Monday, December 9, 2013

NSF's Career-Life Balance Initiative: A Small Success Story

Guest Post: The below post was submitted anonymously by an astronomy post-doc. 

I recently was in one of those exciting conversations with an NSF Program Officer in which s/he is providing feedback from the review panel that is suggestive that your grant has been approved for funding given a few minor tweaks.

Then the bomb dropped. NSF would like the start date to be in the coming few months and the program to launch this summer. PANIC. I am a post doc just ending the first trimester of my first pregnancy, I haven't yet told my advisor who is also on the phone, and I am due at the start of the summer, exactly when the NSF would like for the program to launch.

In retrospect, I now know that start dates for NSF grants can be flexible, but being relatively new to the process, I wasn't sure if not being able to honor that start date would be reason/excuse for the review panel to ultimately turn down our proposal.

If the NSF hadn't launched its Career-Life Balance Initiative, I am afraid that my next step would have been to just accept the start date as is, take as short a maternity leave as possible, and run this program that I had worked so hard to create.

Without the advertisement and vocal advocacy by NSF leadership that a cultural change is occurring within their agency, I would not have felt that my impending delivery of a child was an appropriate topic to bring up with a Program Officer. I still hesitated to bring up the topic because, as a post doc without stable, long-term funding, I want to avoid at all cost bringing up anything that might have a negative impact on my ability to secure funding.

But because of the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative, I felt comfortable bringing the topic into the conversation, first with my advisor. I framed it that we could use the NSF initiative as leverage for my advisor to advocate for me to still be the Program Director and not to just find someone else who could fill the role and start the program on time. Also, I am incredibly lucky to have an extremely supportive and understanding advisor who has been a champion and advocate for me throughout.

And perhaps at least in part because of NSF's cultural change, the Program Officer was empowered to grant the request for a later start date. Truthfully, I worried in particular that the Program Officer would be a dinosaur, someone who wouldn't understand and wouldn't see this as a relevant point and who would, for unconscious or conscious reasons decide not to fund us at all given this new piece of information.

Instead my Program Officer's response was ideal. He cited NSF's commitment to supporting work-life balance and use of flexible practice (like the start date for a grant) to enable these words to be reality. He also went further to share that he is personally a strong advocate of these new policies, not the least because he is a new father himself and has personally seen the importance.

I am so thankful that this was my first experience with the potential mine field of the intersection between funding and having children. Granted there is much more work to be done to improve policy and practice around these issues (as just one example, providing suitable paid maternity and paternity leave for grad students, post docs, faculty, etc.), but to keep momentum and optimism, I am happy to help celebrate the small successes along the way.

Addendum: speaking of small successes, I happen to also be the person who posted about postdochood and infertility. Have to say, after those hard months of trying different fertility interventions and feeling like this was another piece of life that might remain out of reach, I actually enjoyed the nausea of the first trimester.