Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

There’s never a convenient time to have children: Academia and Family, can they be balanced?

A friend once told us “There’s a never a good time to have children, they’ll always cock up your life”. Inspired by a seminar at work about balancing academia and family life, I wanted to think about my own experience.


Academia is inherently unstable as a job, especially at the early stages of the career when you are most likely to have children. It doesn’t get much better the higher up the ivory tower you climb, the good old days of tenured professors sitting in their rooms drinking sherry are sadly long gone, but it is certainly at the most acute at the post doc level. Short term contracts, highly competitive fields and shrinking research budgets all contribute to this lack of job security. The received wisdom given these circumstances is to wait until both partners are in ‘permanent’ positions. In our case, we decided on balance that we would regret not having children more than not winning the Nobel Prize (though I still have my eye on it). Even within the normal bounds of academic instability, our situation at the time we chose to have children was not ideal. I had less than a year on my contract and my wife less than 2. However, in a roundabout way, having children has actually led to greater job security for both of us. Yes, we are no longer able to work the mythical 60 hour week, but it turns out this doesn’t matter as much as pushy supervisors might claim. If you do 60 hour weeks, you probably get more done, but probably not as much as twice as much and arguably (though this may just be self-delusion) in the creative process of science, and science is creative, less is more. Clearing the mind, changing space, doing something else, all enable inspirations. The rare flashes of genius I have don’t usually occur while staring at the screen for hours on end, rather they occur in the bath, whilst at gigs, after a 5 minute power nap at my desk or while running. A 60 hour week is only more effective if you actually spend the 60 hours doing work, having children has a focussing effect on the mind – if you know you have 10 vital things to do before 5 pm you are much more likely to do them than if you have 5 things to do but have until 10pm – I may no longer be as up to date with what the latest vacuous celebrity clothes horse du jour is doing or what animal I would be on buzzfeed, but I probably get more done these days.

Most of all I would like to thank my family

So how did my children help me get ahead in science? Beyond focussing the mind, my son directly contributed to me getting my lectureship. I work on severe respiratory infections in children and when he was 6 months old, my son decided that the way to celebrate our first holiday would be to get a severe respiratory infection. Now it would be nice to claim that this inspired me, seeing the impact on the infant and the emotional stress to the parents. The truth, however, is a bit more prosaic. As normal when going on holiday I had brought with me some token work to pretend I am going to get some done, in this case, a talk for my lectureship interview. Normally, this would sit quietly in my bag, in the boot of the car for the whole time, untouched. This time because we were stuck in a hospital room for 5 days (and once the very worst had passed – I am not a total monster), I ended up practicing and re-practicing my presentation in front of my wife. This was a tough crowd as my wife is the person I find it hardest to take work criticism from (I avoid drilling down too far into what that says about my fragile ego). But at the end of the hospital-room presentation boot camp I delivered my most polished talk, I actually knew what slides were coming next and for once didn’t have a slight feeling of surprise as to the order the talk was in. I don’t know how much this contributed to me getting the job, but it probably didn’t hurt matters.

Everyone has bad days

The other issue around timing is that children or not, life will occasionally give you a bum deal and certainly when these times occur on the back of the chronic sleep deprivation that is a cornerstone of parenting they can feel insurmountable. But not talking about them and stoically suffering on is not the solution. We had our year with 2 job changes, 2 house moves, cancer, new school, new nanny and 3 months of a recurring sleep disrupting staph infection during the worst winter for 15 years. I put this in not as a one-downmanship/ Monty Python you were lucky I had to sleep on street and eat nowt but coal tale, but rather to show that everyone has bad times and everyone comes through the other side more or less unscathed. I accept this is a bit preachy – but I am lifting this from a ‘motivational’ talk I had to give at work: do you feel motivated?

We want to be together

There are a huge number of considerations the parent staying at home has to weigh up. It is a sad but true to say that as a society we are not at the stage where the father has to make the decision whether to stay home. The single piece of dialogue directed at me in the course of an hour during a library stay and play when my son was young was: “Ooh , hairy knees we don’t often see those, thus reaffirming this gender bias and confirming my lack of desire to be a stay at home dad. The decision for my wife to continue working was down to her but fully supported by me, fortunately it was also my preference. My personal experience therefore comes from how to best manage parenthood as an equal partnership. We think we have some tips that have helped:       
  1. Compartmentalise. Guilt is a wasted emotion. To quote a senior professor – you’ll end up feeling guilty when you’re at home for not doing enough work and feeling guilty at work for not being at home enough. However, this guilt gets you nowhere. I am lucky, most of the time I am totally absorbed in the present so when I shut the door the children cease to exist to me until the walk home from the station.
  2. Who is doing the most important/ client facing work right now? Children get sick. Often. At these times one of you has to drop everything and go and get them. We have borrowed a friend’s model of whoever is earning the most money/ business that minute gets to stay at work. (Though you can game this a bit by keeping your phone off – don’t tell my wife!). 
  3. Be a kept man. Having 2 full salaries is amazing, even with the massive childcare bills. The peace of mind that if it all goes tits up the other person can pay the mortgage takes a lot of the stress of the job away allowing more creative thinking. Furthermore, we have noticed that after taking a dip during the early years, my wife’s salary is now (very nearly) exceeding mine.
  4. Outsource. The majority of child raising is boring and repetitive. I thoroughly recommend working hard to pay for someone else to do this. No one will ever remember how well you did or didn’t do the washing up or how clean the toilet was. 168 hours is a life changing book and we invest some of the time we get back from not cleaning in being better parents, scientists and people, admittedly some of it goes into binge watching the wire. We also get to congratulate ourselves for contributing to the economy, reinvesting our earnings in someone else’s salary (and tax)!

Vague take home message

Children are a fun, dynamic force for change in your life, each year will be nothing like the last and the future is unpredictable. Yes, you occasionally have to sit through class 3S performing a cover of cotton eyed Joe and sit there watching the clock as you have a grants meeting in 60 minutes time for which you have done no preparation. But I think I am (probably) a better, happier, more empathetic boss for having children and a wife who works full time.

Friday, 13 March 2015



The combination of too much time spent alone in dark cold rooms watching colourless liquids dripping into other colourless liquids, a strongly developed sense of cynicism and access to the internet has led to an explosion of tweets that puncture the veil of scientists being aesthetes pursuing the truth. One of my favourite hashtags is #overlyhonestmethods and @AcademicsSay reposts many of these, I would thoroughly recommend reading them, though maybe after you have read this. Another science hashtag that is doing the rounds is #whywedoresearch. I suspect we also need an alternative #whyweREALLYdoresearch, some of them being:

I was rubbish at sport at school

It’s indoors work with no heavy lifting

Because in science I appear normal

Maybe next time will be the leap home

How Did I end up Here?

But then I thought a bit more about it and wondered why I actually do research and “How did I end up here?” There is a certain waking-up-in-a-cold-sweat/take the red pill feeling to the phrase How did I get here and there are times when I do ask myself this question with more stress on the Here than the How. But focussing on the how and stretching a bit the answer is: Johnny Ball, Tomorrow’s world, an aptitude for numbers and factual recall, a primary school science teacher who let us burn, explode and investigate our way through the chemical store once a term, a secondary school teacher with a love of wine and another who challenged the widely held assertion of students that it was only interesting or of value if on the curriculum, a professor who stored his cheese in different temperature controlled labs throughout the university for optimum maturation and a moment of clarity in the woods in northern New Jersey.

Why I do research

As to the why, science is cool, landing a washing machine on a comet, splitting the atom, eradicating small pox, solving the structure of DNA, glow in the dark jellyfish cool. Science is infinite, there is no solution to any of the problems, with each answer spinning off another series of deeper more fascinating questions. You never have to grow out of the “yes but why” stage of toddlerhood and get to ask questions about everything. It also impresses my son, I may not be able to kick a ball in a straight line, but I am a white coat wearing, Scientist and when he grows up he wants to be a professional footballer who does research – the mind boggles as to what the redtops would make of that! Finally, there is (arguably) some value to the work, though it is a bit of stretch sometimes to see how my pipetting miniscule volumes of colourless (not clear) liquid will change the world/ save lives/ rebalance the global economy, there is always a just maybe feeling to it, which I arrogantly like to tell myself you wouldn’t necessarily get by being a tax accountant – though in part this is just self-justification to make up for the lack of salary. Whilst what we do most days does not tick all of the above boxes we do slowly chisel away at the rockface allowing these glimpses to be seen.

Tools of the trade

After working away from the office all day I thought I would take stock of what I had felt to be the essentials and carried around with me all day. Not sure what this says about me really, but was amused by the things that I think are ‘essential’.

One man bag
Spare headphones
Laptop and charger, mouse
2 pens and One broken pencil
Imperial College branded Notepad and spare notepad
Scientific papers to review (unread)
Students exam papers (unmarked)
Highbrow science journal (unopened)
Some work to do (undone)
Less highbrow news magazine (gossip and entertainment sections read)
Nerdy sci-fi book (reading whilst feeling guilty about not doing work on commute)
Gloves and My granny’s scarf
Glasses case
Waterproof map cases (large and small)
Glasses case
Running things, trainers, socks etc
Shampoo, shower gel and towel
iPhone and charger
Wallet, keys, swipe card
High vis arm band? Purpose unknown