Combining family and a career

This article is part of the Academy's #medscilife project and was written by Richard Parker, who is currently a policy intern at the Academy, ahead of our Twitter chat on Wednesday 25 March 2017 2015. 

I’m a gastroenterology trainee in Birmingham. I’ve just completed my PhD and am about to start work as a clinical lecturer. I went out-of-programme in December 2011 and our first son was born almost exactly a year later, just before Christmas 2012, as I started the second year of my PhD.

I was able to take paternity leave without any problems. There didn’t seem to be any stigma attached to this, although the timing of the Christmas holidays minimised the disruption. I was very glad to be able to take paternity leave. There was no way I wasn’t going to take leave of one sort or another. Taking leave, especially in a slightly unpredictable fashion, was much easier in academia without the need to swap on-call sessions and cancel clinics. The first few weeks/months with a new baby were, predictably, a lesson in coping without much sleep. I found out that I needed much less sleep than I thought I did in order to be able to function, though whether I was functioning normally remains another question. I seemed to be able to turn up at the lab, dressed and relatively polite on most days. Again, I was glad not to have clinical commitments that would have been less flexible.

My PhD included six months in the US, working in the labs of my collaborators in California. We decided that four months was a good age for a baby to go to America, which in retrospect seems quite brave. However everything worked out without any problems, although the absence of our usual safety net of family and friends was occasionally difficult. The other potential problem of working abroad whilst my wife and I both had full-time jobs was how we should arrange our time so as not to be separated for six months. In the end my wife was on maternity leave for the duration of our time in California, which worked out quite neatly but this could have been much more problematic. My fellowship included funding to support my family, without which this overseas period would not have been possible.

My time spent working in a US commercial laboratory was hugely informative. I saw the whole process of drug discovery from medical chemistry through to clinical trial design. I learnt new skills and gained confidence and independence. The six months was extremely productive, generating lots of data and an ongoing collaboration. California is a beautiful place to live and it was a real treat to spend six months there. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in an overseas centre. There are some challenges in leaving the comfort of one’s own institution but I would encourage everyone to take any opportunities to spend a period of time overseas during their training.

My wife’s career has changed considerably to accommodate children: she is a GP and has reduced her hours to four sessions each week to spend three days looking after our son. We are fortunate that both sets of grandparents live near to us and are enthusiastic about childcare! With all this help, there’s so far been relatively little tension between having a family and my career.

This may be about to change: I’ve now finished my PhD and am returning to a clinical rota which included general medicine, and we’re expecting another child in the summer. The impact of a family on my career may be about to increase!

Read more stories of researchers and how they manage their work-life balance on the MedSciLife website, and join in the conversation on social media using #medscilife

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