Can we talk about doing science and raising children?

Researchers open up about the unique challenges of starting families during training — and offer tips for juggling the dual demands
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When I was writing my Ph.D. thesis, all I could think about was babies.

This is undoubtedly not what I am supposed to write, as a working mother, as a former scientist, as a feminist.

I will be the first to admit that my growing dissatisfaction with laboratory research spurred some of those baby fantasies.

I was reaching the end of a Ph.D. program that I’d long assumed would lead to a postdoctoral fellowship, the standard next step on an academic research career track, and then a faculty position leading my own lab, like the scientists I’d worked for in my career to date. But at some point during graduate school, that path stopped making sense to me. I’d fallen out of love with science — or at least, with doing science.

It was a weird feeling, to be making progress on such a well-defined career track and then to just suddenly — not be. 

I went through a lot of soul-searching about what the rest of my career should look like. I didn’t know any scientists my age who had children. I didn’t know any scientists five or six years older than I was who had kids. Although they certainly exist, in my limited sphere I saw very few first-hand examples of scientists who juggled raising children with experiments that sometimes went around the clock. While many careers, of course, demand long hours, certain types of laboratory research can be uniquely inflexible.

In a conversation at my university’s career counseling office about possible next steps after finishing my Ph.D., I asked the counselor which science careers might mesh well with starting a family. He told me I was the first person to ever ask him that kind of question.

In the end, I finished my Ph.D. and then decided to focus on science communication — a career choice that melded my loves for both science and writing. But in terms of how to best meld career and a new family, it was a decision I reached largely without guidance.

For whatever reason, many of us don’t talk enough about how to make a career at the bench work with having children. I’ve often thought back to the conversation I tried to have with my career counselor and wondered how many other budding scientists ran into the same roadblock.  While not everyone wants children, those who do can be left to sort it out by themselves — like I was.

So let’s talk about it. 

Dr. Alice Berger
Dr. Alice Berger Fred Hutch file

Finding support

Dr. Alice Berger, a cancer geneticist who joined Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in her first faculty position this fall, said she gave some thought to better or worse times in her career to have her three children. She got pregnant with her first child after defending her thesis in graduate school but before she was ready to leave the lab, so that her maternity leave lined up between graduate school and starting her postdoc.

“That was pretty good timing,” said Berger, who had just returned to full-time work after a maternity leave with her third baby at the time of this interview. “But the problem is you can never really plan 100 percent when you want to have a baby. So you also just have to make do.”

Berger had her second child in the middle of her postdoc, which she said was much more challenging, workload-wise. But a female faculty member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where Berger was training, suggested she talk to her faculty advisor about keeping her project running during her maternity leave. Berger did, and her advisor assigned a research technician to conduct experiments in her absence, which really helped keep her research momentum going, she said.

“That was huge. That was really supportive of him,” said Berger. “Not everyone’s going to have that, but you can always ask.”

Having that kind of support is essential, said researchers I spoke with. And it helps if the institution itself is committed to being family friendly.

Fred Hutch has two main initiatives already in place to support scientist parents: Hutch Kids, a very popular on-site daycare which was started more than 25 years ago in part to address gender disparities at the Hutch, and a monthly childcare subsidy (based on income) for postdoctoral fellows and qualifying graduate students that can be used at any state-licensed daycare.

The Hutch is one of the few institutions in the U.S. to offer a childcare subsidy for postdocs, although many universities offer similar programs for graduate student parents. (Some graduate and college students who work in Fred Hutch labs also qualify for the University of Washington’s longstanding childcare subsidy program for students.)

Dr. Gary Gilliland has been vocal on the subject of supporting young families in the two years since he’s been at the helm of Fred Hutch as president and director. It ties closely to his goal of overcoming gender disparities at the faculty level. Fred Hutch mirrors nationwide trends in academia with its gender split among scientists: More than half of Hutch postdoctoral fellows are female but less than 40 percent of faculty members are women.

“We need to support our scientist families — that includes both parents — but through Hutch Kids and other efforts we think we can be especially impactful for scientist mothers to help close the gender gap on our faculty,” he said.

As Gilliland alluded to, while both male and female scientists have children, the competitive pace of the academic career path can disproportionately affect female scientists. For those who want to have biological children, delaying until they have a tenured faculty position might increase the chances of fertility problems. Depending on their timing, maternity leaves or pregnancy-related disability can disrupt sometimes inflexible grant application cycles or long research projects. And scientists who are mothers still bear many of the primary childcare responsibilities, especially early in a child’s life.

2011 study from the University of California, Berkeley, found that tenured male faculty in science are close to 50 percent more likely to have children than their female counterparts. And 28 percent of female postdoctoral fellows change their career goals due to future plans to have children, as compared to 17 percent of male postdocs.

The itinerant scientist problem

Nearly all scientists who want a faculty job need to complete both a doctorate program and a postdoctoral fellowship (or, for their physician-scientist counterparts, medical school, a residency and then a research fellowship). In the end, most academic scientists-in-training are in training for a long, long time.

But the training positions, by their very nature, aren’t permanent. And the pay, even for scientists who have completed their doctorates, is fairly dismal, especially if you are training in an expensive city — and many of the top research institutes are in expensive cities. And it’s difficult to predict your next career step or even where you’ll be living with any reliability.

“Here’s the inherent problem: Everyone wants to be done and have a permanent job by the time they’re starting a family, plus graduate students and postdocs just don’t make enough money to reasonably support a family with the price of daycare in Seattle,” said Dr. Karen Peterson, the mother of an 11-year-old son and a former postdoc herself who now heads Fred Hutch’s Office of Scientific Career Development. “So you delay and you delay — and then it’s too late.”

Dr. Alexander Neves
Dr. Alexander Neves Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

By the time scientists are finished with their postdoc (or their second postdoc) and ready to look for a more stable, relatively more lucrative faculty job, they are often well into their 30s. Even scientists who leave the academic research track for other jobs in science, such as industry or teaching positions, often still complete a postdoc. Some academic scientists wait until they have a faculty job — or even several more years until they have a tenure in their faculty job — before starting families, but many can’t or don’t want to delay having children that long.

Dr. Alexandre Neves, a Fred Hutch postdoc studying the biology of stem cells in fruit flies and father of two, describes this period of his career as being an “itinerant scientist.”

“At some point you need financial stability to raise kids, particularly in Seattle,” Neves said.

In addition to the lack of job stability, Neves pointed out that academic researchers often move to where the best job is, sometimes thousands of miles away from home, meaning very few of them have extended family living nearby that can help with young children.

That’s where having a supportive supervisor and institutional culture can really make a difference, the researchers said.  But it’s also important to acknowledge that no matter what, parenting is messy and regardless of what kind of career that parents have — or if they even work outside the home — no one will ever feel they are doing it perfectly.

Making it work

Many of the scientist parents I talked to said the level of difficulty juggling parenting small children with work can depend on the type of research they do. Scientists who do much of their work on computers, such as statisticians or computational biologists, might have an easier time keeping their productivity up while working from home or odd hours to accommodate their children’s schedules.

As Fred Hutch biostatistician Dr. Ruth Etzioni and mother of two put it, “you have to be very efficient … you have to be able to focus with a lot going on around you.”

Nearly every researcher has some work that can be done remotely, and all the scientist parents I talked to say they often work on grant applications, writing scientific papers, or analyzing data from home. But for some scientists, their work can’t always flex around their children. So something has to give.

Dr. Sujatha Jagannathan with her husband, Dr. Srinivas Ramachandran, and their daughter Aditi
Dr. Sujatha Jagannathan with her husband, Dr. Srinivas Ramachandran, both postdocs at Fred Hutch, with their daughter, Aditi. Photo courtesy of Drs. Jagannathan and Ramachandran

Dr. Sujatha Jagannathan, a Fred Hutch postdoc studying a type of muscular dystrophy known as FSHD, said that she’s just had to come to terms with days’ or weeks’ worth of work going “down the drain” if she is unexpectedly called away from work for her 3-year-old daughter, Aditi.

That’s because Jagannathan works with human cells in petri dishes that need to be carefully tended, and her experiments are precisely timed to those cells’ growth. She can’t do her experiments from home, and if the cells are ready for her experiment but she’s at home with a sick kid, she has to start over from the beginning.

“Something is going to crash and burn,” she said. “Say I have six days of an experiment and I’m on the sixth day, if [my husband]’s not in town and she gets sick, then I go. There’s no wiggle room there.”

Jagannathan’s husband, Dr. Srinivas Ramachandran, is also a postdoc at Fred Hutch.

“On a long timescale, there’s a slight slowing” of his research after having a child, Ramachandran said. “Even if you schedule really well, you can’t keep up.”

Having a family with two postdoc parents has some advantages, Jagannathan and Ramachandran said. They both have flexible schedules and supportive mentors who trust the two scientists to manage their own time and experiments. That type of workplace flexibility, where managers don’t care about employees’ hours as long as their projects are completed, has been shown to help working parents — especially working mothers — stay in the workforce.

But for two-scientist families, the occasional late nights in the lab and crunch periods for research projects or grant application deadlines requires constant negotiation.

“We have to constantly talk about who can be with her when the other one has long experiments,” Jagannathan said.

“It’s a lot of coordination,” Ramachandran agreed.

Tips from Fred Hutch researchers

Thinking about combining a career in science with a new family? Our researchers and experts offered a few tips for what may help:

  • Any parent is well aware of the need to build child care costs into their budget. But daycare prices can cause sticker shock in new parents. If you’re simultaneously searching for new job positions and thinking about starting a family down the road, look into ways potential employers might help, from on-site daycares to paid parental leave to child care subsidies. And get on daycare waitlists as early as possible, said Fred Hutch’s Dr. Karen Peterson. In urban areas like Seattle, high quality daycare is in high demand.
  • Scientists might not think about how collaboration can help them outside the workplace too, said Fred Hutch geneticist Dr. Alice Berger. But her close collaborations during her recent postdoc helped keep her research running even on days she had to duck out for a few hours to tend to a sick child, she said.
  • Not every lab or every employer will have the budget or personnel to cover for a scientist’s parental leave time, keeping research projects going in their absence. But it doesn’t hurt to ask, Berger said.
  • If you’re not a scheduler and a planner now, that will likely change after having kids. Both Berger and Neves said they never used their calendars before children — and now they schedule everything.
  • But it’s important to recognize your limits. “I’ve learned to be comfortable with the fact that I’ll never get to the end of my to-do list,” Berger said.
  • Take advantage of your strengths. Research can apply to life as parents too: “You’re really good at gathering information and making decisions,” Peterson said. “You’re going to be good at finding out the best daycares, where’s the late night doctor’s office when my kid has an ear ache.”
  • While very few people can time their pregnancies exactly, Peterson said, “think about what the best time is for you.”
  • But in the end, having children is a part of many scientists’ lives, no matter when it happens, Peterson said, “and that should be celebrated.”
Do you want to talk about doing science and raising children? Join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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