Many young researchers struggle with their work-life balance. Especially for researchers with a family, it is challenging to divide their time and energy between home and work. The question “is it possible to be a parent and have a career in research?” keeps many researchers up at night.
Guest post by Liesbet Peeters. Liesbet is a postdoctoral researcher at the Hasselt University, Belgium (2017). She is a mother of two, Janne (2013) and Jules (2015) and the wife of Maarten. Currently, she works part time (1/3 career break).
First up, I would like to rephrase this question into: “Is it possible to be a GREAT parent and have a GREAT career in research?”. Because this is what we truly want. To answer this question, I philosophize about three question: 1. Does being a great parent affect your career in research? 2. Does a great career in research affect your role as a parent? 3. Could you be a great researcher whilst being a great parent?
Spoiler alert: in my opinion, the answer to these three questions is YES. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the answer to the main question is as straightforward.
But let me elaborate.
Does being a great parent affect your career (in research)?
I asked a young and recently appointed professor whether or not she would evaluate herself as a “good” mother, she replied: “Yes, I believe I am… because for me, family is a priority. But that also means that I will never have a great career in research”. When I asked her why the first immediately implied the latter, she replied: “because it is impossible to compete with those that work day and night and sacrifice everything”.
Of course, all depends on your definition of being a “great” parent”. This definition is very personal, ranging from expecting to be a stay at home parent to being the perfect “household manager” that ensures the children are always being taken care off (mostly by someone else). This article focuses on parents that choose to (temporarily) de-prioritise their career to take care of their children. This can be done in all kinds of ways, for example to take extended maternity and/or parental leave, a career break of any kind or to increase “flexitime” or work from home more than what is “usual”. Shane Rodgers encourages this in his article “The career advice I wish I had at 25”. He states that if you have skills, commitment and passion, careers tend to take care of themselves and that it doesn’t matter if you have a few years when your career is in canter mode while you prioritise young children. The question is, if this also applies for a career in research?
The post “How to become of a professor” summarizes 10 parameters a selection committee will evaluate when selecting a new professor. They include, among others, the ability to raise money, publication track record and teaching. Next to this extensive list of conditions, many research institutions tend to limit the postdoctoral period to preferably 3 to 6 years. Even if you focus solely on your career during your postdoctoral period, it is challenging to meet all requirements to become a professor in this (limited) time frame. It becomes nearly impossible when you take time to take care of your children.
The competition to become a professor is deadly. Only 3 to 5% of all PhD holders and about 10% of all postdocs succeed in becoming a professor, whereas nearly 80% hope to pursue an academic career (read more here) . Therefore, (temporarily) de-prioritizing your career will for sure affect your success rate to meet the requirements a selection committee expects you to accomplish. Especially because most researchers wait until their postdoctoral period to start a family. This implies that these 3 to 6 years during which a postdoctoral researcher has to “prove” his or her capabilities, are often the same during which they want to have children. For your career (in research), it would be best to have children when you are still very young (for example 18), so your children are older when your postdoctoral period begins. But is this the advice we want to give to young researchers?
Does a great career in research affect your role as a parent?
A researcher I once met at a conference said “sure, I miss my children and I would like to spend more time with them. However, I have these few years to prove myself and I want to do everything in my power to be successful and have a career in research.” He continues “I am tired and stressed out. The question is not if the bomb is going to burst (resulting in either a mental break-down or a marriage crisis), but when? And maybe, the bomb has to burst. Because this is a situation I cannot take much longer”. But what saddens me the most, is that he ends the conversation with: “please do not spread the word that I said this, I do not want anyone to think I can no longer take the pressure. I am fine.”
“A successful career in research” can be defined in different ways (read more here). Here, “a great career in research” is defined in the most classic way (and also the most commonly used) meaning with a focus on getting a permanent position as a professor as soon as possible, having a lot of high impact publications, receive a lot of funding and having a huge research group (for other indicators, read more here).
People often say: “it is possible to have a successful career in research, if you are just committed enough”. Our usual starting point is that all depends primarily on the depth and intensity of one’s commitment to his or her career. It is assumed that the person sacrificing the most, is the most committed and therefore the one that is entitled to have the best career.
Without any doubt, many researchers sacrifice a lot (to almost everything) for their career. They consume all their time and energy in research. Not rarely, they give more than they have. This can result in over-tiredness, anxiety and even burn-out or depression. But even as important, investing all time and energy in a career/work, can affect relationships with friends, colleagues, partner and family. This affects our well-being. Robert Waldinger explains this in his TED talk entitled “Lessons from the longest study on happiness”. This talk summarizes the results of a study in which 730 people with very different background have been studied on happiness for over 75 years. He explains “we are constantly told to lean in to work and to push hard and achieve more. However, the lessons we learned from this longest study aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder. The message we get from this longest study on happiness is: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Full stop.” Sacrificing almost everything for your dream, can leave you broken and defeated when the dream doesn’t come true. And with a success rate of 3-5% to become a professor, this chance is quite likely for a career in research. In addition, sometimes achieving your dream can be less fulfilling as you hoped it to be.
But besides the effect of going in full for a career in research has on your own well-being, it most certainly affects your role as a parent. Paid parental leave is associated with better maternal and child health, lower maternal depression, lower infant mortality, fewer low birth-weight babies, and more breast-feeding, preventive health care, and immunization. It is also well-documented that maternal employment in the first year, particularly if full-time, is associated with poorer cognitive development and behavior problems, for some children (Waldfogel, 2007, Focus). Children thrive in nurturing relationships with parents. Decades of attachment and developmental research and newer neuroscience findings firmly establish that child’s early years from a lifelong base. It is important to know that children derive their sense of self-esteem by the quality and quantity of direct care provided by their parents. To the degree parents are available and active in the lives of their children, the children develop an internal sense of self-worth. They also develop a sense of trust in a caring world. Beyond self-worth and trust, time with parents allows for the transmission of values and morals. In spending time with one’s children, offering guidance, direction and discipline along the way, the children naturally pick up on their parents’ attitudes, beliefs, morals and values. Assuming reasonable parents, their time with the children thus begets reasonable children.
But it is not only the amount time spent with children, but also how we spent this time. Ellen Galinsky, executive editor of Work & Family Life and president of the Families and Work Institute, interviewed a diverse group of 1,000 children, ranging in ages from 8 to 18 about changes they would like to make in their parents’ work lives. The results were compiled in the book, “Ask the Children”. Overwhelmingly, kids said that they wished that their parents would be less stressed and less tired from work and what matters most to them is the quality of their relationship with their parents, not whether they work. Being stressed out from work, therefore not only affects our own well-being, but also our children.
Could you be a great researcher whilst being a great parent?
Again, it all depends on how you define “being a great researcher”. My personal definition of being a great researcher focuses on completely other things as stated above when defining “a great career in research”. The post Potential indicators of “success in science” summarizes results and indicators of being a great researcher. However, it does not describe the characteristics of a great researcher. For me, a great researcher is more about owning a certain set of soft skills. A great researcher is creative, innovative and looks to the world from a different perspective. Therefore, he or she has to ability to have insights that not so many other people have. Great researchers can change the world, just by changing the perceptions of others by allowing them to see the world through their eyes.
Working outside their home and being a good parent at the same time is possible and in both of these tasks there is much to value and treasure. Ask the Children looked for differences in the ways employed (part-time or full-time) and non-employed mothers are viewed by their children. Surprisingly, the researchers found no differences. In fact, “having a working mother” was never the main factor in how children assessed their mothers’ parenting skills. On the other hand, it make sense that having children does not affect your “intrinsic” value as a researcher. Therefore, it is perfectly possible to be a great parent and a great researcher. However, as stated above, it is almost impossible to meet all requirement to become a professor in the limited time frame provided for postdoctoral researcher AND remain available for your family during this period. However, to my opinion this is not the most important reason why young researchers are afraid to (temporarily) deprioritize their career. Indeed, this issue could be overcome by extending the contract or correcting the requirements to account for career breaks and/or parental leave.
More importantly, many researcher believe that decisions to enable a better work-life balance, will be interpreted as a lack of passion for research or ambition to become a professor. But what people forget, is that “passion” and “ambition” are feelings. Although feelings often define your actions, your feelings are not defined by your actions. Assuming that choosing to parent affects your passion is wrong. Assumptions are just that: things we believe that are not necessarily so. Yet, what we assume has an enormous impact on our perceptions and responses. Fortunately, changing our assumptions is up to us.
Often people argue that parents have made a choice. That they choose to have babies, so they alone should wear the consequences of that choice. Although it sounds correct, this stands ignores a fundamental truth: our procreation on a national level is not optional. The babies that researchers are having today will one day fill our work place and possibly our university. One could argue that in an working environment where competition is high, there is no room for “other priorities”. However, losing smart and motivated parents not only diminishes a university’s talent pool; it also reduces the return on its investment in training and mentoring. In trying to address these issues, some firms are finding out that parent’s ways of working may just be better ways of working. Spending time with your children can increase your creativity and insight. Experts on creativity and innovation emphasize the value of encouraging nonlinear thinking and cultivating randomness by taking long walks or looking at your environment from unusual angles. In addition, children teach you a lot more than you teach them. Charles Baudelaire wrote: “Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” No parent would mistake child care for childhood. Still, seeing the world anew through a child’s eyes can be a powerful source of stimulation.
So returning to the main question: “Is it possible to be a great parent and have a great career in research?”
I believe the answer is:
BUT NOT TODAY….”
Change is difficult, but possible. To reach a different situation, we should act differently. And with “WE”, I refer to a lot of different responsible partners in this story: ourselves, members of selection committees, research institutes and governments. Everyone has to contribute on different levels. Changing our perceptions, expectations and assumptions would already make a difference. In the following paragraphs, I give some examples of necessary changes that could make it possible in the future.
Redefine the Arc of a successful career
I strongly believe that parents can “have it all”, but not at the same time. Many define a successful professional as someone who climbs the ladder the furthest in the shortest time, generally peaking between ages 45 and 55. However, why should we not define it differently? We could think about the “climb to the top” not in terms of a straight upward slope, but as irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips) when we turn down promotions to remain in a job that work for the family situation or spending a year or two at home or on a reduce schedule. Why it is that we have to choose between “all or nothing” when it comes to choosing to have a great career? Assuming the priceless gifts of good health and good fortune, a professional can expect his or her working life to stretch some 50 years, from early or mid-20s to mid-70s. Parents who have children in their late 20s can expect to immerse themselves completely in their careers in their 40s, with plenty of time still to rise to the top in their 50s and early 60s. Isn’t it a bit short-sighted to kill someone’s career based on the decisions they make during a certain period of their life? People having a very high intrinsic value as a researcher should be given a chance, even if this means their tenure track starts later in life.
Compensate properly for pregnancy, parental leave and/or career breaks
Some funding organisation extends the (post)-doctoral period with one year for every pregnancy and some evaluation committee take pregnancies into account. However, this is definitely not always the case. Extending the contract with one year for every pregnancy and an additional extension for every break (maternal and/or parental leave and/or career breaks) is only fair, since this time could not be spent in research. In addition, supporting researchers to spent their time more properly can also improve work-life balance. Spending your time with great focus enables you to meet the requirements to become a professor, without feeling overloaded.
Encourage ROWE – which stands for results-only work environment
This concept, created by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, seeks to demolish the decades-old business concept that equates physically being at work with productivity to promote a workplace that is based on results. Ressler and Thompson: It’s a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence. Long hours are one thing, and realistically, they are often unavoidable. But do they really need to be spent at the office? To be sure, being in the office some of the time is beneficial. Still, armed with e-mail, instant messaging, phones, and videoconferencing technology, we should be able to move to a culture where the office is a base of operations more than the required locus of work.
Being able to work from home – in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends – can be the key, for a parent, to carry your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments. Allowing researchers to determine the best way to manage their schedules so as to ensure maximum productivity while being able to manage personal obligations. Space for play and imagination is exactly what emerges when rigid work schedules and hierarchies loosen up.
Set your own boundaries and an example for others, because children matter.
Having great parents setting an example for others is very important. Parents having a successful career in research pave the way for others. Michelle Ryan explains in her TEDx talk why having role models is important “What we can see is that women’s ambition drops over time as they have an increase in the perceptions that the people that have been successful before them are very different from themselves. They come to believe that the chance that they will be successful is getting smaller and smaller as they get further on. When we think about work life balance, we think about issues of “time”. The time we spent at work versus the time we spent at home, with friend, with family or in hobbies. Time does play a role. However, what is just as important as time, is how one feels about the work place. You feel that you have a good work life balance, when people like you have been successful before you.”
No matter how hectic your life becomes, set aside time each day for your youngsters. Let them know just how important they are to you, not only through words or gifts but through a commitment of time. Nigel Marsh states in his TED talk: “Small things matter. With the smallest investment in the right places, you can radically transform the quality of your relationships and the quality of your life. Moreover, I think, it can transform society, because if enough people do it; we can change societies definition of success. Away from the moronically simplistic notion that the person who dies with the most money (or most publications) wins, to a thoughtful and balanced definition of what a life worth living looks like.”
And finally, let it goooooo….
If you have children, you probably know the song of Elsa in Frozen. Make it your team song and settle for less. Get help wherever you can and prioritize. Good tips can be found here: 12 strategies to combine a successful career in science with a healthy family life. And remember, being a good parent and have a good career is already a high goal to achieve. Often, there is no happiness in extremes or greatness…
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all researchers that gave feedback. Special thanks go to Sven Hendrix and Sara Reymen of “TEXTUEEL” for their detailed feedback.
- Waldfogel, J. 2007. Meeting children’s needs when parents work. Focus, Vol. 25: p63-66.
- Galinsky, E. 2000. Ask the Children: The Breaktrough Study That Reveals How to Succeed at Work and Parenting. Harbers Collins Publishers.
- Slaugher, A-M. 2012. Why women still cant have it all. The atlantic. July-August Issue