How do I be the parent and scientist I want to be?
February 23, 2011 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Can I take 2 or 3 years off after getting my PhD to be a parent full-time without seriously reducing my ability to be a researcher (not necessarily a professor) in the hard sciences?

I'm a female PhD student in the hard sciences. Theoretically (!), I have 3 more years to go until graduation. I get along very well with my academic advisor and enjoy my work. After this semester I'll be pretty much done with classwork. My goals as a scientist: to do useful, engaging, creative research at an academic, not-for-profit or government institution. To have a job at which I can have great conversations where scientific ideas flow. I do NOT necessarily aspire to be a professor, but I'm not totally against it.

I am 25, engaged to a man who ALREADY is the best partner imaginable. We agree that we would like to have a child, ideally in about 3 years, although obviously we're not totally in control of that. We don't own a house or car, but we have no debt and some savings. Both of us are close to our families (and eachothers'), but neither extended family is particularly close by, and we can't move for at least 4 years (job commitment, his).

Although parenthood isn't imminent, we've spent a lot of time (actually that's an understatement) thinking about how best to give a future child the best possible life, and in the process, I've found that some of my priorities have crystallized. Most of all, I find myself absolutely committed to being at home with the child for the couple of years. I won't go in to why that's so important to me, but I've even surprised myself by how strongly I feel about it. Given my personality, my idea of a Really Good Time (nature walks and hiking/running/swimming/sailing/biking, cooking, reading, playing music, documentaries etc.), and my very-long-standing love of being with babies and children, I think it would work for me.

In my perfect imaginary world, our child would be born shortly after I finish my PhD. I'd take a couple of years off to be a full-time parent. Then for the next couple of years, I'd get a postdoctoral position with some kind of flex-time option so that my partner and I could spend as much time as possible with the child (preschooler by then). I think it's important to note that my partner and I are committed to being equally involved parents.

I've read everything I can find on the internet about mixing babies with academic life. However, almost everything I've read assumes 2 things: 1) that I want to return to work after a few months and 2) that my goal is to stay in academia and become a tenured professor. Instead, I want to take a few YEARS off and although I'm not opposed to becoming a tenured professor, it's not my life dream and I'm totally open to other engaging research jobs in which I can do useful work. I have no desire for a "high powered career". I really do love science and research, and it's important to me to do good work, but I feel incredibly loyal to a child who does not even exist yet and know that I want as relaxed and balanced a life as I can possibly manage.

-Can I take a couple of years off after getting my PhD without ruining my chances of getting a postdoctoral or other research position? Will the fact that the papers I have (hopefully!) published are 2-3 years "out of date" be a career killer? Will my dedication to research be questioned? Will I have to work super-extra-hard to prove myself?
-Are you aware of any career paths in the hard sciences that DON'T discourage taking such time off?
-If you've done this, how did it work out for you?
-Keeping in mind that I'm willing to take some degree of risk to do what I feel is right, how foolhardy would it be to plan on taking a few years off after my PhD without lining up a postdoctoral position?

If anybody has encouraging words, I would LOVE to hear them. I really, really care about this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
As a data point, my husband took three years off after his PhD (and worked in industry doing non-research totally unrelated work, getting no publications or anything during that time), and then got a postdoc and returned to science. He is a bit behind other people in his field now and is finding it very hard to get grants or be competitive for jobs, since most people will look at number of years since PhD and expect a certain number of publications. But he is still managing okay.

You would be in a better position if you made an effort during the time you were at home with the kid(s) to keep up with the literature and publish a little. It can be done, as evidenced by the number of women who finish their PhD while single-parenting, but I believe it is really really hard.

Finally, if you don't think you really necessarily want to be a tenured professor, I don't think you should be thinking in terms of postdocs and so on after the stay-at-home-mother years. I don't know why anyone would sacrifice salary and quality of life to the degree that a postdoc brings if they weren't aiming for the prof prize at the end of it. Look into other research-related jobs that aren't exactly academia. What they are will depend on your field, and I'm not in the hard sciences myself, so can't help there, sorry.
posted by lollusc at 2:38 PM on February 23, 2011

My understanding of academia is that you sort of need to stay "hooked in" to succeed. I would think you might have more luck looking at government or non-profit jobs if you want to take time off. That being said, have you thought about waiting maybe 4 or 5 years to have a baby, instead of 3? I think you will be in a much better position for job-searching if you've gotten SOME work experience before taking 2-3 years off with the kid.
posted by Bebo at 2:40 PM on February 23, 2011

Why don't you just have the baby now or in a year, take leave from your PhD program, and then go back to it after the kid can go to daycare or a nanny? 25 isn't that scandalous of an age to have a baby.
posted by anniecat at 2:46 PM on February 23, 2011 [9 favorites]

Just throwing out an idea that others could discuss: What if you found a job in industry, get maternity leave when you have a child, then either quit/work part time for the next few years? Afterwards you could apply for a postdoctoral position and the brief work experience that was interrupted by a child might be a positive thing in the resume and nobody could question your dedication to research--you went into industry and realized that the academic world is for you. This plan would also provide a little more income for your future as well.
posted by ajackson at 2:56 PM on February 23, 2011

The earlier, the better.

During your PhD > after your PhD > after you begin working as a postdoc
posted by grouse at 3:22 PM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

As I understand it, there are two better times to have a kid in academia. The first is before your defense, when you are in candidacy. The second is after tenure.
I think that right after your defense is just about the worst time to take substantial time off. You need to strike into the job market while your research is still fresh and your contacts are still good.
posted by pickypicky at 3:40 PM on February 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have a good friend who is very much in your position and her decision is to get pregnant during the PhD, not after. It's easier to explain time off before you've finished than time off after you've graduated.

Best of luck to you!
posted by sonika at 4:38 PM on February 23, 2011

I had my first kid while in grad school (PhD, biochem), then returned when she was an infant and wrote my dissertation. It was doable but frankly hellish.

You'd have to have the world's most amazing advisor to take a few years off of school and then be welcome back. Remember that kid duty goes on 24/7 for years and years and years and years after birth. My advisor and my committee members essentially wrote me off as soon as my pregnancy was announced, though they did pass me to graduate. Your mileage may vary.

I agree with whoever above said you need to stay "hooked in" to stay in academia, and that's absolutely true in the wider science job market too. To be completely honest, I think the breezy statement of aspirations in your first paragraph suggest that you don't really understand how brutal the job market is, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future.

ajackson hits on a good point. Jobs in industry usually come with maternity leave benefits, but jobs in academia don't.

All this is not to discourage having kids--I've got two, they're the orchard of my eye--and there are lots of routes to satisfying scientific careers which can accommodate them. I work in industry now in a job I love and am good at, but it's not in the lab (thank god) and it took a circuitous route to get here.
posted by Sublimity at 4:55 PM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

nthing baby during PhD. No better time to disengage while having loans to fall back on.

I TAd after my son was born and did research lite for nearly a year.

Plus student parent daycare is cheap.
posted by k8t at 5:49 PM on February 23, 2011

phd in the hard sciences and parent here:

My goals as a scientist: to do useful, engaging, creative research at an academic, not-for-profit or government institution. To have a job at which I can have great conversations where scientific ideas flow. I do NOT necessarily aspire to be a professor, but I'm not totally against it.

unless you are in a really strong program and going to produce a kick-ass phd I would say this aspiration in total is right now ambitious. with a young child i'd say really low probability event.

Keeping in mind that I'm willing to take some degree of risk to do what I feel is right, how foolhardy would it be to plan on taking a few years off after my PhD without lining up a postdoctoral position?

in the hard science that i am most familiar with my peers are lucky to find a post-doc (in the US) at all. much depends on what hard science you are talking about as to alternative careers.

i wish the world were different. actually, i'm assuming you are doing this in the US, i think other countries do this slightly better, but still the assumption everywhere is that research level academia is a 60-80 hr/week job. frankly, the same is true of parenting young children and both academia and young children expect to have your undivided attention.

you *can* do it, but it is hellish and will be really hard on you, your partner, and your putative child(ren).
posted by at 6:53 PM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

It doesn't seem that everyone read the OP's comments that she's not really looking for a high-powered tenure track position. I don't know how skilled you are, but looking around, I certainly have not found that getting a postdoc or lab manager/project manager position is an impossible task. In fact, lab manager positions may be the way to go for you - they still run some experiments and contribute, and there's far less pressure to publish.
posted by namesarehard at 7:54 PM on February 23, 2011

Ask over here.
posted by LarryC at 10:58 PM on February 23, 2011

I didn't go past a master's degree, and I have not gone back to my career so take my experience/advice with a grain of salt.

After graduation and before I got pregnant I started teaching part time at a local community college to lay down some roots. This was in addition to a full time job in industry. It sucked and it was hard on the marriage and my pregnant body and stressed out mind. But I keep telling myself that it will pay off eventually. Once I gave birth, I left the industry job but retained the teaching gig on the side for income and also as a way to stay linked to the science community, even if remotely. I guess I don't have the outcome answer for you yet, but I hope I made the right decision. If you are as passionate about staying home and raising children as you say, then focus on the positives about that scenario. It's not easy, but if you can put aside the worry that it will be hard to get back into the game, you will enjoy your new family that much more.

I have to believe that more of us are making the decision to start families and so when it comes time to go back to work, there will be enough of us that employers will be forced to give us an equal chance. I'll keep my fingers crossed for us!
posted by Cheminatrix at 12:08 AM on February 24, 2011

Anecdatum: I didn't plan it this way, but I had a kid as a PhD student. Fortunately she was born right at the beginning of a three year dissertation grant that I received. For the first year, I was at home full time. I worked whenever I could, and I'm sure my productivity was lower than it would have been sans kid, but I didn't sweat it. The second year I left home for a few hours a day to go to work. It still gave me plenty of time with her, but also a (well-needed at that point) grown-up life too. In the third year, I wrote my dissertation. I would leave home for a few hours each day, as before. I think people's experiences vary widely, but having a kid as a grad student often gives you much more flexibility than having one after you graduate. It's a juggling act no matter how you look at it. I got pregnant unexpectedly, which was the best way to do it. I never had to worry that I made the wrong decision because I didn't really decide.
posted by stinker at 8:38 AM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

A (not yet tenured) faculty here.

Looking at current academia or even general post-PhD job markets, I am afraid to say your expectations are quite unrealistic. A post-PhD career is Sciences/Engineering does not allow any extended breaks for raising the children, period. Quite unfair, absolutely; while there are some exceptions, as a general rule, that is how it is.

1. You are in early stages of your PhD. In many cases, PhD students, myself included, do not even know what career they want to pursue till they are in the last year or two. So it is possible that what you will want a couple of years down the line will be quite different than your current aspirations.

2. If you are not aspiring for tenured professor jobs or a permanent job in national labs, why would you want to pursue a postdoctoral position from the get go? Postdoc positions are one of the lowest paying positions out there for a person with high credentials—they often pay lower than the average pay for someone with an undergraduate degree. This and 1 together, means that you will be better off focusing your energy on other options unless you are dead set on becoming tenured faculty.

3. Whenever you enter the job market, irrespective of your career choice, your most recent experience will far outweigh your previous experiences, however good they may be. If you have a child now, and then finish your PhD and start looking for a job, your career break will likely be ignored. On the other hand, if you follow your plan and start looking for a job when you are coming off a career break, you will be up against a disadvantage. This is the reason why many above have opined that it is far better to have children while being a PhD student.

4. Which brings me to an important point: I have seen many faculty members dislike if their students go on maternity leave, even for a few months. Unethical, immoral, perhaps illegal? Yes, yes and yes, and I will never do the same. But things like that do happen. A break for 2-3 years as you wish is really long, and not many advisors will be happy with it even if you have your own funding. So dont be surprised if you have to change your advisors mid-course if you decide to follow this option.

There are many good things about a post-PhD careers in academia or otherwise. But a good work-life balance, especially for women, is certainly not among those things.
posted by coolnik at 6:15 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

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