Monday, August 10, 2015

Strategies for Combining Family and Career

I read an interesting article this week about the challenges women face in having children while pursuing a scientific career.  It is "Balancing Family Life with Science Career" by Akiko Iwasaki in the August 2015 issue of Nature Immunology.  It has valuable advice for women scientists raising children that matched well with experiences that my wife and I had.

Science is a wonderful career track for people wanting to solve fundamental problems and follow their curiosity.  It can offer a diverse life-style with time split between such activities as laboratory work, interacting with students and postdocs, analyzing data, writing papers and presenting results at conferences.  However, it is not an easy path to follow.  Success depends on being able to identify important and interesting problems and to set up experiments to solve them.  Young faculty must create and manage a research group with students and postdocs.  Research funding is necessary but hard to come by in today's highly oversubscribed programs.  Papers must be written and have broad impact.  This is usually all in addition to teaching classes and serving on multitudes of committees.

Everyone is in the same boat and success can be obtained through hard work.  For women, an additional factor can be the desire to have children and raise a family.  Both men and women participate in family activities, but there is usually much more time off needed for women.  This can be a profoundly difficult problem and one of the factors in the imbalance of women and men in science careers as shown in the figure.

Figure Caption:  Demographics comparison for US general population and US science and engineering population showing the reduced fraction of women in science and engineering.  From Iwasaki (Nature Immunology, Aug 2015).

So, what can be done?  The article lays out several strategies that can help women have families while pursuing science careers.
1)  Prioritize tasks and change work habits:  There is not enough time in the day to do all work and family tasks, so priorities must be made.  Systematically rank-ordering the tasks according to their importance and due date can make it easier to decide where to put the most effort.
2)  Get help and get used to being imperfect:  It is difficult to ask for help, particularly for someone who values independence, but it is a key strategy for survival.  If handled well, students will enjoy helping and feel empowerment from it.  At home, a spouse or other family member may be happy to give more assistance and get in a routine of sharing the workload.  Things may not get done to the perfection level of previous stages in life, but perfection is not necessary.  Important is learning which tasks require the extra shine and which ones can get by with good enough.
3)  Enjoy family and work, and allow self-indulgences:  Learn where to separate family and work time so that each can be enjoyed as much as possible.  I like the statement in the article:  "parents cannot succeed at being parents if they keep worrying about work and checking their iPhones while playing with their children, and they cannot be productive if they keep worrying about their children while at work."  Hard to do, but valuable advice.

My wife (and I) went through the travails and pleasure of having kids while she was a young professor.  The advice given in the article is right on by our experience.  Through some trial and error, we developed similar strategies for her survival.  It would have been useful to have this advice ahead of time!


  1. I think this is a very nice blogpost. I'm sorry for abusing it for writing my personal perspective.

    I'm just terribly sad about one thing, and that Women in Astronomy only focuses on women facing issues in astronomy because they want to have kids. I haven't seen a single blogpost dedicated to women *not* wanting to have kids. We are one third of the population.

    Have you ever thought about the life as the other type of woman, who doesn't want any? Or you think she is entirely spared difficulties, just because she has time available?

    You forget about all what comes along. As if any woman who doesn't want kids, only makes the choice based on career. No, some just don't want that. Some have other dreams, hobbies, that do not involve raising a family. (Or cringe at the sounds of baby laughter, the sound of horror...!) In my case, having a child would be the end of my life, my values, my identity and any of my dreams.

    With enough pressure, especially from a beloved partner, depressions get longer and heavier, suppression of own dreams. The loss of a vision. There is no happy future, only a sad one. Even if one stays in science. The idea of suicide is more and more recurrent. I'm thankful I haven't done it yet. (No, this is not usual for me, despite being relatively young. No, I don't have any diagnosed psychological disorders. Not yet.) When you can't even go for a postdoc, because you are expected to carry a child you don't want. Go to the postdoc, and again, that is the end of your currently "happy" life. This is how it feels when the whole postdoc experience cannot be obtained without divorcing or separating. And yet, I can't say I really want to go away for a postdoc, because I feel good where I am and would wish to stay here forever. (The whole idea of postdoc is in our globalised world with Internet everywhere, just obsolete and disruptive for any personal life. As long as postdoc is a requirement -- farewell gender equality.)

    Then look at how female professors are talked about in case they don't have children. She has an "easy" time. Suddenly, no woman is jealous with them (maybe because she is lonely), she gets either pity or dislike. She will be more gossiped about as cold, unempathetic, selfish. People are harsher on her, requirements increase. She doesn't have a family, so she doesn't pass the societal personality test even in our academic world. She does not even get herself dedicated ever a page or discussion on any gender equality page or meeting. It's all about "Having a child" or "When/If to have a child". Never anything supportive for those deciding not to have any. Like if they haven't faced terrible personal losses and problems in career because of their choices.

    Sense an identity crisis? I try to take each day as it comes. The good days, I might not dream, but I don't walk around in pain. The good days, I can focus on science and do progress. But I cannot plan. I cannot dream ahead more than a few weeks or months. Once my contract runs out, I guess, this is the end.

  2. Anonymous - If you are interested in writing a guest post on this topic, please do contact me directly.

  3. Dear Anonymous,

    I appreciate the spirit of your post, especially since I am also a woman who doesn't want to have kids. Often we are forgotten. What resonated with me in particular was the part where you say that as single women, our other hobbies/interests and things that take up time are not valued as much since they are not children. I think that is an excellent point. And as Joan Schmelz says, it would be excellent to have someone (maybe you!) write about these issues.

    I was a bit concerned about you though with some statements in your comment about a heavy depression, some recurrent suicidal thoughts, feeling extreme pressure to have kids from a partner, feeling a pressure to leave science due to funding etc. It sounds like you have a lot on your plate. I would highly recommend seeking out a good therapist or psychologist at your institution if you haven't already. I have seen a therapist for the past few years and have found it immensely helpful. A few years ago I was diagnosed with a serious and potentially life-threatening illness. I felt for a while that there was no hope and fear of the future crippled me from working productively and daily tasks. I say this only to say that by working with a good psychologist, I was able to see that even if your outside circumstances don't change, there is always something you can do to make your situation better, or to change how you view the situation. There is a great book by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychologist, who talks about this very thing "Man's Search for Meaning" (it's short, and I'd definitely recommend it though it is no replacement for also seeing a therapist). Even in such a horrific situation, there are things that one can do to help their situation. The other piece of experience I'd offer up is that it took me seeing 3 different therapists before I found one that clicked. Often I hear people who seek out mental health therapy, but then they don't really feel a connection with the therapist, so they stop going and decide that it must just not help or be right for them. In my experience, you may have to try multiple people before you find someone you connect with.

    Best Wishes,