On Parenting and Postdoc-ing

Compass picture Gina parentingPhoto credit: Gina RazidWhen I was a kid, I didn’t know that I would be a scientist. But I did know I would be a parent. Having children was a high priority in my life. However, during graduate school, I started to see the professional demands placed on graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty. When, then, would be the best time to start a family? There is not one right answer, as it depends on each individual’s personal and professional situation. And you will probably never think you have enough time or enough money to start a family. I had my first son at the end of graduate school, and my second son four years later, shortly after starting a second postdoc. So, how is it going? Can I be a great parent AND be a successful postdoc? Can I have it all? The answer is Yes! And…No. And, both Yes and No, sometimes even at the same time. Let me explain:

Yes! We live in a time and culture where childcare is available, where spouses can both contribute to parenting and have careers, and where having children is not a barrier to employment. Furthermore, a postdoc training period can be quite flexible. We don’t have patients to see or classes to teach, so we can often arrange our work to fit our schedule. This flexibility is extremely helpful in juggling work with kids’ needs.

No. The major resource required for both a successful postdoc and a happy family is TIME, and the amount of time in the day is finite. If I can’t give as much time to my research because of family responsibilities, how can I compete in this tough research environment? Plus, childcare is often hard to come by on evenings or weekends, and most places don’t let you bring your kids to the lab. (It’s probably a bad idea anyway. Their sterile technique is just not good.)

The real answer might be somewhere in between. Can you have it all?

Yes, but…

…it may look different than you expected. You can have it all, but maybe not all at the same time. You probably envision what an engaged, productive, clever postdoc you will be. You probably also envision what an engaged, cool, composed parent you will be. Some parts of these visions will come true! But other times, your vision will look very different in reality. I don’t have as much time to spend in the lab as I did before my kids were born. I also don’t have as much time to spend playing with my kids and arranging their activities as I would like. But it is up to me to strike a balance between work and family, and that balance may change day by day. It is tougher and more demanding, but also more rewarding and fulfilling, than I imagined—and I say this about both being a parent and being a postdoc. Often the house is a mess, or the kids need haircuts, or I have to stay up late to finish a journal club. But in the end, I am proud of the work I do, and proud of the kids I am raising.

…you will have to make sacrifices. There is only one of you, and there are only 24 hours in a day. We all took enough math to know that you will not be able to put 100% effort into both your job and your family/home. So you will need to prioritize and make some sacrifices, but it is important to remember the positives that come with them.

If your time is limited at work, you will need to be more efficient. Depending on your field, your boss might want you to work on a less competitive project. Your career progression may also be slowed. For many training grants and career development grants, there are strict timelines on eligibility, and any delays in research progress could impact your eligibility for such awards. (I’ll address these time limits in a future post.) But the “forced efficiency” can actually be a plus for your productivity in the lab, and is a helpful life skill.

Working full-time in the lab also means being apart from the kids during the day. This is tough for many parents, as you are entrusting a daycare provider, grandparent, etc., to care for your children. Even if you have a stay-at-home spouse or partner, you may still miss out on milestones and memories. I can’t routinely volunteer in my son’s classroom, or put hours into helping with school projects. So we have to choose which events and projects are most important to him, and make those a priority. I also count on my son to be pretty independent. It is up to him to get his homework signed and his backpack packed. He (usually) rises to the challenge, and it is teaching him the valuable skills of accountability and responsibility. At least that’s what I told myself when he forgot his coat in January (a major problem in Minnesota).

…you may need to ask for help. Many of us are very independent people. We are in an independent, individualized line of work, and may have relocated on our own. But in balancing children with postdoctoral research, there is no shame in asking for help. Family, especially grandparents, are usually beyond happy to help with the kids. If you don’t live near relatives, your friends are also ready to help. For instance, one of my colleagues set up a babysitting network with other parents. Each week, one family would watch all the kids, and the other parents could do what they needed to do (work, have a night out, clean the house, whatever). Also, establish collaborative relationships in the lab. Having someone to take care of your samples if your kid is sick, or pull a plate for you on the weekend, can be invaluable, and you can return the favor at some point. It takes a village to raise a child and keep all your cell lines alive.

Also, even without asking for direct help, ask other scientists who are parents to share their stories— their strategies, successes, and things they wish they had done differently. Most parents are delighted to talk about their kids, just as most scientists are delighted to talk about their research. Just as it is important to have scientific mentors, mentors to guide you in your personal life are very valuable.

…you cannot give in to guilt. When I was leaving work one day at 5:15 to pick up my son from daycare, a faculty member saw me and said, “Oh! Leaving already??” I felt terrible. I had no alternative, as the daycare closed at 6:00, but I felt so guilty. Conversely, shortly after having my son, I was talking to a woman who also recently had a baby. Her mother was watching her son while she worked part-time, and she said, “Well, I’m just glad I don’t put him in daycare for 10 hours a day!” I felt terrible. Wasn’t this exactly what I had done the day before?

If you have children, you already know that parents are constantly barraged with opinions, invited or not, about every aspect of parenting. These criticisms feed our insecurities as both parents and scientists, and the ensuing guilt can be crippling. I had to make the decision early on not to feel guilty about choices that my spouse and I felt were best for our family. The faculty member who noticed me leaving early? He arrived at least an hour after me every morning, and my boss was satisfied with my schedule. The woman who looked down on daycare? While that might have been a good choice for her family, it wouldn’t have worked for mine. I also see the ways my kids have benefitted from daycare, especially in their development and socialization.

Ultimately, I have two full-time jobs— being a scientist, and being a parent. I believe fiercely that both of these jobs are important, and that I am the right person to do them. I am committed to both of my jobs, and believe that each makes me better at the other. I also want my children to see how rewarding it is to work hard, and how I feel my work is interesting and important. Can I have it all? And will I be able to transition to the next step in my career and continue to balance my passions for my work and my family? Honestly, I don’t know. It will require flexibility, commitment, and probably some luck. But I have a great team to share my journey.

About the Author:

Gina Razidlo is a cancer biologist by training, and is interested in the mechanisms underlying tumor cell migration and invasion. She earned her PhD at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, NE, and is now in the laboratory of Mark McNiven at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.