Our first daughter was only 8 weeks old when we moved to Cambridge for my husband to start his PhD while I worked remotely on the data collected just before I went on maternity leave. I was extremely fortunate that my mentor at the time, Dr Karen Spencer, was happy for me to work wherever was best for our young family. I was also very lucky that Prof Nick Davies at the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge was happy to host me as a visiting researcher after I returned from maternity leave – I was even given a desk in the Behavioural Ecology group and allowed to supervise students. I could not have wished for a more supportive setup!
It was a huge transition returning to work but now having an 8-month old to take care of. I started off working only 3 days per week so that I could still spend most of my time with my daughter. However, I ended up feeling like I was a lousy researcher as I could not get all the work done that I wanted to in those 3 work days, and I felt like a rubbish mum for not dedicating all my time to a new human being who could not feed herself nor walk yet. So there was a LOT of feeling guilty and inadequate in that period. A month after returning to work, a lectureship opened up in the Zoology Department, and I applied. To my huge consternation I was actually invited for an interview! However, I was also supposed to finish writing a special-issue journal article and I had only 3 days/week to cram everything into. It was extremely stressful trying to do it all, while thinking that the other lectureship candidates could work and prepare for the interview 24/7 if they wanted to, and while my daughter was still waking up 5 times a night to nurse. I felt like a zombie and was sure that I would embarrass myself in front of the whole department that had become my academic home.
I was not offered the lectureship, but I did not screw up the interview either, and the whole experience was very useful. However, I had only one year left on my post-doctoral fellowship, and so I had to start applying for fellowships again. The next year I basically did nothing but write fellowship applications. My Marie Curie was rejected. I was then invited for a NERC interview but was eventually rejected as well. At this point I was convinced that I would have to give up on academia. Similarly convinced that I had no transferrable skills whatsoever, I had started looking at vacancies at coffee shops, and was attempting to scheme a plan to somehow serve coffee during the day while doing science… in the night, in between nursing the baby?? That would leave no time for sleep, but who needs sleep anyway… (actually I need ca. 8 hours/night to function properly…;-)
I’m still not sure how/why/whether this actually happened, but in a few miracle months after hitting rock bottom I was interviewed for, and offered, a Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research Veni fellowship, an Oxford University Edward Grey Institute independent fellowship, and a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship. I felt so lucky and grateful that I was sure I’d get hit by a bus very soon after, as it just seemed like too much good fortune. I accepted the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, which is specifically designed to accommodate flexible working patterns for academic parents and others with caring responsibilities. I do not know of many other institutions that provide this type of support and I am so grateful to have been awarded it!
Fast-forward a year later, and I am interviewing for a lectureship at the University of Exeter- Penryn campus, while my 2nd daughter is 5 months old and sitting on my lap as I try to have coherent conversations with the interview panel members and future colleagues over lunch and dinner. It must have been unimaginable even a few years ago to take one’s baby along for an academic interview. I had dear friends looking after her while I was doing the actual interview and giving my job talk, but still I would say that things have changed immensely in terms of accepting and accommodating motherhood in academia. I am also lucky that my new department is very welcoming to young families and accommodating to flexible work requirements.
I’m not sure I am really positioned to give advice, as this implies that I’ve got everything sorted out, which is definitely not the case. However, here are some thoughts on what I’ve learned along the way:
31/3/2017 12:34:15 am
Neeltje, many thanks for sharing with us your experiences of combining motherhood and a career in science. I enjoyed reading about them. A few years further down the track in this combination, I can say that things do become easier when your children go to school. But it is still a long hard road if one aims to get back up to the levels of productivity required to be competitive for funding at national/international levels. One of the problems is that grant reviewers don't seem to know how to evaluate an interrupted track record. I have had reviewer comments ranging from "she has been consistently under productive" to "she has an outstanding track record particularly given several career interruptions", with both reviewers looking at exactly the same document. Go figure. But I don’t get miserable over these comments; I signed up for this and cannot expect everyone else to adjust their expectations. But I think discussing the challenges openly as you have done might help in the long-term.
10/7/2017 10:58:59 am
Neeltje, I just stumbled across this blog and I wanted to let you know how much I agree with your sentiments here! Based on my own personal experience, I especially think "you might have to change your expectations about your productivity" is an important one to get comfortable with, and although it takes a while to happen (if it ever really does...), in my case it has really made life happier. Working in a supportive institution that doesn't impose stressful performance requirements seems to be important in that respect. Thanks for a great blog!
Neeltje, I just stumbled across this blog and I wanted to let you know how much I agree with your sentiments here! Based on my own personal experience, I especially think "you might have to change your expectations about your productivity" is an important one to get comfortable with, and although it takes a while to happen (if it ever really does...), in my case it has really made life happier. Working in a supportive institution that doesn't impose stressful performance requirements seems to be important in that respect. This is great blog >//<
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