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Returning to Science

Ruth Ross

Ruth Ross

Courtesy of the University of Aberdeen

Teresa Garrett was working part-time as a biochemistry postdoc. She had an infant at home, and she was miserable. She and her husband were considering having a second child, she didn't like leaving her daughter with a daycare provider, and she wondered if her meager income justified the expense of childcare. "A lot of things were going through my head," she says. "How am I going to do all this stuff: be the mom that I want to be, be the wife I want to be? I wasn't even the scientist I wanted to be because I was so distracted." She decided to stay home full time.

It was a lonely but practical decision, she says. She hadn't ruled out the possibility but she did not expect to return to science: After all, the conventional wisdom would equate several years of parenting leave with the end of a research career. Garrett eventually had two daughters and spent their early years at home.

After time away from the work force, it's particularly easy to underestimate your value as a scientist.

The challenge of juggling a science career and personal and family obligations is not a new issue, particularly for women. In a career where productivity and publications define your value, can you take a couple of years off and then make a successful return? When you do, will employers trust your dedication to your job?

Teresa Garrett

Teresa Garrett

Courtesy of Teresa Garrett

For Garrett, the answer to both questions was "yes." First, she found a short-term teaching gig at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the institution where she had done her Ph.D. And then Christian Raetz, who had been her Ph.D. adviser, offered her a postdoc coordinating a portion of a multisite U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, the Lipid Maps Consortium. The timing was perfect: She was ready to start a more regular work schedule, and her husband was interested in starting a business. Today, she is a chemistry professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Garrett credits Raetz both for his faith in her abilities and his willingness to judge her contributions on quality and productivity and not the number of hours she spent in the laboratory. "People are always shocked to know that you can take time off and come back," she says.

Returning to research after an extended personal leave is possible, but it may not be straightforward. Progress can be slow and there may be some fallout from taking a break. The path back doesn't come with a road map or a timeline. Your reentry will have a different rhythm than your initial approach, because this time you have to balance your career with the needs of a family. The uncertainty can make you feel isolated and alone. But if you are persistent and take advantage of the resources that are available, you can get it done.

Stepping sideways

After time away from the work force, it's particularly easy to underestimate your value as a scientist and--hence--to take one or more backward steps. Don't, says Ruth Ross, who nearly made that mistake after spending 4 years at home with her children. A Ph.D. pharmacologist with industry experience, she applied for a technician job at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom as she planned her return to science. She would have taken the job if it had been offered, she says, but "that probably would have been a bad career move." As it turned out, the university decided she was over-qualified.

Pia Abola

Pia Abola

Credit: Ronald Sprouse

Instead of taking a step back, take a step sideways: If you left a postdoc, return to a postdoc, perhaps with a special career-reentry fellowship. A faculty member at Aberdeen encouraged Ross to apply for a newly established career reentry fellowship from the Wellcome Trust. (See the box for more information about this and other reentry grants.) Funding from that organization supported her postdoctoral research until the university hired her into a faculty position in 2002.

After 2 years at home with her son and twin daughters followed by 3 years searching for project management jobs in the biotech industry, biochemist Pia Abola got wind of an opening at the Molecular Sciences Institute (MSI) in Berkeley, California. An MSI staff scientist needed skills like hers but lacked money. So the two applied jointly for an NIH career reentry supplement. The supplement supported her research at MSI until April 2008. She's now a protein biochemist and grant writer at Prosetta Bioconformatics in San Francisco.

Independence and flexibility

Instead of stepping backward or sideways, physicist Shireen Adenwalla took a step forward. Instead of taking another postdoc, she set up an independent research program on soft money. Early in her career, Adenwalla took 15 months off, caring for her first child and then looking for another postdoc. When she and her physicist husband decided to move to the University of Nebraska, Lincoln--he had accepted a tenure-track position--Adenwalla turned down postdoc opportunities. Instead she arranged a visiting faculty position, followed by a post as a research assistant professor.

Shireen Adenwalla

Shireen Adenwalla

Courtesy of Shireen Adenwalla

"I think that was a very smart thing," she says today. "Establishing an independent research program is very important." Her starting salary was just $15,000, and she got just $5000 in start-up assistance. She borrowed equipment, taught courses, took on graduate students, and published her research. She had a lab and an office, but both got moved around--her lab three times, her office twice.

Adenwalla missed having real start-up money, her own equipment, and the institutional investment that comes with a tenure-track position. On the other hand, she was her own boss, so she was able to take 6 months off when she had her second child and work part time for a while after her third child was born. Eventually she was hired to a tenure-track post.

Flexible or part-time hours can smooth the transition back into the scientific work force. Some reentry fellowships specify a part-time option and most are accommodating, but even if you don't have a fellowship you can ask for a work schedule that meets your needs. Ross, for example, took advantage of the part-time provision of The Wellcome Trust Fellowship. When Garrett took the position on the Lipid Maps grant, she negotiated a 30-hour-a-week schedule.

Patience: an essential virtue

Two months before physicist Marija Nikolic-Jaric's scheduled dissertation defense at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver in Canada, her husband was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. Over the next 17 months, she focused on her husband and his cancer treatments. After his death, she moved with her toddler son to Winnipeg to be near family.

She tried to jump-start her thesis project several times, the first in 1998, shortly after she moved to Winnipeg, but she wasn't ready yet and became discouraged. Eventually, she found the motivation to return. She started from scratch, with a new approach. She remained in Winnipeg, traveling to Vancouver to meet with her adviser. She finished her Ph.D. in 2008.

Marija Nikolic-Jaric

Marija Nikolic-Jaric

Credit: Juan Lopez Dabdoub

Now a postdoc at the University of Manitoba, she has moved into a new research area, biomicrofluidics. This year, her work is supported by an M. Hildred Blewett Scholarship, a career reentry grant from the American Physical Society.

Elizabeth Freeland, too, continues to work toward a permanent research position a decade after her return. When she followed her future husband to his postdoc at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, and subsequently to Chicago, Illinois, she wasn't able to find a compatible research opportunity. Since then, she has cared for the couple's two young children, taught part time, and found a few short-term research opportunities, some paid, others not.

Like Nikolic-Jaric, Freeland is a physicist, and like that other physicist she switched fields. Freeland moved from condensed matter theory to high-energy physics to work with Andreas Kronfeld at FermiLab in Batava, Illinois. She scraped together two 1-year postdoctoral grants, the first from the American Association of University Women and the second is a Blewett Scholarship.

Unable to find a permanent position locally, in September she started a 1-year postdoc at Washington University in St Louis. The location is challenging, she says, but she is buoyed by the support of her mentors. And because her work is theoretical, she can spend alternate weeks at home with her husband and school-age children. It's a great research opportunity, she says, one she hopes will someday yield a job closer to her family. She also runs a Web site for physicists navigating career breaks.

Finding your own way back

Elizabeth Freeland

Elizabeth Freeland

Credit: John Freeland

Though students sometimes see her as a role model, Adenwalla cautions that what worked for her might not be the best solution for others. "You have to find what's right for you," she says, and ignore those with different circumstances and needs. Her own journey was a tradeoff, she says. On the plus side, she was able to pick her children up at school every day. On the minus side, she says, "there was a fear inside me that I would never make it."

Garrett tells everyone about her journey, even noting it on her Vassar Web site. "Both young women and young men who are coming up through their career path need to know about the different ways that you can have a good and satisfying career in science."

Reentry Grants

Interested in reentering research? Here are some reentry grants and fellowships:

NIH career reentry supplement supports postdoctoral researchers who have taken a career break of 1 to 8 years for family reasons. The funding is a supplement to an existing NIH grant for a principal investigator (PI) who has at least 2 years remaining. To apply, the reentry candidate provides a statement about the circumstances of leaving the work force and career goals, whereas the PI provides a training plan and information about how the reentry candidate's research relates to the parent grant.

Daphne Jackson Trust. This program provides reentry grants for U.K.-residents in science, engineering, and technology careers who have taken a career break of at least 2 years.

Wellcome Trust Career Reentry Fellowships. Since 1994, these grants have provided funding for biomedical postdoctoral researchers based in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland who have taken career breaks of at least 2 years for family reasons.

M. Hildred Blewett Scholarship from the American Physical Society supports early-career women in the United States or Canada who have taken a career break for family reasons.

American Association of University Women postdoctoral fellowships.

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