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!