Babies versus science

Babies versus science

Is there ever a good time to have a baby?

Max enjoys Meares and Pendleton. Olivia Carter

Question: Is there ever a good time to have a baby?

Answer: Yes … Just prior to the Olympics – it’s great having something other than infomercials to watch while you are up all night feeding or settling a baby.

In an earlier post, I asked some colleagues to share their advice about balancing a scientific career with motherhood. In the second part of this series, the following questions were posed. They relate here to mothers and a scientific career, but similar issues are relevant to any parents or other carers across a range of academic disciplines.

At what stage in your career did you have your children? Do you think there is an optimal time to have children? Or would you say that any time is a bad time?

The answers to these questions follow:

Dr Andrea Gogos (ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Melbourne)

There is never a “perfect” time to have a baby. Although I think a good time is as soon as you get a fellowship. This means you can take a year off, come back to work and still have a good two-to-three years of fellowship under your belt.

The first year back at work after having a baby can be a bit fuzzy and not as productive, so having a bit of extra time to increase your productivity before having to reapply for fellowships is really important.

Plus, if you go on maternity leave during a fellowship, you get paid maternity leave. I had my son towards the end of the third year of a four-year NHMRC Training Fellowship. So I pretty much came back to work and spent most of my last year of the fellowship stressfully applying for fellowships, instead of trying to complete experiments and publications.

Dr Allison McKendrick (ARC Future Fellow, University of Melbourne)

My older son was born about one year into my PhD (I was 25 at the time) and my second was my “thesis writing deadline” (he was born three weeks after submission). In hindsight it was a brilliant time to have kids as I didn’t have any sort of career to interrupt.

In the Australian system, most of the clocks start ticking – for example, for early-career-related grants – from the date that your PhD is awarded, so the majority of my maternity leave was completed prior to that time.

I was very fortunate to have a husband who was also a PhD student so we both had wonderfully flexible hours while writing up theses etcetera. At age 25 I was too young to think too deeply about any of these questions - you just get on with it.

The other advantage of having my kids younger was that I had minimal responsibilities – no PhD students to supervise, no lab staff dependent on grant success for salaries – so any decisions to take time off were my problem alone. I suspect it is more stressful to take a break if you have a lab full of people depending on you for leadership.

Dr Jacqueline Anderson (Clinical Neuropsychologist and Lecturer, University of Melbourne)

I had my children at the commencement of a tenured lecturing position. I think there’s no optimal time to have kids – having them will impact on your career regardless of when you have them. It never stops being competitive, even when you are tenured.

Dr Ayla Barutchu (Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Florey Neuroscience Institute)

I had my daughter half way through my PhD - a decision made up for me by medical circumstance. Now that I’m a mum, I realise that there’s no optimal time to have children. It was a good decision imposed by life. Sure, I’m exhausted and have all seven signs of ageing, but the end product is so worth it!

Dr Amelia Hunt (Lecturer in Psychology, University of Aberdeen, UK)

I was three years into my first permanent job when I became a mother. We don’t have a tenure system in the UK, but there is three-year probation period at most universities, and I was already pregnant when I passed probation.

I think there are better and worse times to have children, but no perfect times. In many respects it’s always a bad time – even if you have absolute job security, there will always be obligations to colleagues, administrators, collaborators, graduate students, and funding bodies that will weigh heavily on your mind.

Everyone around me has been nothing but supportive and understanding, but it’s hard not to feel a little conflicted about stepping away for maternity leave.

Dr Anina Rich (ARC Research Fellow, Macquarie University)

I waited until I had done an overseas postdoc (two years at Harvard Med School on a NHMRC fellowship) and had secured a permanent position at Macquarie Uni, as a senior lecturer, research only.

This position is ideal as I apply for fellowships to get my salary (or a portion of it) but if I miss out, the uni covers my salary, so I have security.

My daughter was born in June 2009 and my son in December 2011. This timing has been ideal for me. Obviously it isn’t always possible, but it’s easier to maintain publication rates and so on if you already have a few PhD students and established collaborations.

On the down side, that means you still have some work responsibilities during maternity leave. Even if you nominally pass your students to someone else for a few months, you can’t hold up their progress on papers etcetera.

I was still reading drafts, helping with response to reviewers, and responding to examiners, as well as working on grant drafts and rejoinders!

Overall, it’s probably good to have an established track record, if you can, before taking time off, as it gives you “proof” to back up your claim when you come back that you would have been (even more) productive but for a few kids.

Me (Senior lecturer and Research Fellow, University of Melbourne)

Like Anina above, I had my first just after returning from a post-doc at Harvard. My thoughts about the pros and cons of that timing are very similar. In respect to career, the opportunity to travel overseas and to focus all of your energies on learning new things, building strong collaborations and publishing as much as possible can be extremely beneficial when applying for jobs or fellowships.

I had no students so I could leave without affecting anyone else. In respect to fellowships, shear luck meant I had my first baby in March just as I was submitting my application for my next fellowship.

This was absolutely perfect as it meant any work done (or not done) after that point would not count for my fellowship anyway, so my time off did not disadvantage me in relation to my peers. By the start of the following year, Susie was nine months old and I was able to start the next fellowship working close to full-time.

With Max, born nearly four months ago, I’m a few years into my position at Melbourne University and have secured tenure so have greater job security, but in all other respects the timing has been far worse.

I have six PhD students who are all now in the middle of experiments. Not only are they disadvantaged by my absence, but the inevitable delay in publications means that when I come to submit my next fellowship application at the start of this year, my CV will have a two-to-three year gap in publications, leaving very little “evidence” that I am worthy of the next fellowship.

On any objective metric I won’t come close to competing against my peers, so the decision of whether or not I am awarded a fellowship will fall entirely to the subjective opinion of my reviewers to judge how much I would have achieved had I not had two children.

Of course the decision to return to work is the other side of the “when” question impacting both baby and career. This is such a personal decision I don’t think it’s appropriate to provide advice. However, as it is such a critical part of the Baby vs Scientist journey I similarly feel it can’t be ignored. I’ll be looking at that next time.

Until then, it would be great to hear your views.

See part one: Advice for balancing motherhood and a scientific career