Archive for the 'part time work' category

Are you prepared to deal with chronic illness?

I could probably count on one hand the number of sick days I’ve used in my adult life before this year. I figured that would change when I had a baby, either to stay home with a sick kid or because I may get sick more often myself, and I was right. But I was unprepared for dealing with issues of chronic pain and illness.

I’ve had some physical issues this year that have noticeably affected my work. I haven’t had to take any sick time directly because of my illness, but I have had to take so many half days to see doctors trying to diagnose and then treat my issues, and then recently took a few days off following a treatment. And all throughout these months, so much of my time and energy outside of work has gone to dealing with the pain and doctors.

This has given me a great appreciation of what it must be like to work with a chronic illness, something I’d read about but didn’t know very much about. As much as I may have tried to hide it, I have definitely been less productive than I (or my boss) would have liked. I have missed promised deadlines, something that I never do, and finally had to tell my boss what was going on. As always, he’s been very kind and understanding, and I know how lucky I am. I even have a slight advantage (depending on the circumstances) in that my pain and the ways I’ve dealt with it are often visible with an obvious root; it can be extremely difficult for people with invisible illness (think fibromyalgia, depression) to deal with others not understanding or believing that they do in fact have an illness.

Even with a flexible schedule and sympathetic boss, I had to consider how my productivity was going to affect my job moving forward. As a postdoc, I’m expected to be in the most productive phase of my training – no classes to worry about, no teaching duties, just all research all the time! So what does it mean when I’m really not being very productive? For that matter, what is productive enough? Where would I need to draw the line, either because of my productivity or to preserve my own health, and consider taking a medical leave, going on disability, or cutting back my hours?

Then I realized that I had no idea how medical leave or disability insurance worked or what other possibilities were. And a number of reasons make it difficult to look into those things while in the midst of health issues – let alone after a traumatic accident of some sort. Sarcozona over at Tenure She Wrote recently wrote a wonderful post about some of these issues and more, and how to value and support [student] researchers with chronic illness. I think we should all take some time when we’re healthy to learn and think about how to deal when we’re not, for our own health and for times when we’re called upon to help or work with someone else like a student dealing with these issues. Talk to your HR representative, read that part of your employee/student handbook you may have glossed over, look into disability insurance – you never know when you might need the benefits suddenly!

In the meantime, take care of yourself and stay well!

 


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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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No Regrets?

My body ached, I missed them so much. After giving birth to my twin boys about four and a half years ago, I have never been away from them, not even for a single night. Sure, there were those crappy days when I went to lab before they woke up and returned home after they had gone to bed, but I have never been away from them for too long. And then all of a sudden, this year, I decided to go visit my family. In South Africa. All by myself.

Long story short, I have family who live in Cape Town, SA. My cousin is one of them. Before she left, we were inseparable, growing up in Eastern Europe, and frolicking around our cabin in the woods and the Black Sea in the summer time. Then the Chernobyl accident happened (about 200 miles away from where we lived), she developed many very serious health problems, and as a result her family decided to immigrate from Eastern Europe to South Africa. I haven’t seen her in about twenty five years. A short while ago, I discovered that she got engaged to her long-time boyfriend, and the wedding was going to be some time in April. At first, I did not even dream about attending it, flying to South Africa by myself seemed unfathomable, and getting there with my husband and two little boys seemed even more incomprehensible because of the logistics of traveling with little children, and because of financial considerations (more on the reality of postdoctoral pay). And then one day, I got a yearning. A fire. A powerful, consuming, profound, imposing desire to go see her get married. So I did. I flew to South Africa to see my cousin, my childhood best friend slash pseudo twin, marry the love of her life. Like I said, all by myself.

Photo I took from the top of Table Mountain–view of Cape Town and Lion’s Head.

71l1jqN

http://imgur.com/71l1jqN

The funny thing is that in the beginning of the trip (this kind of surprised and scared me a little), I did not miss my boys. I knew they were in good hands, having fun with dad and grandma. But about half way through the trip and towards the end, I would think of them more and more, and start to really miss them. In fact, I began to miss them so much that every time I would think of them, a dull hollow ache began to spread in my chest.   And thoughts of missing them, like molasses, would envelop my mind and clog my head and my throat. I knew it was time to go home.

On my [painfully long] trip home, I started thinking about my priorities in life. Sure, I KNOW what my priorities are—my immediate family comes first, then my job, then everything else. But what about my future? I care deeply about what I do. So much, in fact, that I’ve lingered in my current position as a super-postdoc. Even though coming back to work from maternity leave all those years ago, was incredibly painful (newborn twins=no sleep=permanent real life zombie exhausted working mother). Now I am happy I persevered, and I have a career ahead of me that I look forward to discovering. I need to have this part of my life that is just my own, separate from my family, where I can work hard and make progress towards something that is bigger than I am. The scientist within me is on the verge of shedding her milk teeth and is ready to grow a full set of permanent fangs that I can sink deep into my new projects.

But I want even more than that. I want to “have it all.” I want a healthy work-life balance. I want flexibility. I want to be able to have a career AND be able to have deep, meaningful relationships with people I care about—my children and my husband. I want the empathy gap between my needs and my employer’s needs to be bridged in something that will allow me to “have it all.” Somehow being away from my family for 50-some hours a week does not sound appealing. I want to see my children for more than just one hour on weeknights. I want to spend weekends with them and not allow my worries from the week before or anticipatory anxiety for the coming week to tarnish the precious time with my boys.

Now that I am out looking for that next step in adulthood that some of us call a “job,” (all part of my plan B) I have many things to consider. And the biggest one is time with my children. Why is it so difficult to find work that will allow a parent to work part-time in the sciences? As a postdoc, I was able to negotiate a part-time position (which is not even really a thing, the position was created for me in my current lab). Sure it has not been seamless, and definitely not perfect, but it worked out. However, I don’t feel comfortable asking my potential future employer about part-time work for the fear of not getting that coveted next job all together. What exactly is my pounding fear, one might ask?   It is this: Twenty five years down the road, I fear that I will look at my children and see them as someone I barely know because I hardly spent any time with them when they were little. Like I saw my cousin this past April—a beautiful enigmatic young woman, with exquisite, impeccable taste, who once was my closest friend and now unfortunately essentially feels like a stranger to me, with only a slight hint of familiarity.


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