Parents in Academia: How to Achieve Work–Family Balance?

By Kateryna Savelieva

At the beginning of June 2021, an online seminar Parents in Academia was organized at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Over 70 participants from the University of Helsinki and other institutions took part in the event (a detailed account is available for University of Helsinki employees on the Flamma intranet of the University of Helsinki).

Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

When the initial idea of the seminar occurred to me, I went to our deputy director Hanne Appelqvist to discuss it, not knowing where it may lead me or even in which format it could be held. But thanks to the support from the Collegium office (director Tuomas Forsberg, deputy director Hanne Appelqvist, and research coordinator Kaisa Kaakinen), and to the willingness and enthusiasm of the invited speakers, the seminar was organized at short notice and gave rise to a fruitful and multifaceted discussion. It also evoked some thoughts in me on work–family balance in academia, which I would like to share here.

The invited speakers were

Hanna Snellman (Professor and Vice Rector, University of Helsinki),

Anna Rotkirch (Research Professor and Director of the Population Research Institute, Väestöliitto),

Tuomas Forsberg (Professor and Director of HCAS),

Veronica Walker Vadillo (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Helsinki),

Christian Hakulinen (University Lecturer, University of Helsinki).

The organizer and moderator was Kateryna Savelieva (Postdoctoral Researcher and Core Fellow, HCAS).

WHY DO YOU WANT TO WORK IN ACADEMIA?

The core question every academic must ask themselves is: why do you want to work in academia? Do you have a clear sense of how scientific career looks like and which potential challenges you are likely to face? Academia is hard, and it is hard for both men and women, with or without children. However, women with children are still likely to face more difficulties in academia compared to men, women without children, or even men with children (for example, see Morgan et al., 2020). So, before even raising a question of how to combine parenthood and academia, you need to be sure about your motivation for staying in academia. As the panelists pointed out, it is really important to follow your passion and enjoy your work. Otherwise, you can drown in the constant writing of grant applications, deadlines to fulfil and revisions to complete, numerous rejections, and periods of prolonged silence from journals, funding committees or other evaluators.

What is more, academia is extremely time-consuming, as is parenthood, especially when children are still young. There is a common perception that if you want to be a serious scientist, you need to dedicate all your time to it. Hence, parenthood is often not a viable option, and this is especially true for women. Many female academics believe that not having children is a necessary condition for academic success (Ward and Wolf-Wendel, 2012). As a result, female PhD students or young postdocs with children decide to leave academia more often than their childless colleagues (Mason, 2013).

However, given that many highly successful academics have many children in Finland, it must be possible to combine parenthood with an academic career. Indeed, the invited speakers are good role models for just that. Especially, when we distinguish people who leave academia for truly work–family reasons from those who use parenthood as an excuse to leave the profession they do not like anyway, it may seem that being an academic and a parent is less challenging than the typical perception suggests.

DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HAVE CHILDREN?

The other question to ask is whether you want to have children. And if yes, how many and when. In academia, there is never a “good time” to have children, in a sense that taking care of children, especially when they are still very young, is time-consuming.

Some would argue that the best time for having a first child is when one is working on a dissertation or approaching its defence. In fact, the prime time for childbearing for women usually coincides with the time they are working on their dissertation, given that the median age of entering a PhD programme is 29 years among the OECD countries (31 years for Finland) (OECD, 2019). Others will argue that having children when working on your dissertation is either so stressful that it is better to postpone childbearing to better times or to first acquire all the necessary research and only then have children.

Moreover, young researchers usually work on fixed-term contracts or personal grants and thus are in an especially vulnerable situation when deciding to take a family leave. However, if one waits until having a more secure position in academia, it may be too late to have children. So, the decision when to have children depends on one’s current situation and there are no ready recipes for that.

HOW TO ACHIEVE WORKFAMILY BALANCE?

After you have honestly answered these two questions and decided that both academic career and parenthood are important to you, how can you combine both? Of course, one will have to construct one’s own list of practices that work best for one, but we can also learn from the experiences of others, such as the invited speakers of our seminar, all of whom have children and successful careers in academia.

First, rethink your usage of time. All speakers addressed this topic from different perspectives. To succeed in both academia and parenthood, efficient time management is crucial. As Tuomas Forsberg suggested, you need to figure out what the most productive time of day is for you and use that time optimally. According to Anna Rotkirch, it is also important to appreciate the value of your time: this could mean cutting back on some activities (such as social media or watching TV) or outsourcing others (for example, cleaning or cooking). What is more, she also highlighted that you should remember to secure some time for yourself and not to reduce any activities that are a source of energy and well-being for you (e.g., exercising). Furthermore, although several days of uninterrupted work in a row are sometimes needed to complete some work, doing your work during working hours and saving some time solely for your family is a good idea.

Second, redefine your definition of success. Veronica Walker Vadillo raised an interesting topic of redefining your personal definition of success to achieve work-family balance. When you become a parent, the definition of success for you may suddenly expand: you now have not only an academic field in which you can achieve certain things, but also a whole new world of a family, in which you can be very successful. Parenting means that it is not only academic achievements that defines your success, but your relationship with your children defines this success as well. Parenthood brings inevitable changes to one’s life and identity, which should be embraced and cultivated.

Third, do not set the bar of good parenting too high. Currently, there are high expectations of good parenting (the so-called intensive parenting) and heavy investment in children (e.g., Craig et al., 2014). It is expected that if you are a parent, then you must focus on parenting 100%, 24/7. This is hardly comparable with one’s career and creates many demands for parents, which is often one of the reasons why people decide to postpone childbearing. It is good to remember that children do not need you 24 hours a day, but they do need you consistently, especially young children. It is better to spend 2 hours a day with a child, but spend them fully, than to spend 12 hours around a child while being constantly distracted by other activities.

Finally, make use of the available policies at your university. As already mentioned, young researchers usually work on fixed-term contracts, which put them in especially vulnerable position when they take a family leave. University of Helsinki offers paid family leaves and, as a rule, recommends extensions of fixed-term contracts for its employees (including doctoral students). As Hanna Snellman pointed out, this should be always negotiated and documented with one’s supervisor or head of the unit and HR personnel. Also, Christian Hakulinen reminded us that having good collaborators is an advantage when one is taking a family leave, because they are a source of support: it will help you to stay productive in research, and it will be easier to return to research work after a long family leave.

All in all, although it is challenging to be both a successful academic and a parent, it is surely possible and incredibly fulfilling. There are excellent role models for that, and hopefully, there will be even more in the future.

 

REFERENCES:

Craig, L., Powell, A., and Smyth, C. (2014). Towards intensive parenting? Changes in the composition and determinants of mothers’ and fathers’ time with children 1992-2006. The British Journal of Sociology, 65(3): 555–579. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12035

Mason, M. A. (2013). In the Ivory Tower, Men Only. For men, having children is a career advantage. For women, it’s a career killer. Retrieved from the Slate website: https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/06/female-academics-pay-a-heavy-baby-penalty.html

Morgan, A. C., Way, S. F., Hoefer, M. J., Larremore, D. B., Galesic, M., & Clauset, A. (2021). The unequal impact of parenthood in academia. Science Advances7(9), eabd1996.

OECD/UIS/Eurostat (2019). Education at a Glance 2019. Section B7. What are the characteristics and outcomes of doctoral graduates? https://doi.org/10.1787/f8d7880d-en

Ward, K., & Wolf-Wendel, L. (2012). Academic motherhood: How faculty manage work and family. Rutgers University Press.

Down by the Water, across the Time Zones – HCAS alumni host an innovative global webinar series on maritime archaeology

By Kaisa Kaakinen

When the global pandemic stopped all conference travel last spring, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies alumna Veronica Walker Vadillo, a maritime archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, realized that the unexpected situation required new forms of academic exchange. She sought help from Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, HCAS alumna and researcher of Roman law and archaeology at the University of Helsinki, and Kristin Ilves, assistant professor of maritime archaeology at the UH, to launch a webinar series Down by the Water – Global Conversations in Maritime Archaeology. This conversation that now connects scholars across continents began in the Common Room of the Helsinki Collegium a few years back.

Black-and-white photograph of a boat on a shore

This photo, adorning the website of the Down by the Water webinar series, appears in A History of the Philippines (1905) by David P. Barrows. www.gutenberg.org/files/38269/38269- h/38269-h.htm#pb201

Inaugurated in September 2020, the webinar series has biweekly sessions on Mondays (#MaritimeMondays, as the hashtag of the maritime research community puts it). While the focus of the series is on maritime archaeology, it reaches out to other disciplines, too. 

“Similar webinars are often focused on underwater or nautical topics or specific regions. Our series is about the whole concept of ‘maritimity’, what it means in different areas, and we also invite speakers who are not archaeologists to explain how they understand maritime communities,” Veronica Walker Vadillo explains. “Yes, and this approach really helps us broaden the scholarly discussions, as people doing maritime archaeology can tap into different disciplines,” Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz adds. 

Furthermore, the series brings together scholarly communities from different geographic contexts. For instance, the organizers have been able to connect Helsinki to Asian  scholarly networks and to the large Spanish-speaking community of archaeologists in Spain and the Americas. 

“We decided to take advantage of this pandemic and transform Helsinki into a kind of hub of maritime archaeology. People usually want to present at places like Oxford or Cambridge, not only because they are prestigious but because they are so well located close to London,” says Walker Vadillo. 

Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz have been happy to observe that the series run from Helsinki has acted as a bridge in the world of maritime archaeology, as, for instance, the event has put scholars from the Philippines and Mexico in touch, in what they hope is a first step in a fruitful collaboration.  

“Also for my own field this exchange is key, as scholars doing classics and researching the Roman Empire are often quite isolated in their own fields of research, “ says Mataix Ferrándiz. “Methods that we use can sometimes be used to understand other empires. Right now I am studying the Indian Ocean and find many parallels to what happened in the Roman Empire.” 

The events tend to draw about 50 online participants, a mix of people from various locations and career stages. Some recordings of the events have already reached over 1,000 views, and the video archive also presents a great resource for teaching. The project also has local impact, as there is always a good number of people attending from Finland. The events allow Helsinki-based researchers and students to get a glimpse of what is happening elsewhere and to find contacts for their future research endeavors.  

How it all began at the Helsinki Collegium 

The interdisciplinary concept of the series was born two years earlier, when Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz were fellows at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Both say that the series would most likely not have its current form had it not grown from the interdisciplinary exchanges at the Collegium.  

An important spark for the project came from a presentation by linguist Olesya Khanina, who presented at the Collegium’s weekly seminar about her research on Siberian rivers as language contact areas. Walker Vadillo, who was researching the riverine cultural landscape of Angkor at the Mekong river, and Mataix Ferrándiz, who specializes in Roman law connected to maritime commerce, understood that they could learn a lot from the way linguists approach riverine cultures. The seminar and lunch conversations grew into a symposium project, in which fellows working on archaeology, law, linguistics and anthropology set out to understand better the human–environment interactions in maritime and fluvial spaces. In addition to Walker Vadillo, Khanina and Mataix Ferrándiz, the symposium team included archaeologist Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä, a specialist in material culture and archaeological science. 

The resulting symposium Down by the Water: Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Role of Water Transit Points in Past Societies took place in November 2019 at the Collegium.  

“During the symposium, we were constantly talking about how all this was so rare, so out of our comfort zone. It became something wonderfully strange. That is what we want to continue, although the new series is more focused on archaeology and anthropology. We also aim to bring in people who are not from these areas,” Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz explain. 

From seminar to podcast 

The organizers of the 2019 symposium are currently editing a book that will be published in the series Cultural Studies in Maritime and Underwater Archaeology by BAR Publishing. 

As for the webinar series, the organizers want to explore the podcast format, which allows one to listen to the conversations without being tied to the screen. As there are not many maritime archaeology podcasts out there, this is a promising direction. In addition to presentations, the series has already featured some roundtable discussions, such as a discussion on March 8, 2021, on women doing maritime archaeology. 

“As we change the format into a more conversational tone, I really want to emphasize the advances we are making in theoretical frameworks,” Walker Vadillo says. 

As an example of a session highlighting theoretical advances in the field, she mentions the event on April 19, 2021, with Roberto Junco, who works with the concept of temporal landscapes and talked about the archaeology of the Manila Galleons and current excavations in Acapulco. Junco studies how the temporal landscapes in the ports are dependent on a specific rhythm of different activities. In order to explain how the activities come together as the life of a port city, Junco draws on music and musicology. 

“I am very excited about the chance to have such speakers and conversations and to give the audience the opportunity to ask questions, it really enhances what we can contribute to the field in terms of theory,” Walker Vadillo says. 

In addition to welcoming new audiences, the organizers are open to proposals for presentations. If interested in giving a talk in the series, you can contact the organizers by email. 

Veronica Walker Vadillo: 

email: veronica.walker[AT]helsinki.fi 

Twitter: @VWalkerV 

Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz: 

email: emilia.mataixferrandiz[AT]helsinki.fi 

Twitter: @Mataix_emilia 

Website: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/downbythewater/ 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/4DownByTheWater/