Interview with Dr. Sanam Mustafa on Returning to Work After Parental Leave

By: Laura Thompson
Dr Sanam Mustafa is a member of the aKIDemic Life Advisory Board. She is a Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council, Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) at the University of Adelaide, and was named by Science and Technology Australia as an inaugural ‘Superstar of STEM’. Dr Mustafa’s commitment to research has been extended to addressing gender and diversity issues in STEM.

Walks by the beach – family time.

Q1. Tell us a bit about your work and family.

I am a trained molecular pharmacologist. I work very closely with physicists and chemists on collaborative projects that span many universities. The multidisciplinary approach to my research is exciting and challenging! Earlier this year two of my very first PhD students graduated and this was a very proud moment for me. I am currently supervising 5 PhD students – 4 of which are working on multidisciplinary projects. I am a strong believer in the importance of mentoring younger researchers and do so in a formal and informal capacity. In 2017, I was named an inaugural ‘Superstar of STEM’ by Science & Technology Australia. This has empowered me to identify and address gender and diversity issues in STEM. I am currently working 0.8 FTE of my full time position as this allows me to balance work and home life.

At home, my husband and I are entertained by our highly inquisitive three year old daughter, Zaina. My husband has a full time position as a consultant for an IT consultancy company. Although I am the primary carer of my daughter, my husband and I share the care of our daughter along with the care of my elderly parents in law. As I am originally from the UK and all my family still reside there we do not have any family support in Adelaide. Saying that, I have been fortunate to have my mother stay with us at the time of Zaina’s birth and again when Zaina turned 2. These visits have really highlighted the importance of having family support when raising a young child and working in a high pressured job.

Q2. How many times have you taken a career break and for how long?

I have had two major career breaks.

In 2011, I did not accept an offer to renew my contract at the University of Western Australia as I had planned to move to Melbourne in 2012 with my husband. However, due to the care of elderly parents- in-law who reside in Adelaide, I was unable to accept a job offer in Melbourne. This left me without a position or any contacts within the Adelaide academic community. In this instance, it took me over a year to secure a research contract in Adelaide.

My second career break was intentional – I took 10 months of maternity leave when my daughter was born and negotiated a return to work plan allowing me to gradually increase from 0.2 to 0.6 FTE over a 3 month period and increasing to 0.8 FTE.

Q3. What are the major challenges of returning from a career break?

I think the challenges are different for each individual. In research this can depend on your field of research or the support you have at work and home.

For me, one of the major challenges was the lack of family support to help during the initial stages of returning to work. In the first two years of her life, especially during the winter months, my daughter fell sick almost weekly. Each period of illness would take a long recovery time for Zaina, and extreme tiredness for me. As my daughter’s primary carer (Zaina was breastfed in the first year), I stayed home with her each time she fell ill. Although I knew this was very important, I felt a tremendous amount of guilt as I was taking sick leave from work nearly every week. I felt that my employer had been very supportive by allowing me to reduce my full time position but I was not holding up my end of the bargain by taking so much time off. In hindsight, this was irrational and I should have listened to my colleagues and supervisor, when they said that Zaina’s immune system would get stronger and things will improve. Zaina is now 3, and although she did get sick this winter, she didn’t get sick as often and bounced back much quicker. At the time it was very difficult to look past the sickness and constant time off.

Before the birth of my daughter, I would regularly work late and weekends – either at the office/lab or from home. Since my daughter’s birth, working long hours has become more difficult. Often when I feel like I’m at my most productive point, I have to stop and leave work to pick up my daughter from child care. There are times when I have to meet deadlines and plan to work once my daughter is in bed…due to any number of reasons the bedtime routine takes much longer than anticipated or she wakes up multiple times. When facing very important deadlines this can be very stressful!

Q4. What preparation do you believe can help academics make a smooth transition back to work and help address the challenges you identified?

Zaina accompanies me to work.

This is a very difficult question to answer as I think there are no golden bullets and strategies will be different for everyone.

I think the preparation needs start before finishing work for maternity leave. If possible, in the lead up to maternity leave hand over projects/tasks to someone who knows and understands your project. Set realistic and obtainable milestones and goals for the time you are away (this also applies to students you may be supervising).

Depending on your circumstances you may want to keep a track of progress during your leave. I had tried to keep on top of emails, project progress updates and PhD meetings while I was on maternity leave. However by ‘working’ while on maternity leave, I often felt guilty for not enjoying the time I had with my daughter. When I did not work, I felt guilty or anxious about falling behind. In reality, due to severe sleep deprivation during this time I probably was not working very effectively. In hindsight, I think I should have given myself permission to switch off from work with the intention of easing myself back into work near the end of my leave with ‘back in touch’ days. The only exception to this would be the supervision of students who are working to a deadline.


Sometimes working on a day off is unavoidable.

With respect to dealing with sickness and time off from work, I think acceptance and flexibility are great strategies! Accept that in the initial year or two, there will be difficult periods but they will pass. Be flexible in your approach to tasks and your day in general. Set yourself realistic milestones and regulate your workload so that you are only taking on what you can achieve in the time that you have. If possible, try to work ahead of deadlines so that if there is sickness for example, you are not anxious about missing an important deadline. If you think you will miss a deadline, be honest and ask for an extension. Most people are very understanding.

One of the challenges is trying to be effective during the hours that I have at work and only work evenings/weekends when it is absolutely necessary. Alternatively, some days I decide to finish work slightly earlier in order to start the dinner and bedtime routine before my daughter gets overtired. When the bedtime routine goes smoothly, I am able to work from home for a few hours in the evening.

Q5. What do you think parents should think through when deciding whether to return to work full- or part-time?

Again, this is very dependent on individual circumstances, including who the primary carer is, how much family support is available, financial security/constraints.

My husband is the primary breadwinner in our family due to the stability his job offers our family. This allowed me choose not to work full time – I gradually increased from 0.2 to 0.6 FTE over a 3 month period and increasing to 0.8 FTE. With no family support, this allowed me to ease into work while balancing a new life as a mother. Importantly, I also got to spend precious time with my daughter, which I feel has strengthened our bond.

Q6. Do you have any tips for returners to kick-start their research and build competitiveness after a break?

My daughter accompanied me to the CNBP annual conference in 2017 and 2016. CNBP have a family friendly policy and support dependent travel.

My best tip would be to find a support network – researchers who have either returned from a break or people who are your supporters or champions. The people around you have a wealth of information so always ask if you cannot find information or opportunities yourself. Following maternity leave, a colleague and I returned to work around the same time. There were also a few other women who had young children. Together we decided to form a ‘CNBP mothers group’ where we met on a regular basis and talked about our young children, transition to work, facilities available to new parents on campus, funding schemes etc – this was invaluable! Through the experiences of others I realised what I was experiencing was completely normal. It is perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed or that work/life is a juggling act and sometimes balls are dropped! The important thing is to ask for help and don’t suffer in silence. I also found by joining online groups such as the ‘academic mamas’, ‘Australasian Women in Neuroscience’ or ‘women in academia support network’ groups on Facebook were very helpful. The women on these forums share their experiences honestly and this was very humbling. Importantly these forums provided insight into academic life.

There are many grants and funding opportunities available inside and outside of Universities specifically for people with career breaks. Ensure you apply for these! I prepared a Barbara Kidman Fellowship (an internal opportunity offered by the University of Adelaide) while still on maternity in anticipation of the funding call – this gave me time to craft the application and seek advice from those who were successful in previous years.

I think it is critical to increase your visibility so that colleagues are aware of the research you are conducting. Visibility leads to many opportunities including collaborations. If collaborations are established wisely (for example to introduce a novel or interdisciplinary approach to your research) they can increase the impact of your research.

Q7. Do you have any other tips or guidance for academics returning to work?

Due to dependent travel awards, I was able to take my daughter and my husband as her carer to to Portugal. This allowed me to attend an important conference in 2018.

Be visible – it is not who you know, but who knows you! Accept opportunities to present at seminars, ask to visit other groups to share your research approach, serve on a committee (be selective and choose one that you are genuinely interested in or passionate about as these can take a lot of time).

Organise – plan your day so that you are productive during your work hours. Prepare a list of tasks the day before, start with the most important tasks and stay focused on a single task at a time.

Develop your support network – encourage and support others and you will gain the same support back.

Be kind to yourself – it is not easy returning to work after an absence. Colleagues and fields move on and advance in your absence. It is important to not compare yourself to others – even those who have taken career breaks such as maternity leave, as every career break is very different. Some people have more support than others – at home and/or work. Believe in yourself and try to get out of the destructive mindset of ‘falling behind’ or ‘trying to catch up’. A very wise Professor recently told me that a career break does not mean you are behind, it just means you won’t peak early! You will achieve what you aim for at your own time – what’s the rush?

Take breaks and sleep – working without a break or a holiday can result in burn out. It is best to work in sustainable fashion. Take time off when you need it, even if it is to catch up on sleep. With a young child, I realised that I was only able to rest properly when my daughter was at child care and I was meant to be at work. After a period of extreme sleep deprivation, I decided it was better to use my sick leave to sleep so that I could function at work more effectively rather to go to work and not perform at my best.

Switch off – learn to switch off and do something that relaxes you. Work hard while at work, relax when you are with your family (there are exemptions to this!)

Q8. What are the organisational structures or policies that you believe would help academics make a smooth transition back to work?

Some institutions offer ‘back in touch’ days which allow researchers to return to work for one or two days a week to prepare for their return. This can be very useful to get up to speed on the progress of projects etc. Institutions also offer voluntary flexible agreements, where researchers in discussion with their supervisors can reduce their hours to suit their needs outside of work. There are also possibilities to work from home or bring children to work if required. This can be very useful if children are sick or you have appointments to attend.

Fellowships such as Barbara Kidman allow women with career breaks to apply for funding to help escalate or reinvigorate their research. Institutions also provide dependent travel grants to allow researchers to travel with children (and carers) when traveling for work, such as to conferences or meetings. I have been very lucky to benefit from these travel awards as otherwise I would not have been able to attend the CNBP annual conferences or international conference in Portugal earlier this year.

Q9. What are the organisational structures or policies that you believe hinder academics when they return to work and how could they be addressed or changed?

One of the major issues that I am trying to address at the moment are the funding rules set by funding agencies that do not allow an individual, who has taken a career break, to extend their contract to the equivalent of their time away.

The NHMRC have recently released new funding guidelines for Investigator grants. These grants provide research funds and a salary for the investigator for five years. Investigators are able to pause their salaries while on maternity leave (or for other career disruptions), whilst the research funds enable the research to continue. However, upon returning from leave, the investigator’s grant period will not be extended equivalent to their time away, despite the availability of funds. Women returning from maternity leave will therefore be especially disadvantaged at a time that is critical to the success of their career. In addition, unlike the arrangement presently applied to NHMRC Fellowships, the Investigator Grant end date will not be adjusted or extended for researchers working part time.

Importantly, these guidelines are inconsistent with the NHMRC’s general strategic priority to retain women in health and medical sciences. They have serious implications for women who have successfully secured 5 years of funding, but due to a decision to have (a) child/ren and the related caring responsibilities, they will be denied funding that has been rightfully awarded to them following an intensive peer review model.

Another major hurdle is the ‘short termism’ that Prof Emma Johnston very eloquently described in her National Press Gallery speech earlier this year. Short term contracts increase the stress associated with career gaps and are counterproductive.

In my personal experience, children are a blessing and enrich your life. They grow up very fast so please enjoy this time with your babies when they want to spend time with you and adore you (I’ve been told teenage years are the opposite)! Yes it is a challenging and life changing experience but by embracing the chaos and being flexible with your schedule you will enjoy parenthood and benefit from all the ways it enriches you as a person and an academic.