asking me? In all the discussions I’d had at work as a postdoc, despite having successfully obtained salary support for myself through a fellowship and obtained additional grants for my research, no one had ever asked what professional support I would need through my pregnancy and transition into motherhood. Even though my friends and colleagues congratulated me on a personal level, my pregnancy was largely framed as a liability– something that we could overcome if I were productive enough. Despite the massive changes to my personal life, life in lab rolled along the same as it ever had. If anything, I felt pressure to work harder to prove I was still dedicated and as capable as I ever was– and I honestly think my lab was better than most in terms of their treatment of a pregnant postdoc.

So I had never considered the question before. And I was still speechless.

She smiled, “Well, why don’t you think about it? I’m sure it’s hard to know now how your life will change over the next few months!”

We wrapped up our talk, and she proposed I get back in touch once I was ready and had taken some time to adjust to motherhood.

Reflecting on the interview afterwards, the way the question was framed was also intriguing to me. Essentially, she was saying that if I weren’t successful, her department wouldn’t be as successful as it could be either– so, if I needed certain minor accommodations to succeed, it was in her best interest to provide them. Once I thought about it, this seemed like Management 101.

But I’ve never come across this management style in my scientific training in academia thus far, and this interview experience contrasted strikingly with my academic interview.

In fairness, academia can lend itself towards working flexible hours, which has been invaluable to me over the last few years, and now, as a working mother of an infant. But I consider myself fortunate in this benefit: not every academic job is flexible, and most academic jobs that I’m aware of, especially at the faculty level, mandate working very long hours (even when there is some flexibility about which hours those are).

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At the moment, I’m still not sure what direction my career will head in. My husband just landed his dream job in another city, so a move is on the horizon.

But after these two interviews, I think I have a better idea of what I’d like to see in an employer.


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