Monday, June 14, 2010

Professor mommies on maternity leave

Years ago, before I was a mommy, I asked a professor lady at a "women in science careers" panel if building and effectively managing a strong lab group could help compensate for having a baby pre-tenure and going on maternity leave. She said to me, dismissively:

"They work as hard as you do, honey, they work as hard as you do."

The very strong implication, in the context of the discussion going on and the height of her eyebrows was that dealing with your family meant you were not 'working hard'. Apparently, in her opinion, the following does not qualify as 'working hard'--the process of having a baby, dealing with a newborn and really wacked out hormones while also:
  • participating in faculty search interviews and lab meetings via skype
  • communicating with the lab group multiple times a week via email
  • preparing for and participating in NIH study section
  • critiquing poster drafts/practice talks and attending a conference with the whole group
  • doing pre-work for two grant proposals that got submitted within two months of returning from maternity leave
My lab group worked pretty hard while I was on maternity leave. They each made their own, personal exponential jumps in their understanding and ability to think independently. They each kept largely on track with their research goals. Some of them planted the seeds for new research directions for the lab while I was gone, and they all kept their hands in the dirt cultivating our collective efforts to move our science forward.

This isn't a "pat me on the back, I did so much! I must be superwoman" post. I am not superwoman, and all these things were possible because of the support network I have in place. This is a post to show how, as an aspect of that support network, building and managing a strong group, and providing a good practical example of "making it work" can keep your emergent research enterprise from floundering while you take time to have a child. Because, indeed, they work as hard as you do.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

I don't get it. Who is "they", who are working as hard as you do?

prodigal academic said...

My experience on maternity leave was like yours--my students worked hard, and made a lot of progress even without my physical presence. I stayed in good electronic communications with them, and I also met with them in person every 2-3 weeks (sometimes with baby in tow).

I don't know where this idea came from that maternity leave means everyone stops working. Conditions were not ideal, but my students are ambitious, hard working and talented. They don't need an overseer, they need a mentor. I'd say if students really stop working when the PI is away, then something is wrong in the lab.

Arlenna said...

My group CPP.

Her implication was that my employees/students would slack off while I was away on maternity leave (because, also implied, I would not be "working hard" during that time). I found things to be the opposite on all fronts.

Arlenna said...

Clarified post to give that contextual detail.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what the speaker meant, but there is a difference between being unreachable for 3 months and doing what you did. Members of your group probably also work when those less dedicated would not, such as when they're feeling unwell, tired, going through personal troubles, etc.

New Asst. Prof. said...

Exactly!! I am laying the groundwork now for my group to continue functioning in exactly this way when I take maternity leave at the end of August (or whenever our little girl decides she is ready to enter the world). Thank you so much for reiterating that this approach can work - I'm encountering a great many raised eyebrows too and it's starting to make me mad.

GMP said...

I had baby No 2 midway through TT. With email communication and weekly meetings, the students were working hard and things were moving very well. From my CV or theirs you could not tell I had a baby in that period (less than 4 months, over the summer). The world certainly doesn't stop when we have babies, and neither do our groups. They really work hard all the time, most of them at least.

Anonymous said...

This is good to hear from so many! I'm pregnant with #1 as a postdoc and hoping to have #2 during TT. I can see why disappearing all together wouldn't be a good idea during maternity leave. But, if your group is motivated to begin with, it follows you can keep them motivated even if you're not physically in the lab. Thanks for the post, Arlenna, and all the comments!

Tamara said...

In my opinion you did a great job and, of course you are not a superwoman, but you and your team made it work and proved that it is possible to run a lab correctly even if one of his/her members is not here all the time. It's just a question of implication and team spirit. All of you are a great example.

Anonymous said...

I know a (male) assistant science prof at a top R1 who recently did a 10+ month tour of duty in Afghanistan. He continued to run his lab group quite effectively.

Anonymous said...

My former PI took a 6 month sabbatical overseas. He was worried the lab would fall apart while he was gone. He discovered that the lab was more productive while he was gone. He came back a changed PI.

Build a good group. Instill the right culture. Inspire. Trust your team.