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The Balancing Act: A Postdoc's Perspective

by Hannah Jang-Condell

Dr. Jang-Condell is a Carnegie Fellow at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which does provide health care and maternity leave to postdocs, and the proud mother of two incredibly sweet boys, ages 1 and 4.

January 2006

Balancing career and family is a tough act for anyone, but it’s particularly difficult for women in science. The pressure to publish or perish is so great that taking time off for maternity leave can jeopardize your entire career. The advice I got from many people was either to hold off on having children until you get tenure, or to have them while you’re a grad student, since taking an extra year or two to finish your thesis isn’t a big deal. So my husband and I made a conscious decision to do the latter, since who knew when I might land a permanent position? Perhaps I’d be in my forties, older, slower, and more affected by sleep deprivation, not to mention facing increased health risks for myself and my baby. And what if we encountered fertility problems? Tick, tick, says the clock….

I was lucky. Most graduate students aren’t in a position either financially or socially to even think about having children. Fortunately, we had a few things going for us. We married during my first year in grad school, so we had an established, stable relationship. I went into theory rather than observational astronomy so I wasn’t constantly traveling to telescopes. My husband earned enough at his job to afford having children. His company allowed him to telecommute and work on flex time, so he could rearrange his schedule to take care of our babies. And, perhaps most importantly of all, my husband does more than just help out — he’s a full partner in taking care of household chores and childcare.

Not to say that it’s been easy. Having children is never convenient, though you can try to time things so that it’s easier to rearrange your life. While it’s good to be past those difficult early days (and nights) of infancy, it’s merely a different set of challenges now that I’m a postdoc. When I go job hunting, I not only have to worry about my own career aspirations, but I also have to consider job prospects for my husband, relocating our family, and finding schools and daycare for my kids. My two-body problem is now an N-body problem, which is well-known to result in chaos.

Given my perspective on the matter, I’m happy that high-level people, such as certain university presidents, are trying to increase the representation of women on their science faculties by instituting family-friendly policies. Tenure clock extensions for parental leave, child care assistance, flexibility in teaching load — these are all great ideas. But with all the focus on helping junior faculty, postdocs are getting left out of the picture. Unless institutions apply those family-friendly policies to postdocs too, you risk losing some of your most promising women faculty candidates.

The truth is, postdocs get short shrift, men and women alike. Typical postdocs are two- or three-year positions, and you’re expected to move on after that, either to yet another postdoc or, if things go well, an assistant professorship or some other type of permanent position. For example, the Hubble Fellowship, one of the most prestigious independent fellowships in astronomy, states clearly that awardees should not continue at their current institutions. While it is possible to get around this requirement, this is the exception rather than the rule, and the applicant has to make a very strong case. In order to get more bang for their buck, many institutions hire postdocs as contractors so that they don’t have to offer benefits to such as health care or extensions for maternity/paternity leave. Since postdocs are are only temporary workers, employers have little motivation to make concessions
for them, so postdocs end up with very little negotiating power.

It’s a hard enough life for a single person without any dependents, but there are things institutions can do to make it easier for those of us with families. Here are just a few:

Health Care Benefits

In a survey published in 2000 of academic and non-academic institutions which hire science postdocs (see below), only 25 out of 40 institutions reported that they provided health benefits for all their postdocs. Several reported that coverage depended on the postdoc’s funding source, and two universities stated that they did not provide any benefits at all. Ideally, institutions should provide health benefits for all postdocs and their dependents, but at the very least should make group rates available.

Parental Leave

Postdocs should get maternity and paternity leave equivalent to the policies in place for faculty or otherwise permanent staff. In addition, if a postdoc opts to take unpaid leave, his or her appointment should be extended for an equal amount of time. For some postdocs, it’s not necessarily the cut in salary that hurts, it’s the time away from doing research and writing papers and proposals. Allowing such an extension comes at no additional cost to the institution and enables postdocs to re-establish their research after taking parental leave.

Longer Postdoc Appointments

Having to move every two or three years and start up again at a new place is very disruptive, to both career and family. It takes time to find a job, pack up, move, unpack, and repeat, all of which is time away from research. It also causes stress to family members who have to find new jobs or settle into new schools. Five-year positions would also allow postdocs to further develop their research interests and enable them to work on projects that they otherwise would not have time to do.

Some institutions do offer longer-term fellowships, but they tend to be reserved for those who already have postdoctoral experience. These institutions include NOAO (Leo Goldberg Fellowship), the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Clay Fellowship), the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (Senior Research Associates), and the Institute for Advanced Studies.

Remove the Stigma of Staying in One Place

Professional astronomy, especially among academics, seems biased against people who stay at the same institution for too long. For example, some of the most prestigious postdoctoral fellowships, including Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra, specifically state in their application guidelines that they look askance at applicants who wish to stay at their current institutions. It is possible to get around this requirement, but since these fellowships set the standard for the profession, this attitude is widespread. Even if you manage to secure a position that allows you to remain at the same place, potential future employers may still bring into question why you didn’t move. Certainly there are benefits to moving, like forming new collaborations and getting some independence from one’s thesis advisor. But there are also benefits to staying, like pursuing an existing project in greater depth and being able to work on long-term projects, in addition to creating stability for young families.

Helping women at the top levels is a good starting point, since they can serve as role models and advocates for their younger colleagues. Still, institutions serious about helping women break the glass ceiling need to help them reach that ceiling in the first place. And things are getting better. I know women decades older than me who have succeeded both as scientists and mothers in the days when just being a woman scientist was a novelty. Several of my senior colleagues have children of their own, and just knowing that they understand the difficulties of parenting young children while pursuing a career in science helps me achieve balance in my own life. I also know fellow postdocs who are starting families of their own. I’m beginning to see more and more women around me, facing similar choices and challenges. So I’m not alone, and just knowing that makes it a little easier. Yes, it’s still difficult. But yes, it can be done.


For further reading:
Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies.
National Academy Press,
Washington, DC, 2000.

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