Gestating in STEM: Blending family with a tenure-track academic career

This past weekend I attended a scientific conference. As usually happens at these events, I had an opportunity to catch up with long-term friends and to make new acquaintances. Often when I’m speaking with young women in STEM the subject of having kids comes up in conversation. I take every one of these conversations as an opportunity to dismantle the myth that a tenure-track academic career is incompatible with having a family. I speak from experience.
For as long as I can remember I have loved biology. Biology makes sense to me intuitively and now permeates how I see the world. I conducted early scientific experiments in the creeks of small towns in Ontario where I grew up. It’s where I learned that crayfish will scoot backwards in order to evade capture. I was devastated when I accidentally killed tadpoles by feeding them bread. I got exceptionally good at catching frogs. I learned what skunk cabbage smelled like and was amazed that a plant can melt snow.
I entered my undergraduate degree in Sciences fully believing that I wanted to be a doctor. Most of my first year grades quickly disabused me of that notion, but biology made sense to me. I completed a fourth year research project and was hooked. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer after my undergrad, but decided that doing biology made me happy and I went on to complete a M.Sc. degree.
The M.Sc. degree was challenging academically, but was also challenging personally. I’d met my partner in the first year of my undergrad and we ended up having a long-distance relationship for 3 years while I completed my B.Sc. (Honours) and M.Sc. degrees. During one of our weekends together he proposed and I said yes. When it came time to do a Ph.D. degree we made a deal; I would do the Ph.D. in the city where he was kicking off his career and when it came time for the post-doc, he’d pick up and move where I needed to go. Life is about compromise, but it’s also about picking the right partner.
The Ph.D. was exceptionally rewarding and challenging at the same time. I made some amazing scientific discoveries and triumphed over some systemic hurdles. I got married and we made the conscious decision to start our family the next year. The statistics will tell you that it was a dumb move, but I wasn’t about to let graduate studies in science dictate my reproductive choices. It was an unconventional choice at the time and I had several people ask me if the pregnancy was planned; the implication being that only an idiot would become pregnant in grad school on purpose. The hardest part of the Ph.D. was the lack of support from public programs after the birth of my son. I took 9 months off from my program and it took me 6 years to complete my degree, but I finished it. I defended my dissertation 3 weeks before my daughter was born.
My post-doc was a great experience and by now I was an old pro at juggling science and family. Compared to many other jobs academia affords a great deal of flexibility in terms of how you spend your time. Life and career can never fully be separated and there will be many times that you have to improvise and come up with creative solutions to problems. I’ve found that having children early in my academic career was an excellent choice for me. I have a great deal of respect for colleagues who are just starting their families while on the tenure-track.
The aim of this post is to serve as encouragement to young women who are starting out in STEM. The statistics show us that the odds are stacked against you, especially if you choose to marry a partner and if you choose to have children and want an academic career. I am here to tell you that it can be done; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Here are some pearls of wisdom that I have picked up along the way:

1) If you choose to have a partner, make sure that they are a true partner in every sense of the word. If you both have careers, expect that one person’s career will take precedence during different stages of your life, however, you should not always be the one making career sacrifices. Your partner needs to fully support you in your career and needs to do their fair share of domestic chores and organization. If you have children with a partner, this person should be willing and able to care for your children (e.g. change diapers, clean up puke, play, feed, and clothe them) and not just “babysit” them.

2) If you decide to have a child or children, it is much easier to do this with a network of supportive people. Whether this is a partner, extended family, or friends there will be many times where you will need assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Toss the myth of the Superwoman out the window. Life will never be perfect; let it go.

3) Availability of good child-care will make or break you. Whether this is provided by your partner, family, friends, an in-home daycare, or a daycare centre, if you are worried about the quality of care that your children are getting you will be unable to be productive at work. This may come at a steep financial cost, but it is worth every penny.

4) Be prepared for people to judge your personal and professional choices. Listen politely to their opinions, let it roll off your back, and move on. Everyone’s life is different and we are all dealing with challenges of our own, many of which are not visible to others. Your colleagues may not have children, but may be dealing with elder care issues, disability, chronic illness, etc.

5) Pay it forward. Share your wisdom with those who are coming up the Ivory Tower behind you. Give them a leg up when you can. Kindness is vastly underrated.

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