Archive for the 'transitions' category

The Six Month Postdoc Evaluation

I started an academic postdoc position 6 months ago, as a new mom reeling partly from maternity leave and partly from the conditions of leaving my previous postdoc. When I started this position, I wrote about how terrified and isolated it felt. I even elaborated on why conditions seemed like they may never improve and that I may need to find a way out sooner than I thought. But in lieu of jumping ship immediately, I planned to evaluate at 6 months and 1 year*.

Here I am at 6 months. In brief, I am still here. To expound somewhat, I am sitting at my desk having just finished lining up ducks for the next several weeks of experiments, counting cells while listening to the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, and not fearing that my boss will inevitably burst in at some point to interrogate me. Today is a particularly good day, but I am okay with letting today be empowering.

What has changed, you ask? A few major, major things. And the minor thing that my science may actually begin to move forward.

  • Meetings with my PI have shown me not to fear her, but to let her passive aggressive undertone pass over me and continue to push for direct communication outcomes. In recent lab meetings, I have gleaned things about her expectations with which I thoroughly disagree. Instead of being cowed and terrified into working harder and longer, as I would have done a few months ago, I decided that it was okay for me to disagree and conduct my business and science in the way that I think is ethical and most productive.


  • I have accepted that I do not want to be a PI at an R1 institution. I may not even want to be one at an R2. The pathway toward academic primary investigator, for me, has never been driven by the science per se. I have always loved science, and love bench work, designing projects, writing grants… all that jazz that comes with being a PI. I am also pretty good at these things. But I have never burned with the desire to address a specific scientific question; neither do I burn with the desire for the lifestyle that often comes with the title. I find that I become enthusiastic about many different lines of investigation, and that the projects I favor tend to not be of career-launching caliber. But I digress. The pathway toward academic PI has always been about reaching a position of power from which to engage and promote the next generation of scientific minds. To make science and scientific research accessible to anyone. To foster scientific thinking, and to manage an equitable laboratory space that fosters healthy and ethically responsible scientists. I know this sounds like a pipe-dream, but I also started my career in the laboratory of a PI who inspired me by creating that exact environment, which is why I have so blindly forged ahead. So in response to the road blocks, bad luck, and bad mentorship I have experienced in the last several years, I have decided to shift my career dream over to teaching in the community college or public university setting. These venues are far more fitted to my dreams of engaging young minds and making science and scientific thinking accessible. When I finally realized — in not just my brain but my soul — that this was the platform from which I (with my personality and interests) could best realize the actual impetus of my career goals, it was a major breakthrough. And I have held onto it for several weeks now…


  • I have a teaching project. Through my pedagogical fellowship, I have found an opportunity to help redesign an introductory course in molecular biology for a local state university. I am terrified and excited for this project, especially since I have advocated for adding a writing component to the course (instead of just expecting that freshman will know how to write a full lab report…), for which I am solely responsible.


  • Finally, I have proven to myself that I can still be a productive and creative scientist working 40-45 hours per week. A growing number of successful scientists have written about this topic, but I have discovered that this could also be me. At least during my postdoc. For now.

So after 6 months, I have brought purpose and direction to my postdoc both at and beyond the bench. I have ceased to be cowed by my PI, I have accepted that my changing career direction is a desire and not a failure, and I have fiercely protected my time with my family. For the time being, this is working. Onward, to the 1 year evaluation!


*This is a personal self-evaluation, not to be confused with a formal evaluation with my mentor that might include an IDP.

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The hardest semester of my life

Don’t worry, this post isn’t a complaint. I had the hardest semester of my life but I got something great out of it.

I started a new job this fall – one of my top-choice careers, at one of my top-choice institutions! I am teaching undergraduate neuroscience students at a large university in a place I love, near family. But of course it couldn’t be that simple. Because of family-related issues, I couldn’t move there and get started full-time right away. So all fall I’ve been commuting between two different states to work part of the week at my new job and part of the week at my old postdoc research position. As you can imagine, it’s been a terrible to commute, and especially difficult to be away from my family, even part-time. Add to that health issues, deaths of family and friends, and more, and it’s been a nightmare overall, and a struggle to get through each day and week.

Despite all that, I found that I loved my new job and was excited about it throughout the semester, regardless of what else was going on. I looked forward to planning how to teach each lesson/topic, talking with students, and evaluating their performance. I love virtually every aspect of it! This was a stark contrast with my old job. Even though I couldn’t wait to return home to my family, I dreaded going back to my job in the lab. I did not want to do lab work, did not want to write or research, and, to my surprise, did not even look forward to helping my students with their research projects.

Realizing these thoughts and feelings about my work made me so happy that I could be confident about my choice in career paths. Up until I accepted this teaching position, I had been thinking that I would be equally happy doing that or teaching and running a small lab with undergraduate students at a small liberal arts college, where I could focus on the students more than cutting edge research. Now I realize that that would have been a mistake and I just can’t be excited (or do a good job) for research-related activities, outside of teaching students about research on an intellectual level.

So here I am on the home stretch of the hardest semester of my life (so far…), fully excited about my move to full-time lecturer, and for a fresh start for the new calendar year! It feels so good to be confident about my career choice and path forward.

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When Your Pregnancy is a Job Hunt, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science Part II

Several months ago, I wrote about the experience of being 5 months pregnant and told that my postdoctoral mentor was leaving our institution.

This was my chance to leave my oppressive pit of a working environment without burning any bridges. This meant trying to find a new position before giving birth so that I might avoid unemployment. This was exciting. This was terrifying.

Four months later, I have a fellowship and a job lined up for after my “maternity leave” [read: unemployment]. I gave seminars and had interviews at 7 months, 8 months and 9.5 million months pregnant and each time have been pleasantly surprised that I portrayed myself first as a capable scientist and then as a pregnant woman (inevitable shortness of breath notwithstanding…). This experience has shown me what women are capable of, and given me a newfound respect for myself.

The Process:

Despite now feeling that this journey has ultimately been a success, I have never had a more confused, frustrated or nihilistic perception of my career and future. It was at once a frantic crisis and insignificant. During this experience, I not only interviewed for academic postdocs within my current institution and at nearby institutes, I applied for industry scientist positions – something I thought I would not do for several years to come, if at all (and thanks to very active support and a recommendation from our very own Curiouser&Curiouser, I was even invited to give a job talk!).

But all of these interviews were hard. Because throughout the whole process, I was so disenchanted with my previous aspirations, and overwhelmed with the possibility of entirely changing my career track when all the while all I actually cared about was keeping my little imminent offspring healthy and becoming a new parent. How could I possibly communicate my interests and goals in an honest way when my thoughts were in such an unmotivated place? Somehow, I channeled Ragamuffin circa 2016 for every interview and she did me a great service by masking my current intellectual turmoil.

I narrowed my opportunities down to two academic labs and an industry position (I had way more options with diverse potential than I expected, which made the whole process even more confusing). The industry opportunity continues to play out, but I expect this was more a chance for me to introduce myself and be remembered favorably when I apply for a more fitting position in the future. Of the academic labs, one lab was small and very low-key and would probably have prepared me well for a future industry position. The other lab was mid-sized with high expectations and would probably prepare me equally well for either a career in industry or academia. The small lab required finding my own funding, and only when I had secured that was I able to really consider which lab I preferred. It took me a month to decide.

What if I make the wrong choice because of pregnancy brain and end up hating my next position?

What if I misinterpret what lies ahead like I did with my current postdoc lab and wind up losing another year of productivity?

What if it turns out that my career goals change drastically after I become a parent and I chose the wrong work environment to accommodate whatever those are?

I calmed down a bit when my self-employed husband’s income (which crashed the day my PI announced his departure) started to recover, and I felt less guilty about the fiscal implications of staying in academia.

And after several communications with each of the PI’s (both women), I chose the mid-sized lab with high expectations because I felt a strong connection with the PI that made me believe I wanted to and could continue (for now) down the path I would have chosen a year ago. Because there were no wrong choices, only the next chapter of life.

Closing Up Shop:

I left my current lab last week to begin maternity leave. I put all the materials I’ve developed over the last year in cryostasis and labeled them to be shipped to my adjunct faculty oppressor so that he can continue my work (ostensibly) and take credit for my contributions (inevitably). I photocopied my lab notebook, backed up all my meticulous protocols, and archived my server emails so as to have a record of my contributions if I need to defend my right to authorship in 5 years (undoubtedly). I said heavy goodbyes to the colleagues who have been such wonderful influences over the last year, and begrudgingly said an adulatory and pleasant farewell to my PI. And left behind a year of professional struggle and wasted scientific effort.


And now, I am ecstatic to spend the remaining two weeks of my pregnancy job hunt-free. Bring it on.

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Job Interview Questions

When I was first interviewing for jobs I got the question “what are your career goals?”  The question was something I had given a lot of thought to but I’d never actually transferred these ideas into an interview appropriate answer before.  I muddled through that interview, but I realized I could do much better if I forced myself to put my thoughts into actual words, so I started preparing for interviews by writing down potential interview questions and answers.  I think this has helped to make me more clear and succinct (when I’m nervous I tend to ramble) and I like that I get the chance to review what I said for previous interviews.

Recently, a lot of my friends and family have been applying to new jobs/promotions and I’ve been running practice interviews with them.  It feels good to have another use for all the research I put into finding/coming up with/remembering potential interview questions, so I’ve decided to also compile them here for our readers.  Please feel free to comment with any other questions you’ve come across.

Two general thoughts on interviewing…

  • Make your answers short and specific.
  • Keep things positive, if you want to highlight aspects that you didn’t like, try to put a positive spin on things, eg show how would improve things.

Best of luck to all the job applicants out there, I hope this helps!


– Tell me about yourself/how would you describe yourself?  This should be geared toward the job you are applying for not a general introduction.

– Tell me about your experience at ____ prior company/lab___.

– What did you like about ______ prior company/lab___?

– What do you wish was different about ___ prior company/lab___?

– Why do you want to leave your current position?

– What do you know about this position/company?

– What techniques/methods are you accustomed to using?

– What is your work style/how do you like to approach your work?

– What are your top 3 strengths/weaknesses?  Make sure to tailor this to the position.  If it was a R&D job I might feel ok mentioning that I get nervous talking in front of crowds (true) but if I was going for a science liaison position I would probably choose something else.

– Why are you interested in this job/company/institution?

– What are your expectations for this job/company?

– What is your management style/how do you like to be managed?

– Tell me about how you like to interact with your lab mates.

– How do you deal with conflict?

– What do you bring to this job/company?  This is an awesome opportunity to brag and really highlight why you should get the job

– Describe a setback and how you overcame it.

– Describe a conflict and how you overcame it.

– Describe a time you were working under pressure to get a project completed.

– Describe a mistake and what you did to correct it.

– Give an example of when you used scientific problem solving/a creative scientific approach to solve a problem.

– What motivates you scientifically?

– What are your career goals?

– Why are you leaving academia?

– What are your hobbies?

– Do you have any questions for me/us? You will probably use some up during the course of the conversation, so have a bunch.

– Do you have any concerns for us?

– How much do you want to make? I hate this one… I always try to say something like; I’m excited about this position and I would just like to be appropriately compensated. Ugh.




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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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I have to pay back what?!

As if it isn’t difficult enough to be in your mid-thirties starting a family while living on a postdoc salary and waiting to move yet again before finally getting a “real” job, some of us also have to worry about making career changes that don’t result in having to pay back up to a year’s income. Yes, you read that right – I could be made to pay back a year’s stipend if I don’t follow through on a commitment to stay in research or select other related positions for a set amount of time.

If you’re unfamiliar with this payback agreement, here’s an article that covers most of the issue and risks, but in short: certain NIH training grants (i.e. institutional T32 or postdoctoral individual F32) require a signed contract that you must “pay back” the time you are sponsored by the grant, up to one year, either by working at least 20 hours per week in research or a related position (including teaching, working in industry and many others at the NIH’s discretion), or by literally paying back the money that was granted to you.

To some degree, I get it. The NIH is trying to fulfill a mission, and in spending money on training researchers as part of that mission, they want to ensure  that they benefit from those investments as much as possible. And, as they will tell you, most people accomplish paying back the first year of training by fulfilling a second year or more on the training grant. Others find related jobs or receive alternate funding for research, which fulfills the obligation.

For the sake of this post, I am not going to go into all the possible scenarios that put someone in a difficult position to pay this back – you can imagine a laundry list of nightmares (needing to quit working for medical reasons and having to owe a year’s income?!?) – but I will focus on the situations for starting and wanting to get out that are most relevant for my situation.

First, it is often the case that a postdoc can only join the lab they want (or find any position at all) if they are sponsored by funding other than the PI’s grants – this is typically going to be a T32 or F32. So right away, one could be faced with the decision to either take a job with this sketchy payback agreement, unsure of what their feelings will be in 1-2 years, or not have a job (in the academic research career path) at all. I actually was given the option and, thankfully, had a boss who was thoughtful enough to bring up the payback issue and discuss it with me. Some people get blindsided with this once they’ve already settled on a position. I accepted it, thinking that I would be staying in my current position at least as long as I needed to fulfill the payback obligation.

So now I find myself in the early phase of my payback year, searching for jobs and leaning more and more toward a new career path that will certainly not fulfill the payback obligation. And a great opportunity has come up, in a place that would be perfect for my family to relocate to… but what do I do? Apply and (if offered a position) ask to delay starting for another 9 months? Accept a position and incur a huge loss in my net income as I payback my training stipend? Not apply now and just hope that another perfect opportunity will present itself when the time is ripe?

And there’s the rub. By being paid by this funding mechanism with the intention of supporting my training for my career, my ideal career path may actually be blocked. I try really hard not to make choices based solely on financial reasons, but this time it really matters, as the financial aspect would immediately and severely affect me and my family, and there is no apparent remedy or even band-aid.

The thing (well, one of the many things) is that there’s no way to demonstrate to the NIH how destructive this may be. There’s no way to measure the lost potential or even count the number of people who haven’t started the career they wanted because they felt stuck in research due to their financial obligation. There’s no way to know how many people signed on or stuck it out because it was the only option for making a living. Importantly, those trainees are really not serving the NIH’s goals in the long run either.

Now, not only am I losing out financially just by doing a postdoc, as this recent heartbreaking article describes, but I am also losing financially and/or in potential career happiness by having signed this payback agreement. I know, it’s never too late and I’ll give the new career direction a try when the timing is right, but I want to be able to make that decision on my own terms, not for fear of owing someone money. In a career path where I’m constantly reminded that the cards are stacked against me, I don’t think this is too much to ask.

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Maternity leave – or – And I thought I knew everything!

Mar 28 2016 Published by under motherhood, postdoc, the fog, transitions

I can’t believe I have an 8 week old baby! This time on maternity leave has been absolutely precious and has flown by. So what have I learned? Well for this blog I’ll skip all of the baby stuff (I didn’t know how much I didn’t know!) and focus on the work-related things.

First, the advice my co-bloggers have given me has been right on the money. The one thing that most of them and others I’ve talked to said that I didn’t necessarily believe was that 6 weeks was just too soon to go back to work. I thought that 6 weeks sounded like a long time and this was probably mostly an emotional thing that probably wouldn’t be true for me* or would be true for people who had physical complications that would keep them healing longer. But no, 6 weeks is absolutely not long enough! Now I know from experience and lots of reading that Baby might have a routine by that age, but not a set schedule (they’re just now possibly starting to produce melatonin to get in a circadian rhythm!), and everything is still different from one day to the next. How can you leave when you’re both still trying to figure out what works? Not to mention the nights being unpredictable. In addition, I was definitely not 100% physically recovered at 6 weeks. I could have worked in that condition but I would be slow moving and uncomfortable.

The last 2 weeks have been big for learning and getting in a more predictable routine, so I feel a lot better about going back to work at 8 weeks. However, I would be grateful for another month (or longer) of paid leave. Luckily I have an awesome mom who is coming to take care of Baby for a couple months, and an awesome boss who is understanding about me working shorter days in the lab while we all adjust. I can’t imagine how differently I might feel if those securities were not in place.

Second, in my line of work (academic laboratory) there is just some work that needs to get done no matter what. Okay, there could have been ways around some of it, and no one would die or lose their job if I didn’t do it, but it was pretty important for my job and others whose work is intertwined with mine. For me, this pretty much came down to three things. 1) Just because of bad timing, I had to communicate with HR and fill out a bunch of paperwork starting the day I came home from the hospital to be able to renew my position and keep my insurance – obviously essential, but a huge pain in the butt! 2) I had to finish revisions for a manuscript under review, which involved a lot of back-and-forth with co-authors. Here I could have asked the journal for an extension or just left all the work to the corresponding author, but I thought it was important enough for me to spend what amounted to a day or two of work to get it done. And it was accepted right away, yay! 3) I’ve had to respond to a few issues here and there that came up in lab. Mostly this was so that my own projects could continue to move forward in my absence. Again, I could have let it go but it was important/easy enough for me to put in a little time. Overall, I’m not surprised I had to do this much/kind of work while on leave, and I’m satisfied.

Third, I am happy that I have reaffirmed my belief that I do want to continue my career while being a mom and so it is important to me to keep moving forward in my job and career, despite how hard it might be sometimes to split my time between two separate worlds.

I probably learned some more really valuable things, but I forgot – you’re lucky I’m this articulate right now, or even that I finished this post at all. Time to shower if Baby doesn’t wake up before I get there.

*Related but non-work related thing – I also didn’t necessarily believe people when they said, “It’ll be different when it’s your baby,” in response to me expressing that I don’t love babies (I like kids more the older they get) and don’t know if I could spend all day at home without going out of my mind with boredom. It’s so different with my baby – I’ve been with Baby virtually 24/7 for 8 weeks and I feel like I could continue indefinitely. If I got just one more nap…

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Life Lessons from Teenagers

“So, what do you guy think of this?” I asked my students, using all my effort to bite my tongue and let my students express their own opinions. I was discussing the 2014 decision by Facebook and Apple to subsidize egg freezing for female employees as part of their benefits plans. My own initial thoughts on the matter were visceral; the subtext of this “opportunity” is to encourage women to work while we are young and worry about family later.

I was discussing this issue with a group of students interested in future medical careers. They are high achievers and envision themselves as career-motivated, even as teenagers, so I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised by their positive responses to the egg freezing deal. My students thought it was wonderful. They praised the companies for allowing young women to have careers without having to “worry” about their biological limitations. I struggled to keep my own mouth shut as they excitedly envisioned their futures career women then mothers. I wanted to say, “How about supporting women with paid maternity leave?” or “Why don’t we consider more affordable childcare and flexible work schedules?” But I didn’t. I stood by and soaked in their opinions with admitted alarm.

As I reflected on their responses in the coming days, I realized that their responses could easily have been my own, 15 years ago. I was a high achieving student. I wanted to do something that “mattered” with my career—revealing a cure to cancer or discovering a new drug, something that would impact the future of the world. I vividly remember thinking that I didn’t want to get married until I was at least 29, an age much later than that of my own parents who were married at 23. As my own life went on, however, I fell in love and got married (at 23, as luck would have it). By 27, I yearned to have a child with a longing that was overwhelming and fierce.

During my pregnancy, I was finishing graduate school and looking to make a career transition. As I researched opportunities and networked with fervor, I would frequently chat with my own mother about my excitements and anxieties. One afternoon, she said to me, “Your priorities will change when you have your baby.” And I was mad. I was angry at the suggestion that all of my education, preparation and career exploration might be somehow useless or wasted.

In the end, my mother was right. My priorities did change, thought not in the negative way I had perceived. I have found a career I love; It is certainly not of the prestige I had envisioned as an impassioned teenager, but it allows me to make a difference in my small part of the world. And now, as I look forward to by 30th birthday, I hope for a second child. My hope is surrounded by tremendous anxiety regarding the cost of childcare for 2 children and how to prepare for months of lost wages during maternity leave (I’m relatively new to my job and have little accrued vacation time).

So when I mediate this discussion with my students regarding companies paying tens of thousands of dollars for egg freezing, I can’t help but wish I could have that amount of money for childcare and maternity leave. I want to tell my students how they will feel when they have their own children. I want to express to them how it feels to watch your own parents grow old and worry that they will never meet their grandchildren. I want to tell them how hared it is to leave an 8 week old in childcare. I wanted to tell them why my little girl doesn’t yet have a sibling. But instead, I listen to their excitement and say, “that’s so interesting!” because there are some things that only life can teach us, and I too am still learning.

(I certainly know that there are many wonderful outcomes from egg freezing procedures, especially for young women who undergo chemotherapy, etc. The opinions expressed here are only mine.)

More Reading on Egg Freezing:

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Having it both ways: on changing – and keeping – my name

Nov 17 2015 Published by under having it all, transitions, women in science

If I can find a way to get exactly what I want without compromising, why shouldn’t I go for it? That’s what I thought when I made the decision about my name, a personal choice that people make for many reasons, as has been written about by others. When I got married, I was a postdoc with several publications from graduate school that were important for my future career, and knew I wanted to keep my name for consistency in my CV, publication record, and network. But I also appreciate tradition and wanted to have the same last name as my partner and future children.

So I did both! I changed my name legally to my partner’s last name, and I continued to use my original name professionally. It was never even a difficult decision for me. I asked around and heard from a number of people that this was possible, though I never met someone in science who had actually done it. A friend had a mother who had done this and said that it was often difficult because she would use the names interchangeably and so others never knew which name to ask for, but I thought that since I am very good at keeping distinctions this would be no problem for me.

The institution at which I worked when I got married was so easy to make the change with – when I submitted the forms to change my legal name, I simply submitted an additional form to use one name legally and another name professionally. This allowed me to change everything with my insurance, taxes, etc., but maintain everything business related with my professional name. It was a system that was already in place which worked beautifully and I never had any issues there.

At my next (current) job, I found right away that there were going to be difficulties. I thought that since this was a bigger institution there would surely be the same kind of practical solutions in place as my previous employer had – surely many people had come before me who had used this system. But no, there was nothing for it! I had to choose one. I tried to work around the system – I ended up registering everything in the beginning with my professional name so that I could get an email address and ID badge according to what I wanted for business. Then I submitted all the documents to change my legal name as I would if I had just gotten married – what a pain! It generally worked the way I wanted, but with a couple of complications. First, there is supposedly no way to change my name in the directory – it has to be my legal name; so if any of my colleagues try to look me up with my business name they can’t find me at all. The other issue that comes up more often is that even though the distinction is clear to me where I should use each name, it is not clear where my institution uses each, so I have to be prepared for either. It can be a waste of time trying to work with someone to find the right name in the system, and it can be embarrassing when a colleague is with me and I have to explain the whole thing.

So far, besides the hassles described above, I’d say there’s only been a real problem once. I traveled to a professional conference, which I registered for under my business name. I traveled using my legal name, of course, and brought appropriate identification. When I tried to register in-person for the conference, they had a strict policy of only giving the packet, which included a Visa gift card used for food at the conference, to registrants with ID. But I don’t have any legal identification with my original name (besides my original birth certificate and marriage certificate, which I am not in the habit of carrying with me), and I hadn’t even brought my institutional ID with my business name. They eventually let me register when I showed them my confirmation email, but it was a major hassle.

I anticipate a handful of experiences like this in the rest of my career. If I was going to be at my present institution longer, I would try to see if I could make improvements to the current system for myself and for others to follow who may need similar situations, but I don’t have that fight in me today and am just trying to make due the best I can for now.

Would I recommend this choice to others? Yes. Would I do it again if I was to do it over? I don’t know… I’ve since thought more and more that I might prefer to keep my own name – and deal with whatever hassles come from that decision to have two last names in the same family. But as it is, I am definitely proud to have each name, and I encourage people to not feel stuck choosing between options when you can have it all!

7 responses so far

A Portrait of the Scientist as a New Mother

Aug 20 2015 Published by under academia, motherhood, transitions, women in science

In which a mother-to-be in an academic postdoc position asks her fellow scientists all of her burning (work-related) questions about pregnancy and maternity planning.

Jump to any of the Q&As by clicking the number, or read the full post below. Do you have a question, an answer, or a different perspective? Please comment on this post so we can create a resource for expectant mothers in science.

1 I’ve always been pretty ignorant of the health risks of chemicals I work with in the lab but am trying to be more aware now that I’m pregnant. What extra precautions should I be taking?

2 My institution/position doesn’t grant me any paid leave. Do I have any other options to try to get paid?

3 How should I approach the discussion of leave time with my boss? What should I consider in terms of finishing projects vs. pausing vs. passing them to someone else?

4 What should I consider for planning my transition back to work from maternity leave?

5 I am so stressed about daycare options – I hear I should have been on the waitlists before I even knew I was pregnant! What should I do?

6 I want to breastfeed but I’m concerned about pumping at work. I don’t have a private office, but I think my institution has a pumping room, though it’s not in my building. What should I expect, particularly in terms of timing with work duties?

7 Any tips on making a major transition in my job after having a baby?

8 I am actually hoping to go on the job market, and likely interview dates would be right around my due date. Any advice on how to handle this?

9 Final thoughts

SweetScience: I’ve always been pretty ignorant of the health risks of chemicals I work with in the lab but am trying to be more aware now that I’m pregnant. What extra precautions should I be taking?

fishprint: Read up on the MSDS of all the chemicals and drugs you work with. Sometimes, health effects on pregnant women or the fetus are unknown, so definitely be cautious and avoid exposure.

Peírama: Check with your institution! Hopefully they have resources to help you determine what is safe and someone may actually come to your lab and work through it all with you.

Torschlusspanik:  This might have been an overkill, but whenever I handled more sketchy chemicals I wore a coat, a respirator mask, gloves, and used a hood.  With chemicals that I knew to be harmful, I even asked my lab mates to handle for me.  As fishprint said, the effects are often unknown, and I chose to be too careful rather than to wonder about it throughout the pregnancy or even later.  

Saraswati:  In addition to the above, I’d like to add that you should also rely on your common sense.  For example, when I got pregnant, I was working with radioactive iodine [125I].  Every time I did an experiment involving radioactivity, I felt a huge surge of anxiety over how I could be harming my babies.  There were no reports out there on the risks associated with 125I exposure in pregnancy, even my doctor couldn’t help, most studies were performed with other iodine isotopes.  Long story short, when I brought up the issue of discomfort surrounding the use of radioactivity with my advisor, he speculated that bound 125I was probably a safe radioisotope to work with, but respected my concerns, and allowed me to continue the “cold” portion of the experiments, while a colleague in the lab helped out with the “hot” part.  I say, be your own biggest safety advocate, and if things feel “wrong,” find out in what ways you can modify those experiments/circumstances.  The anxiety over chemical exposure can be just as bad as the chemical exposure itself.  

SS: My institution/position doesn’t grant me any paid leave. Do I have any other options to try to get paid?

fishprint: Depending on how you’re funded, you may be able to lobby for a policy change. Because NSF and NIH grants allow for paid leave (if paid leave is available to all students), we were able to leverage that and get 8 weeks paid. It’s worth trying. As my graduate program director says, you definitely won’t get anything if you don’t try.

Saraswati: I wish someone told me about this before I got pregnant.  Sign up for disability insurance, and they will pay a portion of your salary for either all, or a significant portion of your maternity leave.  But you have to sign up prior to getting pregnant.

Peírama: Talk to your advisor. They may know of options specific to your situation and the worst they can say is no!

SS: How should I approach the discussion of leave time with my boss? What should I consider in terms of finishing projects vs. pausing vs. passing them to someone else?

fishprint: In my opinion, it’s best to be direct and let them know as soon as possible. I told my boss when I was 9 weeks pregnant, which is before you’re “supposed” to tell anyone, but it allowed plenty of time to make a plan. I don’t see too much advantage to sitting on the news. If I had lost the baby, I would have needed to take time off to grieve.  

Peírama: I got lucky with my second maternity leave and a very non-possessive post doc worked on my project while I was gone. I think if you can have a situation where someone you trust can make progress while you’re gone, that’s great! If you’re going to feel stressed because you think someone might be taking over your project, not worth it! Remember that while things can sometimes move fast in science, sometimes they don’t. Your maternity leave is not so long that things can’t pause while you’re gone unless you’re in a very fast moving area (and then, mightn’t you get scooped anyway?).

Saraswati: I luckily found a volunteer who continued to do my work while I was on maternity leave.  I understand that sometimes finding and training someone competent can be difficult or even impossible.  So if you can’t find anyone, like Peírama said, maternity leave now sounds like a long time, but it’s really not long at all.  Experiments can wait.

SS: What should I consider for planning my transition back to work from maternity leave?

Peírama: There is a lot going on when you go back to work. You may be thinking about your little one at home. You have a new schedule with daycare and pumping. You’re probably not sleeping well. This means it can be hard to feel focused and productive at work even if you’re excited to be there. Knowing this, I planned and took 2 months of part time after my 3 month leave when my second was born. I was on an NIH individual fellowship and I requested and was granted the time off (with 8 weeks paid) and the part-time. My administrator said she had never had anyone request it so she wasn’t sure what would happen! I was very glad to have the time to slowly settle back into work and get a little more time at home with my baby.

fishprint: Take as much time off as you can. If you feel great at 6 or 8 weeks, you can always come back early, maybe even at part time. I had complications with my recovery, and it was pure hell going back at 8 weeks. I would never recommend 8 weeks to anyone.

Torschlusspanik: I definitely felt not ready to go back at 8 weeks after my first baby. Luckily I was able to get 3 months off (combining paid leave and vacation) and felt ready at that point. (After my second I felt ready after just one week, but I was not working by then…).  If possible, it would be helpful to start daycare a few days before going back, to work out the routine (also to give yourself a break, and to cry in private rather than at work).  

Saraswati: Discuss with your advisor how she or he feels about you taking longer than 12 weeks off.  Sometimes, in case of complications at birth, you doctor may recommend that you take a longer maternity leave.  I had to bring this up with my advisor because of risks associated with having twins.  Discuss part-time work for some time when coming back, it will make your transition so much more pleasant.  Arrange for a breastfeeding space – find out if your institution has rooms dedicated to breastfeeding, or in my case, I was able to use the department Administrator’s office as my “milk station” as she kindly called it.  

SS: I am so stressed about daycare options – I hear I should have been on the waitlists before I even knew I was pregnant! What should I do?

fishprint: Get on the waitlists now! It’s good to have a few options. The daycare directors are used to women in the first or second trimester planning for the year ahead. For us, convenience is key. We use the on-campus daycare, where all food (other than breastmilk) is provided, because there is no way I’m going to be packing a toddler lunch every day. It’s all I can do to feed him dinner. Our daycare is pretty expensive, but I console myself with the idea that this is temporary.

Torschlusspanik:  Get on a waitlist at at least three locations.  My on-campus day care did not have an opening when I went back to work (and I got onto its waitlist before I was 3 months pregnant…).  Luckily there was an opening at another daycare not too far, so I sent my baby there for one month until a spot opened up in the preferred one.

Saraswati: Find out if a family member may be able to help you with the transition, even for a month or so – this will allow you to be on the waitlist longer, increasing your chances of getting in, and will give you peace of mind, knowing your baby is with family.  Also, look into your husband’s options for taking paternity leave.  Again, it may not be paid by his employer, but it would be great for you, knowing that your newborn is cared for by a loving family member.

*I just want to stress that daycare providers provide love and tenderness to babies as well, but knowing that the new baby is in hands of a family member may give peace of mind to the new mother, who has yet to learn to trust essentially strangers, in caring for her most prized possession.

Peírama: I agree, get on a waitlist ASAP! Also, I have heard that nanny shares can be a good option when daycare availability is limited.

Notarealteachers: To contradict everyone else: don’t stress too much about the waitlists! While it’s certainly wise to get on waitlists, I got on a bunch, didn’t get into any, and then found a spot at the daycare across the street from my work the week before I started.

SS: I want to breastfeed but I’m concerned about pumping at work. I don’t have a private office, but I think my institution has a pumping room, though it’s not in my building. What should I expect, particularly in terms of timing with work duties?

fishprint: It’s hard to predict how easy or hard pumping will before you until the time comes. Because it’s different for everyone (read: It might be really easy for you!) I’d advise not to worry about it until you’re 4-8 weeks post-partum. Step 1: Have the baby. Step 2: See if breastfeeding works for you. Step 3: Consider pumping. Step 4: Learn to pump. You want to start Step 4 a few weeks before you return to work – you do not need to do it right away. If you’re breastfeeding, your baby will be nursing constantly in the beginning so it’s pretty hard to find a time to pump before 6 weeks anyway. 

I pumped on campus in a pumping suite. This was great because they had hospital grade pumps, which were good for my “just barely enough” output. It took a lot of time out of my day, I cannot sugar-coat that. Each session took 45min, and I had to pump three times during my work day to make enough milk to cover what my son would drink at daycare. In order to actually produce, I needed to watch videos of my baby, and eventually graduated to twitter/facebook. I would actually stop producing milk if I tried to do work emails. Obviously everyone’s experience is different. For me, I just had to get through it and see it as a break time during my day. I stopped pumping at 10 months and was able to continue breastfeeding in the morning and at night past a year. I definitely do not miss pumping. Frankly, if I have a second child, I will probably only pump for six months. Though, it’s easy to say that now – as I write this I remember crying irrationally in the supermarket as I looked at formula packages.

Peírama: My institution has decent pumping room options, though the closest is a 5 minute walk. I was naive to this when I started working there so I just asked my boss! I ended up being set up with an empty office very close to my lab. While it was not as nice as the pumping rooms (no sink, no fridge, no hospital-grade pumps) the convenience was worth it for me. I continued to use the office even after I found out about the pumping rooms.

While I did not have to watch videos/look at pictures of my baby to pump, I found it difficult to focus on anything work related. I usually looked at the pictures because I enjoyed it…or read Twitter. While I felt a little guilty not making better use of that time, I also didn’t think I would have been very productive if I tried so it wasn’t worth the stress. Can you imagine focusing with a machine manipulating your breasts? Not easy! Also, In Baby Attach Mode has a great post about pumping.

Torschlusspanik: Definitely ask to see if there is any empty / unused room.  Luckily in my building a lab just left, and I was able to secure a room with a fridge for a year. I ate my lunch and pretended to read journal articles there while pumping (unlikely I retained any information, but I wanted to feel productive).  I did try pumping 3x a day at work initially, and that quickly became two, and one.  The production did decrease, and we supplemented her with formula.  I consoled myself that at least she was getting some. Since we did not have a dishwasher in our apartment, I felt like all I did at night was wash bottles, nipples, and cups…

Notarealteachers: I pumped in a common shared office. I had a unique situation though; I shared an office with 5 other women, all of whom were moms. It was an awesome situation, as we could get meetings done while I pumped. It’s certainly not a circumstance that everyone will have, but if you and your coworkers are cool with it, it’s an awesome way to save time.

SS: Any tips on making a major transition in my job after having a baby?

fishprint: When I was home on my 8 weeks of leave, things were deteriorating in my lab. When the 5th year grad student above me was asked to leave the lab, I decided to change advisors. Because the post-partum period was so challenging for me, I didn’t have time or mental energy to agonize and obsess over this decision (as I normally would have). This made the post-partum period into a wonderful no-bullshit zone. I was able to make the decision quickly, then I contacted my program director and committee chair, sat down with two potential PIs, picked one, and finally emailed my former advisor something short and unambiguous.

Harnessing your limited time and mental energy in a way that works is possible, but you just have to learn as you go. You may feel like you’re failing at it, but you will actually be succeeding. Just getting in to work is succeeding. Getting in to work and doing some work is really impressive. Keep your eye on the ball as much as possible, and if you mess up just fix it and keep going. Once I was in my new lab, I had to break down everything to fit into my new, limited schedule. The results of this were mixed. I constantly felt like I was making mistakes. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I had to develop a new, and more exhaustive, record keeping system for every aspect of my work through trial and error. I also see our on-campus student health therapist regularly.  

Peírama: I started my post doc 5 months after my first was born. I had a hard time because I wanted to see more of my baby and I had a lot to adjust to in the new lab. So making a transition at that time can be hard because you’re having a big change in going back to work with a baby and with whatever other transition you make. I don’t think that’s a reason not to do it, but I do think it’s worth knowing that it will be challenging and cutting yourself some slack.

Saraswati: Cut yourself major slack, again, like Peírama said.  Be your own best friend, and not your own harshest critic.  Build a support network if you can, other new moms in the area can help so much – mostly knowing that you are not alone, and parenting is wonderful and challenging, and going back to work is difficult, yet rewarding.  Find ways to have time for yourself, even if it’s only five minutes a day.  Find a good therapist, if therapy is your thing.

Notarealteachers: Everyone told me my priorities would change when I had my baby. While they certainly did, that advice was not helpful or productive for me. However, it did give me the confidence to embrace my readjusted priorities when that mental shift did occur for me.

SS: I am actually hoping to go on the job market, and likely interview dates would be right around my due date. Any advice on how to handle this?

fishprint: You will not want to travel after 37 weeks.  The end of pregnancy is uncomfortable for most women.  My approach would be to be direct about it and try to give job talks between 25 and 35 weeks if at all possible. 

Torschlusspanik: Many airlines require doctor’s note for traveling if you are X weeks pregnant (though restrictions are based on honor policy). Also, I remember reading this some time ago, and remember being aghast at the enormity of challenges she overcame.  I applaud her and all women who have gone through this…

Notarealteachers: I had several interviews scheduled for the weeks following my due date. Because some were via skype and some were local, I elected to say nothing about my current life circumstances, for (potentially imagined) fear that it would work against me in the application process. I didn’t get a second interview for a single one of those jobs, likely because I was seriously sleep deprived and worried about leaking milk everywhere. If I had the chance to do it over, I’d ask for accommodation up front. For me, it would have been way easier to interview before my due date, as I didn’t properly anticipate the challenges of postpartum life. I like the 25-35 week window suggested by fishprint.  

Final thoughts

fishprint: The most important thing I can say is to go easy on yourself. Giving birth and the first year are not a 50/50 endeavor. It is very challenging. And it’s very unfair. When I was pregnant I asked a new mom why she didn’t just pump a bottle so her spouse could do one of the night feedings. Then I had a baby. Oh, that’s why. Because pumping is horrible and breastfeeding is easy (for me! maybe not for you!). Your partner will help, but you will (probably) bear more of the direct physical and emotional effects of pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. Try not to fight about who has it worse. Note, however, that you will always win that argument, so your spouse should really just not step to that. Try to get as much help and support as you possibly can – and pay for help if you can. Don’t make things harder than they need to be.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you need to sleep train, or if can’t stand the thought of sleep training but wish you could sleep. Don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t breastfeed. Or if you can breastfeed but don’t want to. Don’t be hard on yourself if you’re not back to your old activities in the first year (see also, The Longest Shortest Time podcast’s Sex and Parenting series) – it doesn’t mean that you never will be. Don’t assume that your 6 weeks, 6 month, or 16 month post-partum self (body or mental state) is the “new you”. It can take a long time to recover physically from birth – but you can totally kick ass at work during this time, it’s just much easier to kick ass if you cut yourself all the slack.

Oh, and get a housecleaning service, if there’s any way to fit that into the budget.

Peírama: 100% with fishprint on go easy on yourself and get a house cleaner! Also, make a network of mom friends and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Everyone has a different experience. While others may have an easier time with certain aspects of motherhood, just as often they would love to commiserate or have a tip that will make your life much better. Prenatal yoga is a great way to take care of yourself and also find a mom group.

Notarealteachers: Try not to be too hard on yourself if your priorities change a little after you meet your sweet baby. Whatever you are doing is perfect for that sweet babe!

SweetScience: Thank you all so much! This was wonderful, helpful, and reassuring to hear, and I hope other readers get something out of it too.

Feel free to add more advice in the comments! Together, we can create a resource for expectant mothers in the lab. 

2 responses so far