Combining Family and a Scientific Career

Combining Family and a Scientific Career

Author: David Hüsmann

Combining family and work is always a challenge. Even more so, with a career in academia, which usually does not feature very family friendly working hours. Nevertheless, it is evident that professors – female and male – do have families. So the question is not really if it is possible but rather how.

Till Opatz, University of Mainz, Germany, shares what challenges parents in academia have to face. While he works in Mainz, his wife is a professor for Developmental Neurophysiology in Hamburg which is approx. 500 km away. When their daughter Laura was born 1 ½ years ago, Till Opatz took about four weeks of vacation to support his wife in Hamburg. “I worked several hours per day on the computer … [and I] had Skype and telephone conferences. Thanks to my secretary and the strong support of my group, that time was productive in terms of work.”

However, the parents decided against taking a longer parental leave. As Till Opatz puts it: “Things don’t break if you are absent for a shorter period, but problems accumulate if you don’t solve them on time. The longer the break is, the more difficult it is to keep everything in place.” So the parents decided to reduce their work-time and adjust their work week according to where their daughter is staying: “When Laura is in Hamburg, I take off the Fridays and I use the train whenever possible to have the opportunity to work during that time as well. When Laura is staying with me and my mother, my wife does the same.”
Strict planning is indispensable to manage the long distance family: “My wife and I have planned almost the entire year 2015 by now as we both have to attend international conferences. Fortunately, my wife is not a chemist but a neuroscientist, so the schedules are different.” The strong support of their parents has been and still is essential for keeping up with their responsibilities as group leaders and parents.

There is still a lot of room for improvement from the side of the universities and from politics. “A good start would be to create dual career programs that not only exist in glossy brochures. Other countries are far ahead of Germany in this respect. Moreover, cutting down support staff does save money but it also leaves more work to be done by the remaining people.”

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