All that you can’t leave behind (on maternity leave)

My baby is less than 3 months old. I am on unpaid leave. This morning, a colleague came over to my house to discuss revising and resubmitting a grant proposal that recently got rejected. I bounced and fed the baby while we talked and I attempted to sound on top of things despite having gotten only 4 hours of sleep. A student is coming over later to discuss data for his/her thesis and I’ve got my own paper revisions to work on at some point. I’m also recovering from a physically challenging pregnancy and childbirth, providing the sole source of nutrition for another human being, and operating on limited amounts of disrupted sleep. My partner, older child, and dog might like a mention here too, but frankly they are not getting as much attention as any of us would like.

All of what I describe above is the result of privilege. Privilege to have been able to bear a healthy baby. Privilege to have a job with the protections of FMLA, which provides for up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave following childbirth. Privilege to be able to afford to take unpaid leave, after my sick leave was exhausted and midwife said I was healthy enough to return to work. Privilege to have friendly and understanding colleagues, many with small children of their own, and fantastic students who are willing to meet me where I am, rather than make me schlep my baby to campus through this anomalously cold winter. Privilege to live close enough to campus that my colleagues and students can come see me without stupendous inconvenience. Privilege to have a job that intellectually stimulates me such that I can still get excited about it, even on 4 hours of disrupted sleep.

But I’m also fully aware that I lack the privilege to walk away from my job for my 12 weeks of leave. I plan to submit my tenure dossier this summer, so these are the last few months to get things out the door and have them count in that pivotal assessment. Even if I did have tenure, “science never sleeps”, funding deadlines wait for no one, and some opportunities are simply too important to pass by. Most importantly, since science is very much a team endeavor, decisions I make about what to keep and what to drop affect my (mostly pretenure) collaborators and my students. It is with regards to my students that I feel the most responsibility, as they chose to work with me long before I became pregnant and have done everything to keep themselves on track as they’ve progressed through graduate school. They don’t deserve to have their graduation – and their careers – delayed because of my reproductive decisions.

Thus my maternity leave has not been a real leave and I’ve had to carefully weigh which things to try to keep going and which to decline or postpone. Beyond those decisions, I’ve had to attempt to find strategies that let me keep up with those things that I decided to keep going. I thought it might be useful to share how I’ve approached those two tasks, as I couldn’t find much advice on the internet as I approached my maternity leave.

As I considered how to keep or jettison tasks I contemplated both payoff for myself and the impacts on others. As mentioned above, I decided that my #1 priority is to my students, several of whom are preparing for spring defenses. That means I’m doing lots of reading and commenting on drafts. My #2 priority is a paper that was almost completely ready for submission when my baby was born. My coauthors took over the editing process when the baby arrived and helped me meet my submission target. Next up has been several grant proposals that stem from on-going collaborations. These have only been possible because I am playing a narrow, well-defined role within each project and I’ve been able to leave the big picture thinking, as well as all of the messy administrative details, to my collaborators. So far all of these things are going fairly well.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of my list of things to stay on top of. I also have a newly funded project with a tight timeframe, and I need to get tasks going for that, even before the students (whom I need to recruit) arrive on campus. Finally, I have several papers that need to be revised and resubmitted or written up in the first place. As you have probably already guessed, this part of my task-list isn’t going so well, as the project spinning-up and manuscript writing has inevitably fallen behind the deadline-driven and responsible-for-others thesis reading and grant writing. In a better world, I wouldn’t have kept these things on my list (or I would have had fewer things in the preceding paragraph), but tick-tock of the tenure clock has given everything more urgency than is really fair. At this point, I only hope that I can get at least one of the revise and resubmits done before my tenure dossier goes out and that I don’t make too much of a mess of my new project.

Given all of the things I kept on my to-do list, what did I jettison? Perhaps most importantly, I set an out-of-office message on my email and voice mail, explaining that I was on leave, would have only irregular access to email, and that correspondents should not expect a response. I’ve viewed this message as permission to ignore all emails that I don’t want to deal with. I’m also blanket deleting all email from listservs. I should probably allow myself that even when I don’t have a new baby, but for now it’s a start. Beyond the email control, I’ve declined all review requests and passed on all travel requests. I went on leave from my professional and departmental service obligations, and I’ve declined any new service requests that have come my way. These have ranged from the big things (“edit our journal!”) to the niggling things that add up to huge amounts of time (“take this survey about campus quality of life.” “now take another one…”). Finally, I’ve let on-going projects pause, if at all possible. I’ve asked for no-cost extensions on a couple of projects to give me more time to finish analyses, reconcile budgets, and write reports.

What strategies am I using to make progress on my work while providing 24-hour infant care? First and foremost, I have an incredibly supportive partner who has given up some of his own professional goals in order to take on a lot of housework and care for our older child. This means that when I set the baby down, I can focus on taking care of my job and myself. There’s still never enough time though, as newborns are notoriously dependent on their mothers and both of my children have been rather insistent that the preferred napping spot is in my arms. Fortunately, I have a trusty tablet with PDF annotation software, so I’ve been able to do a lot of the thesis draft reading and commenting during naptimes. If I end up with only one free hand, it’s slow to make notes, but it’s a lot better than nothing. I’ve also occasionally chosen to make a phone call rather than reply to an email, because it’s a lot faster for me to leave a voice mail message for a colleague than to one-hand type an email. I also try to pass work back off to the administrative-types that ask me for it. For example, our research office is where all of grants are submitted and administered, but yet the folks there ask us to make and format our own current and pending records. This time I pushed back and insisted that they update mine for me. Counting the number of person-months I’m not being paid off grants is not something I want to do when I’m not being paid at all.

Before my baby was born, my students and I developed fairly detailed work plans for each of them. For the first month post-partum, these plans had them busy working on parts of their projects that were already collaborative with other faculty. That took a lot of pressure off of me for the first few weeks. Now, when it’s time to discuss data and progress with one of my students, I guess at a time that’s not likely to be meltdown-filled and when my partner can be working at home (if possible) to provide back-up, and I invite my student over to my house. Before I gave birth, I asked a couple people for advice on how to handle student meetings, because it was apparent that this was one non-negotiable part of the job. What I wanted to avoid was having to wake a sleeping baby, take him out in the cold, and then try to calm him down so that I could meet with a student in my office. One wise woman told me that she used Skype to talk to her students and that she just left the video off if she needed to nurse. I skyped with grad students during a past sabbatical, and while it does work, it’s not an ideal way to share a view of a figure or show how to navigate a statistics program. Another academic mom told me that she had students come to her house for regularly scheduled meetings. I liked that idea, but modified it to an as-needed basis with frequent email check-ins in between. When they come over, the baby is either napping (but inevitably awakes) or playing on the playmate. By the end of the meeting, the baby is usually in my arms being bounced while I pace around the table. You’d have to ask my students what they think about this arrangement, but from my perspective it’s been a reasonable solution. Again, I’m fortunate to have a house near campus and a friendly, relaxed group of students. This is definitely a “your mileage may vary” situation, and I can imagine a lot of scenarios where I would be uncomfortable with this arrangement.

I’m now several hours past the usual posting time – forgiving myself for missing self-imposed deadlines is another strategy I’m using – and it’s time for me end my day shift of work and baby care and start the night shift in the rocking chair. I go back to work in a few weeks…or rather I go back to being paid for my work…but I’m not fooling myself that this is going to get any easier for a long time yet. Still, I wouldn’t trade the privilege of being able to spend time with my smiling baby and keep a job I love for anything.

How I finally got NSF funding

Being tenure-track in the sciences these days means being stressed about funding. Compared to my advisors, who were getting their labs started in the wake of Sputnik and increased governmental investment in science, grant writing is probably what early-stage professors spend most of their time on.

I hated grant writing my first two years; I wanted to do science, not write about it.  My first federal grants got triaged, and looking back I wish I had given myself a year or even 18 months (you can probably guess from this that I have a hard money position) before submitting a federal grant. But, as most of us are, I was advised by my senior colleagues to use my teaching release to draft grants, and so I submitted what I can only call ridiculous proposals. I will say that it helped to see how many pieces go into a federal grant early on, so that I could properly estimate the time needed in the future.  Still, I was a lamb heading to slaughter when I submitted that first full grant. It’s hard to get preliminary data when your lab’s only member is you, the PI, and you have to teach and advise and learn how to get reimbursed and where to order toner and all those other things our advisors hid from us about the academic life.

My reviews in my first couple years left me utterly deflated. Continue reading

Third Year is Kicking My Butt

In which @Scitrigrrl realizes that time is not stretchy and cannot be extended simply by adding hours at the beginning and end of each day.

I’m a little over halfway through my second semester of my third year, I am totally overwhelmed, and really feeling the pressure to do everything: Get funding! Publish papers! Teach with excellence! Be a good department/institutional citizen! I feel torn with the constant demands on my attention and time. I am tired, but I also still love my job, I finally feel settled in the job and in the town, and overall, I am happy. But between third year review (!), a dramatic increase in demands on my time compared with the first two years, and increased anxiousness about money, I am feeling overwhelmed. I know, in theory, what I need to do to get to where I need to be, I’m just not always convinced that I will get there.

There has been a running joke this year among some of my peers that now they have forgotten how long I’ve been here, I can no longer claim to be new. Continue reading

Never A Fraud: Combating Imposter Phenomenon

As a disabled woman of color, I have had to jump many a personal and professional hurdle to gain admission into my current program. Even without a disability, being a matriculated graduate student is an accomplishment. However, sometimes I wonder if I have truly earned my place among my peers. The insecurity is confusing, and if that weren’t enough, the battle to internalize my achievements is exhausting and demoralizing. I feel like an imposter unworthy of the position I had worked for. Were my entrance essays that good? Did I get special consideration because I am a woman? Or maybe I was admitted because I had a disability?

This feeling is common enough to have a name: Imposter phenomenon. Continue reading

Dress for Success

Ever since I started going to conferences, I’ve been at a loss for what to wear. The men in my field pride themselves in the aloof state of their dress when presenting their results, and it’s not uncommon to see them presenting in jeans, a t-shirt, and flip flops. But for women, there is an unspoken rule that to be taken seriously, jeans and a t-shirt just aren’t going to cut it. Continue reading

Prospective Students and Lab Culture

‘Tis the season for would-be faculty to field campus interviews. It’s also the time of year when accepted prospective graduate students come for campus visits. Usually a two or three day blitz of events, on our campus it always includes a day’s worth of interview time with each lab group that a student is considering joining.* Some of that time is a formal interview with faculty PIs, but much of that time is spent chatting with current graduate students and post-docs over coffee (or adult beverages).

Every year that I’ve been here, we’ve had at least one prospective student interviewing with my lab group. And each time, I’ve been struck by how these students did not ask a single question about the culture of our lab group, even when having private one-on-one conversations with current graduate students. Now that I’ve been in graduate school for several years, I’ve realized the extent to which lab culture and communication norms can make or break one’s sanity. Continue reading

Guest post: Using fiction to explore realities for women in STEM

Ten years ago, Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard University, sparked a controversy by attributing some of the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities to “innate” differences between men and women. I remember the uproar in the media, the indignation of scientists, quoted in the press, and even some of the statements about universities’ commitment to encourage women to apply to tenure track positions. I can recollect some of the ensuing grumbling and bitching, but not as acutely as I remember a graduate student nastily complaining that women now had a better shot at getting an offer. I don’t remember any response from the members of faculty. I have no doubt that professors talked among themselves, but the topic was not raised in group meetings. On the surface everything was as usual – female graduate students and post-docs did not rant in front of those who would write their letters of recommendation, and advisers did not say anything that might be misinterpreted.

A few weeks after Summers’ remark, I had an idea that had little to do with my work. I imagined a female physicist in a fictitious university, the people she works with, her family, and the man she loves. Continue reading