NSF Tries to Make Family/Career Balance Easier

By Sean Carroll | September 27, 2011 10:30 am

Among the various difficulties that women experience when they embark on a scientific career, a big one is how to balance the challenges of work with raising a family. (In principle men could face the same challenges; in practice the burden usually falls on women. Individual cases will vary.) Science is extremely competitive, and it’s generally not a 9-to-5 job. The years when you might be at your scientifically most productive can be precisely those years when you want to have kids. I’m not familiar myself, but I understand that raising kids actually takes up some of your time.

So it’s great to see the National Science Foundation trying to do something to help. The White House just announced a major new initiative aimed at giving parents new flexibility in their careers. As explained in this press release, the general focus is flexibility, which is a great idea anyway: letting grant recipients defer for a year, and cutting down on the demands for investigators to travel to NSF headquarters when applying or renewing. (Via New APPS.)

These are tiny steps, and there are many other hurdles women face in academia other than the timing of their grants. But every little bit helps, and it’s certainly good to know that someone upstairs is paying attention.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Women in Science
  • Physicalist

    I understand that raising kids actually takes up some of your time.” Made me laugh.

    Good for the NSF; as you say, every little bit helps.

  • http://mattleifer.info Matt Leifer

    Very good, but it could have been better. As far as I understand it, the ability to defer grants only applies to those who have “family commitments”. Presumably, this could be used for taking care of a sick relative as well as for newborn babies, which is a good thing. Whilst I applaud efforts to get more women to stick with science, there are also other under-represented groups who could benefit form a slightly expanded version of this initiative. For example, people who have to take a career break due to their own illness or disability, or those in a similar situation who are able to work, but only part time. Of course, I am particularly interested in this because I have personally been in both situations.

    As far as I can see, the US lags behind the UK in catering for people in these latter categories. In the UK, fellowships and schemes designed to give women career flexibility almost always offer the same provisions for people who need the same flexibility for other justifiable reasons. This makes sense because the flexibility required is similar across all such groups, and is not really specific to women and families, although they are by far the biggest group. In fact, in the US I have seen fellowships advertised that are only available to women, which would actually be illegal in the UK. Whether or not you regard this as a good thing, legislation in the UK works in favour of treating all groups who need flexibility equally.

  • James

    This sort of initiative will help both women and men. Right now, the academic community self-selects for people who will favor career over family, and there happens to be a correlation between maleness and favoring career over family. However, there are plenty of men (like myself) who left an academic career at least in part because of family concerns.

    Focusing only on how this sort of initiative will help women devalues the importance of also retaining male scientists who desire to maintain work/family balance.

  • J. Rich

    Solve the two body problem and then we’ll talk.

  • Rick

    This is not a complicated problem. Maximum possible flexibility is a great thing. But also, pay people more money. Having money to throw at life’s logistical issues really, really helps. It would make a whole host of problems much, much easier.

  • Thomas

    “If it ain’t in me, it ain’t my responsibility.” – Snoop Dogg.

  • Kati

    I’m a female PhD student in physics and a mother to a young child. In my experience, the biggest problem facing mothers in physics is NOT “work-life balance” but having to fight the *perception* that it’s impossible to balance research and family without research suffering. When you’re a mother, no one wants you on their research team; they don’t think they can rely on you, or they don’t believe that you’ll be as devoted to research as your childless peers. But without research, you don’t get published, you don’t get to do your dissertation research, you don’t get letters of recommendations for jobs, etc.

    Nevermind that I’m on campus–already fully caffeinated and ready to work–HOURS before my childless peers. Nevermind that I’m productive the entire workday–no Facebooking, no YouTubing, no goofing off or chatting–when the other RAs aren’t. Somehow, just being a *mother* means I’m a less devoted researcher. Or, at least that’s how I’m treated.

    Yes, motherhood is a stigma in physics.

  • sassmaster

    Nobody is forcing women to drop a litter. Children are a choice and you don’t deserve special treatment just because you can pop out a kid. Don’t like that the world is pitted against breeders? Don’t become one.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “Solve the two body problem and then we’ll talk.”

    Solve the two-body problem in a manner which doesn’t involve giving a job to someone who otherwise would not have gotten it. Where’s the difference between that and getting a job because you agree to have sex with your future boss? In both cases a person gets a job he (or she) would otherwise not have got because he (or she) had sex with the “right” person; it’s just that the “right” person is different in the two cases.

    Also, there are couples who are much worse off than two academics, for example couples where the non-academic cannot work quickly (if at all) in another country. If we want to help spouses get income they otherwise would not have, we can’t discriminate against non-academic spouses.

  • CoffeeCupContrails

    #8: No reason to be a tool.

    Applause to parents like #7 Kati who have to work extra hard to get things done in low paying academic positions, including being a student researcher.

    Working in research projects that require you to come in at 3 in the morning to recalibrate your samples is hard enough on single male engineering students like myself, esp with winter coming. Has to be incredibly tough if you actually want to do it, while managing a family.

    While I don’t expect the NSF or the government to micromanage and make things easier at these local scales, any step toward reducing the stress for women and men, is good for science.

  • J. Rich

    @9 I always assumed the two body problem just meant “two bodies trying to build careers at the same time while being the same place” regardless of an academic career path or not.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “I always assumed the two body problem just meant “two bodies trying to build careers at the same time while being the same place” regardless of an academic career path or not.”

    I’ve never heard it in that sense. Using it that way makes it trivial: it applies to almost all couples. If we think about, say, the nurse and the lorry driver, or the free-lance writer and the cook, then it is probably easier for them to both find jobs reasonably near each other. In academia, where jobs are few and far between, it is more difficult. No-one debates that this is a problem. What I object to is someone getting a job on the basis of the spouse being a very good academic, implying that someone else, probably better qualified, did not get said job.

  • macho


    Hang in there. You’re right that the perception that it can’t be done is much harder to deal with than actually balancing family and research, and unfortunately this perception can have an impact on your career — but it doesn’t have to.

    Finding the right advisor or mentor is extremely important, and they do exist. Someone who views/treats you as a promising physics student (who may also play the violin or have a child or enjoy rock climbing,…). If they’re in short supply at your institution, you will have to be more outgoing (with your science)/persistent/demanding. It’s not fair that you have to work harder to counteract a misperception, but worth it in the long run. If you’re having trouble finding an advisor or group to work with, try to identify someone in the department (even outside your research area) that you can talk to and who can help mentor you. This is not to absolve your department or the field from the need to make changes, but it’s also important for you to focus on your science, and you don’t have time to wait for the larger changes that are needed.

    There are definitely examples of successful physicists who had children early in their careers.
    A recent panel on women in the physical sciences featured 4 senior women who had had long and successful careers in science. It wasn’t until they were talking with each other just before the panel presentation that they realized that all four had children as graduate students or postdocs.

    Good luck.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I’ve actually heard this being suggested by a P.I., as a workaround to deal with the ever-ticking biological clock: “Well, they could always adopt.”

    Not that I’m down on adoption. My wife and I just adopted a baby girl. But this is after years of trying and failing to have a biological child, and that happened because we put off family too long, and the bio. clock had already ticked down to zero.

    Assisted reproductive therapy can be more traumatic and expensive than most ever imagine. So can be the process of successfully adopting even a single child. We are overjoyed to finally have our daughter, but it was pure Hell getting to this point.

    “Well, they could always adopt.” Fuck you, sir. No, really. Fuck you.

  • Jeff

    The real solution to family/career balance (which will not be embraced by our government because it is “socialist” and hurts “job creators”) is a parental leave policy which recognizes both the societal importance and enormous time commitment of child rearing. Consider Sweden, which provides 16 months (!) of paid parental leave.

    Some U.S. universities are offering progressive parental leave programs. I know that MIT, for example, offers semester-long parental leave for faculty, and this leave pauses the seven-year clock for tenure review.

  • J. Rich


    Let me tell you, it doesn’t feel trivial when my spouse isn’t an academic and I am :-/

  • Annika

    Until we all view having children as *normal* instead of a *career impediment*, we will have problems keeping women, and a certain brand of men, in the field. And to those who complain that if a university solves a two-body problem, it keeps a more qualified person from the job: I have much to say to you, more than is reasonable to write in a blog comment. But let me make two points. First, places that make two-body hires end up getting better people in both spouses than they would normally get because those institutions willing to deal are often places who realize that solving two-body problems gives them an edge over slightly more prestigious places. Second, I think most people would agree that we would like the demographic profile of physics/academia to look something like the population as a whole. In other words, we want to include talented people regardless of their sex/ethnicity/family income/family history/etc. The reality is that most women postdocs in physics and astronomy are partnered/married to other academics, especially other physicists and astronomers. Given the demographics of our fields, the percentage is much, much lower for men postdocs. In the case of women postdocs, if both partners want to stay in the field, they pretty much have to find jobs at the same place or get lucky at one of the big research hubs (Boston, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago). The other option is that one of the two takes a less desirable and more flexible job. The path to keeping women in the field (the first two cases) is to a) make two-body hires more common and b) realize that children are part of life. I am a woman physics postdoc married to another physicist, and let me tell you, almost all the other women postdocs I know are struggling to make (a) happen while they are still able to have (b), because given the competition in the job market and the culture of the field, no one thinks they can afford career-wise to have a baby before they land a permanent position. Those women who do manage to have babies before landing awesome permanent jobs receive huge amounts of praise and joy from me.

  • Annika

    My prediction:
    The institutions that view it as a “two-body opportunity” (in the words of one of my colleagues) instead of a “two-body problem” are the institutions that are going to rise above their peers. The places that see it as a “two-body problem” will stagnate or change their point of view.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    This isn’t the place for speculating about how specific people got their jobs.

  • Sarah

    Dear Annika,

    While my heart tells me to support the two-body solution in academia (many people I hold dear are in that situation), your arguments are far from convincing. I am not sure why, for example, a couple in the same field should be preferred over a couple in different fields (with the same level of scarcity — I’m talking chemist-chemist vs. chemist-historian, not vs. chemist-firefighter). Also, why should we take a good female biologist with a less-than-good biologist husband over an awesome female biologist? I am a strong advocate for finding ways to promote equal access for women in academia, but I am afraid that the two-body solution might be abused in a direction opposite to this. It is important to discuss this in an open way, without resorting to remarks like “I have much to say to you”, which add nothing to the conversation.

  • Sarah

    Dear sassmaster,

    Oh how I wish your parents had followed your advice.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    One needs to distinguish between taking into account time “lost” on raising children and getting a job one wouldn’t otherwise because one’s spouse has been offered a job. In the former case, quite apart from any other motivation, it is the right thing to do in the interest of the employer: a job isn’t offered as a reward for work done in the past, but because the employer thinks good work will be done in the future. Work done in the past is just a proxy, a way to estimate, what future performance will be. Not taking stuff into account could mean hiring the wrong person. (For example, how often does someone get on the shortlist because he was a Hubble Fellow, without any further investigation of what he has achieved, especially during the time as Hubble Fellow; my view is that one should set the bar higher for someone who, for whatever reason, has had a good position with good possibilities.)

  • Steve D

    There’s a very simple reform. You can’t base tenure on race, sex, or disability. Ban tenure decisions based on grant gathering.

    To get more bang for the grant buck, ban institutional overhead. Ban investigator salaries and fringe. If the institution wants research, they can pay for the investigator’s time.

    Make the review process blind. Forbid any indication of a proposal’s author. Any clues in a proposal to the author’s identity disqualify it.

  • Pingback: DailyDirt: Science Policies For The US | Greediocracy()

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    @25: Let’s hope the owners of this blog take legal action against you for vandalism.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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