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Balancing career and family

For scientists navigating their careers with a partner, securing two fulfilling positions within reasonable commuting distance may seem like a formidable challenge. Throw children into the mix, and it can feel like something—or someone—has to give. For many years, it was traditionally women who would put their careers on the backburner, but as the predominating culture is changing both at work and at home, women—and increasingly, men—are feeling more and more empowered to pursue a rewarding career while also supporting their partner’s and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Is it possible to have not one but two successful careers and have a fulfilling family life as well? It remains difficult, but many testimonies on Science Careers suggest that it can be done. Balancing life and career is a highly personal challenge, and what works for you may not work for others. But there are some common themes among those who have navigated these waters: a sharing of responsibilities at home, external help with child care, and a supportive boss and institution. Often it also requires an honest dialogue between yourself and your partner about your respective life and career priorities and the compromises that you are each willing to make, together with a good dose of flexibility.

In spite of the challenges, and even though there is still much work to be done to achieve gender parity and support scientists’ work-life balance, for researchers who want to enjoy both a career and a family, managing the two can yield great rewards, both professionally and personally.

The two-body problem

All in the family, by Rachel Bernstein, 27 May 2015.
Husband-and-wife chemists Renee Jiji and Jason Cooley spent years apart as postdocs before they were able to secure two tenure-track positions at the same institution.

Renee JiJi (left), Josephine (JoJo) Amelia Cooley, and Jason Cooley (right)

Renee JiJi (left), Josephine (JoJo) Amelia Cooley, and Jason Cooley (right)

Courtesy of Renee JiJi and Jason Cooley

Solving the Two-Body Problem, by Anurag Agrawal and Jennifer Thaler, 7 March 2013.
Being good matches for the department and knowing when and how to raise the two-body issue can help dual-career couples secure two tenure-track positions.

Surviving as a Postdoc, by Charmaine Tam, 6 March 2013.
During all her work and life transitions, Charmaine Tam has found that, to be a happy scientist, one needs a level of satisfaction both at work and at home.

In Person: My Career, My Nonacademic Husband, and Me, by Aurélie Ambrosi, 17 August 2012.
Aurélie Ambrosi and her software developer husband have learned to deal with career decisions by being honest with each other, and with themselves, about their priorities and the compromises they were each willing to make.

A Twin Career Story, by Elisabeth Pain, 29 April 2011.
The difficulties of securing a dual career—finding opportunities for two in the same place and differentiating yourselves as scientists—do not only affect romantic couples, as identical twin brothers Alan and Steven Davy experienced.

Taken for Granted: Intimate Collaborators, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 14 March 2010.
Men and women should communicate more openly and honestly about how they prioritize their careers.

Aurélie Ambrosi in front of Central Park in New York City.

Aurélie Ambrosi in front of Central Park in New York City.

CREDIT: Aurélie Ambrosi

A Husband and Wife Play Science on the Same Team, by Chelsea Wald, 5 February 2010.
In Michael Crickmore and Dragana Rogulja’s household, conversations flow effortlessly from practical family matters, to the latest art exhibition, to the experiments they're working on.

In Person: Breaking All the Rules, by Ruth E. Ley, 29 May 2009.
Don't let the stereotypes about two-body problems get you down. If you both build up your CVs, the doors open, says microbiologist Ruth Ley.

Problem Solved, by Sarah Otto and Michael Whitlock, 14 March 2003.
For couples on the academic job market, it is key to communicate with each other and decide ahead of time what you want and what you are willing to settle for.

The 700-km Commute, by Eick von Ruschkowski, 21 March 2003.
During the 1980s, at a time of high discrimination against women and taboos against a shared academic position, married geologist couple Dominique Lattard and Volker Schenk each succeeded in academia by choosing life 700 kilometers apart.


Divvying it up, by Nina Notman, 13 January 2015.
Lesley Yellowlees, the first female president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has avoided working extreme hours and managed to maintain a vibrant family life by taking advantage of high-quality child care and staying focused and organized.

Breakthrough of the Year: Hitchhiking to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, by Elisabeth Pain, 19 December 2014.
For Cecilia Tubiana, a supportive research team, a husband who is also a space scientist, and involved parents have all helped her succeed in her work on OSIRIS (the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System) and as a new mom.

When women have it all, by Jyoti Mishra, 27 August 2014.
It wasn’t all a bed of roses, but Jyoti Mishra, a university faculty member and mother, explains why she feels that she hasn’t had to make any sacrifices in her career or family life to get there.

A Perfect Time for Babies, by Jacquiline Romero, 25 November 2013.
Starting a family as a Ph.D. student offers many advantages, including not having to think about getting grants and managing a lab just yet.

Jacquiline Romero with her husband, Rumelo Amor, and her son, Narra Amor.

Jacquiline Romero with her husband, Rumelo Amor, and her son, Narra Amor.

Courtesy of Jacquiline Romero

Career Q&A: Reentering Academia—A Success Story, by Elisabeth Pain, 11 March 2011.
Prominent chemistry professor Carol Robinson didn’t let the 8-year break she took after her Ph.D. to raise her children stop her from returning to science.

Balancing Professional Aspirations With Family, by Elisabeth Pain, 21 January 2011.
Upon becoming parents as graduate students, John Apergis-Schoute and his neuroscientist wife took turns taking care of the children, allowing each other the flexibility they needed to deal with both work and parental commitments.

Mind Matters: Back to Work After Baby, Part 2, by Irene S. Levine, 30 April 2010.
A flexible working schedule, child day care, a supportive partner and mentor, household help, and focus can all help women return to work after a baby.

Making Science and Family Fit, by Elisabeth Pain, 5 February 2010.
While Michal Sharon experienced self-doubt about her ability to couple a full commitment to science with family life, her talent, a supportive husband, and excellent role models encouraged her to be ambitious both in her science and at home.

A Life Lived Backward, by Angela Saini, 30 October 2009.
In a field as male dominated as physics, Patricia Alireza has become a role model of a proficient scientist who is able to balance the rest of her life.

Women M.D.-Ph.D.s: Life in the Trenches, by Karyn Hede, 30 January 2009.
Keys to balancing work and family life include efficiency, a supportive partner, reliable child care, and technical help in the laboratory.

Feature Index: Work and Life in the Balance, by Kate Travis, 7 December 2007.
It’s never too late to work on your work-life balance, even if you're a new faculty member with a lump in your throat because you spent the weekend polishing a manuscript while your partner took the kids to the zoo alone … again.

A Case Study of a Mom-Scientist: Canopy Meg, by Irene S. Levine, 1 September 2006.
Instead of keeping her two worlds separate, single mother Margaret Dalzwell Lowman, also known as “Canopy Meg,” made it work by combining her passion for her work and her love for her family.

Life-Work Balance. A Father Writes, by David Greaves, 16 January 2004.
David Greaves, a prominent biology research group leader at Oxford, offers some practical advice to scientist parents, which, according to his children, is worth listening to.

Wellcome Trust Fellow: Getting (Well) Paid for Work You Love, by Simon Morley, 9 August 2002.
To spend as much time as possible with his daughter, Simon Morley started a drastic work regime that has stuck with him ever since.

Still ways to go

Paradigms and prejudice, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 4 December 2014.
According to a recent study, academia has “a child-rearing problem,” leaving both women and men who want to have and spend time with their children at risk for structural discrimination.

Reflections of a woman pioneer, by Vijaysree Venkatram, 11 November 2014.
At 83, Mildred Dresselhaus, the “Queen of Carbon,” discusses why, even though gender parity has now been reached at the undergraduate level, it will take more time before all hidden barriers to women’s advancement fall for good.

Credit: Robert Neubecker

The Prescription for a Family-Friendly Profession, by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 31 July 2013.
At nearly every stage of an academic career, professors who are mothers find themselves disadvantaged compared to their male and childless female colleagues, including faculty members who are fathers. Scientists are penalized most of all.

Perspective: Embrace Flexible Work Arrangements, by Nathalie Pettorelli, Liz Else, and Seirian Sumner, 12 October 2012.
Many scientists value work-life balance, yet the poor provision of low-cost child care and the paucity of flexible working arrangements send the message that there is no room for anything less than a 100% time commitment to science.

Fix The System, Not The Women, by Julie Clayton, 21 January 2011.
During their pretenure years, many young scientists are working in a very insecure environment, competing for short-term contracts and limited grant funding. Exacerbating the problem for women in particular is the fact that these years also tend to correspond to a limited window of time to start a family. (This is a special feature from the AAAS/Science Custom Publishing Office.)

Scientist Dads Step Up, by Vijaysree Venkatraman, 6 August 2010.
Times are changing, but it may still take a culture change before dad-scientists are acknowledged as and encouraged to be equal parents, especially at research universities.

The Best Place for Mothers? by Ingela Björk, 9 January 2004.
The Scandinavian countries are often seen as paragons for gender equality and support for parenthood, but old social norms and attitudes against both women’s and men’s freedom to balance their career and family prevail.

Support programs

New initiatives offer child care solutions to traveling scientists, by Elisabeth Pain, 14 August 2014.
Some professional societies, funders, and institutions are trying to step up to offer solutions for parent-scientists attending conferences.


Dual-Career Couples at ESOF, by Elisabeth Pain, 24 June 2014.
The United States and Europe view dual-career hiring quite differently, which scientists need to be aware of if they are to navigate the opportunities and pitfalls of whatever national context applies.

Career Q&A: Equality for Quality, by Elisabeth Pain, 22 June 2012.
Some women aren’t concerned about sexism early in their careers. Nonetheless, it’s still worth working at an institution that is engaged in helping young scientists become good senior scientists so that if you find yourself facing gender discrimination later in your career, you'll be in a place with people who can help you.

Family-Friendly Science Careers, by Tracy Ainsworth, 18 May 2012.
Coral reef researcher Tracy Ainsworth writes that it’s important to tell women who are considering science careers about the women who are already succeeding in them while raising families—and carving out careers on their own terms.

Tracy Ainsworth

Tracy Ainsworth

Courtesy of Tracy Ainsworth

Finding Your Way Back: Re-Entering the Science Work Force, by Brianna Blaser, 27 November 2009.
Programs to support women, and men, returning to academia following a career break are becoming increasingly available.

Returning to Science, by Sarah A. Webb, 30 October 2009.
Returning to research after an extended personal leave is not straightforward, but reentry grants and fellowships can help.

Five Children and a Fellowship, by Katie Perry, 6 February 2004.
After putting his career on hold for 5 years to look after his five children, nuclear physicist Sami Kafala feels he is winning on all fronts thanks to a Daphne Jackson Fellowship.

Academic Work and Family Responsibility: A Balancing Act, by Portia L. Cole and John Curtis, 16 January 2004.
The American Association of University Professors has long worked to address the dilemma faced by junior faculty members whose years of probationary service coincide with a time in their lives when they might become new parents.

Affordable Child Care for Postdocs: One Institution's Solution, by Karen Spratt, 1 December 2000.
With the rising costs of child care, the financial burden weighs heavily on postdocs, but solutions can be found.

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