“It’s a balancing act alright”

The problem:

“Family formation (marriage and childbirth) is a key factor for the departure from the STEM workforce between Ph.D. receipt and achieving tenure for women in the sciences. Needed progress can take place only through changes in the attitudes, policies, and practices that inform how we educate the workforce and manage in the workplace.”

“It is timely therefore to provide incentives that will effect change in institutions that result in gender-neutral policies and practices that lead to the increased participation and advancement of women scientists and engineers in the scientific enterprise”. ~ Dr. Subra Suresh (http://www.nsf.gov/career-life-balance/)

It’s personal:

This problem has and continues to impact MY career progress in some significant ways…

Impact 1: I took 8 months off after my post-doc to be a stay at home mom with my son (and recover from going straight through undergraduate school, the intensity of grad school, and the whirlwind of my post-doc….getting married and having a baby….  Blah blah blah).  After this ‘break’ I found that there were no tenure-track (TT) research jobs in the area I re-located to with my new family.  So I taught for a year in a non-research position at a small liberal arts college before finding, and being hired, for another non-TT teaching job at a major R1 university. After 1.5 years of heavy teaching, I applied for, and was offered a TT- job at this institution! Because of my side-ways approach, I am almost 3 years behind my male peers who finished their PhD at the same time.  NIH did not extend its Early Investigator Status (ESI) for me beyond 6 months. Its about to expire, and I’ve only been running my own show for 3 years now. That kinda sucks.

Impact 2: I cannot drop by my office or lab with my son to pick up something I forgot or left at work. Why? He is not allowed access to my floor in my building due to a biosafety mandate in the building! Mind you the office corridors are completely separate from the lab corridors. When I mentioned that this put me at a competitive disadvantage with my peers, the Dean of my department actually suggested that an easy “work around” would be to get my PhD students to watch my son in the lobby of the teaching floors…..yeah…that’s what I’m paying my students for right?  Not like I need them to be doing experiments or anything….the results of which directly support MY career progress, as well as THEIRS.

They are working on it:

Change will come as the problem is at least now recognized by major funding and education agencies (if not by my former Dean).



These issues, however, will not change in the immediate future.  So you (and I) have got to find a work-life-balance and not let the current culture deter us from a fantastic career.  We’ve got a good thing here!

How can YOU (and I) manage in the meantime?  Here is a list of 10 ways I found to manage and maintain a work-life-balance in my career:

  1. Create a list of priorities.  Your kid? Your spouse? Your pet?…create dedicate time to focusing in them.  Work is off limits for me from 6-8:30 while I make my son dinner and hear about his day.  Period.  Exception to this rule: the week before a major grant is due.  Then I call in all reinforcements.  Everyone come watch my kid because I am “ALL IN.”
  2. This leads me to “Have Rules” to protect your sanity and the things that are important to you, but realize there are defined times when these rules must be bent if career success is to be had.
  3. Time management.  I write critical things best in the morning.  I reserve 3-4 h in the morning at least twice a week for intense writing session.  (Three times a week is best and I feel accomplished no matter what I wrote or edited.)  It’s so easy to respond to every email and request early in the day so that you get that feeling of accomplishing a whole bunch.  But then you realize, that while many things are now checked off, your mind is not as fresh or as innovative as it was before completing all these mini tasks. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” on mundane tasks that no one will die over and that don’t have the likelihood of directly funding your lab if you do them well (like submitting grants and writing papers)!
  4. Don’t forget your friends.  They love you.  They need you.  And they are totally impressed with the smallest, tiniest thing you have accomplished at work.  Their energy and support of you (and their hilarious shenanigans) is a major relief.
  5. Friends or spouses can tag along to conferences.  Great memories and professional development. I got to really know and understand a collaborator when our spouses joined us for a national conference.  We were free to talk science while the boys talked trash.  We are truly friends now and work very well together (as in working on 3 grant applications at the moment).
  6. Make friends at work!  You don’t need a bunch.  1 or 2 is more that enough.  These are great sources of mutual support. No one truly gets your triumphs and disasters as well as those in the same boat. No long preamble needed to get that high-five or commiserating “that sucks” pat on back.  These can even be faculty at a neighboring institution in your city and don’t necessarily HAVE to be at your same institute to be a great benefit. 

    Baseball mom in action.

    Baseball mom in action.

  7. Have work, will travel.  Its nice to be able to do a lot of this job on the go? Except for the actual lab experiments, and teaching of course, most of the other responsibilities can be done anywhere!  I often bring work to my son’s baseball practice.  But come game time I am all in and focused on the game.
  8. Take time to enjoy the freedom and flexibility that comes with most research jobs (as grad, post-doc or TT faculty).  Work out mid-day.  Wake up and write parts of grant/fellowship at home in bed, before going in to work on experiments or have meetings.  Work on your manuscript edits under the dryer at your hair appointment (alternatively you can use this time to schedule the cable/internet/phone company to come on a service call).  Leave mid-day for focused data analysis or writing at coffee shop or library.  Find what you enjoy the most and take advantage of this aspect of this career.
  9. Limit lab work to 1 or 2 days a week or a particular block of hrs each day.  This way you won’t be tempted to let experiments be a distraction for the other work that needs to be done.  Lets face it.  If you’re in biomedical research you probably love doing experiments, but they take time!…and can distract from the other things that MUST be done.
  10. People have said it before, but I will say it again.  Say “no”…to excess committee work.  Pick one university level committee and serve on it until you get through your 3rd year pre-tenure review.  Then, if there is something you are passionate about working on, volunteer for ONE committee to serve that purpose.  No one gets tenure for amazing service (a thousand people have said this!) so do something that is in your heart, and you personally feel passionate about helping with, and say no to additional requests.  If asked for a reason, state the facts “ I am keeping my head to the lab and grant writing desk until I get tenure…or a major grant”.  They get it.  That’s what they want from you anyway!

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