Archive for the 'motherhood' category

New Mom in a New Job

Jan 29 2018 Published by under academia, female scientist, motherhood, new job, postdoc

I had no idea what to expect during my first week back to work after maternity leave at a brand new job. Just before my son was born, I landed a new academic postdoc position after being ousted from my first*. The subject matter, though generally enthralling to me, is way outside the scope of my technical/intellectual expertise. And though I knew that I would be starting over and had been looking forward to it, I could not have known how that would feel once the time came.

The first few days, all of my willpower went toward the following:

— Getting my son to daycare intact

— Figuring out where/when/how to park on a campus that sells far more parking passes than it has spaces

— Figuring out where/when/how to pump in a place with no designated facilities, and in several different buildings across the campus

— Adjusting to having zero immediate colleagues who are moms**

— Relearning material that I had sort of let slip from my mind since high school

— Between a mother and son with chronic medical needs, juggling way too many medical appointments with my husband

— Learning the schedule of outside-of-lab obligations including lab-mandated seminars/dinners and fellowship-mandated meetings/workshops

— Getting home in time to feed and see my son for 5 minutes before putting him to bed

The first few days, I cried alone in the bathroom more than I expected. I absentmindedly missed turns on my way to daycare and work. I missed kissing my son goodnight twice***. I freaked out about my milk supply dropping. I put WAY too much pressure on myself to figure it all out and be productive too quickly.

Now, three weeks in, things have not calmed down much. However, I’m more familiar with my surroundings and the personalities of my colleagues. I am very slowly getting used to not seeing my baby all day every day. I am giving myself a little leeway, having kicked so much butt at everything so far (several glitches notwithstanding). It all still feels very messy and exhausting and hit-or-miss, but I’m not crying every day anymore.

 

*Though the timing felt awful, it could not have been better in the long run to leave my previous position ASAFP without burning bridges.

**Being able to talk to other moms versus dads DOES make a huge difference. Especially moms who have experienced pumping breast milk at work. This will improve as I meet people through my fellowship and in different labs.

***Since my sweet boy was sleeping through the night at that time, this absolutely broke me.

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New Year, New Job, New Working Mom: My First Week

Jan 15 2018 Published by under academia, female scientist, motherhood, new job, postdoc

Whose idea was it to start baby’s daycare and mom’s new job on the same day?

I have been a mom for 4 months. My son has been through two surgeries, chronic issues with cranial helmet therapy, gone from remarkably low to average growth percentile, and is the happiest smilin’est kid you will ever meet.

The fourth trimester was, for me, deeply harrowing. I have new-mom PTSD. Only in the last few weeks have I begun to forget how intensely off-putting some of the struggles of new motherhood have been. Only now have I begun to find my groove as a parent, and be able to thoroughly treasure every waking moment with my tiny human. This is the worst time to hand the love of my life off to a caretaker as I attempt to unearth my scientist brain and return to work.

While I was pregnant, I participated in a marathon of job interviews. I was grateful and humbled to find a new postdoctoral position, fellowship and mentor with whom I looked forward to starting fresh following maternity leave/unemployment.

My first few days have been crazy, emotional and messy. I was: late dropping off my son, later getting to work, proud to have found a place and method for pumping and storing milk (neither intuitive nor straightforward), only mildly uncomfortable around my new colleagues (none of whom have children), grateful for the kind and supportive welcome of my new mentor (who does have grown children), thrown off by already juggling my son’s and my medical appointments during the day, saved by text messages of support from a few working scientist-mom friends, exhausted and lovesick by the time I picked up my son from daycare.

My son’s first few days were long, hot and exhausting. He was: too warm in our caretaker’s home, totally happy in her arms, able to nap less than half of his usual amount (yikes), somewhat afraid of the two slightly older babies who wanted to play with him, disrupted by medical appointments on several days, and smiling sweetly when I came to pick him up. He was a champion.

I am thrilled to be once again in a laboratory environment (I think), read a few papers (with my newly altered brain) and even attend a couple seminars. In time, I hope to be able to do scientific research again. I have resolved to not let the overwhelm of my first few days determine how I feel about being a working mom. I will let myself figure that out in time.

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What’s in a name?

I defended 7 years ago this month…. and I’m still a Research Scientist 1.  I had hoped to be up for a promotion last year because I felt like I kicked butt all year. When I had my year end review, my supervisor said I did great and was up for the top merit bonus… but no mention of a promotion.  I mustered up the guts to ask how I was doing “in terms of career development” and he said “Great! You’ve only been with us for 2 years and it usually takes ~5 to get a promotion so you are right on track.”  I was bummed but I was also 5 months pregnant (and sick as a dog) so I had other things on my mind and I let it go.
It took me a little time to get back into the swing of things once I came back from leave in September.  But now I feel like I’m back and ready to take on really juicy interesting projects. I’m also looking around and seeing that other people in other departments are getting promoted and I feel like I am getting left behind. I’m starting to worry about my ability to transfer to a new company… will it be held against me that I’m still a Research Scientist 1?
Some days these thoughts/worries motivate me, make me work harder and try more.  I skip pumping sessions and pick up the baby late so I can squeeze more data out or be at a meeting hoping my presence and input might be the little bit extra to push me over the edge into an “early” promotion.  Other days not getting a promotion makes me question my ability and value as a scientist. Should I just quit and stay home with my new baby? Open an Etsy shop?  Paint?

I recently started talking with a new mentor in the Contracts and Alliances group who suggested I might be able to try out her group or Project Management. I thought about it long and hard (and after some twists and turns) I talked to my supervisor about it. He was supportive but also encouraged me to stay the course if I wanted to stay a scientist. I decided not to pursue it at this time but I still feel torn. It’s hard to move forward when I can see so many interesting options and feel under appreciated (sometimes). I think the idea of not being a scientist anymore is also really sad/scary to me… who would I be?  Would I be happier in a different profession?  For now I’m just trying my best at work and sorting through the options hoping for the patience to take the time to see how things go in the new year.


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A day in the life of a Mother-of-a-5-month-old/Scientist in biotech

Oh my goodness it’s so hard to be a working mom!  I always respected working moms but it is so much harder than everyone else makes it look!  First off, leaving my little man at daycare was really hard at first… and then it got hard again when we all got sick… and just today I got scared again because another mom in my son’s class told me that they wrap the babies in muslin and put them on their stomachs for naps-that’s not normal right???!!! Secondly, because of where we work and where the daycare is, I get to/have to do both drop off and pick up for our little guy. It really makes me evaluate how I use my time at work because I don’t want him to stay at daycare for too long (and we have a 10hour max each day). Lastly… pumping… oh man, trying to make time to pump even twice a day (30mins with set up and clean up each time) is really hard. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being a mom and I still get so much satisfaction from work. It is all worth it and I’m figuring out how to juggle everything, but it is hard. So here’s a look at a day in my life.
12am-6am wake up a million times to flip the baby back over (he can roll onto his belly but it freaks him out and he wakes up crying), or put his pacifier back in, or feed him.
6:15 wake up and give the baby his reflux medicine. Then get up and get ready for the day.
6:45 get the baby ready and feed him again.
7:15 kiss my husband goodbye and wave to the puppies (he takes care of them in the mornings) and get going
7:45 drop the baby off at daycare
8:00 get to work and get some breakfast, check and respond to emails
8:15 prep solutions etc for my experiment for the day (I’m setting up a new assay so I’m excited to get going)
9:30 stop everything to head down to the “mother’s room” to pump/read papers/email/zone out. When I first got back to work I was able to pump enough for my little guy easily in 2x/15min sessions each day. Then I got sick and my supply tanked. I was pumping 25mins 2x/day and getting only half of what he needed. Luckily I had a good sized freezer stash to hold us over (we tried to get him to take formula but wasn’t having it). I realized last week that I had also stopped eating enough for two so I’ve upped my caloric intake and voila! My supply is back, fingers crossed I can keep it up. Ps a pumping bra is essential!
10:00 head back to the lab and start my assay
12:30 finish up and head down to lunch and relax with friends
1:00 pump again.
1:30 sort through and analyze my images from the histology core
3:30 meet with a new mentor in another department – I can’t wait to tell you guys more about it in my next post!
4:15 grab my pumped milk and head out
4:30 pick up my little one
5:00 get home, give the baby meds, feed dogs, start dinner and to get some errands done while baby plays
5:15 hubby gets home and we tag team – playing with baby/dogs and getting dinner ready
5:30 eat dinner
6:00 the whole family walks the dogs up to the park and watch the sunset. 6:45 get home, get little one in the bath
7:15 all snuggle in the baby’s room, feed him while hubby reads him to sleep
7:45 pump and watch tv
8:15 prep for tomorrow. I’ve started showering at night, pulling my clothes for the next day, preping lunch and getting everything I can put by the front door, this seems to help everything go smoothly in the mornings. Get ready for bed
9:00 get into bed and unwind. Try to get some sleep before the little one wakes up, usually around 1am.


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A quick guide to interacting with a reproductively active woman in the workplace

Doc-momma

Doc Momma designs lab coats for pregnant doctors.

Most of us here at Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman have had some very awkward interactions at work before and after having a baby, which shows us that many people are not comfortable speaking with a reproductively active woman. Since being pregnant is such a physically obvious state, and very exciting for most people, others somehow feel compelled and permitted to talk about it in a way they would never get personal with anyone else. You’ll want to avoid situations like these, which actually happened to us:

Student: *looks at belly* *giggles*

Me: Hi, how are you?

Student: *looks at belly, giggles* Um, good! *giggles*


Female co-worker I’ve met briefly twice: You’re pregnant! *rubs baby belly*

Me: *eyebrow raise death glare*


Male colleague: Are you going to be breastfeeding? Where are you going to pump?

Me: Well, there’s a lactation room, so probably there.

Him: You can use my office if you want.

Me: …No, thanks. The lactation room is fine.


Colleague: Have you and your husband been watching birthing videos?  Because you need to watch them.

Me: Um, yes, a few.

Colleague: Have you watched any up close?  Because there is a lot of gross stuff that comes up when the baby is born, you both need to be prepared.


Colleague: I was right behind you walking to work today.

Me: Oh.

Colleague: You don’t look pregnant at all from the back.  But you definitely waddle.

Me: Um…


Male colleague, after complaining about how unfair it is that I am taking maternity leave: I know I’m not supposed to say stuff like this but I think it might be better if women just took 5 years off to focus and raise their kids.


Post-baby:


Male colleague: You look… *stares at belly* less…

Me: Yes, I had the baby, she’s 3 months old now!


Colleague: Weren’t you… pregnant?

Me: Yes, I had the baby, she’s 3 months old now!


Here are some tips for more comfortable interactions and avoiding getting too personal – feel free to use, share, or add your own in the comments!

 

Pregnancy

  • Take a cue from her. If she doesn’t bring up her pregnancy, maybe you shouldn’t either. It’s usually not relevant for most work situations.
  • If you must say something, make sure you’re 100% certain she is in fact pregnant. Otherwise she may not have told her boss or coworkers yet, she may not be ready to talk about it with you, and she may be offended.
  • Don’t even mention her body. Unless it’s to say “You look great!” and nothing more. Why would you do this with a co-worker under any other circumstance? And certainly don’t touch her belly. Just don’t.
  • Do not assume or suggest that your pregnant colleague is disabled. She very likely knows what she can or cannot continue to do in the workplace as her physical condition changes. If you see her in a meeting or at the lab bench, she belongs there. An offer of assistance is generally welcomed by anyone; suggestions that she should not or cannot are unwelcome.
  • Unless you are in a professional role where you can make accommodations for pregnant or lactating women in general, there is no need to ask about her plans and preparations, especially where or whether she will be breastfeeding/pumping. If you are her direct boss or genuinely think you can help, simply say, “I am here for you if you need help making accommodations during pregnancy or for lactation. You can talk to [health and safety, HR, etc.] about this as well.”
  • Family leave time is an important time for all new mothers (giving birth or otherwise), as well as fathers. You have no idea how she feels about the length of her leave or her personal struggles surrounding working and spending time with her child, so please keep your opinions about appropriate leave time to yourself.

 

Post-baby

  • Maybe people are worried that something bad happened during delivery or with the baby medically and are afraid to ask specific questions. Just keep it general: “I haven’t seen you since you were out on family leave – how is everything?” She’ll probably be happy to tell you exactly as much as she wants to about her baby.
  • Do not ask for any details regarding the birthing process. Hopefully you would not do this for any other medical procedure a colleague went through, and birth is typically even more personal.
  • Again, no comment on her body is needed beyond, “You look great!”
  • If she is pumping at work, it can be very difficult physically, emotionally, and disruptive to her work schedule. Trust that she is doing the best she can to work out her schedule, it is not a “break”, and anyone mentioning or complaining about it will not improve things and only make her feel worse about an already difficult situation. If she needs to schedule something with you around her pumping time, simply work with her like you would with any other colleague with a scheduling conflict.
  • Nothing gets older than hearing “Are you getting any sleep?” Because of course she’s not, and this goes for non-birthing parents as well. Sleep is a sensitive issue for parents of newborns. Tired doesn’t begin to explain how one feels with a brand new baby (or two babies in my case). Don’t tell a new parent that they look tired. And don’t mention to a new parent how tired you are, or on the flip side that you got to sleep in or take a nap on the weekend.

As with any colleague, try to be warm open, and understanding, and you will go far!


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A year of saying NO

I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. I realized a couple months ago when I took on a few new things, that I had pointedly avoided taking on anything new or extra for over a year – since before my baby was born. It’s advice that is often given, especially to women and people of underrepresented groups, who are likely to be asked to do a lot of extra jobs: learn how to say no; don’t wast your time on things that are not going to help advance your career; set limits at the beginning of the year for how many committees you will be on, how many papers you will review, how many conferences you will attend, etc. and then say no to any after that. And I am guilty of taking on too many of those extra things that you don’t get any career credit for – organizing a symposium, giving a lab tour, etc. When I was pregnant, I never consciously planned to not do any of those things after having a baby, but I wish I had because it worked out brilliantly. It was simply that my home life was my number one priority and I figured out what I had to get done at work each day, and did just that. Here’s what that first year back at work looked like. Day to day I worked pretty short hours. In the mornings my partner did daycare drop-off so this was my alone time and I usually ended up getting stuff done at home and going in to work later in the morning. Throughout the day I had to pump milk, cutting out ~30 minutes 3x, then 2x per day, and I am still maintaining one session a day. Then I wanted to leave work before rush hour and early enough to get a little bit of non-cranky baby time before baby bedtime. I always thought I could work a little in the evenings, but I was so tired and rarely had anything urgent enough to warrant it that I seldom did anything other than answer emails. I did spend a number of evenings applying for jobs. So that was maybe 5 solid hours of work a day for a big chunk of the year. Of course I was extremely efficient in those few hours, but while at work I just did the essentials. I ran my experiments, I helped others when needed to keep the lab/experiments running, and I wrote papers. I attended meetings and only the most relevant research or professional development seminars. The only real ‘extras’ I did were serving on a panel and picking back up facilitation of a career development group I had begun before taking my leave, things I really cared about. I did not write any grants. I did not start any new lines of research. I did not join any new groups or committees. I went to two conferences when my baby was young (with my partner and/or mother there to help take care of the baby), which I had signed up for while pregnant. I did not register for any future conferences, and I did not regret that one bit. I don’t know exactly what changed after the first year, but things started to fall into place in a way that allowed me to pick up some new things. In part, things got more routine with the baby, but I didn’t consciously think that. At the same time, some appealing opportunities arose – some funding opportunities came up that I didn’t want to pass up; some professional development opportunities seemed important enough for me to commit some time to. So now I’m working just a little bit longer days (still not more than 8 hours including evening work, on average) with less time out for pumping, and doing a few extra things. I feel good! I basically trimmed the fat from my time, and I don’t think anyone else was really affected. There was one opportunity I felt a little bad about missing that would have allowed me the opportunity to interact a little more closely with several PIs, but I couldn’t work it out with my partner’s schedule. Even including that I felt virtually no work-related guilt the whole year. I attribute this to my actions matching my priorities, something that is easier said than done. An important aspect of this was that my mindset wasn’t hugely different pre-baby – work was always just work to me – so I didn’t have a major shift in priorities or learning how to re-balance them. What about you? Would a period of saying NO to any extras help you re-prioritize?

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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).

*********

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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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


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