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The Black Hole

Taking parental leave: I’m glad I’m not a postdoc

As a group leader, I’m in a better position to take some precious time off.


First things first: as anyone who has taken parental leave can surely attest to, things take longer than you think when little ones arrive in the house. Here I am more than halfway through my 3.5 months of parental leave and I’m only now sitting down to write about it for the first time (apologies to those who have been asking for updates!). As readers will know, I wrote about my impending parental leave earlier this year and set off a flurry of comments/emails (mostly supportive!) about the decision to take time off in the first year of my research lab’s existence. My partner (also a scientist) is currently back in the lab after taking the first five months off with our son. Overall, I can say it’s been a fantastic personal/family decision and I would not trade it in for the world. The impact on my career is yet to be determined, but my fingers are crossed that the negative impact will be minimal.

I figured it was best to break things down into manageable chunks for readers and today I am reflecting on the thought that’s been at the forefront of my mind when I dwell on the issue and really inspires the need for change in the system.

“I’m massively relieved that I’m not a postdoc”

Time and again, especially when I chat to colleagues with kids who are still postdocs, I am thankful to be taking leave as a group leader and not as a postdoctoral fellow. Perhaps I’m a glass-half-full type of person and compare in order to make myself feel positive about my own situation, but it seems to me that the hardest time to have kids in an academic career is during postdoctoral training (see previous posts on here from postdocs with kids). I also believe this is one of the major negative consequences of longer training times on the retention of female scientists – more to come on that in future posts for certain.

For now, I thought I would outline the three main reasons why I think it’s been a benefit to take leave during the group leader stage.

  1. Experiments are still getting done
    When you run a lab, your people are still there – you can still touch base with them and things can still tick along. I’ll write future posts about strategies I’ve employed to help this along (some successful, others not so much), but it is definitely not as severe as pulling the lead person (the postdoctoral fellow) out of a project for a number of months.
  2. Much of my work is on a computer
    Nap times are for getting jobs done around the house, but on a good day (e.g., today!) there is some time to squeeze in some computer work. If planned well, you can still be somewhat productive with things and since much of my work is now writing, reading and thinking (rather than performing experiments), the barrier to getting things done is much lower.
  3. I have some degree of certainty in my post
    My job is funded for the next five years as a group leader (and this is often the length of first positions for research scientists). This means that no matter how difficult and unproductive this period is during my first year as a group leader, I have four more years to recover and I know how productive I can be in four years if necessary – the breathing room is an incredible luxury. Compare this to the situation of a postdoctoral fellow and you’ll see shorter terms (often rolling six month or yearly contracts), an inability to extend beyond the lifetime of a supervisor’s grant (thereby cutting the total research time short), a reduction in the eligibility for many “starting grants” based on years post-PhD or age, and an overall sense of career uncertainty (i.e., very few postdocs are going to get a group-leader job anyway).

This uncertainty drives decision-making about families and in a family of two academics often results in one of them leaving – and I can count on one finger the number of men I know who have left so the mother can run her research group. I don’t have enough digits to tally the number of women I know who have made that choice. At the end of the day though, there will never be an ideal time to have kids, but the postdoctoral stage seems the least ideal. For me this was age 28 through to 33. The average age for mothers to have their first child in Canada is 28.5 and over half are over 30 – notice a similarity in the timing? What a disgusting time to have virtually no career stability and low wages!  Like I said, more to come on this in future posts too – in particular, how we can better support people at this uncertain time.

There remains a long list of other things to share with readers about parental leave, but nap time is almost over, so you’ll have to wait for the next instalment. These will definitely include “Strategies for keeping in touch with the lab” and “The benefits of mental vacations,” amongst other tidbits.

In the meantime, if readers feel strongly about this issue or others affecting early career researchers, please do consider writing something to share – we’re always keen to get new people on board to share their thoughts (and potential solutions!) on the problems facing young scientists.

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. Paul Brant / September 12, 2016 at 20:11

    What is a Group Leader? – I do not think that I have heard that term in Canada. Aren’t many post docs funded by the granting councils two years. I know that these positions are unionized at some universities and that conditions are improving.

    • David Kent / September 13, 2016 at 10:55

      Hi Paul,
      Group leader is running an independent research group in a UK university, it’s like an assistant professorship in a research-focused institute, generally less teaching and often not tenure track (e.g., mine isn’t).
      Conditions are getting better, but the gender gap is still massive at the more senior levels and I know from meeting these people that it is not a case of quality imbalance.

  2. David Lynch / September 13, 2016 at 03:39

    Firstly, I’d like to commend Dave on his decision to be the dad he yearns to be, to build an intimate and enduring relationship with his child, and learn to be a father in a way most of us never had the chance, because our dads were out at work, in our early development years. I, of course, understand the point he makes about the financial and career sacrifices of parenting, and the particular impact on women in science, and support any campaign to create a level playing field in the workplace. As a workplace wellbeing trainer, I witness the consequences of career sacrifices on the mental health and happiness of successful professionals. What I experience of Dave is a brave exploration of true co-parenting, making a real difference to his son’s life, at a crucial point in his cognitive and affective development, while risking the potential deleterious impact on his career. My sense is that his paternal leave is strengthening his competence, wellbeing and reputation as an valuable member of our community.

  3. ALB / September 13, 2016 at 10:41

    While I appreciate the perspective this article present and I offer kudos to the author for taking his share of parental leave and for finding a leadership position, this isn’t a novel idea and I wish the author had taken the opportunity to address some of the root issues. I certainly agree that having kids during a post-doc is not ideal and I suspect most (especially female scientists) would prefer to wait until we are in a more stable position. I don’t think that is a surprising piece of information, and certainly the author does make some acknowledgement of this towards the end, but doesn’t really address any of the issues or offer solutions or advice. Rather the article seems more of a “whew…glad I’m not there anymore” and the ‘advice’ could be summed up as wait until you get a job before kids.

    Unfortunately, many of us don’t have much of a choice. I would love to wait until I have the elusive faculty job before I have children. That was the plan. Too bad many universities have a hiring freeze, aren’t replacing retirees and/or are simply too happy maintaining a poorly paid army of post-docs to keep the research engine humming along. Meanwhile I am getting older. Plain and simple. If I wish to have kids before my mid-40s, it looks like it needs to happen as a post-doc. Is this frustrating? Scary? Poorly timed? Perhaps all of the above but the reality is that there simply aren’t enough permanent jobs for PhDs that I feel I have the luxury of waiting before I have severely impacted any chance to have children. And let’s not even talk about how scary it is to think about maternity leave impacts on a career that even after finishing my PhD 5+ years ago doesn’t even feel like it’s started.

    • David Kent / September 13, 2016 at 10:52

      Hi ALB,

      First of all, thanks for your comments. The article wasn’t meant to be “advice”, but rather is was meant to highlight exactly the issues you raise – the issue is that the average age to get the position is increasing and there are very few efforts being made at a systemic level. We have discussed some potential solutions on the blog before and these include:

      1) Funding agencies need to make provision for having children at all career stages – this includes extending eligibility windows for grants, extending funding for those who go on leave, allowing time to return to work (e..g, Cambridge has a returning carers programme)
      2) CVs could be blinded in the initial assessment of abstracts, grants, etc in order to ensure that anyone with career gaps isn’t unfairly tossed aside (and rubbish proposals are culled even if they are from important groups)
      3) More research staff scientist roles (i.e., a permanent postdoc type position) need to exist – stable job, non-PI track

      There are many others that have been raised, this is just a flavour of the type of action that is needed – as always though, we’re delighted when readers take it upon themselves to raise and address issues with proposed solutions in guest posts.

      Thanks again.

  4. Brett / September 21, 2016 at 13:20

    Good on you David for continuing to write about the issues young scientists face. My wife was lucky enough to land a research associate job (union, essentially a technician) in the University of Calgary, and bypass the entire post-doc fiasco. We are in our late 30’s so this came just in time. We now have a daughter because of this position.

    It is worth mentioning that her PI is a woman and gives most everyone in her lab either technician, or research associate status so that having children is possible. Good on her and unconventional to say the least. As this blog has described numerous times, another elephant in the room of science is that very few PIs are women. It turns out hiring women PIs may benefit the future of science in more ways than one.

  5. Christine / December 23, 2016 at 05:53

    Thanks for sharing your insights. It completely makes sense that you are happier taking leave as a group leader than as a post-doc, but even as a PhD student. Many of my friends decided to have kids during their PhD degrees and while I’ve graduated four years ago now, they are still going at it. Not only did the experiments stop during their parental leave but worse, their resources were redistributed. When they returned, it was like starting the PhD again from scratch from the experimental side of things. Setting up their space, getting the resources back, etc. Seeing this happen I decided not to have kids then and am happy I didn’t. Of course also because other things were not as aligned that I wanted them to be for this big step. How would you say management from the group leader can help post-docs and PhD students who do make the decision to start families can help them when they return?

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