Interview with Dr. Emily Nicholson on Career Planning

By: Laura Thompson

Dr Emily Nicholson is a member of the aKIDemic Life Advisory Board. Her research focuses on solving problems in nature conservation. Emily also works on gender equity and diversity issues in academia, and is a member of Deakin’s SAGE Athena Swan working group.

Q1. Tell us a bit about your career and family

I have three boys, aged 9, 7 and 5. The littlest one starts school next year, which will be the next big phase of our lives (and a little bit sad!). All three were born when I was a postdoc, the first two in the UK while I was on a Marie Curie fellowship at Imperial College London, and the third in Melbourne, when I held a Centenary Research Fellowship at the University of Melbourne. We moved back to Melbourne (where both my partner and I are from) while I was on maternity leave with #2, in part because we realised that it would be harder and much less enjoyable with both of us working in the UK than in Melbourne, with the support of extended family. I worked part-time from 2009 until 2016. My partner has worked part-time since 2011, when he quit his job in London before we headed to Melbourne, and since then he has worked for himself. I was primary carer when the kids were very little, then it was evenly balanced, and he has taken more of the primary parent role since 2016, when I went back to full-time. In 2015 I was lucky to start an ongoing position at Deakin – I applied for it while on maternity leave with #3. My lectureship started with 3 years with no teaching, which meant I had the flexibility to build my research group while working part-time and flexible days. We are very lucky because the flexibility in both our work means we all sit down to dinner together every night. I sometimes work evenings (probably usually) but don’t work on weekends.

Q2. How did having children, going on career breaks, and doing part-time work affect your career path and trajectory?

While having kids and working part-time certainly slowed my career trajectory, I don’t think it has negatively affected my career path, on balance. I am fortunate that the type of research I do (desk-based, largely writing and modelling work) isn’t changed by working part time or not being at work much – it just slows. It might be different if I were a field ecologist, where data collection depends on extended time in the field, or other similar disciplines, where work can’t be done at simply a slower rate. I was also fortunate that there were several people along the way who were able to see past the career interruptions and see value in my work – these people championed me in job and fellowship applications. I hope this is reflective of a changing culture around part-time work.

There are many advantages to working part-time and having breaks, and I think one of them is that is slows things down, so that you have more time to think, develop ideas, see PhD students through their candidature, and so forth. This is because your working years are moving slower than calendar years. Slowing down can be a very good thing, particularly in a world where ideas matter, and maturity helps. Having kids also makes me much more effective in the limited time available, and made me prioritise more to ensure I was doing the things that mattered.

I was also very fortunate to have some wonderful and supportive mentors through those years, who kept giving me opportunities (though with no pressure if I couldn’t or didn’t want to take them up), such as workshops or conferences while on maternity leave (the easiest way to engage with work with a little baby), and leadership roles.

Q3. What are the major challenges of ‘planning’ a career around children or children around a career?

I was fortunate to have my children when on research fellowships, where I had a degree of independence in my work, and had excellent maternity leave and flexibility – I could extend the fellowships pro rata to account for maternity leave and part-time work. I also made sure that I had those provisions: before I applied for the fellowship at The University of Melbourne, I asked about their policy on maternity leave and part-time work – they didn’t have one, but developed a policy in response to my query, which was great. It is really important to have such provisions not only to take time off work, but also to be able to come back to work that you are familiar with and enjoy. I also timed my kids to make sure I was entitled to maternity leave – I recommend reading relevant policies carefully, and making the most of them.

I didn’t plan my career very well – it sort of happened as it went along, and luckily I was doing the right things along the way, and being gently guided by my mentors, colleagues and supervisors. One of the best pieces of advice I received about kids and academia was from a wonderful mentor. I mentioned to her that I was thinking of having a third child, but was worried it would be the end of my career. She said that a career can go off path or not work out for any number of reasons, and that I shouldn’t use my career as a reason to not do something I wanted to do.

I did get better at being aware of the metrics that matter in my industry (publications and grant income), and making sure I kept those ticking over to stay competitive in the job market. I would recommend being aware of what the criteria are in your job, to stay on track (while accounting for time away from work for maternity leave and part-time work). This doesn’t mean you have to be the best, but at least doing the right things. Quantifying some of the key data (publications, research income and time spent working in full-time-equivalent years – I have spreadsheets on the different criteria and indicators) helps me present my track record in the best light possible – I have written about this in blog posts and in an article in Science in 2014.

Q4. What do you believe are the advantages and disadvantages of having children at different stages of an academic career?

Each stage has its pros and cons. Having kids when your life is less complicated helps. Teaching can be very time and energy consuming, and is very inflexible in terms of time (during semester); having small kids and teaching is a challenge. PhD time is relatively straightforward (there is only one job) and very flexible, but a steep learning curve is involved in being a student and a parent, which might be overwhelming at the latter stages of a PhD. Postdoc time has probably the greatest flexibility, but it does depend on the context of the funding and supervisor – I had fellowships with excellent maternity leave provisions and flexibility that allowed the fellowships to be extended pro rata (so I still got the full 2 years full-time equivalent out of both, just spread over almost 7 years between them).

Q5. Do you have any other tips or guidance for academics developing an academic career who have or plan to have children?

There are many things that we can do to try to plan a career and family. Think about timing and getting into a good position (not necessarily the best, but good – with good people – supportive, smart and with your best interests at heart – in the right place at the right time), make sure all the policies are in place, make sure you document everything (especially any work you left half-finished when you go on maternity leave, as you forget so much!), good communication (with colleagues and family) before and during leave, and others (I wrote a blog post about work and maternity leave published on Women in Science AUSTRALIA with some tips). But I’d also suggest not putting it off too long, or worrying about getting it all perfectly lined up. Sometimes you just have to jump in.

Q6. Moving on what organisations can do, what are the organisational structures or policies that help parents have a successful academic career?

Flexibility and strong leave provisions are absolutely critical to helping parents (and people in other caring roles or with multiple responsibilities in their lives) in academia. Without strong policies on parental leave, part-time work and flexible working hours, it is really tough and unfair. Having strong mentoring partnerships also are very helpful, along with caring, responsive and responsible management and leadership. Unfortunately, academia can tend to reward people who work long hours, are single-minded and personally ambitious. Leadership that recognises that these attributes are not sustainable for a functioning, productive and happy workplace is key. Good leadership also recognises and embraces the benefits of diversity across a workforce, in terms of life experience, background and discipline.

Q7. What are the organisational structures or policies that hinder parents wanting a successful academic career, and how could these be addressed?

Many of the challenges for parents are cultural, as much as structural. I’ve been greatly heartened by the exciting new ideas that are emerging from the SAGE Athena SWAN program at my University (Deakin) and other institutions that will change the culture of work as well as providing practical help. Ideas include grants to help mothers of small kids get to conferences (e.g. funding for childcare or for grandparents to come along), research support while on maternity leave, and grants targeted at supporting women in research during childbearing years, such as the Veski Inspiring Women fellowships. Other schemes support leadership development, so that those skills and experience don’t stall during the juggling years. Implicit bias is being addressed through data analysis that reveals problems, targeted schemes to make leaders aware of their biases and (hopefully) address them, and implementing transparent decision-making processes to help reduce bias and nepotism. While the data on increasing the number of women at higher levels in academia isn’t great at present, I am (I have to be!) optimistic that initiatives such as these will effect the change we seek.