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Having a Life--And a Job Search Too!

A job search can be an all-consuming process. So can writing a thesis. But neither one stacks up against raising kids; now that is a commitment.

This month's column presents the stories of two scientists caught in the same difficult scenario--looking for a job while being a parent at the same time. To readers without kids, this may sound like a trivial conundrum: Just lock yourself in the study at night and work on the computer. Unfortunately, it isn't as easy as it sounds. ...

Sandy: Where Does the Time Come From?

Sandy is a 26-year-old postdoc. She is married to another scientist, and the two have already run into the two body problem that so many scientist-couples encounter. William, Sandy's husband, found a job right out of his Ph.D. at a start-up company, a position that brought them to their current home. Unlike some couples, Sandy and William decided they wanted to live together, not just see each other on weekends. As a result, when it came to labs in which she might apply to do a postdoc, Sandy's options were limited. Still, she prevailed, but now that her postdoc funding is winding down, it is her turn to make a career decision that will affect the whole family.

But career decisions require opportunities, and Sandy hadn't been seeing too many of those. In a typical day, after leaving the lab and picking up their 5-year-old son Danny from kindergarten, Sandy has little time to spend advancing her job search. After feeding Danny and spending some quality time with him, the day is just about over. Nevertheless, when I spoke with her 2 months into her search, all of Sandy's effort had been spent in the evenings--writing e-mails and contacting companies with her CV. She wasn't getting anywhere and was beginning to realize that if she didn't become more productive during the daylight hours, her job search could drag on for many months.

Sandy succeeded in landing a job in industry even while remaining a good Mom. It took some quiet, personal time--which wasn't easy to find--to develop the plan that made her a success. Here are a few of the items from Sandy's successful job-search plan:

  • My job search consists of research, writing, networking, and interviewing. Research and writing work fine in the evenings. Networking and the interviewing that follows needs to be done during the day. Key item: I must become more successful at carving out personal time during the day.

  • I've been holding off making long-distance networking calls during the day because I didn't want this cost to show up on the PI's phone bill. Need to buy prepaid phone card to use at work.

  • Ask Dr. Smith if there is a quiet office that I can use to make phone calls; even the supply room is better than my normal workspace. Absolutely, positively, do not allow myself to make or receive networking calls from the lab!

  • Danny and his friend Tyler should get together after school in the afternoons and possibly into the early evening at least twice a week. Talk to Tyler's Mom about alternate days to take the two boys. This should give me at least 4 hours more each week to network.

  • Get William to take Danny to day care one additional day a week, so that I can hit the lab early that day and get some job-search activities in before things get busy.

Jonathan: Good Dad/Employed Dad (Pick One)

Jonathan has a problem. He has only 6 weeks left in his current postdoc before his funding and his mentor's commitment run out. While he's known about this for months, his job search hasn't gone well. Sure, he's had two offers, but they were both for additional postdocs. He knows that when he moves on from here, it had better be to something more permanent; the last thing he wants is to look for a future job in industry with 5 or 6 years of postdoc experience--too much, some would say--under his belt.

Jonathan and his wife Denise have been raising two young girls: Katy, age 3, and Jenny, age 6. Denise is a trial attorney; she, too, is in the early stages of her career. Although the responsibility has been shared by both Mom and Dad, managing the daily affairs of the two girls has required, typically, much more of a hands-on role for Jon, whose hours are flexible. As Jonathan describes it, he really hasn't minded it at all. The time he spends with his two daughters is his favorite part of the day.

But Jon's job search has suffered. He's found time during the day to network, and this has resulted in some progress, but when a few golden opportunities came his way in the form of telephone interviews, his parental responsibilities put him in an awkward position. He knew he had to do something about this problem when one unexpected phone call came during bath time for Katy. Somehow, he managed a distracted 10-minute discussion with an HR rep while keeping an eye on the tub. But it didn't go well at all.

Here are some phone interview notes for busy people with parental responsibilities. Jonathan used these ideas to create a much more positive impression the next time he received a poorly timed call. In fact, it only took two successful phone interviews for Jonathan to feel some momentum and to develop a much more positive outlook:

  • No hiring manager or HR person expects that every call they make to an interesting CV is going to result in a phone interview. If you get a call at an inopportune time, ask for the name and contact number of the caller and arrange a time to call back when you are undisturbed.

  • Have a paper and pen ready, as well as a copy of your CV and a list of accomplishments/experiences that you may not have in detail on the resume. When calls come from the blue, don't hesitate to refer to your written crib notes. As long as you don't sound like a robot, it is perfectly fine in a phone interview to use backup material to help you along.

  • Remember that interviewers often have children as well. If an issue with the children comes up while you are on the phone, tell the interviewer about the matter and ask for his or her patience. Call them back on your dime.

  • Phone interviews can be uncomfortable for both parties. Make sure your prepared materials include a list of generic questions to ask your phone contact about the company and the job, so that you can keep the conversation flowing.

In Conclusion

Children are just one part of a general quality-of-life concern that is becoming more and more important to the scientific workforce. Many of the business magazines that I read have written about a trend that employers are starting to recognize: Younger workers, in particular, feel that they must have more time available to raise families, pursue leisure activities, take holidays, etc.

For those of you pursuing a job in industry while being a parent at the same time, I applaud you. I believe that your career/life goals can be realized more easily on that side of the divide; it's easier, I think, in industry than in academia.

Those readers who are pursuing research careers on the academic ladder may continue to have a tough time achieving balance between personal and professional objectives. The senior members of most science departments in major universities have entrenched opinions about the total commitment necessary in order to succeed in the ivory tower.

Raising children has never fit well into this picture, and until a new breed of department heads becomes entrenched in the next decade or so, my guess is that industry is the place to head if you seek both a career and a family in today's world.

[Editor's note: I think Dave Jensen is right about industry being more family friendly, but, as I'm sure Dave would agree, that doesn't mean it isn't possible in academia. See this week's contribution from Rachel Austin for advice from one who got it done.]

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