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098: I’m in Grad School and I’m Pregnant! How to Have Kids AND a Career in Science

It’s no secret that graduate school and postdoctoral training are some of the most intellectually and emotionally challenging periods you will face in your career. Experiments fail, grant deadlines loom, and PIs push you to work long hours to publish or perish.

That’s why many trainees wait to start a family.  Time is precious, and the idea of staying up all night to record your experimental time-points is daunting enough.  Who has time to stay up all night calming a crying baby before rushing back to the lab?

Many students know they want to have kids ‘some day,’ and the six to ten-year grad-school-postdoc training period looms large.  They just don’t want to wait that long to start a family.

But is it possible to have kids WHILE you’re in grad school?

We asked an expert!

This week, we talk with Vivianne, who had her first child when she was a first-year graduate student!

Vivianne shares some helpful tips for making family life work with lab life.  It’s not easy, but she argues that there’s really no better time to start a family; if you want kids, you can make it work.

First, she says it’s important to identify and coordinate your support system for the lab.  Talk with colleagues, peers, and undergrads about who can maintain your cell cultures or mouse colony during your maternity or paternity leave. It’s possible to keep your research project moving forward, even if you’re not there holding the pipette.

You’ll also want to arrange a support system for yourself at home.  Babies are a LOT of work (in case that wasn’t clear…) and many grad students and postdocs are living in a new city, away from friends and family who could help. Lean on your partner, neighbors, friends, and any family members you can convince to stay with you for a month or two after the baby arrives.

When you DO make it back into the lab after some time away, you’ll need to adapt your work habits to a new schedule.  Vivianne notes that many scientists have the sense that “I need to do it all myself if I want it done correctly.”  That’s fine if you’re able to spend 14 hours a day in the lab, but new parents should learn to delegate aspects of their research project to colleagues.

That means training an undergrad on how to run your gels or trading off with a peer to split cell cultures on alternate days.  And if your lab can afford it, utilize core facilities on campus for routine assays.

And while you may have been able to ‘wing it’ when deciding on your next experiment before you had kids, you’ll need to plan each day in advance when you have to rush to daycare at 5PM.  Vivianne recommends planning a week ahead.

If you know what’s coming up next Thursday, you can get to work right away.  That’s especially helpful if you didn’t get much sleep Wednesday night and your mind is still hazy.

All of this advice applies equally to new moms OR dads (or really, any science trainee!), but pregnant women have other concerns if they’re working in biomedical or chemistry lab settings.

First, identify which experiments, rooms, and chemicals you’ll need to avoid while pregnant.  Laboratories may expose you to toxins or infection that are relatively harmless to an adult, but damaging to a developing fetus.  When in doubt, ask for more information.

It’s not going to be easy raising kids and having a full-time job in science, but it can be extremely rewarding.  Just make sure you ask for help, and define success in your own terms.

For ethanol this week, we rip open the Bota Box 2016 Malbec.  Tasty Malbec flavor at grad-school prices (and volumes!)

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