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Science and Parenting: The challenge of combining research and family as an ECR

In a previous post, I wrote about the value of parental benefits as an ECR from a Swedish perspective, since the right to be able to stay home from work to take care of your child differs a lot between countries —  with the United States standing out, and not in a good way.  I am encouraged by the Swedish government to stay home from work with paid leave to take care of my child, for which I am grateful. However, having (or not having) legal rights to be home with pay as a parent is not the only challenge that ECRs starting a family encounter. The overall challenge can be summarized as a lack of time and sleep putting the scientific endeavor in jeopardy when starting to work again. During my vacation and parental leave, I have given this issue much thought and identified some of the obstacles I, and others in my position, will likely encounter.

Science vs. Family

For starters, the old fashioned idea of sacrifice is inherent in pursuing a scientific career. For many ECRs, this means the high price of missing out on social events outside academia. I  have been forced to decline more than one wedding invitation because of application and article deadlines to attract necessary external funding and the harsh reality of ‘publish or perish’. This is not an isolated Swedish concern. In a number of countries, ECRs today face a more competitive academic reality than their senior colleagues did at the same stage of their careers, with high pressure to publish, secure funding and earn permanent positions. It’s also getting harder to keep up with the scientific literature. The burden only rises when the pressure of ‘doing science’ comes in direct conflict with family time, and one is overwhelmed by feelings of guilt on both accounts.

To work outside normal job hours

Secondly, having a child universally changes one’s ability to work effectively, to take on new job assignments and especially to be able to work from home. Working outside of normal hours is a necessary evil for researchers just starting out, with many forced to spend weekends writing articles or grant proposals. Whether or not you’re a parent, writing grant applications as an inexperienced ECR is very time consuming and the reward is often slim. In fact, a study focusing on grant proposals submitted to three US federal agencies found that the average proposal takes 116 PI hours and 55 CI hours to write; although time spent writing was not related to whether or not a grant was funded. The study showed that practice and effort did translate into success, as academics who wrote more grants received more funding. Unsurprisingly, this work affects a scientist’s health – an Australian study found that the process of preparing grant proposals is stressful, time consuming leading to conflicts with responsibilities for children and family.

Doing things differently

As a ‘globalized’ researcher, always on the job, it is easy to get used to doing various work activities both from the office and from home as it is convenient because of the time difference. This way of life gets harder with a toddler that does not comply with your ‘always on the job’ mentality and respecting your wish to finish that chapter (speaking from experience). To pull this off, something’s got to give. Rest assured, your quality and efficiency level will drop, and managing an academic career while still being an active parent takes both planning and discipline. Adding more hours to an already-busy scheduled week is not easy, so efficiency is vital to be able to work with a comprised time frame. Some scientists use a high efficiency one-hour workday either in the morning or at night when the rest of the family is sleeping. Others might use the baby’s nap time to answer emails. As an ECR, these short windows of work time can be quite hard to adjust to, especially when you are used to being able to work from home without interruption.

Finding a balance

Despite these issues, it is possible to be both a successful scientist and parent. Having children can help you prioritize and balance work obligations and family life. The government can offer parental benefits to ease this transition, and thereby send a clear signal about the importance of familial life. The great advantages of academia compared to a ‘regular’ job are the flexible hours and the implicit trust that you will carry out your research. The real challenge is to find the balance between work and family when your work of doing science is part of your identity, and not something you leave behind at the office. This challenge is best tackled with social support systems in place, not only from the government but also from family members, colleagues, and research partners. For example, negotiating with your partner in advance can facilitate the decision of which conferences to attend, especially if you are both scientists both need to present research to advance your respective careers. By doing so you can support each other without straining your relationship. The same goes for your workplace, where communication with your boss and colleagues about needing more flexible work hours and time to visit your child at their health care center (also known as “daycare”) is key. For me, this was uncontroversial because I work within the primary healthcare system together with the staff overseeing fathers’ involvement in these visits.

To sum it up: It is vital that your support system understands this life transition, and will be flexible as you adjust to your new responsibilities as a parent. Otherwise, we may end with ECRs feeling the need to choose between starting a family or having a scientific career, and that is just plain wrong.

Featured image: Photo by author


The benefit of being a parent: why parental leave is more than a perk. It’s a ncessity. Andreas Vilhelmsson, PLOS ECR Blog, August 17, 2016.

Among 41 nations, U.S. is the outlier when it comes to paid parental leave. Gretchen Livingston, Pew Research Center, September 26, 2016.

Rescuing my time from science. Luca Rinaldi, December 23, 2016, Science.

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Early-career researchers need fewer burdens and more support. Nature Editorial, October 27, 2016.

Young Scientists Under Pressure: What the data show. Brendan Naher & Miquel Sureda Anfres, October 26, 2016. Nature.

4 Reasons Graduate Students Shouldn’t Have to Work Weekends. Mary Gearing, February 21, 2017, PLOS ECR Blog.

To Apply or Not to Apply: A Survey Analysis of Grant Writing Costs and Benefits. Ted von Hippel and Courtney von Hippel, March 4, 2015, PLOS One.

The impact of funding deadlines on personal workloads, stress and family relationships: a qualitative study of Australian researchers. Danielle Herbert et al, 

The 1-hour workday. Jeffrey J. McDonnell, August 12, 2016. Science.

Family-friendly science. Amanda Zellmer, November 25, 2016, Science.

Babies or career: How to keep young researchers in science. Ulrike Trager, June 17, 2016, NatureJobs. Editor’s note: Ulrike is a contributor to our blog as well.

New initiatives offer child-care solutions to traveling scientists. Elisabeth Pain, August 14, 2014, Science.


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