Planning a career in biological science… and a family

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Planning a career in biological science… and a family

Postby VEH » Sun Sep 10, 2017 7:09 am

I am looking for some professional career advice and would be grateful any help. I am part-way through a 2 year masters in Neuroscience and will graduate when I am 31. My career plan is to begin a PhD a year after I graduate (in that year hopefully working as a Research Assistant) and then progress to postdoc and a career in academic research. I am based in the UK.

My partner and I are looking to start a family at some point, but I am aware that pregnancy and taking time out during this period will be challenging. By the time I finish my PhD I will be at least 35 and Im aware that this might be too late to start trying in case we have problems conceiving. In addition, my focus is cell biology and I hope to be working in wet lab. I understand that it may not be safe to work in this environment when pregnant. I also worry that any hiatus from the lab/academia could make it difficult to go back.

I have been advised that the best option would be to have a baby ASAP (pre PhD) but we are financially far from ready and I am unsure about navigating a full time lab based PhD (and living on a stipend) with a young child.

I am looking for some honest advice on planning my trajectory from here from those within the industry. I have come across so many obstacles in my mind that my career and family aspirations seem incompatible, however, I am extremely ambitious and determined not to give up on either.

Thank you for your help!
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Re: Planning a career in biological science… and a family

Postby Dave Jensen » Sun Sep 10, 2017 12:50 pm

Hello VEH and thanks for joining the forum.

I'll leave it to others to provide more specific feedback, to what is really a very personal decision. I only want to comment because we experienced this in my family, and I wanted to add my 2 cents.

My comment is that it's always easier to have the baby (and more delightful) when you are younger and it always seemed to work out for us that we could afford it. If I had "planned" it, things wouldn't have gone as smoothly. We loved the surprise of a baby coming, even though we were scared about how to pay for it all. They make it sound really, really difficult, but you'll find that everything will just sort of work out, so my recommendation is to just start trying but also move forward with your plans and when a baby comes, you'll adapt.

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.”- Alain de Botton
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Re: Planning a career in biological science… and a family

Postby PG » Sun Sep 10, 2017 2:23 pm

Since this is a personal post I will start with some personal bckground. As you may have seen from other posts I am in northern Europe whcih means that we do have a significant social security system that kicks in when you get a baby. I have three kids of varying age and a wife that has taken a large part of the burden for our family.

We had our two first kids while I was a PhD student and my wife had a relatively low income job. We got through by keeping our expenses down and during some periods of time working different times of the day meaning that we didnt need childcare etc. We then got our third child several years later when my career was more advanced, my wife had a better job etc so the financial situation was very different. I still Think that getting our first children relatively early was a good idea rather than waiting. It was tough financially sometimes but we got through without any major troubles.

From a career point of view I dont think that there is any timepoint that is better than any other for establishing your family. The important thing is that the timepoint works for you personally and that you try to find support among those around you. Regardless if you get a child before or during your PhD studies you want a supportive PI and later in your career you want support from your bosses.

Having a family requires effort and time but also offers rewards that I wouldnt recommend anyone to miss out on.
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Re: Planning a career in biological science… and a family

Postby VEH » Tue Sep 12, 2017 5:32 am

Thanks both for your advice! I'm hearing the same from lots of people that earlier is better. However, when I imagine trying to do a demanding PhD with a young baby and both my partner and I on very low incomes, it just doesn't seem ideal for any of us. But it's great to hear that you can make it work.

I would also love to hear from some women who might have gone through this or have similar concerns. I read so much about women dropping out of science for this very reason, it's so disheartening, I would love to hear some success stories!

Thanks so much.
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Re: Planning a career in biological science… and a family

Postby D.X. » Tue Sep 12, 2017 8:58 am


The reality is that any work you do with a young one in tow will have its demands and stresses. A PhD path has its demands as does say a job in corporate. It comes down to how you manage your time. Supportive PhD advisors can be found - its an added challenge to find that advisor but they can be found.

One other point, no one says you need a PhD to be in the practice of science. I have a cousin, she has a Masters and she works for a pharma manufacturer in Quality Control, she is happy and has 2 little wee ones, well not so little any more, i think 7 and 10 but she had her career befiore them and coukd balance it. You will find that many co workers you will run into who have families are great with time management.

My PI has her children during her first tenure track role, 2 kids, while starting a lab and apllyimg for grants and publishing - today a full professor with pretty big lab and reputation in her field. So can be done. I remember she would be running out of the lab at 5:00 PM sharp and had her days where she came in late.

My wife and I had our child at 40, we are both in corporate working for pharma companies. Yes its challenging but going back to time management, it helps. It also helps that we are in a country where the corporare culture is embracive of family priorities and balance so that adds.

You will also see that if you do a PhD, you will manage your time. You have alot of planning flexibility and thats a reality.

Also, do consider, your priorities may change once you have a child - and this is for both husband and wife. You may not want to be in science ir maybe something else leveraging your science background may be more appealing. Should you start this line of questioning once you see them big eyes looking up at you..its OK! Embrace it , explore it and see where it takes you! Dont let pursuit of income be your key reason - follow interests, the income will follow.

Best, DX
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Re: Planning a career in biological science… and a family

Postby PACN » Tue Sep 12, 2017 1:29 pm

I had my first child during my postdoc. I started my PhD earlier, so I was only 30 at that time. We thought we were all ready-- then the baby came and I felt totally unprepared for how much everything changed. I doubt having a baby later in life would have made me feel differently. It's never a perfect time and you can never be perfectly prepared, so you just do the best you can. I wouldn't put it off indefinitely waiting for those things, because you'll be waiting forever.

I had a wonderful postdoctoral advisor who was very supportive. There was very little of concern in terms of chemicals in the laboratory, and I was also in cell biology, so I don't think that is a major consideration. There was one procedure I couldn't do, and I asked our lab manager to perform it for me, and that was fine. In fact, our lab manager was probably the first person we told about the pregnancy outside of immediate family! Childcare is expensive, especially if you don't have any family nearby who can help. How expensive will depend on where you live. But I have seen graduate students who make it work, even as single parents, so it can be done. At least where I work, graduate students can get subsidies for childcare.

I may not be exactly the success story that you are looking for. I did end up leaving academia but that doesn't mean I left science. Those are two different things! I just looked around and realized that I didn't have the passion and drive that I needed for an academic research career. Was having a baby was a contributing factor to that? Probably. It wasn't that I thought it was impossible to have a baby and an academic career, but I no longer wanted to do what it took to compete for academic jobs. I wanted to move closer to my family. I wanted to work fewer hours. I wanted more financial stability. I was able to find all of those things, and I'm happy with what I am doing now, so I consider it a success.
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Re: Planning a career in biological science… and a family

Postby PG » Sat Sep 16, 2017 5:24 pm

Interstingly I had a discussion with a professor from a nearby University yesterday about this topic. It turns out that in ths country the PhD period is becoming the preferred timepoint to start a family. This is due to that the conditions for PhD students have been wastly improved over a number of years with better pay, better employment safety (the PI has to show that he/she has funding for the entire PhD period before taking in a PhD student) and a form of emplyment that gives access to the social security system. This means that currently the time as a PhD student many times provides better job safety and social security access than someone pursuing the academic track is likely to have for many years after their PhD.
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Re: Planning a career in biological science… and a family

Postby VEH » Mon Sep 18, 2017 4:52 am

PACN, thanks so much for your story. Yes it definitely seems having a supportive PI / supervisor makes all the difference! It’s great to hear that you were still able to work in the lab. And I would say being happy in your family life and and secure in your career is definitely a success story!

Ultimately, as you alluded to Dave, perhaps it is maladaptive to look too far ahead and plan these things... there are too many possible variables!

PG, interesting that you had that conversation! In which country are you based? I have heard of people having children during their PhD but having problems continuing after maternity leave due to funding expiry… but it’s perhaps dependent on the country/university/grant.
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Re: Planning a career in biological science… and a family

Postby PG » Mon Sep 18, 2017 1:32 pm

I am in Sweden. Once admitted as a PhD student you are safe for four years assuming that you make sufficient progress and dont do anything really stupid (such as criminal acts). If your PI wants to cut you off due to insufficient progress that decision will be made by the University and the PI is required to show that he/she has provided as much supervision and support as can be expected.

If you take maternity/paternity leave the four year period pauses and continues once you are back in your PhD position again. This pause cant be considered for insufficient progress.
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