Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Staying competitive after family leave

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The following is a condensed version of a piece written by Andrew Hopkins (Head of AAT Science, Australian Astronomical Observatory) related to ways of staying competitive after taking family leave.  It was in response to a CSWA Newsletter article:
"Proposal Writing After Family Leave : Request for Advice"

I have mentored women who have dealt successfully with the issue of winning proposals after taking family leave.  My basic advice boils down to:
1. Count how much of your time has been "research active" (i.e., equivalent full time research), and

2. Present your productivity relative to the time you've *actually* had for doing research. This will always make your case substantially stronger: E.g., if you've been employed in a research-only position for 3 years, then had 12 months to have a baby, then returned to a position where you were doing an 80% admin/teaching load for 2 years, then had a 50/50 research/support position for 2 years, you've been "doing research" for 8 years, but you've actually only had 4.4 years of research time.
You can make a strong case for your research productivity and impact by looking at your citation metrics, such as the "h-index", but also importantly the "m-index" (Hirsch, 2005, PNAS, 102, 16569). Hirsch defined the m-index as the h-index divided by the number of years since the first publication. This makes the implicit assumption that the researcher is publishing continuously over that period. Redefining the m-index to be h divided by the number of "research-active" years gives a much more representative metric for people who have not been in full-time research positions. Be sure to explain that this is what you've done, and why you've done it so that the readers don't mistakenly assume you're just misstating or erroneously inflating your statistics.

I would strongly recommend that this approach be taken by all researchers, regardless of what official requirement is requested in the application materials. If the official requirements in the application specify performance over the most recent 5 year period, and this has not been your most productive time, feel free to add extra information detailing your most productive 5 years, and qualify why this has been added by stating explicitly that the recent period is not representative because of the interruptions to research time.

On top of that, many people who move into more senior research positions find that they spend time mentoring students and junior researchers, who end up as first author of the resulting publications, even though a lot of the initiative and direction for the research has been done by the supervisor.  One approach here is to ensure you are named as second or third author systematically on publications for which you are the driving force. You can then state explicitly in fellowship applications that papers where you are named as second/third author are those on which you have led or directed more junior colleagues or students. This allows you to retain the recognition for projects you have initiated and directed, while the students/postdocs still get appropriate credit for leading the work. Moreover, this can be sold as evidence for research leadership/management, which is an important aspect you need to cultivate to keep moving up in the research hierarchy.

These are only a selection of strategies that you might consider implementing. I'm sure others will have alternative, or additional, suggestions that will be equally well worth considering. In the end, if you have a career that includes time spent doing things other than research, you need to be comfortable in presenting that in an honest way that gives a sufficient minimum of detail to allow the assessors to rank your productivity given the time you've had available to do research.