Surviving Lab Life After Having Kids
Having kids changes your life. I should know, I have 5 little F1’s running around.
Your life is thrown into chaos the minute you hear that first cry. And it isn’t only your personal life that changes. Eventually you have to figure out how to fold your new parenting responsibilities into your lab life.
Don’t be daunted. There are many things you can do to be a successful researcher and a great parent. You may even be surprised to find out how having kids improves your work!
Find a parent buddy
Probably one of the best things you can do to help you learn how to juggle kids and research is to become buddies with another parent in the lab. There are several advantages to this:
- You will have someone to talk to about the pressures of parenting and working.
- You can share childcare resources or even childcare duties.
- You will have an understanding person you can ask to help you in an experiment when kid duties get in the way (make sure you are prepared to help them too!).
Look into flexible working
A lot of people use full-time daycare for their children, but a lot don’t and instead choose to alter their schedules to allow for them and their partners to care for their kids at home.
Doing research often lends itself to flexible working, so don’t be afraid to look into working alternate hours. You could work nights or weekends instead of a traditional workweek.
If you are interested in mixing your schedule up, discuss everything with your PI/boss first and make sure they are really amenable to the idea. Then be responsible with your freedom – make a schedule and stick to it.
Don’t become “out of sight, out of mind”
If you do opt for flexible working, don’t let yourself be forgotten. You want your boss to know that you are still engaged in the lab and are being productive. Make sure you attend all lab meetings and/or seminars. If you routinely miss interaction with your boss, schedule a regular meeting with him/her to go over your experiments.
Plan long days/new experiments for when your partner is on duty
If you know you have a long experiment to do or you are doing a new experiment, then lessen the stress and do it when your partner is on kid duty.
If they have a day when they are responsible for picking your child up from daycare, then do your long experiments on that day. Or if that’s not possible, schedule your long days for a weekend when your partner isn’t working.
Have a back-up sitter
Having a sitter that you can call in a childcare emergency can be very helpful. Often this turns out to be a grandparent. But if you don’t have the luxury of living near family, there are other places you can try. I was amazed to find an “emergency childcare center” when I lived in Oregon. If you have your child pre-registered with them and they are not already full, they can take a child immediately.
Have a contingency plan
At some point (actually at many points), your child will be sick or injured and your lab day will be shut down completely while you care for him/her. It often happens at the most inopportune times. Having some contingency plans in the back of your mind will help make this smoother.
Have ‘at home’ work prepared
Staying at home when you kid is sick doesn’t mean you can’t get work done – you can use this time to catch up on the literature, put together figures or presentations or even get some writing done.
Learn to triage like an emergency room doctor
When you feel yourself being pulled between lab and home life, learn to recognize what needs your immediate attention and what can wait. Take care of things in order of priority.
Know your protocols
After 14 years of child-raising, I have learned where all the convenient stopping points are in my protocols. I know when I can throw everything into the freezer without compromising the experiment and I know when I have to push a little while longer before I can stop.
Work out a system with your partner
You and your partner should discuss ahead of time what you will do if your child is sick. Recognize that you might have more flexibility in your job than your partner does. It is just the nature of lab work. But, make sure you are getting your fair work time too.
Know the policy on kids in the lab
Bringing kids into the lab can be a sticky issue. Labs can be dangerous places for kids – think about your toddler crawling on the lab floor and putting everything he finds into his mouth. It gives me the willies.
Because of this, many bosses discourage kids in the lab.
But I have also seen labs in which the PI keeps a crib in her office so parents can “pop-in” and do some quick work. Or a researcher that comes in on the weekend with his son in a carrier on his back while he picks colonies to grow overnight.
If you can safely and comfortably bring kids into your lab, you might consider it when you are in a pinch. Make sure you know the policy about kids in your lab: both your bosses rules and institutional policies. And don’t expect to rely on your lab members for babysitting – they are there to get their work done too!
Having kids does add a layer of complexity to your lab life. But you might also find that you gain a new focused energy in the lab. In fact, I learned to use my lab time much more efficiently once I had kids. It’s all a matter of planning.
Got any extra advice for juggling kids and research? Leave them in a comment below!
Leave a Comment
You must be logged in to post a comment.
With a baby while I was getting my Ph.D. it was helpful that he didn’t understand English. I would read textbooks and journal articles to him.
Flexible working is the thing that saved my career later. After my children were school age, I worked 80% (4 days a week). The extra weekend day made all the difference in the world and allowed me to catch up with home duties and some extra work things (like working on data) without exhausting myself.
When I transitioned to full time work, I could not bring children into the lab. But I was able to bring some lab work home — eg. starting a digestion at 4 am, for processing during the day. I brought the pre-measured enzymes, samples, etc. home the night before and put them in my refrigerator until I got up and started the reaction at 4 am. I borrowed a lab shaker to process them until I went to work at 9 — after the kids left for school.,
A supportive family (which includes the children) and a flexible supervisor cannot be underestimated at any stage.
Rebecca – Thank you so much, with my wife 9 months pregnant I started to really get stressed about this… Somehow reading your article calmed me down. I really appreciate it!
Sue – thanks for this cool ideas!