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The Black Hole

Parental leave: the poor man’s sabbatical


Editors note:

This entry is the third in a series on taking parental leave as a scientific group leader.

  1. Could parental leave actually be good for my academic career?
  2. Taking parental leave: I’m glad I’m not a postdoc

Getting a job in academic science is not easy. The hours are long, the work is intense, and there is no clear relationship between amount of work and success. Jonathan and I have spent a long time describing our journeys on this blog and have welcomed insights from people in other fields as well – all painting a picture of high-pressure environments that don’t think much of failure.

When you finally jump onto that faculty ladder (no matter how tenuous your grasp on the bottom rung), you breathe a huge sigh of relief and then tuck in again for the next “judgment” milestone, where – again – failure is not particularly well tolerated.

Now, however, you find yourself in such a position where your attention gets pulled in many directions – usually some combination of teaching commitments, grant applications, university committees, broken equipment, human resource crises, etc. The really lucky people get them all coming to bear down on them in the same week. The list requires prioritizing and stuff at the bottom often gets missed.

Enter parental leave.

First thing is first – being a parent can be physically exhausting. Sleep becomes very precious and often you find yourself incapable of thinking about anything remotely complicated (especially not your science!). But, the detachment from the lab and its administrative duties gives your subconscious brain a workout, it allows you to process big questions like “why are we asking that question anyway”? (Side note – I would guess that this is what a sabbatical is meant for, but the non-tenure track research group leader career path doesn’t exactly have sabatticals… parental leave is the poor man’s sabbatical I suppose!)

Normally, the pressure to succeed prohibits this kind of blue-sky thinking. Instead of considering whether you should be asking a question, you’re already halfway through answering the question and you need to just finish the job so you don’t end up with a dreaded gap in your CV or publication record. Yes, this is what we’ve turned academic science into… bean counting.

On one hand, it was incredibly stressful to leave a newly minted laboratory and its members to their own devices for 3.5 months. On the other hand, though, the freedom from the task-to-task routine and damage control is mentally liberating and has allowed my head to roam in the clouds. I’ve written before about the importance of downtime and cited kayak trips and long walks as the source of good ideas and strategy. Well parental leave has been an even longer period of reflection on priorities and I think it’s been hugely beneficial (we’ll see what happens when I trot back into the lab next month!) from a big picture point of view.

At the end of the day I guess my real point is that we need to dedicate protected time to think about our scientific approaches. Learn to block off this time in your week or the day-to-day checking of boxes will quickly consume you. My former supervisor, an incredibly busy man, used to block off entire mornings to read Cell, Science, Nature and NEJM in order to just sit and think about his lab’s approaches and how they fit into the bigger picture – there’s a real lesson here, learn to say no and protect the time that’s important to you and your (actual) success.

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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  1. Sarah / October 12, 2016 at 14:52

    I wonder if new mothers would describe their experience of maternity leave as “downtime.”

    • David Kent / October 12, 2016 at 15:01

      Dear Sarah,
      My apologies for the confusion – I did not refer to the parental leave period as downtime (quite the opposite actually!), but rather referred to another article that I’d previously written on the importance of downtime.
      Parental leave (for me at least) has been an extended period of time away from the minutiae of the day-to-day and when my mind is free to do some thinking, it is from a very fresh perspective as a result.

    • Claire / October 12, 2016 at 15:03

      Indeed. When I was on maternity leave I did take a lot of long walks, but I can’t say I was focusing on “good ideas and strategy” so much as the baby.

  2. C. Hunter / October 12, 2016 at 15:03

    This doesn’t apply to mothers, as the article’s title makes perfectly clear.

    • Michelle / October 12, 2016 at 15:44

      OK, so C. Hunter is correct that the article title is explicit that the article is not about mothers. However, the article title does suggest the article might have something to do with parenting (as in parental leave), but that appears not to be the focus either. David Kent responded to another commenter (Sarah) to clarify he did not mean to suggest that parental leave was “downtime” He does suggest parental leave is a way he has managed to “dedicate protected time to think about [his] scientific approaches.” Parental leave as dedicated time to think about scientific approaches?? That is odd.

  3. Ariane / October 12, 2016 at 17:56

    This article makes me uncomfortable. I don’t believe that parental leaves should be perceived as sabbaticals in disguise… Don’t parental leaves already contribute to the gender gap? See this article : It’s about the States, but I wonder if it’s not the same in Canada.

    • David Kent / October 13, 2016 at 00:01

      Dear Ariane,
      First off, thank you for the link, it highlights an incredibly important point about the undocumented and physical costs of carrying a child. It also gives me a chance to promote what I see as a much more gender balanced solution for extensions (one applied by the European Research Council). They give the mother an 18 month extension irrespective of how much leave they actually take, recognising the time and physical demands of carrying, producing, and nursing a baby. Men are granted an extension for the time they officially take off – recognising that if a man is legitimately taking time off to be primary carer, that this should be encouraged. I’ve not yet heard major complaints about this and see it as a major advance on the blanket 1yr policy in the article you sent.

      As for the sabbatical comment, I can only apologise again for this and try to clarify:
      The article tries to conclude that mental breaks are good things and protected time to think about your work is important but in no way did I intend to suggest that people should flock to having babies to achieve this.
      I’m simply trying to point out that my leave has been a break from my lab that has once again made me realise how important these breaks are. (Side note – I don’t mean ‘vacation’ when I say break, I simply mean not being there for an extended period.

      Overall after this and other comments though, I do wish to emphasise that I am trying (and apologise if I’m failing!) to move the system toward better gender parity by getting these issues discussed and getting the best solutions put forward. In that mission thank you again for sending through the article on well-intentioned policies that haven’t worked as well – we all need to learn from such things and push forward better policies.

      • Ariane / October 13, 2016 at 11:12

        Hello David,

        Thank you for taking the time to answer my comment. The policy you mention is very interesting and I would love to see more initiatives like this one implemented.


  4. Peter Ives / October 12, 2016 at 23:06

    How disappointing that such a gendered thing as parental leave has no gender analysis. I was on parental leave a while ago now, but it was amazing to me how differently as a man I was treated by my colleagues and everyone. First off, everyone congratulated me for taking parental leave. Second, there were no snide comments like those I’ve heard about women taking parental leave that they are not contributing enough to the Dept., etc… I’ve read several studies recently about how differently having children effects women’s versus men’s careers, etc… Of course, as many parents and non-parents note, having kids can bring great perspective to many parts of one’s life. Perhaps UA should get some women for this series.

    • David Kent / October 12, 2016 at 23:44

      Dear Peter,
      Great points – This is the subject of an earlier article referred to at the top.

    • David Kent / October 13, 2016 at 04:26

      Also, we’ve had female academics write on parental leave here before:

      And we’d welcome guest posts again, especially if they are accompanied by sound and practical proposals for what we can do to improve the situation.

      • Peter Ives / October 13, 2016 at 09:50

        Thanks David. Yes, your first post did reflect anecdotally on the differences between your own leave and your partner’s. And made what to me is the crucial point about one of many sexist dimensions of how parental leave is perceived and practiced. But this still seems to me insufficient in such a gendered subject as both parenting and academia — esp in the sciences, as your first post pointed out. For example, though you don’t mention it, isn’t it interesting but predictable that those who you quote noting your decision to take the leave are women? And I also think the ‘poor man’s sabbatical’ is a poor choice for words in general (both in its gendered nature and in that it downplays the labour of childrearing as others have noted) but esp. for the title! I think if we are going to alter gender relations in academia, gender can’t be something focused on in an initial blog and then seen as having been dealt with. And then to add that women guest authors are welcome with the caveat esp. if they offer sound and practical solutions — a stipulation I didn’t think you applied to your own blog.

  5. Jacqueline Homel / October 13, 2016 at 07:44

    This seems to me a dangerous idea. It’s estimated even the most placid baby needs 9 hours of hands-on attention every day. In the first few months much of this care falls to mom, especially if she is breastfeeding. In my experience with a new baby I haven’t had time to blow my nose, and my brain is taken up with this awesome but overwhelming little person. I do not have the time or energy to think big thoughts about my research. It took me a whole day to write this comment because l couldn’t get a baby-free moment.

    For early-career women in particular, parental leave has a career cost due to missed networking opportunities, missed grant deadlines etc. If we start expecting parents (and it is mostly women) to do big-picture work while on parental leave, this will compound the career cost of having children.

    • David Kent / October 13, 2016 at 07:55

      Hi Jacqueline,

      I agree with you completely that we cannot expect (and should not encourage) people to work during their leave. I also agree that the first months are a completely different ballgame than the period at which I am on leave (5 – 8.5 months) with at least some sleep-filled nights. As I mentioned in my article (and the previous one), everything takes longer with a child and my brain also cannot handle “deep thinking” on most days.

      The point of the article (at least the one I tried to convey) is that the separation from my work has allowed my brain to process things in the background and now that I am close to returning to work, I feel that I have a new and fresh perspective because of this break. It took me parental leave to have this break because we do not get sabbatical leave (which is where the title came from) and what I am trying to encourage is more room for thinking (not more thinking during parental leave). Obviously I need to work on delivering the messages more clearly in my articles.

      In the end, we desperately need to protect against the loss of female academics and in order to achieve this, we need to have long conversations about our evaluation metrics. We try to put some ideas forward here, but hopefully readers (and guest bloggers) will continue to add their suggestions for reform to these pages.

      Thanks for your comments,