Charlotte Ashley-Roberts on why combining an academic career in science with bringing up children is a realistic option

Charlotte Ashley-Roberts on why combining an academic career in science with bringing up children is a realistic option


Charlotte Ashley-Roberts is the RSC’s careers adviser

Q I am just about to finish my PhD and thinking about what I want to do next. I would really like to stay in academia but am planning on having children in the next few years, might this stop my career progressing?

A This is a subject that is often swept under the carpet and so I am very glad that you have asked this question. I think that there is a myth which young female scientists accept as fact which is that combining an academic career in science with bringing up children is unachievable.

An academic career usually consists of an undergraduate degree and PhD, which you have already done, followed by at least a couple of postdoctoral research contract positions, research fellowships and then hopefully a permanent position either as a lecturer or a research leader. 

Many of the people I have spoken to have been advised to wait until they get that elusive permanent contract. The problem with that is that you don’t know how long that might take, or even if you will be successful. 

There is lots of different and often conflicting advice about having children and having a career. My advice would be to decide what is important to you, and if your preference is to stay in academia then you should look into the options around that. There may be compromises that you need to make in terms of how much you do, and how far you choose to progress compared with how much time you choose to spend at home. Although an academic career is competitive, it is also flexible and has a significant amount of autonomy which can make it much easier when trying to juggle parenthood with a career.

I would also encourage you as a matter of course to look at some industry positions if you have any interest in working in industry at all. This is to ensure that you cover all of your options; both academic and industrial careers bring pros and cons and although there are similar elements, they can be very different.

With regard to maintaining and progressing your career, when the time is right you might choose to take the time off to raise any children you have; if you do, think about ways that you can keep your skills up to date whether they are work related, such as reading journals, or through volunteering in some way at a school or at a toddler group. You may even be able to save some of your papers and write them up while you are on maternity leave.

If you do go back to work you might look at working part time or finding childcare support to enable you to return. Make sure that you talk to your employer as they will be able to tell you all the options that they offer. 

You should also check your rights. You can find out more on the Directgov website which covers everything you need to know. 

Whether you start your research career after you have had children, or you take an extensive break whilst your children are growing up, having children doesn’t mean that your career needs to suffer, or end. It is a personal choice as to which route you decide to take and it is one that many working chemists manage very well. 

If you would like some inspiration then the Royal Society has produced a publication called Mothers in science - 64 ways to have it all  introducing 64 women who have combined motherhood with a scientific career. The book provides a timeline of career and family highlights for each of the mothers, offering a clear illustration of the wide variety of routes that are possible. It makes fascininating reading, and you can download a copy.

There is another a helpful book, called  Motherhood, the elephant in the laboratory  edited by Emily Monosson.