Maternity leave, career break ... and so it begins

Wednesday, Apr 11, 2012, 02:59 AM | Source: The Conversation

Olivia Carter

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I’ve officially started maternity leave and would love to be sitting on the couch eating my requisite daily Frosty Fruit and mini Mars Bar with two big glasses of milk.

In reality, I’m both relieved and excited by the prospect of having a few baby-free days to finish off and submit one or two research papers that are 99% finished – there’s definitely a PhD thesis in understanding why so many scientific papers sit on desks 99% finished!

To introduce myself, I’m a research scientist working in the school of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. I’m interested in the neuroscience behind how a healthy human brain works to control/create our thoughts, emotions and perceptual experiences.

And to put this fledgling column into context, I figure it’s worth providing the skeletal details of my last few manic months. Most of my energies at work have been divided between:

  • undergraduate teaching (I had to fit my ten normal first semester lectures into the first three weeks because I was going on leave).
  • writing, submitting, being rejected and resubmitting as much of my previous research as possible for publication (I remember after my first child it was nearly impossible to re-engage with old data after the sustained period of sleep deprivation during and after maternity leave).
  • organising my graduate students, making sure their experiments were up and running before I disappeared.


Knowing I had a baby on the way, I decided late last year to completely ignore this year’s round of applications for 2013 research funding from the big government agencies (thereby forfeiting any chance of receiving research funding until 2014).

I figured I could either spend two of my final three months applying for funding that I was unlikely to get, or could concentrate on trying to do everything else. So I chose “everything else”.

At the time I justified this as strategic decision – I would try to publish as much as possible in the hope it might help my chances of winning research grants in future years. And for now I’m grateful I avoided grant season, as it has temporarily lifted a massive weight from my mind … I guess time will tell if it was the right decision.

To complete this little introduction, I should add that my first child, my daughter, is now three, and my second is due any time now.

How does this fit with my career?

Well, I currently hold a Career Development Award from the National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) that will fund my salary until the end of 2013. While I hope to successfully apply for another fellowship for 2014 and beyond, I’m in the blessed position of also having a continuing/tenured lecturing position at Melbourne University.

That might not sound important, but with a baby on the way, I honestly can’t imagine how stressed I would be without the safety blanket of my lecturing position. It would put me in the same frightening scenario as the majority of male and female researchers across Australia, who effectively have to fight every four or five years for career survival.

Those researchers find out – typically in November – whether or not they have funding for the following January. If not, they suddenly have no salary, no career, no job.

I also have amazing family support with not only my parents but my husband’s parents living nearby and willing to provide help when needed.

So, as much as I expect the coming months and years to be incredibly challenging in terms of trying to balance family and a research career, I fully acknowledge I have it much better than many other women out there.

Writing from the perspective of a scientist and mother, I hope to cover the ways scientific evidence (or a complete lack of it) can shape motherhood, and also the way that raising a baby can impact the scientific career of a mother.

I hope you enjoy the journey.

The Conversation