All that (s)he wants

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…is another baby, according to Ace of Base. But is there a “right” time to have kids when you’re a scientist in academia?

Many of the factors are true for all careers, of course, but the unusually long duration of training in science, and the scarcity of permanent positions means that the decision may be a bit more complicated than for other professions.

It’s worth stressing too that the people’s ages at the various career stages outlines below can vary a lot, either through differences in local set-ups (as has been discussed here already) or late/mature entry into the system. The assumed/approximate ages in each category are indicated.

So, here goes…

Undergraduate (early 20s)

Some people do become (or are already) parents during bachelor or Masters study, but not many. A negligible category. Should it be? Ironically, someone who is already a parent at the start of their PhD may be more secure than someone who becomes a parent during their PhD as there’s no change to the working routine established at the outset. Likely to be a big sacrifice in terms of social and cultural activity at an early stage of life, however. Low financial security and mobility, as detailed for PhD students below.

PhD student (early to late 20s)

Low probability of fertility issues, but offset by very high level of career vulnerability – an unsympathetic supervisor may put someone else on your project. Very low level of independence too; a decision to quit means that you walk away with nothing, even after committing several years. Parenthood will inevitably draw out the length of the PhD. Low level of financial and household stability. Having a child may compromise or otherwise affect mobility for postdoc positions.

Postdoc (late 20s to mid/late 30s)

Already in possession of a PhD, so greater level of independence and the option of walking away doesn’t carry as heavy a penalty in career terms as it would for a PhD student. Fertility issues probably still not really relevant, but will become so as time goes on – age 35/36 is a key number for women. Greater level of operational independence means that the postdoc is likely to have more control over planning of working hours and time. On the flip side, this is probably the most high-stress period in career terms as there’s the need to find either a junior faculty or staff scientist position. Unlikely to have subordinates to keep project work ticking over during parental leave or other absences. Financial situation much improved.

Junior group leader (mid/late 30s to early 40s)

Fertility issues starting to be pretty relevant now. Complete – or nearly complete, depending on the department – independence in terms of work time allocation. Also likely to have subordinates to keep the lab engine running. But still substantial career pressure to succeed under time pressure. May also be newly arrived in a new city or country, with all the associated acclimatisation issues (also applies to postdoc and PhDs, if we’re honest). Smaller peer group for emotional support, and harder to make friends as you get older (or perhaps you just can’t be bothered any more!). Financially much more stable.

Tenured professor (mid 40s and above)

You’ve got the career and financial security, but are you still fertile? Higher risk of birth abnormalities in offspring, particularly for women. The sleepless nights likely to be a lot harder with age. And might you be more like a grandparent than a parent to your child? (you’ll be in your 50s by the time they’re 10 years old)

Whatever the pros and cons – and there are many in each category, far more than the outlines above – perhaps the single most important thing (from a scientific perspective) is being in a supportive environment. With a supportive boss – whether that’s a PhD supervisor, postdoc mentor, departmental head or scientific director – it should be feasible to start a family when you want or feel ready, regardless of what career stage you’re at. And it should be possible for leaders to create an environment in which that mindset predominates. After all, you certainly can’t legislate when you will meet the right partner!

 

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