Ask Sciencewoman: Part-time post-docs

Dear Sciencewoman,
I'm currently in the last 6 months of my PhD, and I have an 8 month old. I love research, but I want more time with my child, and I am curious if there is such a thing as a part time post doc. How did you get that kind of position? Did you have to create the position with your advisor?
Mommy, soon-to-be PhD

Dear Mommy, soon-to-be PhD,

My part-time post-doc began as a full time position, and switched to part-time only for a few months between the birth of my daughter and me leaving for the tenure-track. It worked really well for me, personally and professionally, because I was able to spend lots of time with my daughter, but still keep my foot in the door of science (and earning a paycheck).

A couple keys to the success of the part-time post doc were:

  1. An advisor who was humane, family-friendly, and not overly controlling. Of course, I knew this going in since he was also my PhD advisor.
  2. I initially proposed a limited duration for the part-time position. I took eight weeks off after my daughter was born and then proposed to work two more months at 25 hours per week. After that I had planned to go back to full time. I ended up staying part time for one more month, because it was the last month before I moved and I needed the time to pack the house, etc.
  3. Limited field/lab work was required for the position. When I did have to do field work, I managed to bring Minnow along. Helpful and accommodating colleagues were key to making this part of it successful. I also essentially worked unpaid overtime in the weeks I did field work so that I could keep the office-based part of the research moving forward.
  4. Loose funding structure. We weren't racing to complete a major project on a limited timeline, so that probably made it easier to work part-time.
  5. As you can see from above, my experience was somewhat exceptional, so I'm not sure what advice I can give for those seeking to find a part-time post-doc. Then again, I suspect that all part-time post-docs are exceptional simply because they are not that common. Readers, have you seen/been/hired part-time post-docs? What were the circumstances?

    I'd imagine that the possibilities for part-time post-docs are somewhat limited by the short funding cycles of a lot of granting agencies. If a PI has a grant where a post-doc is funded and needed for, say, 2 years, the PI can't hire someone half-time for four years, because the project must be completed in the granting period. On the other hand, if you can make a post-doc out of a series of smaller projects, where the grants might each only cover a couple of months of funding, then it can be easier to convert, say 6 months of full-time funding to 1 year of half-time funding. The problem with going this route is that you never really feel financially secure and stable and you are continually hunting for research dollars. For someone hoping to move into the tenure track, these smaller grants might turn into time sinks that don't net the sort of research progress necessary to really move your career along. This scenario was basically what my post-doc was like. I worked on three projects and I'll probably end up with one publication, and that pub is requiring an awful lot of work well after the post-doc has concluded.

    Now as a PI myself, would I hire a part-time post-doc? If I had funding for a one-year post-doc and two years before the project needed to be completed (or similarly suitable ratios), I would certainly consider it. If the project required field or laboratory work, I would want the part-time candidate to provide me with a plan as to how he/she would accomplish the tasks on a part-time schedule. Really, that would be my biggest concern. Once that fear was allayed, I wouldn't hesitate to hire a part-time post-doc. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that more PIs should think about what it would take to make their post-doc positions more available to people wanting to work less than full-time. It'd be a great start towards making science a more people-friendly profession.

    Good luck in you search! And let us know if you find anything.

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I find it rather amusing that I have never seen a man ask these kinds of questions.

I plan to never have children myself. In thinking about the people in science who do have children, I find that the fact that this societal traditional gender role dichotomy - which most people have mostly broken from, thankfully - still exists when it comes to child-rearing is troubling.

I worked on three projects and I'll probably end up with one publication

Do you conclude from this that your effort on the two projects that won't result in an authorship for you was wasted?

An important issue with doing science "part-time", at least in the case of the experimental sciences, is that the experiments themselves have their own rhythms. For example, in the case of many physiological experiments, getting a really good prep that is pumping out clean data only happens occasionally. This means that when it does happen, you don't just end the experiment because it is 5PM or whatever. You just keep going as long as the prep keeps going.

Or in the case of molecular/cell biology, there is a rhythm to growing up bacteria, yeast, or tissue culture cells. Depending on how you structure your time, simply working one extra day per week, or a couple extra hours per day, your overall experimental throughput in the long term can be doubled.

None of this is to say that experimental science cannot be done on a part-time basis. It is just that one needs to be very clever at organizing that time, depending on the exact experimental rhythms flexible at exactly when that time is expended, and very efficient at using the available time.

From the standpoint of a PI, it is very difficult to predict ahead of time whether a particular scientist will be able to be productive in these circumstances. Accordingly, I would only consider a part-time position for someone who has already been working in my lab, and who I consider to have the requisite personality traits that would allow them to thrive.

I wouldn't ever consider hiring someone de novo for a part-time position.

Let me add that many post-doc fellowships do not advertise the fact but they can be offered part-time, sometimes for N times as long where N=40/hours worked per week. Other ones, if a sufficiently determined and influential person (PI, dean, whatever) calls them, can sometimes be convinced to be offered part-time. I personally know of two very good fellowships that a PI insisted be part-time, for two female postdocs in similar situations.

@PP- you wouldn't ever consider it?
What if they'd done it successfully, in the lab of another PI you personally knew and respected, pumping out a reasonable volume of publications, and doing the same flavor of lab work they'd be doing for you?

What if they'd done it successfully, in the lab of another PI you personally knew and respected, pumping out a reasonable volume of publications, and doing the same flavor of lab work they'd be doing for you?

You got me! Of course, I'd consider it.

Not sure if my opinion matters as I'm only a PhD student, but I am doing it part-time. When I came back from mat leave, I worked 2.5 days for the first 6 months, once monkey was able to get into daycare "fulltime", I've been working ~ 4days/week , and working 9-4. So far, my advisor seems happy with me. What am I missing? I don't "chat" with colleagues much because I have to be focused, which also means I miss social outtings AND most importantly I have a lack of flexibility in the types of projects I am able to work. I am focused on molecular / cell culture type projects that I can put on "ice" easily. This was at the recommendation of my PI. PhysioProf is correct that putting in a couple extra hours can double you output and I have on a regular basis come in on the weekend or on my 'off' day to do some culture work. Monkey usually accompanies me and with MR.SM or a generous colleague will watch monkey while I do my 1-3 hours of work. Can it be done? Yes. What you need are: Understanding and flexible supervisor, a good work environment AND a support system at home that can kick on "pinch" days when you have to come in or stay late. Lucky for me, I have those.

there is, as already commented upon, an issue as to what is "part time" when even full time for post doc is undefined.

I think part time postdocs would best work if you were already fulltime (either grad student or postdoc) first, and then shift into parttime, that makes it easier to define what "parttime" is. (also, you already have a relationship with the PI)

@ PP *grin*

@ScientistMother *also grin* Your post made me happy- it seems like such a sensible approach (well, aside from calling the offspring monkey... that seems charmingly whimsical, rather than sensible).

I was in my post-doc and then got pregnant, so started maternity leave at the beginning of my second year. I took 8 weeks of leave, and then worked 3/4 time for a full year (4 days/wk). Again, since I had already 'established' myself, moving into a part-time position wasn't difficult.

I should note that the 4-day week 'part time' schedule worked so well that when my dh found his current job (8 years ago), he negotiated a 36-hour week schedule and hasn't worked 5 days a week since :-)

I hate to be the downer, but I'm finding an awful lot of 'ifs' in these comments. 'If' you have an understanding advisor. 'If' you have a workable project. 'If' you have a supportive work environment. If you multiply all those ifs, then we are talking about a relatively unlikely possibility that a part-time option exists for a PhD scientist wanting to do research.

I want to follow up on what Randy said. If full time for most people is much more than 40 hours/week, it must be difficult to define part time. I could see how a supervisor might perceive a part time post doc's progress as slow, but in reality she is doing just fine for the hours she is working, which are fewer than the supervisor thinks (or rather, the full time staff are working more than the supervisor thinks). Like, 30 hours/week is 75% on paper, but in reality it might be more like 60%.

Hmmm, I wonder if I could figure out a part time position . . . it should be easier for me since I'm a theorist, but I imagine still hard to find. I'm graduating in summer 2009 so in a few months I'll be looking for postdocs, but my husband won't be graduating until late winter 2009, we think. So instead of dragging my feet to graduate at the same time I was going to take that time to have baby #2. But even though we placed the first baby exactly when we wanted him within a week, I recognize that that was not really under our control and it could go completely wrong next time . . . maybe having it during a part time post doc would be safer. . . thanks for writing this post!

I feel that need to point out that I am from Canada. Why is this important? (1) I am entitled to 1 full year of mat leave, regardless of whether I am post-doc or student. This enables me to control the pace of my transition back alot better and I don't have to worry about pumping etc if I am breastfeeding. (2) When PI's in Canada are applying for grants, there is a space for them to explain why there is a gap in lab productivity, in this space the PI can say myself, my student, my postdoc was on mat leave. Grant committees will not penalize PI's for having kids and going on leave or for having students/post-docs that have kids and go on leave. (3) If you're a junior PI and you go on mat leave, you are given an equivalent time added to the deadline for meeting X milestones - again you are not penalized for having children. My understanding (which could be wrong) is that this is not the case in the US.

Despite your later retraction, PP, I remain disturbed by your outright rejection of the idea. That is sexism, propagated. Defend it as you like, but it remains ... exclusive.

Anon: I don't see anywhere in PP's response that he was talking about women. He was talking about anyone who wishes to work part time, which does not mean only new mothers. Rather sexist of you to assume it does. In fact, I personally know two male scientists who work part time because that's how they want to structure their lives.

I don't work part-time, but I do work on a freelancer basis. This means I may have a few months full time work, or I may be pulled in for a few hours here and there for maintanence-type work. I can do this because of the field I'm in, because I am networked into the right organisations and because I have a track record my clients can rely on. Because I have about seventy-zillion different things I wish to do with my life this works really well for me.

Funny I should come across this. Recently I went out for dinner with a speaker as well as 2 other female faculty in our department and another faculty (male). The issue of part-time postdocs came up as a question: would you hire a female postdoc who might go on mat. leave and perhaps work part time thereafter. To my shock and amazement, the three women essentially said "No". Of course this is understandable given the current funding climate and the NIH regulations. I mentioned this to another female colleague of mine who was just as shocked. So the hesitation is not confined to PP. Anyway, we came up with an idea: why not ask the dean to set aside 1-2 postdoc fellowships for the department. The funds would be under the control of the chair and would be expressly used to fund a postdoc while he/she worked part-time. The dean loved the idea and it is now implemented. Of course my school has deep pockets but I am sure it can work elsewhere.

Wow, really interesting post. I don't really have anything to add to the discussion, but wanted to thank you for putting the question out there. I haven't ever heard of a part-time post-doc position.

I was a part time post-doc working 3 days a week for 2 years, have 3 publications (1 first author, 1 second author and one more). I think it depends on the kind of work and it really is possible if you make it clear in advance with your PI.

By anonymous (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

I am a PhD student working from home (computational biochemistry). During my intership (required to finish the college degree)working in a research lab I developed a weird physiological reaction to chemicals. Once I was even rushed to the hospital because my skin was all red and I was having trouble breathing. My health has never been the same since and I developed reactions to everything from detergents to cosmetics to cinnamon... I used to be the top student of my class, studying very hard for long hours. And I felt fine. Now I just feel tired all the time, sometimes my brain feels like a soup and I can't get nothing out of it. I just don't have the work capacity I used to have and I feel guilty for not being able to work more hours. I need to sleep at least 10h/day and when I am worst I sleep 14h straight. My brain simply doesn't function when I have a flare-up. Most of these days I can't even recall what happened the day before. So it is easy to understand that I am in no condition to work. Any work I try to do I end up latter correcting because it is full of errors and distractions. I am now working 4-5h/day. My PhD founding is a fixed value per month, so basically I can work part-time or full time and I earn the same. But I wory about my future. Who will want to hire a person who can't work full time? And who can't work in a lab? I really love doing research, and I think I can make important contribuitions to my field. I have to battle every day to get things done while feeling ill, tired and sleepy, if not in pain. And my co-workers just view me as lazy...