Editorial: The double life of a scientist with kids
The first editorial by one of the moderators. A grand task lay ahead of me, as I have never written one before, so hold on tight. First, I had to find a topic, which was daunting task by itself. Besides finding a topic for this editorial, I also had to find time to write it. As a graduate student, life can be rather hectic. Your PI is demanding results (preferable yesterday, but in an hour would be acceptable … in a publishable format of course). You are learning how to do science (trial and error as your modus operandi). And some of us are also trying to have a life outside the lab. In my case, this part of my life has moved a bit more to the forefront, as 9 1/2 weeks ago I became a father.
Of course, becoming a parent is a great experience in itself, but does come with its own set of challenges. First off, my life has changed dramatically. All of a sudden (although you know it is coming for about 9 months or so) everything changes over night (and yes, she was born at night). Everything you do, you have to take into account that your baby has to come with you or you find a babysitter with a graduate student stipend (not going to happen). And they need a lot of stuff, like diapers and spitting cloths (they tend to function more as a food-blender without a lid then a human being, albeit a very cute food-blender), clean cloths, etc. You can’t just go out to dinner or the movies anymore, even though your baby can just latch on to your wife’s breast. For some reason, many people still think it is inappropriate to breastfeed your baby in public. For some new parents, sleepless nights are the norm. On this front, we are lucky, as our baby sleeps, well … like a baby.
But what does this have to do on a blog about a graduate group? How often do you see someone younger than 18 years on any given campus? Exactly!
Well, graduate students and faculty are humans too and (some|most) have the desire to raise a family. Most academic positions, graduate students included, are very demanding. Working long hours in the lab and keeping up with the literature takes time and more often than not, you find yourself working till midnight or later. Of course, being a scientist also means you have flexible hours (one of the great perks that come with the territory). For graduate students these hours are largely dictated by experiments that you plan (or your PI told you to do) to get a paper published (and graduate). And publishing papers is like a rat-race. The need to publish never stops, so the pressure to do experiments never stops. For faculty, this includes writing grants, going to meetings (in exotic places while stuck in a windowless lecture hall), serving on committees and making sure your lab does what it is supposed to do: produce publishable data. Again, in my case I am lucky that I have the option of working from home, as my project is largely bioinformatic in nature. But most graduate students aren’t this lucky and as a graduate student you don’t have explicit right (except for female TAs). This means you have to work something out with your PI to make it work for both. Again, here I am lucky that I have two PIs that are relaxed about my situation.
By enlarge, doing science and raising families are not a match made in heaven. Both are very demanding and time-consuming ‘pastimes’. Becoming a first-time parent not only changes your life, it will also change your way of doing science. You have to plan everything around your other pastime, your child. It is like living a double-life with a kid in both families, whom you both love dearly, and you want to spend as much time as possible with both of them. Except you can’t, but I think it is worth it and I enjoy both every second.
Daniël P. Melters
3rd yr Graduate student
Useful or interesting links:
Article in Washington Post about graduate students and parenthood.
Memo about how to deal with graduate students with kids at UC Berkeley
Child care and youth program at UC Davis
DavisWiki about Child Care
Comparison of childbirth/parental leave policies at selected US universities [PDF]