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Entries in science careers (58)


Interview with eLife on being a scientist parent

eLife in their Scientist and Parent series

At what career stage did you become a parent?

My partner and I did PhDs in Canberra, Australia, before post-doc’ing in Seattle, USA. After our post-docs my partner decided to move to industry while I wanted to take a shot on being an academic. At this point we relocated to Belgium and started a family. We were 30 years old at the time, in a new country and both starting out on new career pathways. Now our son is six years old, and all three of us have hit our stride, with happy lives at home and successful careers at work (well, for my wife and I, our son is not yet an astronaut).

What support have you received as a parent from your country (including parental leave), institution, and friends and family?

We moved to Belgium just before having a child, which means we were not able to draw upon our network of friends and family. My host institution did not provide any support, but Belgium in general has a lot of governmental support systems, including cheap available all-day care for infants from 3 months of age, in-home care by a nurse if your child is too sick to go to school but you need to work, subsidised cleaning services, and so forth. While parental leave is very limited (4 months for the mother, 10 days for the father, with zero flexibility), the system is set-up to allow parents to go back to work in a full-time basis.

What are the most difficult aspects of balancing parenthood and science?

Major challenges of parenthood:

  • The love of my life became my logistics co-manager for the first year. It often felt like every conversation was transmitting critical baby-related information as we did a baby-transfer so the other person could get to work or sleep
  • Travel was a major issue. Both my partner and I travel for work once a month, but when a baby is around this turns the other person into a single parent for the week. We both felt guilty about doing this to each other, and I turned down conference and talks that I would normally take – which looked bad on my tenure review
  • Illness. Babies are disgusting vectors of disease, and I had non-stop respiratory infections for several years. Normally when you get sick you can just rest and recover, but that is not an option when a baby is around – I had to keep pushing myself beyond the point of collapse. When my son finally started in kindergarten (2.5 years, at which point my partner could take over half the logistics of drop-off and pick-up), I slept for a week to recover.
  • Your flexibility becomes very limited – for the first 2.5 years, if I had a faculty dinner or invited speaker event after hours (which happened most weeks), I had to bring my baby along with me. Fancy faculty club dining rooms are rather unused to have a baby around or warming up baby food – and the reception from other faculty was mixed – some were charmed by my son, others strongly disapproved
  • The last major challenge was the perception of others, especially the assumption that you cannot be successful at work and raise a child. This was not so much a challenge for me as people tend to (rightly) assume that most fathers don’t actually help that much, but was a major challenge for my partner. Even if it comes from a source of compassion, these assumptions lead to parents not given the opportunity to work on major projects that can lead to promotions

What more could be done to improve the lives of scientist parents? And what single change would have the biggest impact on you? 

Belgium is a good place to start a family, and my partner and I both entered parenthood with a strong agreement on equal parenting. It was much harder than we expected, but in general the support networks were there through government services and our work colleagues. The one thing that really hits hard on scientist parents (although it applies to non-parents) is just the sheer pressure that is placed on us to constantly perform. The career is an immense pressure-cooker, and you are only as good as your last recent success. With so much anxiety and real fear about dropping into a negative spiral (no grant = no paper = no more grants), it is just really difficult to fully disconnect from work to spend the time at home. So I guess if I could change one thing it would be to remove the culture of pressure from science.

What advice would you give to other scientist parents (or scientists who are thinking of having children)?

My advice for new and prospective parents: 

  • If you are relocating and you expect to be a parent in the new location, factor baby needs into the decision of where to move to. Will you need IVF, and is this covered by the health care system? Is infant daycare affordable and available, or will one person essentially have to put their career on hold for five years? Is there good financial support for new parents? How about schools? It doesn’t make sense to take a job that pays more if you then have to hand it all back to pay for private schools and health insurance.
  • Reduce future commitments in advance. A baby is not a surprise, you have months of notice. You are going to have a major restriction on your time, so start saying “no” in advance. Don’t teach that course, don’t agree to write that minor review, rotate off that committee and say no to reviewing. It is always easy to say yes when the deadline is 6 months away, but the problem is your time is limited and you need to save it for the stuff that actually matters to your career – mainly, big grants and major papers.
  • You have to start equal parenting on day one. A long maternity leave can be a self-fulfilling trap – the mother learns how to look after the baby, and as the baby is constantly changing needs, confidence builds. At the same time, the father often doesn’t learn, and never becomes self-reliant. I would really very strongly recommend that new fathers are given substantial amounts of time alone with their child from day one – they need to figure out the same tricks and develop the same confidence that the mother does. Breast-feeding should not be used as an excuse for fathers not to solo parent an infant – babies are able to switch between breast and bottle on a daily basis. The other proviso of equal parenting is that you need to let the other parent find their own method, and not to try to force them to parent the way that you do.
  • If you are coordinating baby information between two parents, use an app like BabyConnect, where you can enter all the details so they are available to the other parent (like, when they last took medication), rather than spending your valuable minutes together synchronising care
  • Be prepared to delegate at home and at work. You need to reserve time for the important parts, both at home and at work, so delegate away the rest. Hire a cleaner to come in once a week and tidy up the house, so you can spend valuable hours relaxing. Train your post-docs (in advance) to take over your teaching duties – it will be good for their CV and frees up your time at work. Reduce the intake of new students who will need a lot of training, and make sure that your experienced people know when they can make decisions without you.
  • Do things for you. It is easy to become focused around the baby and to forget doing the things that made you happy. But a happy parent makes for a happy child, and you will find that you can do anything with a baby that you used to do without one. At the start it can be difficult, but you will soon find your stride and you end up with a family routine that makes everyone happy.

How do you think the challenges of being a scientist and a parent compare with the challenges faced by other professionals who are also parents? 

My partner always says that academics have the freedom to work whichever 60 hours a week they want to. There is a lot of truth to this. The advantage is in the flexibility – I could change my work around the baby logistics at any time. The disadvantage is that I never truly leave my work behind – I am always on call, and always thinking and working.


A PhD in science is a great career pathway

I've said before that a PhD is a great pathway to unexpected career success. People get so stressed about the academic bottleneck that they forget that there are many other doors that open once you have a PhD. This article puts it perfectly - "Science PhDs lead to enjoyable jobs". Four years out of their PhD, >95% of graduates are satisfied with where their career has taken them, a remarkable figure. So stress less, enjoy your time in research, and you will find your own successful pathway!




Jobs, jobs, jobs!

Two post-doc positions now open in immunology, plus a technician position in the FACS Core, and very soon we will be opening up a new position in endocrinology!



Science Minds: Prof Susan Schlenner

This interview of Prof Susan Schlenner by Science Minds is well worth listening to, for a fascinating discussion of mentorship and the ups and downs of a successful career in science.

You can listen to it on the website here, or subscribe to Science Minds podcast through iTunes.


Prof Susan Schlenner: making a career in science

Next week Dr Susan Schlenner starts as a tenure-track professor in our laboratory.

Growing up in East Germany, Susan started her scientific training with Prof Hans-Reimer Rodewald at the University of Ulm. From 2003-2008, Susan worked on her PhD on protection from the toxicity of snake venoms (J Exp Med, 2007). Dr Schlenner stayed in Hans-Reimer’s lab for a mini-post-doc on T cell development, generating IL7Ra-Cre mice to trace the fate of early T cell development (Immunity, 2010). These mice have become one of the key tools of the field, leading to dozens of high-level middle authorships.

In 2009, Dr Schlenner left to Harvard, to post-doc with Prof Harald von Boehmer. At this point, she entered the regulatory T cell field, again creating new mouse strains to redefine the basic biology (J Exp Med, 2012).

We were lucky enough to recruit Susan in 2012. We had just decided that we needed a top-level molecular biologist when Susan turned up. She immediately solved our problems on a transgenic that we had been struggling with for years, and set up a molecular biology platform in the lab. Susan designed her own high-level projects, and secured independent funding for them, which she is now pursuing with her own team. However Susan has always been ready to drop everything to help out the lab, playing a pivotal role in getting our diabetes story in Nature Genetics, and spending her last days before giving birth generating the key preliminary data for an ERC grant for the lab.

When CrispR editing of mammalian cells first burst onto the scene in 2014, Dr Schlenner spend several years learning the new technique, importing all the tools to Leuven and optimising the process for high throughput genome-editing. The creation of the MutaMouse Core facility was the outcome of this patient work, and will revolutionise biomedical science in Leuven.

With Dr Schlenner achieving the hard-won honour of a professorship, I see lessons in her success that other post-docs could learn from:

1) Train with the best people. In the Rodewald and von Boehmer labs, Susan was surrounded by top scientists doing exciting work. An excellent environment is essential to blossom as a scientist

2) Learn how to do proper experiments. “Controls, controls, controls”, is Susan’s motto, every experiment needs the right controls to understand the result, otherwise it is just expensive play

3) Be prepared to work hard and work long. Experiments often don’t work; it takes grit and determination to tear the hidden secrets out from nature. To create her IL7Ra-Cre strain, Susan generated more than 3000 ES cell clones to screen, before finding the one single clone that set her career on a roll. Others would have given up early, and switched to an easier project, but Susan stayed the course. Persistence is a virtue.

4) Always keep on learning. So often we are scared to enter a field we don't know, or pick up a new technique. It is comforting to stay doing the experiments we already know how to do. Susan has always been prepared to start from scratch as a beginner, learning new techniques such as CrispR.

5) Publish top papers. Immunity and J Exp Med papers as first author, a Nature Genetics as co-last. It sounds obvious, but the top papers are the bed-rock upon which your career is built. If you ever get the opportunity to push a story into the very top level, you seize it and put in whatever effort it takes.

6) Make yourself valuable. Susan has always been a team-player, spending her time teaching others and rescuing difficult experiments. Susan always made sure that the people around her could succeed, rather than only looking out for herself. This was not just rewarded in her dozen middle-authorships, it also meant that she was always someone that her promoters were willing to support in return. Susan’s professorship is in no-small-part a direct consequence of the MutaMouse facility that she was building for the university – she made herself so valuable to the university that they needed to give her a position to make sure she stayed.

7) Stay in the game. It can be depressing looking at the odds of success in academia, but if you are not willing to put in the years, then you have no chance. Susan post-doc’d for nearly 10 years before achieving her professorship: don’t give up on your ambitions.


Academic careers are stressful

New report from the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust, in the UK:

* The majority of academics working at universities are stressed

* Academics have a higher risk of developing mental health issues than other professionals (37%)

* Levels of burn-out are far higher than average and comparable to high risk groups such as health-care workers

* Main problems are lack of job security, limited support from management and the weight of work-related demands

(but we shouldn't stress - science is a great gateway career if you want to leave later on)


Work-life balance interview

The interview below was with Jorg Stange, the manager of the "equality4success" program at the Babraham Institute.

Why did you want to achieve a good work-life balance?

I don’t really think that I have achieved a good work-life balance. I work a lot more than I probably should, and I don’t have much time or hobbies or the like. I would love to have the time to learn a language and spend every weekend and evening work-free. On the other hand, I really like my work. Working 9 to 5 doesn’t sound appealing to me, and I don’t really make an attempt to firewall work and life.

The one place where I would say that I achieved a good work-life balance was in parenting duties. Many fathers automatically step into the part-time parenting role, happy for the mother to take most of the parenting duties. For me this is ideologically incompatible with having an equal relationship. I am a passionate feminist, so I actively seek not to replicate the typical mistakes of fatherhood. Equality in my relationship with my wife is a must, and I want to be a good example to my son.

But that doesn’t mean I have work-life balance – sometimes I have too much work AND too much parenting. When decisions on priority need to be made, I make sure that the most important facets of life come first, but the less important parts of both work and life sometimes get sacrificed.

Why do you think you have achieved a good WLB?

To the extent that I have, it is because I have amazing people in my life. My wife is an inspiring example of being successful at both work and at home, the people I work with are both amazing colleagues and wonderful friends. It is the support network for when things get tough that is most important. The other really important trick is being able to say no. Sometimes that means saying no to parts of work that are not critical (to keep up the parts that are most important), sometimes it means choosing to say no to parts of home life that are less important (but always preserving the important moments).

What actions did you take to maintain / improve WLB?

The big decisions need to always include both work and life. Where will you live on both the macro (which country/city) and micro (neighbourhood) needs to consider both aspects. Does the country have good healthcare and parental support? Will that city provide good career options for both people, or is someone going to become a trailing spouse? Does this neighbourhood provide an easy way to enjoy weekends, and a minimal commute during the week? If you make the big decisions deliberately friendly to both work and life, then the everyday decisions tend to fall in the right direction. For example, when I was working in the US, everyone around me worked late every evening and the lab was full every weekend. I had to make an effort to notice the time and leave before everyone else just to be home before 10pm. In Belgium, if I leave at 7pm I am often one of the last in the building: one work environment promotes long hours, the other discourages it.

What was the rationale behind these decisions?

I only see one good reason for life choices: being happy. My ideal work-life balance is going to be different from someone else’s. You would think that optimal happiness is something that we automatically drift towards, but actually (for me at least, and, I suspect, many others) it takes an awareness and an effort to arrange your life to be happy.

How did the working environment (attitudes of leaders and colleagues, policies in place, general culture, etc.) impact on your plans to achieve a better WLB?

Like many research institutes, my institute is a negative impact on work-life balance. Pressure is high, and I suspect it is physically impossible to achieve the required objectives within a normal working week. To do anything other than put work first constantly is to be an outlier.

On the other hand, Belgium as a country is very positive on my work-life balance. The culture is generally built around assumptions of normal working hours, and we picked key aspects of our life (where we life, where we work, where our son goes to school) to make healthy choices easier. Doesn’t mean that we always make them, but to a certain extent it counteracts the work pressure.

What support did you receive (from employer / national system / family)?        

The Belgian system is very good for young families – full day crèche from three months of age, great support from in-home nurse care during days when the child is sick, high quality schools everywhere so we can pick based on convenience and not feel guilty.

From my family, my wife and I took equal parenting very seriously, and so we both sacrificed either personal time or work success at various points. Our extended family are in Australia, so we were entirely reliant on each other and external support.

How did you benefit professionally from your solution to integrate life and work (e.g. increased motivation / creativity / focus)?

When I delegated work tasks to senior people in my laboratory, they stepped up to a much higher level than I expected, and things were soon being done better than I had been doing! When you give the right person responsibility you can be very pleasantly surprised, and they also get an opportunity to grow that they otherwise might not have.

How have your decisions for achieving WLB impacted on your career progression?

In the short term, it has probably been mildly negative. There are certainly meetings I should have attended that I didn’t, dinner that would have been good for my career that I skipped, grants I might have got that I didn’t write. On the other hand, I kept up all the really important career goals, so my career has been advancing better than I could have asked for. I certainly don't regret my choices for work-life-balance.


Ways to succeed in science

Hidde Ploegh, Harvard/MIT, finished his lecture today with a message to the PhD students:
If you can buy it out of a catalog, you can assume that all the obvious experiments have been done. You will not make a major discovery or make an impact in the field until you develop new tools. You need to be willing to take a risk and invest in designing and building new strategies to look at old questions.
Very good advice, of course, coming from someone who has been incredibly successful in just this manner. There are many great immunologists who have made their mark in this way; Pippa Marrack and Gary Nolan spring to mind.
I would say that it is not the only way to be incredibly successful though. I tend to think of three basic types of high level success in science:
  • The builder. In the vein of Ploegh, Marrack or Nolan, they constantly build new technology or techniques to push back the boundaries of the possible
  • The bridger. There are many "builders" out there, working in different areas. And the tools created for one purpose always have great potential in other areas. The bridger is someone who keeps an open mind and an eye on many fields, looking for the opportunity to pull in a new approach or idea from another field into their own arena. Researchers like Diane Mathis, Sasha Rudensky and Jean-Laurant Casanova have been very successful in rewriting their field without inventing new technology. 
  • The thinker. Perhaps the rarest is the person who thinks of a simple elegant experiment that could actually have been done decades ago, but just wasn't. Not every advance relies on the brute force of new tech, some just need another way of looking at the problem. I see Gita Stockinger, Polly Matzinger, Ruslan Medzhitov and Chris Goodnow as successful in this approach. 
Of course, many of the best use aspects of each approach, and I am sure there are other models too.

A biology PhD (in America)