Don’t let having a family restrict your future career goals, says Emma Chapman.
Guest contributor Emma Chapman
In November 2015, I gave a talk at the Institute of Physics’ “How to Control your Career as a Female Physicist” event for PhD students. After the talk, an attendee said she welled up hearing me recount my choice to have a child during my PhD. For this attendee, I was the first person to tell her she didn’t have to choose between a career she loved and the family she wanted to have soon. I remember that feeling.
While studying at UCL for my astrophysics PhD in 2012, I asked my peers for advice on the best time to start a family. They said there was no good time, but waiting until your first permanent position would at least minimise career damage. They said a publishing gap would disadvantage me at a competitive time in my career, and it’d be difficult to move every few years with children to a new faculty position. I was not happy. It would be a long time to wait until I landed my first tenured position, if I was lucky enough to get one at all (academic jobs are rare and the applications process is extremely competitive).
I was downright angry that my desire to stay in the same country for family support would be viewed as a lack of commitment and lead to my science becoming insular. I decided to take a gamble, and hoped it couldn’t be that bad. After all, on an average day I talked to people in Sweden, Australia or France. I was a member of a telescope team based in the Netherlands, wrote papers with colleagues in South Africa, and networked intensely at international conferences. These networks have only increased with time and international collaborative research now forms the vast majority of my work. I can see why staying within one scientific community could have been termed insular in the past, but in the technological age it’s no longer true.
I had Lyra in the last year of my PhD in 2013 and completed my thesis shortly after returning from six months maternity leave. I was supported by one of the most generous maternity packages for scientists in the UK, worked at home when I could, and found it all so do-able that Lyra found herself with a little sister, Cassie, during my first postdoc, also at UCL, in 2015. On my due date I interviewed for a Royal Astronomical Society Fellowship over Skype. I’m still there today.
This is not to suggest this will happen to everyone. Luck and a very supportive husband played a large part. The important thing to me is that my original advice was completely wrong. Nobody cared professionally about my new family, except to assure me that part-time and home-based work were perfectly acceptable. It was hard work. It still is hard work. But I am happy.
If I don’t get a permanent position, I’m comfortable that my choice to have a family isn’t to blame. Have I come across obstacles? Of course. Having children as early as I did in my career is rare, and a few of the systems in place needed some work – it originally looked like I would lose institutional journal access during my maternity leave, for example. But nobody was hostile when I asked for the things I needed for maternity leave – they simply had no reason to consider it before.
I can’t claim having children hasn’t had an effect on my career. My job options are limited by choosing to stay close to the doting grandparents, but no-one has ever expressed anything other than understanding at this choice, and I don’t feel it has affected any potential employer’s view of me.
Obviously, having kids is going to restrict your ability to work long hours, but even the most successful physicists I’ve come across don’t work 24/7. They kayak or organise Sci-Fi conferences or run up mountains. That I chose to spend my free time with nappies, nursery rhymes and The Big Bad Wolf is just a different (and just as worthwhile) choice.
If I’ve learnt anything, it’s this: restricting your job applications for any reason is going to be risky in such a competitive field, but good research is always the most important factor. Have kids, or don’t, but whatever your decision don’t let outdated myths and scare-mongering restrict your personal goals, or make you leave a job you love.
Emma Chapman is a Royal Astronomical Society Research Fellow based at Imperial College London, researching the first stars. She was the 2014 Institute of Physics Early Career Woman Physicist of the Year and is passionate about improving academia to make it a more inclusive environment.