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The Black Hole

The baby gap – who was that postdoc anyway?


Editor’s note: A few weeks back, Jenn and Erika shared their stories about being postdoctoral moms (here and here). Today the stories continue with a point by point entry and a Q & A response on the major challenges associated with the period away from the lab… 

A blank year on the CV
Child-rearing is an “acceptable delay” in training, and does not count towards eligibility requirements for Canadian federal fellowship funding opportunities – problem sorted right? Au contraire, friends, since private foundations and/or international positions do not always specify whether parental leave will count towards any limits in your post-PhD training period. However, even if the gap is explained in this way it also means that elements of your personal life will be made clear to prospective reviewers and employers. Legally this should not have an impact on their decisions to fund or hire you, but many debates have been sparked here and elsewhere as to how safely one can assume it will not factor into the decision.

Interrupted opportunities
Grant cycles, manuscript submission processes, field seasons, abstract deadlines and conferences…  the list goes on. Many of these elements will be “in progress” at the beginning or end of a parental leave. There are no specific guidelines on how to accommodate for this while you are away on leave, and it will depend on your situation and your supervisor. Erika will address this specifically in an upcoming post about the need for travel funding for postdocs on or returning from parental leave.

Science progresses
The work will carry on both in your lab and elsewhere. What happens to your project will depend on your supervisor and how quickly your particular research area is advancing. Perhaps it is reasonable to put the experiments on hold and wait for a year, or perhaps the collection of highly specialized models used for your project simply cannot ramp down and then back up in a year, or maybe you or your supervisor want to keep the data coming in with or without you. These are all highly individual issues that may require substantial coordination with your lab mates and supervisor, or even some personal sacrifice to ensure your departure has minimal effect on your success as a postdoc when you return. At the moment postdocs are on their own in mediating these potentially complicated issues, so in all likelihood a significant amount of flexibility will be required on their part to minimize the impact of up to 12 months of leave.  Hopefully you might get the same flexibility from your university, supervisor and lab mates – hopefully….

So what is it like to be away for a year?

Jenn: Honestly, I left on my last day with a tremendous sense of sadness, knowing I would never be the same when I came back. This is perhaps not the typical response for moms-to-be on their last days of work before parental leave! Many friends inquired that I must feel pleased to be finished with work for a while, to take a break. But that is just not how I felt. I really enjoy my job, the science and my colleagues. I liked the freedom of being able to work weekends and evenings, and never minded putting in long hours. Work was near the very top of my priority list, and I knew that was about to change and I had uneasy feelings about it. Many moms out there in the blogosphere have discussed the fact that, while we may have chosen (or struggled) to have a family and are thrilled and excited to become parents, it represents such a physical and life change that we can also experience a sense of loss for our former lives and lifestyles.

Overall, I’m pleased to report that it wasn’t as difficult to be away as I had anticipated. Once I had two infants to deal with, the lab rapidly faded into the background, which was comfortable enough since I knew it would reappear on my horizon. Having twins possibly forced me into essentially cutting off my “old” life more thoroughly than I had planned, and I enjoyed the elements of my new life as a mom (of course, I did not get around to writing that review though!) I did keep in touch with the odd email or contribution to writing, and even attended an important group meeting with a collaborator, with sleeping babies in tow in the stroller. I was keen to start poking around in the lab again as soon as was reasonable. My husband had a flexible schedule and therefore six months after the birth of my twins I was able to return to work one day per week while he was at home.

The government of Canada encourages a part-time return to work for folks on parental leave, as you may earn up to 25 percent of your weekly EI benefit without having anything deducted. Unfortunately UBC does not permit paid part-time work while on parental leave, despite the government policy, so it is dependent on your institution regulations. I was able to work it out with my supervisor that I would put in those days and when I returned to work I would start at four days per week until the time was made up in lieu. I was extremely motivated to keep my foot in the door at the lab, it was completely my choice, and I believe it made my transition back to full time work easier for myself and my family, as well as for the lab. Leaving the kids at home is a whole other kind of struggle, but I was on my way to finding a balance.

Erika: Having a baby doesn’t just impact your productivity for the duration of your parental leave. Every pregnancy is different and researcher activities differ widely. For example, I am a biologist who does both lab and field work that can involve dangerous chemicals and heavy lifting. I also had a high-risk pregnancy, was extremely ill during my first trimester and was on periodic bed rest in the second and third trimester. When I got pregnant I essentially stopped all lab work and only did very light field work on a couple of occasions. Instead, I focused on data analysis and writing manuscripts. I managed to submit four manuscripts while I was pregnant, which meant that I had four papers come out while I was on mat leave (making it look like I was still “productive” during that time).

Before I had my son, I had big plans to continue working on manuscripts in the evening once he was asleep, do data analysis during naps, catch up on reading papers while breastfeeding. Yahhhh…not so much! My son was not a good sleeper and I was up with him three to four times a night until he was over nine months-old. That being said, science doesn’t stop just because you are on maternity leave. I did manage to edit manuscripts from co-authors, submit revisions for manuscripts and even apply for a couple jobs. My philosophy was to turn down all reviewer requests and only focus on very important, time sensitive tasks. I decided to return to work two days a week once my son was 10 months-old in order to ease back into research. I really missed science and was just itching to get back into the swing of things. I’m really glad I did that because it gave me some extra flexibility for the first couple months once I returned to work full-time.

Other parents have different experiences entirely. Some babies sleep through the night by eight weeks and take 2.5 hour naps twice a day, so you may still be able to do a bit of work. Other babies may wake every hour for months on end. Some babies get sick and you may end up taking frequent, terrifying trips to the hospital. Again, you can’t predict how things will go for you. Just do your best and try to enjoy this time.

Our wish list – give support to postdocs taking leave.

  • Permit postdocs the choice to work part time. This allows them to add to their salary, to keep in contact with the lab, and to remain productive if they are interested in doing so. It may also be particularly useful in research professions where experiments, grant cycles and manuscript submissions may stretch on for months and may overlap with leave time.
  • Universities should offer some dedicated paternity leave – as in Quebec where five weeks are available – such that men may partake in the benefits of being at home with their brand new babies, and that taking leave for family reasons becomes less of a gender-specific issue. (Point of clarification: Maternity leave = 17 weeks of paid leave for new mothers; Parental leave = 35 weeks of paid leave for new parents that can be taken by either the mother or the father; Paternity leave = suggested period for new fathers to be taken shortly after babies are born).
  • Set up supportive IT services to permit postdocs to access data and libraries remotely. Note that Elsevier provides postdocs free access to books and journals on ScienceDirect for up to six months, which could be useful for postdocs on parental leave who are also between positions.
  • The creation of an Ombudsman would be helpful for mediating difficulties with individual lab policies regarding project allocations, and other circumstance-specific difficulties for postdocs and graduate students who take parental leave.

Things that worked for us:

  • Love it or hate it, productivity is primarily measured by publications and secondarily by conference presentations/invited presentations. Before you go on parental leave, submit as many manuscripts as possible. Offer to give guest lectures and departmental seminars.
  • Collaborate with people who will continue working with minor input from you while you are busy incubating and raising your baby.
  • Try to generate a backlog of data that is ready to be written up once you get pregnant, or when you return to work. This can help sustain you while you get new experiments started, plan field work etc…
  • Surround yourself with supportive, family-friendly people.
  • Find other parents who are in a similar situation. You need all the support and understanding you can get, especially during those early months.
  • Keep your expectations in check. Other parents can be particularly useful with feedback in this regard. It is very difficult to predict how much and what kind of work you will be able to do once you are pregnant or you have a happy / colicky / good sleeping / terrible sleeping / multiple-baby family at home!
  • Participate as much as you comfortably can, both in your work life and in your new parent life – there is much to be gained from both experiences, and they will impact each other.

What do readers think? Share your tips and ideas for supporting postdocs in the comment section below…

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. Claire / June 25, 2014 at 15:16

    I am an associate professor and just coming off my first maternity leave, and (while I’m in the Humanities and this is generally geared toward the Sciences in practices and metrics) I don’t think I could have hoped to be a fraction as “productive” as this column suggests/urges/imagines. There were plenty of times I would have liked some time to think (let alone read, let alone write), but caring for an infant proved to be the full-time job that EI, bless it, envisions. And one that really only does come once in a lifetime. As fate would have it, my partner (also an academic) had a research leave during this year as well, and even with that added advantage, I was lucky to keep up with email. My productivity would be measured instead in loads of laundry …. So my hat goes off to the authors!

  2. Jeff / June 25, 2014 at 22:49

    Why are you doing a postdoc, anyway? You have only 20% chance of making it to faculty:

    I had F32, applied for positions (including Canada), got nowhere…

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