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Finding Career And Family Balance In A Naturally Imbalanced Situation

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Author: Dr. Bridget Ford | Category: Beyond The Bench | Career Development | GSBS Alumni | November 06, 2015

Imagine a mythical creature – perhaps a unicorn - frolicking amongst the greenest forest floor. This is how most people regard work-life balance; they assume it doesn’t exist. For the longest time I agreed with this sentiment. And in all honesty, it was the only experience I had.

Picture it – graduate school, circa January 2008. I was in the middle of my second rotation, working late into the evening. The faculty member, in whose lab I was rotating, met with me to discuss my progress. After a successful update, we started to discuss personal matters. I asked her how she found time to spend with her three children with all of the late, late evenings she spent in the lab. I remember her response very well, “I don’t.” She then divulged how many soccer games, recitals, and awards ceremonies she had missed out on. I left her office feeling crushed, and questioning whether or not I was making the right decision to pursue academic science.

Fast-forward a few years, and I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by faculty members who seem like they “have it all.” I realize, although it’s difficult, one CAN juggle a busy family life with a hectic career; it just takes patience and lots of work.

Many articles have been written detailing how to attain this type of nirvana, and although I won’t feature them all here, Science Careers recently published an excellent resource for scientists trying to navigate career decisions while keeping in mind their significant others and families.

The two-body problem was addressed in several articles linked in the above. Most readers are probably only familiar with this concept when there are two academics involved, but it’s still an issue when trying to make decisions when two careers are involved, regardless of fields. Aurélie Ambrosi summarized her experiences trying to balance her academic career with that of her IT industry husband’s career. Ambrosi stressed that when dealing with two-scientist couples, each understands the sacrifices associated with the pursuit of an academic career, however in a ”mixed-couple” one partner tends to make a decision, and the other has to “live with the consequences.” Her keys to success have been patience, open lines of communication, and dealing with problems head on.

Things certainly get murkier when you throw children in the mix. Raising a toddler and having to worry about pick-up times at daycare can make anyone want to pull out their hair. Add in having odd time points, and experiments that can extend well beyond 6:30 p.m. (the magical time when you MUST pick up your child OR ELSE), and bring on the heartburn. Elisabeth Pain discusses how she’s addressed “Balancing Professional Aspirations With Family.” Having a supportive partner whose willing to step in when needed to shoulder a large percentage of parental duties helps. This goes for both male and female scientists. Pain states, “The effect on women -- who, due to persistent social conventions, still tend to be the primary caregivers -- is especially profound, but men who wish to be fully involved in raising their children are affected, too.”

As a final reference, Jyoti Mishra writes in her article, “When women have it all,” “My all is different from your all.” Her words resonated with me while writing this article. I know that what worked for me won’t work for all readers, so the key is to follow your dream. Only you know what works for you, your career, and your family. Sometimes all it takes is resetting priorities from day-to day. Do you really need to run that assay right now on a Saturday, or can it wait until Monday? Or if a grant deadline is looming, keep your partner in the loop and set up ways to deal with these types of time commitments.

Comparing my experience as a novice graduate student to where I am today with a family of my own, a bustling postdoctoral fellowship, and an adjunct position at St. Mary’s University, I can say without out a doubt that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. However with a lot of communication, a little compromise here and there, and constant assessment, it’s possible to meet family obligations while still maintaining a successful career. 

Comic Credit: Dilbert by Scott Adams

The "Beyond The Bench" series features articles written by students and postdoctoral fellows at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. 

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