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The Black Hole

Parental leave for scientific group leaders – changes needed

Two of the most useful and underrated things in the world of academic science are support and trust. Both can make such a huge difference at key moments of one’s career, and parental leave should be no exception.


In 2016, just one year into running my own lab, I took parental leave and wrote a series of articles about the experience. Two and a half years later, I’m doing it again. While many issues still stand, there are several new challenges and experiences that have made me revisit this topic today. Most striking amongst these is the different roles and responsibilities that have accompanied the growth of the lab, making it nearly impossible to fully detach oneself during the parental leave. Some of the issues can be addressed by good planning and support, but others are built into the structure of scientific research and require more significant change.

Jonathan has previously likened running a new academic lab to running a start-up company – the challenges are quite similar, especially when considering where the buck stops. Strategic decisions, financial decisions, and human resource decisions all need input from a CEO or lab head and many of these decision-making points cannot be fully predicted for a three to six month period in advance. If only one person can make a particular call, then they’d better be able to answer their phone and email reasonably promptly. I wonder how many young start-up CEOs take substantial chunks of parental leave? My guess is very few, but I’d love to hear some stories from our readers.

Before getting into my wish list for helping young scientist parents running labs, I think it’s important for me to emphasize that my personal situation is not a position to complain from and this blog entry is simply meant to highlight issues that my parental leave has made me aware of. Moreover, similar to my first child, I am taking leave when my child is five months old, which is a very different situation to a young scientist mother who has just given birth and is managing on newborn sleep patterns. My experience pales in comparison, but I hope the suggestions below are still relevant and could help all young academic parents.

Some major improvements require very little money

­Two of the most useful and underrated things in the world of academic science are support and trust. Both can make such a huge difference at key moments of one’s career and parental leave should be no exception. Below are a few easy (and virtually free) ways that colleagues can help:

  • Formalized administrative support – very few young group leaders get administrative support, in particular secretarial support. One of the easiest ways for a well-resourced department or department head to help their young group leaders is to formally allocate the time of their administrators to help during the leave period. Things like recruitment, email management, expense claims, manuscript handling, student paperwork – the list could go on.
  • Maintaining their presence – one of the hardest things to manage with young kids is travel, which typically translates into less time away at conferences, workshops, etc. Helping to ensure that the interactions that do happen have the most impact goes a long way. Again, senior members in the department can help here. When it comes to collaborations, research projects, etc – do not forget about someone on parental leave – give them the option to ignore a request, but don’t cut them out.
  • Provide technical and research expertise – when someone is away on leave, it typically means that the people in the lab (especially in a newly formed lab) are left to try and figure things out without a supervisor around. Someone is always writing a report, doing a big experiment, or needing something proofread. Colleagues can volunteer to do this when a supervisor cannot be reached.

Changing the system – Two heads are better than one

My last post touched on an idea that would see us move away from the single lab head model that dominates academic science departments – this could be incredibly helpful in the context of parental leave. One person at the helm means that nobody else has true decision-making power and this means that when the person in charge is away, all those things that need “signing off” cannot be completed without them getting involved. But importantly, “being away” is not exclusive to parental leave – health leave, caretaking leave, sabbaticals, and temporary positions of influence (policymaking, society leadership, etc) – all lend themselves to a system where two or more senior figures in an area of science making decisions would help resolve numerous issues.

Such a system would mean that institutions would invest in strategic areas and hire multiple people rather than fill roles with the hottest young gun in town (irrespective of how they fit into the larger institutional plan). Don’t just hire the best CV – hire a colleague for the next 25 years. If you think about how sports teams are run, you can actually learn quite a lot about sustaining and growing an organization: a team captain can move on to another club but the team continues, sometimes even more successfully than before. Letting an area of scientific research collapse simply because a single individual makes a decision to leave seems a very poor use of invested monies. Moreover, many labs already operate like this (informally) with lab “lieutenants” doing an incredible amount of work and effectively running substantial research programs while the “boss” travels the world doing public relations and fundraising. The lack of formality means that if that marketing figurehead leaves, all of that scientific excellence leaves too. Surely there is a better way.

To sum up, if you are in any sort of position of influence in your department or institution – think about the numerous inexpensive ways that you can give a helpful bump to those who find themselves away from their labs – little actions can go a long way. If you’re feeling a little bolder, put some money into it (Cambridge has tried this recently with a returning carer’s program), and if you’re really out to change the way we do things, start thinking about how we can break down the patriarchal model of single lab heads and focus more on team science.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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