Parents with PhDs

by Shannon –  I’m sitting here in Delhi International Airport waiting for my flight back home to my daughter, Grace. This morning I woke up at 3 am, made sure her school bag and lunch were packed, prepared dinner, and got on a flight to attend a scientific meeting 2.5 hours away by air. Now I’m flying back at midnight so I can wake up and take her to school tomorrow.

Ironically, while I’m waiting, I read this week’s article in Nature (click image):


The article discusses the burden of being a parent in science.  Certainly, there still exist significant hurdles for parents –  lack of child care, uncertainty in scientific positions and funding, even the need for mobility. But the article also discusses another, less obvious issue regarding the current scientific mindset:

‘Virginia Valian, a psychologist at the City University of New York, says: “The results showing that fathers also leave STEM reinforces the hypothesis that the problem is a structural one, in which dedicated professionals are not expected to have a personal life, and, indeed, are punished for so doing.”’

Before I gave birth, I recall having a conversation with a senior member of my field. This eminent scientist lamented that a female colleague of mine took time off after she had a baby.  The senior scientist was not complaining about years off, but rather weeks.  Indeed, the pressure to constantly perform in science is felt by scientists at all levels – from student to senior scientist.  Modern “conveniences” such as email and instant messaging have only made the problem more intense.

I recall several Christmas holidays spent juggling between wrapping presents and submitting grant applications. I thanked Apple for creating the iPhone so I could write a manuscript while breast feeding. I have made it no secret that I have struggled with anxiety and panic attacks caused by stress.  And it is no wonder that my first ever panic attack came in my last few weeks of pregnancy.

My former boss, Bill Hansson, now Vice President of the Max Planck Society, once said “Science is not a profession. It is a lifestyle”. He is completely correct. I live my profession. That’s because I truly love science.  I love thinking about questions and experiments.  I dream about hypotheses, and my students will often get emails in the middle of the night because I woke up with a new idea. This is truly what makes science wonderful for me, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

But this 24/7 lifestyle also means that while living science there is less time to live anything else, like family. So I stretch myself between meetings and math homework, science and sports practice, teaching and temper tantrums.  In the end, the one who suffers is not my profession or my family, but myself.

So what can we do? First of all, we can promote a more healthy scientific culture.  We can stop having important meetings late in the day when parents need to pick up children from school. We can put grant deadlines before or several days after major holidays. We can be patient when someone doesn’t answer our emails sent after 6 pm or on weekends.  There are few things in science that can’t wait for two days. Also, we can stop judging fellow scientists who do take time out for their families.

Science is a profession based on creativity. And creativity is not constant. It also requires an unburdened mind. I am my most creative after taking time away from the lab, often after doing something else I enjoy like picnics with my daughter. Time away from the lab is not wasted time – it is rejuvenation.

I am certainly not the best example for my students.  I work too much, stress too much, and don’t take enough time for that needed rejuvenation. But perhaps I can at least be understanding of their need for some semblance of a work-life balance.

For now, I have a plane to catch.  With any luck I’ll still be awake enough to check over Grace’s math homework before morning.

  One thought on “Parents with PhDs

  1. Chandrima Home
    February 27, 2019 at 9:23 am

    Very nicely written and so apt! As a single mother and finishing a PhD with my daughter, the struggles have been similar… More than others judging.. Sometimes I tend to judge myself… If I am giving enough time to research or whether my daughter gets neglected especially when she complains!


  2. Somenath Sen
    March 16, 2019 at 8:50 pm

    This is really inspiring. I just recently found out about your lab and I have nothing but good wishes and I hope one day I can follow this path.


  3. Nitu
    March 19, 2019 at 8:47 am

    Practical aspects of highly educated working women has been well described.We are never going to be satisfied as our life is ever demanding and sometimes without recognitions and many times with lot of scoldings.


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