Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) postdoc Alicia Timme-Laragy was overjoyed at the birth of her first son, Collin, in March 2008. She had made all the preparations for his arrival and for a 10-week maternity leave from her work in the WHOI lab of toxicologist Mark Hahn, where she studies the response of the transcription factor NRF-2 to toxins in developing zebrafish embryos.
But after Timme-Laragy had begun to work full-time following her maternity leave, she realized that something was amiss. She hadn’t planned for how exhausted and run-down she’d feel going in to work after a string of sleepless nights and seemingly endless feedings. One day in the lab, she was struck by one of the dizzy spells she’d been experiencing for a few weeks. Rather than dissipating after a little while, this one continued for several hours. Timme-Laragy and Hahn called for the on-campus medics, who administered oxygen to the postdoc. But her dizziness persisted.
She called her doctor, who had no open appointments but advised Timme-Laragy to seek immediate medical attention. Hahn drove her to the ER, where she received her diagnosis: exhaustion-related dizzy spells. She had landed in the hospital again “after a few months of being back,” in the lab, Timme-Laragy recalls. “It was pretty intense.” She received fluids at the emergency room and over the course of a few days recovered her strength. But Timme-Laragy took away important lessons about how to best transition back into the lab after maternity leave. “Part of it was not knowing what to expect,” she admits. “I didn’t anticipate the whole mommy-brain syndrome.”
There are as many different ways of handling parental leave as there are universities.
—Cathee Johnson Phillips
With her five-year fellowship ending in 2012, Timme-Laragy has already submitted her first manuscript for publication. She has been working on writing a chapter for a book to which she was invited to contribute, and has compiled most of the data for a second paper. Last spring, she and her husband welcomed another son, Steven, into their family. The second time around, Timme-Laragy returned to the lab at the right pace for her—working part-time for the first three weeks.
Having employees go on leave can create a strain in a fast-paced work environment such as a lab. “As a PI, you want to move the work forward, and sometimes it can be really frustrating” when team members take maternity or paternity leaves, says Harvard immunologist Judy Lieberman. “On the other hand,” she says, “I believe that people can only be effective when they’re happy and doing what they want in their life.” Here are tips on how to plan for taking time off as a new mother or father, and how to minimize the disruption to your research.
LANDING A FAMILY-FRIENDLY POST
Whether you’re interviewing for postdoc spots or hunting for your first faculty position, the crucial step towards successfully balancing a family and career in science is choosing the right place to work. Though the competition for good faculty and postdoc positions can be fierce, vetting an institution for its flexibility toward family needs should be an important part of your search process. You probably shouldn’t blurt out your imminent plan to start a family during that first face-to-face interview, but here are a few roundabout ways to get a sense of how your prospective employer feels about maternity or paternity leave.
You can find out a lot about an institution’s policies on family leave before you even get an interview with a department head or PI by searching the Web site of its human resources department. Although federal law (the Family and Medical Leave Act) mandates allowing up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for qualified employees, state regulations and institutional policies can add to this period and alter its terms. “There are as many different ways of handling parental leave as there are universities,” says Cathee Johnson Phillips, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association. A prospective employer’s HR site is “not something that a postdoc looking for a faculty position thinks to look at,” says Gail Simmons, provost and VP for academic affairs at Manhattanville College in New York. But, she continues, it could make the difference between choosing a work environment that’s supportive and one that isn’t.
Investigate tenure policy
Academic job seekers should also familiarize themselves with institutions’ tenure policies, adds Simmons. She advises that you comb faculty handbooks or ask questions of HR like: “Can you stop a tenure clock for a life event?” Again, policies differ among universities, and the best way to find out whether or not you can take time out for a new baby without seriously damaging your chances for timely tenure is to do your homework before you ever sit for an interview.
Stay alert on tours
Once you do get an on-campus interview, you’ll probably be taken on a tour of the department to see the facilities and meet other faculty or employees. Keep your eyes and ears open as you stroll about. Are there toys or children’s books stashed in the corner of a faculty member’s office? This may mean that they sometimes bring their children to work and that the department is more family-friendly.
Mingle with insiders
Often, job candidates are invited out to dinner with current faculty or lab members as a part of the interview process. This could be a crucial time to feel out the family-friendliness of an institution, department, or lab. As the tone gets looser and more informal, ask how many of your potential colleagues have children, when they had them, and what their experiences were like. “You’ve kind of got to listen to the chitchat,” Simmons says.
Engage the help of friends
Chances are you know someone now who has some kind of connection at the place where you’re interviewing. Get your friend to ask around about attitudes towards family leave without blowing your cover, then report back to you.
Ask about campus child care
A major part of successfully juggling parental and career duties is finding appropriate and convenient child-care options. Many universities and research institutions have facilities nearby or on-site. But Simmons warns that some child-care facilities on or near university campuses will accept the children of students, but not those of faculty members.