Interview with Professor Alan Duffy on Taking Paternity Leave in Academia

By: Laura Thompson

Associate Professor Alan Duffy is a member of the aKIDemic Life Advisory Board. He is a Research Fellow at Swinburne University and Lead Scientist of the Royal Institution of Australia. He has just returned to part-time work after paternity leave.

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

Associate Professor Alan Duffy. Australian Museum Eureka Prizes © Photo by Salty Dingo 2018

I am a computational astrophysicist specialising in supercomputer simulations of dark matter and galaxy formation at Swinburne University of Technology. I also promote and explain science nationally as Lead Scientist of the Royal Institution of Australia. I’ve always believed it’s important not just to do the science but also communicate it, which is why you’ll find me on regular slots on ABC Breakfast News TV and Ten’s The Project explaining the latest discoveries.

In April 2018 my wife Sarah gave birth to our first child Mia and it’s been a wonderful experience (and privilege!) that my work has supported me in playing a significant carer role this year.

Q2. How many times have you taken paternity leave and for how long?

I was able to take a month off after the birth and then a further six months as primary carer up to Mia’s first birthday. This is incredibly generous leave entitlement by Swinburne, even by Australian university standards, and I want to thank them for making this possible. It’s changed the experience for me as a father, but also for Sarah as a mother, to share the joys (and struggles) of parenthood more equitably.

Q3. What are the major challenges for fathers taking a career break from academia, and how do you think these challenges differ to those faced by women taking maternity leave?

I would say the main challenge is familiar to female academics, which is when you step away from the research there’s no backfill in your role so the work won’t continue in your absence. I was in the fortunate position to have amazing PhD and Honors students who continued their research without missing a beat without me in the office each day – mainly however this is because of the supportive supervisory team that could take over from me. One potentially big difference is that the demands on me physically were such that I could try to catch up a little on research in the early mornings / late evenings whereas if I was recovering from birth or breastfeeding I doubt I could have sustained that. Also, I had a child at 35 which might not be an ideal age for my female colleagues but that extra few years meant I was able to build up a research team. If I had Mia much earlier in my career I suspect my research would have more noticeably declined.

Q4. Do you have any tips for academics to help them prepare for parental leave?

Be very clear to colleagues (both junior and senior) about your contactability during leave. Ideally you should be off the grid entirely but a special email address for students or key personal can be helpful to ensure things don’t fall over in your absence.

Plan out what your longterm career plans require and whether you really need to apply for that grant this year or if you can wait until you return from leave. Be ruthless about what you can expect to achieve during parental leave, caring for a baby is more than a fulltime job.

Spend the time in advance of your leave empowering and training up your research team and collaborations to operate in your absence. Create support networks of supervisory teams for your students and prepare handover notes for colleagues as to the state of your research projects. Although to be honest this is all just good research practice in any case so hopefully you’ve done this already.

Q5. Do you have any suggestions about what parents should think through when deciding whether to return to work full- or part-time?

Be clear about what you value and what you can afford. Academia can be flexible but make no mistake that a part-time role (I’m 0.4 for the remainder of my daughter’s first year) is not going to allow you to deliver on all your research goals. But I want this time with her, and I want to support my wife’s return to her work and career, so it’s a no brainer for me. However, it won’t be for everyone and that’s fine, just ensure you have that conversation with your partner (and bank balance!) so that it’s a planned decision and not one that happens by default.

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

Not yet as I haven’t returned myself! However, I am planning on scheduling all day workshops with my students and key collaborators to ensure things are moving in the right direction. Beyond that I look forward to attending an international meeting to try to get up to speed on the latest research.

Q7. What are the organisational structures or policies that you believe would enable and encourage more male academics to consider parental leave and take on a greater proportion of caring responsibilities for their children?

I would point to Swinburne’s gender-neutral policy of parental leave, whoever is the carer gets the time, and ensure that there is flexibility in taking that leave. It’s so hard to know in advance what the needs of your family will be so it’s wonderful to have your workplace allow you to take more time, reschedule time or even come back early in ‘top up’ days like mine.

Also it’s about ensuring the male academics realise that these leave entitlements are there and that they can be taken – misinformation or lack of awareness is a challenge and one I aim to address by giving a townhall meeting to my peers when I return.

Moreover, being able to use research travels funds to bring a carer with you would be wonderful. It’s simply not possible to imagine going to a conference otherwise for example.

Q8. What are the organisational structures or policies that you believe hinder male academics from considering the option of paternity leave and how might these be addressed?

Any time the carer is stated as maternity leave will be an impediment naturally but beyond specifying gender I think the greatest barrier is culturally not organisationally. Historically men weren’t given the leave entitlement, meaning that there’s no tradition of it today even when we are, which is why it’s important that resources like aKIDemic are out there!