Getting back into the ecological workplace after children

In 2006 I went to the Ecological Society of Australia annual conference in Sydney. I was 7 months pregnant with my third child. I sat and listened to an inspirational lecture by Dr Meg Lowman. During question time, a young female ecologist asked what would be Dr Lowman’s advice to women embarking on a career in ecology.

What followed was encouragement, field work advice and research direction. She took her preschool aged children into the field (also mentioned in this video from time 18.13).

At this my heart sank.

Let’s face it. In today’s day and age, I can’t take my children in the field with me.  Add to this that I am the primary carer, our families live interstate (no grandparent/aunt/uncle help), I have a special needs child, and my husband and I both working full-time is not realistic unless we want to heavily rely on childcare. So, in the past 10 years since my 1st born, and the last 3.5 years since my 4th born, have I any hope of continuing as an ecologist mother?

Yes, I do.

Find a job and a location that is amenable to your situation.

I walked into my first PhD related job 6 months before my PhD was handed in. Whilst employed at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) in terrestrial ecology (my field is bryophyte/vascular plant ecology), I went to Macquarie Island, spent a summer on Heard Island and published papers. I had just started making some headway in my field then almost 2 years in my first child was born. Did things come to a halt?

Yes, and no.

I left the AAD. The facts were, my position was not permanent and of the women I knew working in my area, only one had children – her children were school age and she worked part-time. With a newborn I realised I had a long fight to establish my position. Nine of the 27 who went to Heard Island during the 2003-2004 summer were women. None of us had children. I intended to have more children and it was clear to me that unless I could secure a permanent position, a part-time position at the AAD in science (I wanted to be part of my children’s pre-school lives) was going to be impossible.

I looked for a position that suited my new lifestyle, in an area that was more adaptable to my situation – I applied for a post-doc in forestry. Yes, many laughed. How was the situation in forestry different from that at the Antarctic Division? I did move from one industry dominated by men to another. However, I was also working locally making field work easier, I was still working in my field (forest ecology) and I was able to do field work safely whilst pregnant. I was fortunate that I had people confident I could do the job – the post-doc was full-time but I negotiated working 70% FTE, using the remaining 30% FTE to employ a technical officer. It was successful because the people I worked with were communicative, positive, hardworking and open minded (especially when I was expressing breastmilk on the back of the ute!).

Don’t be scared to be honest about your situation

If you find a job like I did that suits your new lifestyle, be upfront about your situation.

My first son was 4 months old when I had my Post-doc interview in mid-2005. Just before leaving home for the interview he decided his feed looked better on the front of me. Black hides everything! The interview was daunting. Present were:

  • Dean of Science, Engineering and Technology;
  • Chief Scientist at Forestry Tasmania (FT)
  • Manager of Native Forests (FT)
  • Conservation Biologist (FT)
  • Head of School for both Plant Science
  • Head of School for Zoology
  • Project Leader – Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre (CRC)

Some questions were good, others I stumbled with. And the Dean asked why I hadn’t published much since my PhD (completed in 2003). I was ready with the answer (I had papers in prep and submitted, I had prepared for and spent time south) and that seemed satisfactory. But with each child and each new job, this question has continued to be asked. Dr Emily Nicholson recently posted an excellent blog about accounting for career breaks. I was happy to read her blog as I had already included such statistics and comments in my latest CV. I calculated her suggestions into a table. It looks like this:

table 1 for CV_2015

The table shows the FTE time I worked for each year by month. You can see when my PhD was submitted, when children were born (green highlight) and where I had breaks (0%). At the bottom of each column it shows for that year %FTE employment and how many papers were published. A summary shows the number of papers I would have published had I worked full-time since my first child was born and other work e.g. the number of book reviews I have edited since 2009.

I’ve learnt to be positive, upfront and honest. I don’t give reasons like lack of sleep, for my low publication record. I know many people who work full-time on lack of sleep and who publish well.

However, I do point out, as the Table above shows, that had I been working full-time my publications would have quadrupled. Compare my table to Emily’s calculations and the data is compelling. Although we have had different workloads, number of children and time since our PhD’s, we both would have a dramatically increased publication output had we been working full-time. I also emphasise that whilst the table shows areas of 0% FTE I have not been idle. I’ve been a member on the Tasmanian Threatened Species Scientific Advisory Committee, current ESA Book Review Editor, Playgroup Leader, Parents and Friends member and School Board secretary.

This emphasis on unpaid work is important, such as commissioning and editing of 184 published book reviews in 6 years. This work has kept me in the loop despite the low FTE workload. Networking has eventuated into employment.

In the field I work in, most people are aware that working part-time and raising kids is not easy, but not all. I’m careful not to underestimate the level of empathy or overplay on my situation. Of the six scientists for my post-doc interview panel, I knew one shared the care for his children, another’s wife worked full-time in the same field as him, and another’s wife worked part-time in forestry, cared for their two children and was a breastfeeding counsellor! Of course having four children and working as an ecologist is hard. I am realistic about what I can and cannot do, and use evidence of what I have achieved whilst part-time to show my abilities and realism. As Emily pointed out, if this is what we can do working with children, just imagine what could be achieved working full-time.

Choose mentors who mirror your situation and where you want to be

I’ve had many mentors before motherhood; nearly all of them have been men. Given my situation now, I look at the women in ecology who have influenced my decisions with my career and family, my goals and expectations.

A few of my colleagues have returned to work full-time after childbirth and a few have chosen not to have children at all. These women work hard and are inspirational. Many women ‘at the top’ are women who: have no children; do not have pre-primary or primary school aged children; have returned to full-time work after childbirth; have retained a tenured position from the start (thus sustaining their career).  These women may have either raised their children first then completed their PhD (no maternity career breaks) or completed their PhD and then had children. I fall into the ‘completed my PhD and then had children’ category and I am far from alone.

I undertook a Women in Leadership program with the University of Tasmania, aimed at assisting the careers of women in science. We were told to choose a mentor. My first choice was a woman who returned to full-time work after having children. No surprises when I was told she didn’t have time to mentor me. My next choice should have been my first as it was more realistic to my situation: a female ecologist whose situation had mirrored mine almost exactly, and who holds a leadership role.


The image above was taken this year. Recall that none of the women I went to Heard Island with were mothers? I went to Heard Island with these women (I’m second from the right). They are an inspiration to me – from each I have learned to be realistic about my situation. They have reminded me of what is important. Over coffee we discussed our careers, and how important it is to have ‘median’ ecologists.

Median is not a bad word. Median ecologists play an important role. Median ecologists are productive and efficient – and just remember if you are going to make comparisons, make sure the weightings are right (thank-you Emily Nicholson!).


8 thoughts on “Getting back into the ecological workplace after children

  1. Pingback: Friday links: dating tips from scholarly papers, old school scientific fraud, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  2. Thanks for this post! I have 2 children…my daughter is 11/2 and comes to work with me. I am fortunate to be able to do this, but it often feels lonely and overwhelming. There needs to be more support for being an ecologist mom!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi jczinnert, Thanks for the response. Congratulations on your two children and for balancing work and family. I agree, juggling work and parenting can be lonely and overwhelming. I hope you have found some support and yes, we need more! I did have support at the Antarctic Division. But I realised that it wouldn’t last, for example you couldn’t do field work when pregnant. Working with forestry, also male dominated, worked because the men I worked with had families and working wives, and the field work regulations were different to those of the AAD. I expressed milk in the field, I did field work right up until my second and third children were born, I was able to negotiate hours. You might find this article interesting The author, Emma Alberici, is a high profile Australian journalist and also a mother. I have three sons (and a daughter) so her article resonated well with me. Cheers, Perpetua


    • Thanks mccnmatt for the link. What a great read. It was very interesting, and certainly resonated. McRobbie’s use of the word ‘mediocre’in the third last paragraph was poignant for me i.e. “…if one is not excellent then one can only be at best mediocre and at worst bad at ones job.” as I first had drafted’mediocre’ instead of ‘median’ in the blog, as mediocre was the word we [the ecologist-mothers pictured] had used over coffee. A colleague suggested ‘median’ was more precise as in her books we certainly are not mediocre. Cheers, Pep

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Poll results: Good news! Listing parental or family leave on your CV seems more likely to help than to hurt. More committees should give applicants opportunities to list major life events. | Dynamic Ecology

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