Motherhood, The Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out

I finished reading this book this morning, and found it very interesting. It is basically short, first-person narratives from about 30 professional women scientists who are also mothers. Organized chronologically, this book provides an interesting historical perspective on how scientists who want to balance career and motherhood have progressed, or not, over the past several decades.

Each talks about how they manage the balance in their lives, over the days, months and over the lifetime of their careers. The similarities are striking – the wide-eyed innocence with which most entered the ranks, knowing that balance would be possible but not quite how, and the angst when they realized that there were no clear-cut right answers, but a just a series of difficult choices. Most went through stops and starts in their professional careers, trying different career paths and child care options until finding a balance that worked well for them.

It seemed to me that part-time and nontraditional work was used by women more in recent years, though that could just be that those women are easier to find now. I also found that the vignettes were more painful to read the further you got in the book. I suspect this is because the earlier stories are by older women, who have had time to come to terms with their choices and see their children grown and living fulfilling lives. Those later in the book are still in the middle of day care, career building, and the eternal struggle for more hours in the day.

I suppose I should find this encouraging – with the perspective of time, the women in this volume were overall happy with their choices, and had both satisfying professional careers and happy, healthy children. In science, as with raising children, it can take years of trail, error, and wondering until you finally achieve the results you have been looking for. You are never sure how things are going to turn out, and have to go with your best hypothesis and gut instinct. You do the best you can with the information you have at the time, watch closely, and stand ready to change course if things do not turn out as expected.

Science and motherhood are both difficult paths, requiring dedication and persistence, but the payoffs are big. The stories in this volume of how some women scientists have done both may serve as examples, and encourage others who choose to follow both paths.

Tom Lane’s Seven C’s for Career Success

In a recent ACS Career Forum, the featured speaker was Tom Lane, ACS president 2009. He had some great points, which I have summarized briefly below.

Dr Lane started by pointing out that chemistry contributes to every major industrial segment – 20K or 11% of all patents are chemical in nature. It’s a $650B industry that influences 25% of the nation’s GDP.

Dr Lane’s 7 C’s for career success are:

Competence – in your field is now price of admission, not ticket to success. Your ability to learn is vital. Must be a learner, not learned. “In times, of change, learners inherit the world, while the learned are beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. (Eric Hoffer)”

Courage – to pursue new areas, lead into new directions. Must know how to fail. Must try areas that no one has tried before. Working in new environments – generations, across cultures, etc.

Collaborative – becoming increasingly important. Chemists are being asked to address enourmous, complex, interesting problems that cross many disciplines. Teams are dynamic, globally scattered but must still work together.

Communicate – both what is said and what is not said. Young people need good written skills, but as you get older more of your contact is through oral communication. All transactions are between humans, but perhaps facilitated by technology.

Creative – inventive. Force yourself out of the box.

Committed – to excellence, to your career

Competitive – being motivated to succeed. Desire to raise the standard. Healthy competition is a great motivating force.

Take Advantage of the Day

For those you who, like me, are at work on this last-day-most-people-are-taking-off, you’re probably finding it rather quiet. A few people are at work, either to do specific tasks or because they’re saving vacation for another time. It doesn’t feel like a work day, so not much “real” work is getting done.

This is a great day, however, to knock off those nagging tasks that should only take a few minutes, and you’ve been leaving “until you had time”. Everyone has a to do list, and all sorts of things get added. However, some seem to linker forever, not getting done but not getting deleted. Today is the day! Either do them, or decide they’re not worth doing and delete them from the list. Clean out your to do list, freeing yourself from all the guilt of seeing them on there every day. Free your mental energy for things that matter to you, and let go of things that would be nice but aren’t necessary. Perhaps the reasons you wanted to do something no longer exist. Perhaps a particular task has been made irrelevant by other developments. Perhaps you’ve moved in a new direction, and should be doing something different instead. Perhaps others add things to your list when you’re not looking (I know this happens to me!).

Take the time to examine each item on your to do list, and either make progress on it or delete it. Go through the piles of “papers to be dealt with” on your desk, and file, recycle, or address each one. If you get yourself in the right mood, you can get quite ruthless and get a lot done.

Then you can go back to work next Monday, when the New Year really begins, with fresh energy and a well-ordered list of things you really need to do.

Scientific Happiness

Most bloggers are posting end of year articles talking about the best posts of the past year. I am going to buck the trend, and write about some things you can do to make yourself happy (or happier) in the new year. As ons of my friends told her children over break “I am not responsible for your happiness – only you can do that.”

So what can you do?

First, decide to be happy. Focus on the good things around you. Pause to smell the pine trees, marvel at the beauty in sunshine on a leaf, pet your rabbit. Even if you don’t feel like it, smile as those you pass and try to look for the positive aspects of events. Develop real friendships, which you can use to celebrate successes, and talk through hard times. If it helps, keep a “happiness journal” and write down good things, or send thank you notes to people who have done something you find valuable.

Strive for more – set meaningful goals for yourself. Try to learn something new, start volunteering on a regular basis, teach something to others. Don’t just exist, but live to the fullest, and take advantage of all your expertise and resources. But make your goals meaningful to you – not just “earn more money” or “buy a boat like Joe has”. Studies have shown that more money does not make you happier, and continually comparing yourself to others is not a good long-term strategy. One of my favorite studies compared people who won the lottery and people who became paralyzed, one year after the event. Their happiness levels were identical – their expectations adjusted to meet their circumstances.

Take initiative at work – suggest improvements, take on new tasks and new responsibilities that will allow you to grow professionally. Help and/or teach others at work – not only will you learn more when you have to teach someone else, but you’ll feel better about yourself for giving back.

Finally, don’t mope around in the same place, but move, exercise, and change your surroundings. Just taking your laptop from your office to the local coffee shop to work for awhile can give you a new perspective on problems – not to mention letting you avoid interruptions. 😉

So you can be happier – just decide to be, and make small steps each day to savor the moments. Eventually, all those little changes will add up to a big increase in your happiness!

Asking for Help

One of the biggest things that gets in people’s way when they have career problems is their own ego. Often people are embarrassed by the fact that they were laid off, and so don’t tell anyone and try to find a new position all on their own. This rarely works – you can’t cover nearly as much ground all by yourself as you can when you have a wide network of colleagues and friends looking out for you as well. Talking to other people is the single best thing you can do to jump-start your job search.

Even people who are employed have trouble asking for help. You may have a problem with a colleague, be wondering about a new career direction, or be debating what new skills would be worthwhile to acquire. In some cases, it may not be wise to discuss these issues with people at work.

So where do you go for help? If you’re a chemist, you can use the American Chemical Society’s career consultant program, and search for a volunteer who is ready, willing and able to listen to your concerns and offer impartial advice and guidance.

If you’re not an ACS member, you can use a service like MentorNet to find a neutral outsider who will serve as a sounding board. It’s amazing how many people are out there willing to help you. All you have to do is ask……


In your grandfather’s day, people took a long term view of their career. They were going to stay with the same company for their whole lifetime, slowly progressing to their ultimate goal, the leisure of retirement. What they did on a daily basis, or even which promotion they got next, was not all that important.

Today, times have changed. Everywhere there is pressure for the short term, quick gain, such as changing jobs often for more money, new challenges, or just to get away from a difficult coworker. However, rapid job hopping often leaves people priced out of the market, and can leave potential employers wondering about stability and the wisdom of investing time and training in someone who may not stick around very long.

In the best of all possible worlds, you should be looking at your career in the short, medium and long term. What do I need to do today, this week, to make the most of my present circumstances? What about over the next 3-6 months? Am I on the path that is going to take me to where I want to be 5 or 10 years from now? It’s much easier to make small corrections early, and put yourself on a trajectory that will get you where you want to go.

A Whole World of Opportunities

I recently received an advertisement for a couple of positions that included the following information:

“The current management group has established a low-cost, vertically-integrated manufacturing platform in China…..
…..Both opportunities require the successful candidate to be based in China for the initial period, converting to a home office in North America once overseas operations are settled…”

While I have seen many jobs that require international travel, this is the first one I’ve seen where the company is looking to hire someone and immediately send them overseas for an extended period of time. Even after the initial posting is over, I’m sure the position will require frequent travel back and forth to keep an eye on things.

Some people would view this as a great adventure, others would not even consider moving away from their home. For those who would consider it, this new world order certainly allows you to look for jobs in many more places than even before – literally all over the world!

Looking for Ideas

One of the most interesting things I learned in interviewing people for my book was how many jobs there are of which I had never heard. Once I talked to someone, I often said “Well of course someone has to do that!”, but until it was pointed out I never thought about regulatory affairs or methods development as a career. And it continues – the more I look, the more interesting careers I find out there.

If you need a place to look, check out The Career Project. They provide an “interactive database of career profiles in hundreds of professions”. It’s interesting to skim through job titles, and read questionnaires filled out by people in those jobs. It might even give you an idea of a new direction to pursue……

Companies Losing Skills/Knowledge To Retirement

A reader asked:

“My company struggles with the issue of losing knowledge and skills to retirement. It comes down to a tradeoff of investing in (1) capturing knowledge before employees retire (which may include mentoring) versus (2) leveraging retirees after they leave for part-time projects.”

This is a serious issue, and one I think we’re going to see more of as the population in general ages. It’s going to be an interesting balance, as senior employees want to move out and do something different, but companies realize they don’t have the depth of leadership to replace them.

I have a few anecdotal stories, but don’t know of anyone systematically addressing this problem. Readership, do you have any resources to share? Leave them in the comments, or send me an email and I’ll post them for you.