Scientific Careers More family and friendly

Some of the problems faced by scientists who are parents will be familiar to parents of all professions. A key pressure point is the cost and availability of childcare, and many researchers would like on-campus childcare to be provided. However, even researchers fortunate enough to work for an institute that provides childcare facilities face barriers to using them. On-campus nurseries often have months-long waiting lists, making early registration essential. “I know of a couple who booked their child in before the baby was even conceived”, says Marta Garrido of the University of Queensland. Marta herself had to wait two years for a full-time place for her first son, having registered him six months before he was born.

The costs of the facilities can also be prohibitive, particularly for early-career researchers. And even with subsidies, the cost of full-time care for one child often represents over half of a researcher’s salary. That’s when they’re able to use the facilities at all: postdoctoral researchers paid through scholarships may not be officially employed by the institution they work at, and so are ineligible for on-site nurseries provided for the children of staff and students. This situation is one example of the wider disparities in the benefits on offer to different classes of postdoctoral researchers, which have led to calls for the employment contracts of postdocs to be made more consistent.

Children and research projects have a lot in common. Both can lead to sleepless nights, both require the mastery of specialist techniques, and people who are not parents or scientists often struggle to understand them. However, despite these similarities, family life and a career in research are often portrayed as being incompatible with each other.

To shed light on this topic we have interviewed over 20 scientists who are also parents: these interviews will appear on the eLife website over the next few weeks, alongside articles that take a broader look at the highs and lows of being a scientist and a parent. It is striking how different each parent’s experience is, even among researchers at similar locations and career stages. Yet, as summarized here, a number of common themes emerged in the interviews, notably with regard to childcare, time, travel and flexibility.

The parental leave on offer to researchers varies widely. National standards and the gender of the parent are the main factor controlling the length of leave available, although the situation is more complicated for graduate students and postdocs on fixed-term contracts. Furthermore, parents on short-term contracts that come to an end around the time of birth can find themselves unemployed instead of on leave. Even without these pressures, researchers may choose to work through their leave period: papers and funding applications need to be written, and junior lab members need mentoring. Although the collaborative nature of science means that others may be able to help with some tasks, it can also make parents feel like they’re taking advantage of their colleagues if they take leave.

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