Family 'or' career?? Doing both in the geosciences

- Dr. Janine Krippner

How many times are women told 'family or career'? How many times have we heard about women being treated differently because they have, or want to have, a family? We have heard that it's even a career killer. If we have kids - your career will suffer. Your kids will suffer. You will basically fail at everything. This is the message I have seen over and over again. I have a couple of issues with this. Firstly - I see women succeed at both. Secondly - I see plenty of Dads raising kids and having a career too! The old saying is that 'it takes a village to raise a child', so why do we have the stigma that women are the only ones affected by raising kids, and that it poorly affects their work?

When I started discussing putting this post together I got the reply: "I know :(  I have a brilliant chemist friend & she was in tears when she told me she won't pursue a future in academia as she wants children". We need to start shining a light on the other side of parenting - the side that would allow this chemist to believe that she has a choice. One of the things that surprised me was that a side effect of parenting can be an increase in productivity - they are forced to be more focused. Where are the stories like that? Would parents (especially women) be viewed as less successful if we all shared this side too?

I don't have kids. I see the articles out there about how hard it is. I hear parents saying that it's tough, but I also hear them saying how great it is, in fact, face-to-face, these outnumber the tough stories. Here, I hope to shine a positive and empowering light on parents and caregivers, both to show that they can manage both quite well (thank you!), and to give those who do not yet have a family hope using the words of the parents who have made it work.

I don't pretend here that it isn't hard - having just completed my Ph.D., I want to sarcastically ask 'what isn't??'. We come across challenges in life all the time, and we can overcome them. This is certainly a different kind of challenge, a long-term challenge that isn't just about you. If you want to learn more about how hard it is - go to Google. If you want to help change this stigma around parents in science/academia/careers - keep reading.

This blog is for the parents out there making it work, the parents out there who are struggling, the people out there who want to have kids one day, and all of you who judge anyone who has a family (or has even thought about it) as no longer good enough. There are always two sides to a story, and I am over hearing about the limiting side. Let's empower each other to take on these challenges.

Susan Hough

Mom, grandma; geophysicist with USGS; occasional science writer
From: USA (we moved around a lot when I was a kid)
Current home base: Pasadena, California

I have three great adult children, now 26-33, and three amazing grandsons, the eldest of whom is now 5. I've been at the USGS for 25 years now. My work focuses on research on earthquakes and earthquake hazard, and in recent years on international capacity-building projects. The work-life balance thing was, of course, harder when my children were small. My husband and I chose to start a family early in our careers, when we were both still in grad school. My husband is a biochemist who started grad school at the same time I did. So the balance issues affected us both. Our daughter was born at the end of my 2nd year of a PhD program at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and our first son was born a few months before I defended my PhD. For any parents with outside jobs, there are never enough hours in the day. You make the best with what you've got. The big challenge, apart from having so much on our plates, was financial: facing expensive childcare costs when we were living on graduate stipends. But there were up-sides as well. Flexibility was one huge plus: as grad students we were able to shift our hours so that we only needed halftime childcare for the first 2-3 years. As grad students we were also part of a student community, with quality home-based childcare available nearby. The faculty at Scripps were terrific; I was fortunate in this regard, especially back in the 1980s. The second up-side was something I didn't appreciate until later: having children earlier meant being freed up from the intense early parenting demands earlier. So travel was difficult early in my career, but by the time I started to have more mid-career opportunities to attend international meetings and lead international programs, I was more free to pursue them. A finally up-side was revealed to me 5 years ago: grandchildren! Being a grandparent is the best role a person can have: all of the joys of parenting without the overwhelming responsibilities. Being a young parent means I get to be a young grandparent for (hopefully!) a lot of years. It's actually still a struggle: I wish I could spend even more time with them. But I relish having the energy, time, and resources to be an important influence in their lives. I also love the place that I'm at professionally, being heavily involved with both research and international capacity building projects.

It's disheartening, that there hasn't been more progress with work/life balance issues over the past 30 years. Maybe awareness/acceptance is better, but if anything the demands of a science career have gotten worse. There are only so many hours in a day; taking on two full-time jobs is tough. I came of age during the "women can have it all" era. I think it was true then and is still true today. But nobody ever said it would be easy.

Dr. Wendy Bohon
Mom, science communicator and educator at Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology  

I have a PhD in Geology (I study earthquakes) and I now work as a science communicator and educator at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology. I also run a small, independent social media business and have a blog about parenting twins. My husband and I have 3 kids – a 12-year-old daughter and 3-year-old twin boys. Having a full time job and a full time family can be difficult but I work for a great company that gives me flexible working hours and allows me to telework a few days a week. These small allowances on their part vastly improve my life and allow me to be a better scientist, employee and mother. I’m thankful that I work for an organization that values and supports a healthy work/life balance, and I believe that I’m proof that these types of family friendly policies work, and help parents to be happier, healthier and more productive. I want to advocate for more organizations to adopt policies that give their employees the flexibility to be successful at their careers and to manage their family lives – that shouldn’t be an either/or situation. We need the best and the brightest minds in geoscience working on hard science problems AND raising the next generation of innovators, creators and problem solvers.

Cara Burberry
Mom, Assistant Professor

I'm Cara Burberry, tweet as @DeformationRox. I'm a mum and an assistant professor who just went up for tenure (eek). I live in Odell, NE and work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 65 miles away. I have a long commute!

I’m a mum of two boys, aged 6 and 3. I’m also an assistant professor at UNL in geology, looking specifically at the processes that affect mountain belt formation. I spend a lot of time in my laboratory building mountain belts out of sand in order to investigate this. The best part of my day, despite the commute, is getting home and being tackled by two flying little boys yelling “Mama! Mama! Mama!” It’s become a kind of game – how far can I get into the house before the babies hear me? As soon as they notice that Mama is home, they race to me to get a snuggle. There’s nothing quite like little arms around your neck, usually the owner of those arms is still squeaking “Mama! Mama! Mama!” The next request is either “what’s for dinner” or “can we do a pwoject [sic]?” A “pwoject” is a science experiment – a ring of skittles around a pool of water and watching the colors bleed off… the red cabbage indicator experiment… you name it. Both boys have come with me in the field; 3 has collected fracture data across KS and 6 has collected fracture data in MT. Fieldwork with littles worked for me when they were small and stayed in the carrier. I’ve got a few colleagues who also have littles and we cover for each other when one of us has a sick kid and needs to remain at home. Maternity leave isn’t great, but I was able to stop the tenure clock for a year each time I was pregnant, so I’m going up for tenure now, with a much stronger portfolio than I would have had without the stoppage. I had to ask for it, it wasn’t offered; parents: Know Your Rights and ask for them!

Shari Gallop 
Mum of two and Lecturer in coastal geoscience and oceanography 
Shari's Webpage
Country of origin: New Zealand
Current location: Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

My husband and I are parents to two wonderful kids (3 years and 2 months) and live in Sydney, Australia. I am a lecturer in coastal geoscience and oceanography at Macquarie University, where I spend half of my time on research and half teaching. I focus on how coastal morphology responds to drivers on multiple scales, such as during storms and to climate change. Some lessons I have learned so far about having my career in academia and kids:

(1) ‘Success’ is defined differently by different people. It’s easy to get pulled into the trap of comparison and judgement. But, we can define our own career success. For me, it’s no longer ‘doing the most stuff’. Mine is defined by enjoying my work; publishing high quality science with people I enjoy; encouraging others; and still having lots of time for life outside of work.

(2) Longer hours doesn’t mean more output. I choose to work no more than 38 hour weeks. This decision has driven me to find ways to be more efficient with my time. I am getting better at saying no, prioritizing, and focusing my time and energy.

(3) Choose your own career path. At least in academia, we actually have a large amount of freedom (even though it might not feel like it at times) in that we can largely choose how we spend our days; what we work on; how we do it and who with. Get creative! Choose your path or others will choose it for you.

For me, becoming a mother has actually made me enjoy my career even more, in that it gives me perspective on what’s important, and has forced me to make some positive decisions about my approach to how I spend my time and energy.

Ryan Watkins
New mother, lunar scientist
Country of origin: United States
Current work place: Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, MO), and Planetary Science Institute

I am a postdoc at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) and an associate research scientist with the Planetary Science Institute (PSI). I research the reflectance properties of the surface of the Moon and I conduct various landing site safety studies future missions. I have one daughter, who is 2 months old and who has a nursery decorated in rocket ships, stars, and moons.

My advisor at WashU has been supportive of my decision to be a working mom from the minute he learned I was pregnant. He has encouraged me to enjoy every minute with her and has given me the flexibility to work from home when I need to. I attended a conference at 8 months pregnant, and everyone there was very supportive.

I chose to work at PSI largely because of the opportunity to work remotely and because they highly value family. PSI is incredibly supportive of working mothers, enough so that they've asked me to bring my baby to our annual company retreat! They even pay for childcare for employees who bring their children to the retreat. A group of employees started up a "Family Chat" group, where we hold telecons every other week or so and discuss a topic relevant to raising children and/or balancing work and family. My position at PSI allows me to work from home, so I am able to spend time with my baby girl but still do research. Our plan is to have her in a daycare 3 days a week so I can work in my office at WashU, and then I will work from home with her the other 2 days.

I don't identify solely as a mom, a wife, or a scientist, and I have always known I would go back to work after having children because my work is a large part of who I am. Being able to do both, and having the support from my company and my colleagues to do both, is truly rewarding.

Adam Kent
Professor: ICP Lab director, Dad, Husband, sometime reluctant dog walker  
Home: Corvallis, Oregon USA (Oregon State University)

 I have been at Oregon State University since 2002, as has my wife, and in October 2003 my son was born. My wife is also a Professor (and an associate Dean for the last few years too). We have both had to work hard at raising a family and being successful as academics. This means things like a clearly defined kind riding and pickup and drop off schedule, flexibility with each others travel schedules, and above all making time for family first. We have also had a great support network of friends - mostly other academics - with kids who periodically get together and let the kids go wild while we eat fancy cheese and have erudite conversations. Corvallis is a great town for a family, beach and mountains are nearby, and there is a plethora of parks and bike paths etc. I personally would not have had it any other way than to have a family. Can you have a career and a family? In my experience I’d say yes, but it helps to have supportive partners, a supportive group of colleagues and a strong friend network.

Natasha Dowey
Mum and Lead Geoscientist in oil and gas industry 

I’m geologist in the oil and gas industry with a love of volcanoes, and my husband is a post-doctoral researcher in mudstones. We’re parents to a crazy toddler who loves pebbles.

Mixing science careers and parenting is a daunting prospect- frankly, I was terrified. And yes, it can be very challenging; your life is turned on its head and you have to find a new normal (that involves being exhausted 99.96% of the time!)

Aside from the obvious rewards of parenthood (e.g having a person genetically programmed to laugh at your jokes), there are a few really positive things about continuing with science as a parent.

  • Perspective- I am incredibly passionate about my work, and easily get caught up in it. Clichéd as it is, having a kid has given a new significance to my personal life, and I feel more balanced.
  • Drive- I have become more ambitious, but in a different way to before; I want to do great things in science, for her- to inspire her, and to make her proud of my achievements. I’ve become more passionate about outreach and encouraging women into STEM.
  • Efficiency- I've become an expert juggler, and am more efficient at work than before- working late is simply no longer an option, so it’s full steam ahead during work hours!
  • Bravery- Negotiating new contracts with employers can be worrying- what will happen to my career if I cut my hours? But we don’t have parents nearby to help with childcare, so we had to take that chance and reduce our working hours. It’s the best decision we ever made- I get a lot achieved at work in 4 days (see Efficiency above!) and also get extra time with my daughter. 

Patrick Dowey

I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manchester, UK. My research is primarily looking at how mudstones form and what their properties are.

Trying to develop an academic career and juggle an 18 month old toddler can be challenging. My wife and I both work, so the baby is in nursery three days a week and we each spend one day a week with her. I worked full-time during my wife’s maternity leave, and I did feel like I was missing out on some really important times with the baby during this period. When my wife went back to work, moving to four days a week seemed like an excellent opportunity for me to spend more time with my daughter. I have a very good relationship with my line-manager and the University supports flexible working for its employees. When I approached my line-manager he was very supportive, and the administrative staff within my School have also been very good.

It’s great having an extra day a week with my daughter. I feel like we have a much stronger bond than we otherwise would have, and I am less worried about not spending time with her on other days as I know we have quality time together. It has also given me much more focus on my days in work. I have plenty of time in the lab, undertake teaching and administrative responsibilities and I am still getting papers published. So although at times it is hard, having childcare responsibilities and being a researcher seems to be possible! 

Christopher Jackson   
Dad, geologist, and university professor. In that order, more-or-less...
Imperial College, London, England, UK
Christophers website
I have been married for nine years and have three daughters (Olive, 5, Hazel, 4, and Nora, 10 months). People think I’m blessed. Or cursed. I am a ‘Full Professor’ (to use US tenure-track parlance) at Imperial College, London, UK where I work as a geologist as part of the Basins Research Group (BRG). I am interested in how sedimentary basins work in terms of their structure and stratigraphy; I have much to learn.

Managing family and work is challenging, but hugely rewarding, although at times you have to accept that you might not being doing both as well as you can. We had all three of our daughters whilst I was at employed at Imperial College. This gave my family and I a degree of stability, financial and otherwise; however, I am a firm believer there is no optimal time to have children. Even though we may crave it as scientists, I don’t think are any equations to help guide this decision. The head, heart, and chance work in strange ways.

Having a family allows you to switch-off from work. Often forcibly so. Kids don’t care about grant deadlines, tenure packets, or conference talk preparation. Having said that, switching-off from work doesn’t require children; I run and cycle a lot, and both give me a massive escape from work. And the family, at times.

I’m typing this from a café in Chiswick, west London. Personally, if handled in the correct way, flexibility is great. For example, I took last Friday off to go camping, meaning I had to work a few late nights this last week. My superiors help by being relaxed and treating my colleagues and me like we’re self-employed. Obviously, such flexibility can have major drawback in terms of its impact of mental and physical health, principally related to a clear separation between work and home. My wife, Vicki, and my three kids also hugely understand my work- and family-related pressures; without their understanding, a lot of things I want to do wouldn’t get done. Balancing work and like is sometimes hard, as mental and physical time away from family isn’t nice for anyone. However, I love it and it makes me happy, which means I’m happy at home...

People seem to think I have accomplished quite a bit in my career...but that rather depends on how you define ‘accomplish’ and ‘career’...

Anything else you think would help to spread a better message about this topic? Stay awesome. Be nice.

Ásdís Benediktsdóttir
Mom (Married with two wonderful daughters 3 and 5 years old), Currently the final work for my Ph.D. is underway; I hold a full time position at Iceland Geosurvey as a geophysicist.
Country: Iceland

My story and how I combine family and work:

In Iceland we get a paid parental leave. When I had my daughters I got 3 months, my husband 3 months and then we got 3months together, which we could split as we wanted.

I had both of them during my Ph.D., which I started in 2011. My supervisor took the news of my pregnancies very well and was supportive all along. I think that with out his attitude, I might have delayed the 2nd pregnancy until I was done, so his attitude meant a lot to me (thanks Freysteinn!).

I took 6 months of leave with the two of them, and my husband 3 months, so at the age of 9-10 months they went to daycare, which is paid partly by the state. So, they have, since an early age, spent 7-8 hours a day in daycare. These have been wonderful places and our girls have been very happy there.

This is very common in Iceland, that children start daycare at an early age, with two working parents. This, combined with the attitude of my advisor (and the general attitude toward students taking parental leave during their studies) made it easier to have children during my studies.

Now, I am trying to wrap up my Ph.D. while holding a 100% job and running a household of 4! The load of the work around the house and the care of the girls after daycare is split between the two of us. My husband does not "help me" around the house, rather it is we who help each other. There are times when he has to be in office for long hours, so I get the girls from daycare, making my work day closer to 7 hrs than 8, and vice versa. Thus we communicate a lot about our work schedules and try to organize the picking up and dropping of to day care as well as we can. During the evenings (after laundry, dinner and bath) we have some time to sit down and catch up on work (or just watch tv :)). Our house is never 100 % clean; if it were I would not try to hold a 100% job. I try to put in hours on my thesis or finish whatever work I had left during the day during the evenings. All in all this works and we are doing just fine BUT we need to be supportive of each other.

Then there are the grandparents. We both have our parents around and are so fortunate that they like to spend time with their grand-children. So, we get an occasional weekday or weekend where the girls spend the night, leaving more room for us to catch up with work or spend time together as a couple!

This may all sound like we don't spend any time with our girls and everything revolves around work. This is surely not the case! We prioritize our lives such that the girls are always number one. I sometimes pick my girls up early so we have some quality time together before bed. Then I catch up on work in the evening. Luckily our employers allow us to go from work here and there during the day to take them to the doctor or to leave early because of occasional day-offs at the day care. What we miss having is time where all four of us are together. It is usually me and the girls or my husband and the girls. Therefore, I don't think I could finish my Ph.D if I were a single parent.

Occasionally either of us goes on a week-long conference trip or a meeting over a weekend and then we cover for one another at home while the other one is away.

So, having family, a job as a geoscientist, semi-clean house and an on-going and stable mental health is possible! It requires a lot of work but this is what we choose, we like the work and we like the family. I am very often tired in the evenings. But happy and tired. I like the happy part :)

Just to emphasize that it is our choice to be both working full-time. I have the option to work part-time for some time and if say the load on me were to much with a full-time job, I'd opt to go that way and I know many people do while having young children. Also, I count myself to be very lucky to actually have a job as a geoscientist, and a job I really like!

We all have choices. We choose how we view other people, we choose the stories we share, and we choose the stigmas we propagate. I have made a choice to try to shift this - remember, I am not a parent - for the sake of people everywhere. When our colleagues suffer, we all suffer. 

Join me. 

Let's choose empowerment, support, and encouragement.

- If you also have an empowering story to share get in touch with me through this blog -

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