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question for academics about starting a family

(30 Posts)
kalidasa Fri 24-Jun-11 23:38:22

I'm a new poster hoping that a post late on a Friday night might still get a couple of replies! I'm a lecturer at a big Russell Group uni, in a humanities subject, just finishing my first year in this job (my first permanent lectureship, though I had a research fellowship and a temporary lectureship before that). I'm 31. Basically, my boyfriend and I have just started talking a bit more specifically about the baby issue; but I am quite daunted by the fact that I just don't know any women in my field with a similar profile to me between say 30 and 40 who have successfully started a family and gone back to their academic job. But there seem to be some of you here which is a relief! Any thoughts on when's a good time (of course no time is perfect)? How do you handle maternity leave with the academic calendar? what do you do about PhD students during that time? what in retrospect do you wish you'd done career-wise before having a baby? I know this is all obvious stuff but I can't think of anyone to ask about it.

dontrunwithscissors Mon 27-Jun-11 22:09:47

I'm a lecturer in the Humanities - I've been in post for 7 years. I had my first daughter when I was 31 (2.5 years after starting) and my second just under 3 years later. When I was pregnant with my oldest, I was the first female academic in my School (of 4 disciplines) to have taken maternity leave for many years (perhaps ever?! And it's not a new University!). Thankfully, two other women within the School had children within a year of DD1 being born. We're still the only ones.

As far as I'm concerned, it WILL affect your research output. I had nasty PND after both children, and especially after my second. I would say I've lost the best part of 4 years in terms of research output, but that's extreme. My two colleagues have both chosen to just have the one child; they estimate that they've lost about a year. (That's in addition to the time taken for maternity leave.) Sleep deprivation, the exhausting nature of caring for a young child(ren), not having evenings and weekends to work: it takes a big toll on your productivity.

As far as timing goes, I wouldn't worry much in terms of when you're due in the academic year. I know this is a big issue for female academics in the USA, but I don't think it's an issue here. You might want to think about the timing in terms of the REF. You should get a reduction in the number of items needed (usually reduced by 1 item for 6-12 months off.) However, some departments are reluctant to grant this.

Arghh! Sorry, DD2 is screaming (she's teething). Got to go - will try to get back to this at some point.

sydneysuze Mon 27-Jun-11 22:25:24


I'm a languages tutor rather than a lecturer, been in post since 2004. I was full-time up until the birth of DD in 2009, now awaiting the birth of my second. I don't have sole responsibility for any PhD students so have been able to share those I do have, but I have had to give up some of the degree modules I wrote - more because I went back part-time than because I was pg at all. That's been a bit hard to handle but I've just had to take it.

I've found my Dept to be really good about everything, but then there are so many women working in Languages that there's always someone on Mat Leave so they are used to it.

I would say check your university Maternity Policy very carefully - mine will only give you full university maternity pay for a second child if you leave a minimum of 2 and a quarter years between births - not such an issue maybe as you're 31 but still something to be aware of. When I went back after DD I definitely felt my profile within the dept and the uni as a whole had slipped much lower. I'd say make as much use of the 'Keeping in Touch' days as you can if you need to maintain a presence, especially as a lot can happen in a year in terms of Heads of School, restructuring, etc ...

Generally I'd say your priorities do change a bit for a while, but friends whose children are older say that switches back again later, so it all works out in the end. Go for it if you feel you want children - you've a lifetime to give your brain to academia!

MovingAndScared Tue 28-Jun-11 11:00:02

hi your university may have a women's network - going to the meetings may help you get some more specfic advice for the organisation - have a look in the HR/diversity section of the website
and from my observation what is key is the attitude of the head of department -most universities these days have good policies its how they are implemented in practice
and the other thing which is not speficic to universites but one of the things that makes it much easier to have a carrer is to have a supportive partner - ie will be able to share childcare drop off so you can work late if need be that kind of thing

dontrunwithscissors Tue 28-Jun-11 11:30:56

PhD students: I didn't have this problem when I was on leave. Does your department have a second superviser system? Is there someone in a similar research area who can provide back up? I think I'd continue to try to be active in their supervision, once you've got through the first 3 months or so. They tend not to take up huge amount of time or effort (at least for me, it's also a very pleasant part of the job). You can always provide informal guidance via email/over coffee whilst the baby sleeps (if you're lucky).

At the end of the day, however, it's Not. Your. Problem. Yes, it's tough on the PG, but you have every right to your maternity leave. If you do have children, don't fall in to the trap of thinking your department can't do without you performing certain jobs. They'll survive, but if you put yourself out there, the chances are they'll take advantage of that. One of my problems was that so few people have children that they really didn't understand how tough the first year is. It wasn't that they were being nasty, they just didn't get it.

lightsandshapes Tue 28-Jun-11 16:54:35

i work in academia and just pregnant with my first. I would say your career lasts longer than your ovaries - so worry less about the career and more about your fertility!

Parietal Wed 29-Jun-11 04:02:55

I'm a science lecturer at a Russell gp uni with 2 young children. In my field I know several other women with little ones, and my dept is young & baby friendly (7 babies born to academics in 1yr). But these things can be very field specific.

Some of the things I've found out are -
- my dc1 was a bad sleeper so I lost a lot more time from work. When sleep deprived, it is impossible to do any solo work (write a paper / grant etc) but it is a bit easier to do sociable work (meet PhD students, attend conferences).
- buy a good sling
- I've kept in close touch with my PhD students through my leaves (6 months each) but I know others who have been completely out of touch for 6 months and the students still manage with the support of a second supervisor.
- 3-6 month old babies travel easily so this is a good time to do conferences with baby in a sling.

- don't worry about timing wrt the academic year. Babies never come along at the perfect time, so just go for it.

Parietal Wed 29-Jun-11 04:09:05

Here is a short book illustrating the careers of successful science mothers to show there is no single 'right' way to do things.

ragged Wed 29-Jun-11 06:31:46

I couldn't do it either, OP. Only in retrospect do I realise that there were almost no other mothers in my field, especially not with more than 2 children. I would suggest you stop at no more than 2 children, at the very least. 3+ kids is death to an female academic career.

Plenty of men, of course, in my area, with 2-3+ children, just not women academics. Oh, except the Professsors with full time nanny and a Professor husband. One of them didn't even start her family until after the age of 40, though. And had plenty of moaning comments about the nannies (such feelings were probably mutual).

kalidasa Wed 29-Jun-11 11:11:27

Thanks for replies everyone - only just realised it had got replies as forgot to check the last couple of days, sorry about that. Really helpful though. Will check about women's network at my institution.

I had sort of reached the same conclusion about only 1 or 2 children. I'm a bit sad about it as I come from a large family myself; but on the other hand I think there are real disadvantages to lots of children even aside from one's career, and in any case if I'd really wanted a lot I should probably have started sooner. Also my partner is really keen to have children, but only 1 or 2.

He is very supportive - obviously important - and his mother worked full-time, which makes him more confident I think than I am about the whole thing (my mother is very intelligent but quite dificult and controlling and honestly I think she and all of us would have been happier if she'd had more of a life outside the home). But I do worry that although he says all the right things his actual assumptions are pretty traditional. (For instance, I mentioned friends where she and her husband take turns to work part time while the children are small, and he was pretty appalled at the implication that maybe this is something he could consider. Like me he is ambitious about his career - also an academic.)

I have a good research record - mostly because I was lucky to have a research fellowship after my PhD - and I already have enough submissions for the REF, including a book which came out last year. So perhaps starting between now and the REF is a good time.

I would be interested to know how many of you have managed to negotiate any sort of part-time working arrangement and how that's worked out? My impression is that academia is good for families in the sense of being able to work a bit from home and be a bit flexible about hours and so on; but bad in that you are expected to work long hours at a whole range of time and especially because any sort of part time role seems to be functionally impossible. I don't know anyone working in that way, whereas my friends who are doctors, for instance, arrange this straightforwardly.

The other thing I am concerned about is that I have quite a high risk of hyperemesis in pregnancy - both my mother and elder sister suffered very badly, with repeated hospitalisations in all pregnancies, and I have several of the indicative risk factors (tendency to labyrinthitis; very prone to motion sickness, etc). So I'm worried about the possible impact of that upon work - I can easily imagine, for instance, being capable of working to some extent but being completely unable to commute.

kalidasa Wed 29-Jun-11 12:42:13

dontrunwithscissors - thanks for the points about PhD students in particular. Yes, we have second supervisors; and at the moment my only PhD student is a joint supervision arrangement with a Swiss uinversity anyway, so wouldn't be difficult to take a few months off. I was just wondering how common it was to keep seeing them during maternity leave really - evidently it varies.

MovingAndScared Wed 29-Jun-11 20:57:34

kalidasa - my DH was also horified by the idea of working part time - but he was brilliant when the DCs were small - he did 50% of the pick up and drop off - took days off when DCs were ill - if I got back late that was fine - I am not working at mo as got made redudant - but thats the kind of thing I mean -

emoo777 Thu 30-Jun-11 08:47:47

I would say attitudes towards women starting families vary enormously from department to department. I also work for a Russell group university, as a science postdoc. I have had a bit of a nightmare as in our male dominated department where there is not much support but you won't have all of the issues I have had as I assume you are mainly desk-based.
Overall I say if you are committed to your job you will find a way and you certainly don't have to make any decisions on the number of children you want now. I agree with what other people have said about there not being an ideal time so just go for it. If your department is anything like mine be prepared for unwelcome comments. You will be paving the way for other women in your field as well which is really important.

kalidasa Thu 30-Jun-11 09:57:51

Thanks emoo - I agree, it really does seem to vary a lot between departments. Mine is friendly but a bit clueless; and although there are actually three or four of us, all women in our early-mid thirties at the moment, the rest of the department is very male-dominated and also quite 'old' (I mean the head of dept, senior tutor etc are all 50s + whereas in my partner's department, for instance, the average age is a lot younger). I don't think anyone would be hostile but I think there might be quite a bit of being oblivious to the issues.

Honestly, I think in the group of younger women in my department we are all warily watching each other to see who is going to give it a go first and how they get along!

Parietal Fri 01-Jul-11 02:30:59

I know of a few academics who work part time, but it is not easy. Because the job has no fixed hours, working 80% time is effectively taking a 20% pay cut but requires a lot of discipline to not just do the same work. I know many more people who do flexiwork on full pay. eg Fridays at home with baby, work in evenings, leave office at 4pm, or whatever works.

If you aren't under pressure for the REF, then go for it!

kalidasa Fri 01-Jul-11 07:29:34

Thanks parietal - I was also thinking that academic part time would be likely to be a bad deal with as you say less money for a similar amount of work (and perhaps a disproprtionate hit to your research rather than other tasks). Good point about a degree of flexible working though.

justagirlfromedgware Sun 03-Jul-11 16:02:43

I can also offer a positive experience as an academic who's had a child. I joined as lecturer when my child was a few months old at 80% - to enable me to have one day at home unpaid and another at home paid. My (wonderfully enlightened male) HoD said I should speak to him if I found I was actually putting in the 100% time, which I was and my contract was amended accordingly.

I was lucky to have a good support structure (in-laws down the road offering childcare from the first), and if I hadn't had this I reckon a childminder would have been my choice as it offers more of a homey environment and is less rigid with regards to times.

My career hasn't been affected in the long-term , mainly I think because of my working from home part of the week, which I find gives me a balance of highly productive time without interruption (other than that of my DC of course when he was younger! you do have to be very good at putting down and picking up your work or do as a friend of mine does and hire a babysitter for when you're working from home) and the vital face-to-face contact at work.

PhD students: I didn't have them when on maternity leave, but a lab-based colleague in a similar situation has kept students on a low burner during their leave by having them over for tutorials at her home (helps when they're femal students - less likely to be sqeamish about babies!). Others are happy to let the second supervisor take over. it's up to you and depends on your student's stage in their research.

One thing to consider is if you've got your own funded research. Weirdly (or not) research councils seem not to realise that PIs can be women, hence don't seem to have a structure for maternity leave. I've not had the worry myself, but I've always wondered what happens if a PI needs to go on maternity leave: you can't just put a project on hold if you've research staff specifically for your project.

Lastly, as the others said: there's never a good time, just go for it! and lots of luck.

kalidasa Sun 03-Jul-11 21:09:45

justagirl - thanks, this is also really helpful; especially to hear that you made the working from home a success. Good point about the funded research - I don't have any projects for which I'm a proposed PI at the moment, but I was thinking of developing an application fairly soon. So I'll bear this in mind. Thanks again.

Parietal Mon 04-Jul-11 23:13:12

For funded projects, all the research councils will give a no-cost extension for maternity leave, so you have more time to do the project but no more cash. When I took my first leave, my dept paid my research assistant to do my teaching, so his salary was not paid from the grant for 3 months, and then we got 3 months extra at the end of the project (if that makes sense).

HyenaInPetticoats Mon 04-Jul-11 23:26:37

I'm also at a RG uni, permanent, full-time, been promoted twice since my first child was born 9 yrs ago. I'm the only woman in my (large) dept who has kids. I can honestly say I think my career has barely been affected by maternity. I didn't lose research time beyond maternity leave (and even while on leave I got some research done, mostly by juggling endless breast-feeding with a laptop), I've always been able to leave around 4.30 at least 3/4 days a week, go home and be mummy until they go to bed and then start again and get another few hours done. Much easier than in a 9 - 5 job plus commute (because they never are 9-5). In theory my phd students relied on their second supervisors while I was on leave but in practice they came round for tea every few weeks and I read bits of their work. I'd say it helps that I'm OK on not much sleep, it helps that I'm ruthlessly ambitious and was always determined that I would never look back and wish I'd done more work (because academics do, you know - when people say that thing about how no-one dies wishing they'd spent more time in the office I think oh yes they do, look at any Cambridge SCR), and it helps that I love what I do. We have no family support with childcare. I think you just have to decide that you want both children and a career enough to make it work, by force of will where necessary, and if something changes, that's the time to compromise.

kalidasa Tue 05-Jul-11 08:17:20

Thanks Hyena that's interesting. How many children do you have? And do you mind me asking too whether your partner is also an academic? Mine is, in a different humanities subject at the same stage as me, and I'm not sure whether that's an advantage or not. Should be useful in terms of the flexibility of hours, as you say, but I worry about resenting him if for instance my career slows down a bit - because we are at exactly the same stage right now it will be quite obvious if one pulls ahead.

I take the point anyway about the hours, though actually as we're in London we do have a commute to factor in - until I moved for this job I was living in smaller university towns and just 'commuting' my bike which I can see would be an advantage when it came to children.

Politixmum Thu 07-Jul-11 12:24:16

I am an academic in social sciences and have done it all wrong! so can offer you some advice on how not to have babies and an academic career.
I was working mainly in research on fixed term contracts when the biological alarm clock started going off to such an extent that I just had to get on with it. I probably would have been able to stay with my university, who valued me highly, and they are legally obliged to let you go to part time hours and offer flexible working if you have a small child, so that isn't a problem. However we decided to move to a very different part of the country so that my DP - also an academic, could get into a good post. (Like yours, he expressed horror when I mooted the idea of him working part time!) My argument at the time was, He has the secure job and is earning most of the money so we should make sure he is working somewhere he is happy.
Once I was out of post it was impossible to get a new job that started on part-time hours. The only way is to apply on a full time basis, then if you are offered the job to say, Oh I really want it but can't you give it to me on a fractional contract. I have never managed to get up the chutzpah to do this! and everyone nearby knows I only want to work part-time now anyway.
Even though I had some time, as DD went out to a fantastic childminder a couple of days a week, I didn't manage to get on with writing, mainly probably because I had two miscarriages and was so hormonal and also busy moving house a lot so I couldn't get the clear headspace. (Yes DP went to a conference once while I moved all our possessions to a new residence, but to be honest I'd rather have him pay for professionals to pack our stuff than have to do it with him.) However I taught lots and lots of hourly paid modules, also got teaching work with the OU. Parietal is right, it's easier to do sociable work than writing papers or research bids.
Subsequently I advised a pal who was trying to get into her first post, Don't do casual teaching work - nobody looks at your teaching experience when appointing you; Do write lots of papers. She got into a post just after having her first baby - it was a long way away from where she and her partner were living but then because he was a more senior and well-established academic they offered him a job too. I realised my DP and I should have looked to make sure my job was secure because it's so much harder for me to get a part-time post.
I still get plenty of work, because I am good at both teaching and research so whenever someone wants a sure pair of hands they come and offer me a fixed term contract. I am getting a bit fed up of it now, and if I don't get a proper job soon I will chuck it in and just focus on my blog, writing silly novels to amuse myself, my garden and living off of DP. I love my research, writing and teaching but I would throw it all down the toilet tomorrow rather than trade in DD, especially now she is old enough to go on Moshi Monsters so I can stand behind her saying, Go in the Moshling garden, What's happening in the Port? smile
I've seen lots of women in the universities where I do my casual work who have satisfying careers with flexible, part-time and job-share work so they can have a good balance of baby and job. You have to plan carefully. It's easy to get your strategy off key and then you can end up a bit stuck like me. This is not just about me and my career, by the way, it's also about not having enough money to go on a family holiday or do lots of other things we would all like as a family.
You sound like you are in a very good place with your REF return, and are thinking carefully about how to maximise your chances of well balanced career motherhood so will be able to make a good strategy. smile

madcows Thu 07-Jul-11 12:44:08

If you've got good publications for this REF, and a perm post, then don't wait! You're in a great position.
I was on temporary contracts for ds1, so took 4 months off, and wrote during those. By the time dd1 came along I was on a perm contract, so took a full year (and was very glad I did.)
I'm back fulltime. And altho' I debate going part-time I always rule it out on the basis that I'd work full-time, and get paid part-time which I'm not prepared to do. Everyone I've talked to about it (including senior men in my dept) say don't do it... instead take advantage of the flexibility that the job has. Having said that, I found it easier when they were at nursery. Now they're at school their needs have changed, and I want to be around even more. (And there aren't enough hours in the day!)

kalidasa Thu 07-Jul-11 13:38:20

Thanks politixmum and madcows. What madcows says about the dangers of part-time chimes with what I've heard from a lot of other people too - since so much of academic work is flexible anyway and not necessarily office-based, it's very hard to police your hours, but relatively easy to fit in around child-care collection etc. My partner and I are in the process of buying somewhere which will create further stability, and we've made sure to go for somewhere that seems to have room both for working at home and for at least a first child (three bedrooms, plus an additional reception room with a possible study area). I think it would be fine for up to the toddler + baby family stage (whereas at the moment we're sharing a spacious one-bed flat that we're renting while looking to buy), and it's in what seems to be a v. young-family-friendly bit of North London (loads of buggies and so on everywhere whenever we visit to view a flat). I have to say I am still really nervous about the gender politics involved in the whole thing, after seeing so many friends lapse back into very traditional situations that make me worried, but I guess it's just a matter of talking and talking about it.

I hadn't really considered that having enough stuff for the next REF already makes soon-ish a potentially better time than in another few years (by which time we'll be anticipating the next one), but it's a good point. My partner also has enough for the REF (we both had long-ish postdocs which helps a lot with early publishing) so that's a factor too I suppose.

Anyway, all this advice is really great and very helpful.

moonbells Thu 07-Jul-11 13:51:35

Parietal thanks for that book link - I found someone in it that I know! I'd always wondered how she did it - most of the women have massive support from family etc and didn't seem to take much maternity leave. A fair few were also 80% of full time. I had DS late (at 40) and though my career is established, it's hard work because all our family members are a long way from us and also in their 70s/almost 80s, so they can't help with childminding. We've had to do it all ourselves, and I am still working full time. Conferences are hard (I have to negotiate with DH, as he can't get home in time to pick DS up from nursery so he has to have the time off).

There are lots of pitfalls, but as every mother on MN will say, it's never easy being a mum whatever you do! kalidasa I would advise you start your family as young as you can, if only so you have the energy to keep all the balls in the air at the same time!

Good luck.

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