When life gets in the way of scientists’ mid-career plans

Julie Gould: 00:02

Hi, everyone, its Julie, and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Last week, we started a brand new series on the show that we’re calling The muddle of the middle, where I’m trying to guide you through this murky, undefined stage of the scientific career ladder.

And one of the things that early career researchers had asked me to do is to find out what is it really like in the middle?

And in the middle, a lot can happen.

Cara Tannenbaum: 00:29

So someone could be mid career and be in their mid 30s. Someone could be mid career and be 55. A lot of people choose science as a second, or even third career. A lot of people take time off, and then come back.

So your biological age may be very different than others in your environment. Two mid-career female scientists, one of them could, you know, have just had a baby later in life, and another could be going through perimenopause.

So one might be having hot flashes and sleepless nights, because of night sweats and menopause. And the other may be having sleepless nights because they have kids at home.

Julie Gould: 01:19

That was Cara Tannenbaum, a professor at Montreal University in Canada. And based on that overview, in this episode, we’re going to get real.

Life is different for everybody. And the mid career stage can take on many forms. Often the mid career can involve a move of some form, whether between jobs, between careers, or between countries.

So in this episode I’m going to share three stories where we find out how these moves have impacted people.

We’ll hear about how to manage raising six children while starting a brand new career as a scientist in your mid life.

Yes, you did hear me correctly. Six children and a brand new career. You wouldn’t have believed it’s possible, but this mama makes it sound, well, not easy, but certainly doable.

And we’ll also hear from two people who made career changes in their mid career, one from industry to academia, and the other one the other way around.

But the most important lesson that I’d like you to take away with you is that puppy cuddles can solve even the most stressful and painful decisions that life can throw at us.

So, as we heard Cara say, some people can start their scientific career when they’re closer to the midlife. And at age 35, after having spent 15 years at home raising her six children, Bethany Kolbaba Kartchner decided she wanted to do something outside of the home.

She thought back to what she loved as a child. And that was science. She set herself a goal to get a microbiology PhD.

Her training pre-kids was in French, so Bethany had to start from the beginning. And I mean, literally, from the very beginning.

She looked at what the university required people to do in order to join the microbiology PhD course. And that is exactly what she did. She enrolled in the prerequisite classes through the local community colleges.

Bethany Kolbaba Kartchner: 03:21

I took one class at a time for a few years, because that’s all the time I had to devote because I was still a very busy mother raising my children. I would get up at four in the morning to study so that I would get up before the kids got up.

And I did that for a few years, until my children were a little bit older, and all of them were in school.

And then I started taking classes in person because I had gotten to a certain level where they didn’t have online classes for me anymore.

And so I kind of transitioned into taking university classes and became very interested in research. And so as an undergraduate I got into a lab.

And it happened to be a lab where they were working on proteins. And I basically fell in love with proteins and protein engineering. Now it’has been about, 11 years since I started, and I am a year away from finishing my PhD. Fingers crossed.

Julie Gould: 04:23

I want to ask a little bit about this concept of being mid career. And with no disrespect to being in also the middle age, middle stage of life. Please don’t be offended by me saying that.

You are not a typical grad student. You are, you know, 15 plus years older than the traditional graduate students. So how do you fit in with your peers who are who are you know, at the same sort of educational stage in their scientific career right now? Like, how does that fit work for you?

Bethany Kolbaba Kartchner: 04:56

I guess you would have to ask them what they feel about me. I feel like I fit in just fine. I mean, obviously, I am a lot older than them. In fact, I have children that are their age, which maybe is strange.

And in fact, they are teaching some of my children in their classes, which is funny. But I feel like I fit in just fine. I don’t do a lot of social events with them, because my social sphere is very different.

But that’s not always what graduate school is. It’s also, like, the exchange of ideas. And in that I feel very comfortable. I feel like I’m totally accepted.

Julie Gould: 05:38

As we heard in the first episode of this series, the middle stage is often a bit of a muddle, and adding a big family into the mix can’t make things any easier.

So over the years, many early career researchers have asked me “Is it possible to have a family and to be a scientist?”

So I put the question to Bethany. And this is how she does it.

Bethany Kolbaba Kartchner: 05:58

I think that starting a career as an older person with a lot of responsibilities does present its challenges because you do have those responsibilities.

And I take raising my children very seriously and don’t want to shirk that responsibility or do a poor job.

So yes, there is that balance that I have to do. Like, there are times where I cannot go into the lab because I need to drive a child to a practice or attend a game, which is extremely important for me to do.

So I guess I have handled that challenge in a couple of ways.

First of all, when I was kind of ramping into my academic trajectory, where I started, you know, taking classes online, and then taking one class in person, and then two, and then working in the labs. It was kind of a ramping up. I foresaw that my children would need to be more self sufficient, and would need to be able to handle, for example, coming home on their own, and maybe some basic tasks, like doing their own laundry, or making their own snacks and things.

So I had a plan and taught them all those types of things that they would need to know to be more self sufficient, and worked on that.

I also got the help of my husband, who has been able to get a little bit more flexible work schedule. And so that’s been very helpful because you can kind of pick up someone or handle the, you know, repair man who comes once in a while.

The other thing I did was I prepared myself. So I got very serious about my time management skills, and read a lot of different books about time management, and listened to podcasts and things to get little tips.

And so I just wouldn’t put those tips into my life, so that I would have more time to work in the lab and to do my studies.

I also am very, very organized in the lab. I make sure that I plan my day, very closely, but also giving myself some wiggle room for surprises. So I guess I would say I plan my day 80%. And so when 20% of things pop up, I can handle them.

Julie Gould: 08:30

From almost every person I’ve spoken to, time management is a really key skill to have when it comes to finding your way through the mid career.

And we’ll have an entire episode dedicated to that and how people have done it. But back to this episode.

So Bethany started her science career in her mid life in a very junior position, literally from the very beginning.

But Andrew Forbes started his mid career in a new position too. But unlike Bethany, Andrew came at it with a background in industry.

After finishing his PhD, Andrew started a company with some friends and 10 years later, when the company sold, Andrew moved to an independent research institution, which is like a semi-academic place of work.

Andrew Forbes: 09:14

So although I was now a permanent researcher and playing that game, I was very much the junior player, although I was somewhere in the middle of my career.

Julie Gould: 09:26

And how did that feel for you, you know, as coming in as not necessarily junior in age but certainly junior (for want of a better word) rank at at that particular institution?

Andrew Forbes: 09:39

I think it’s very easy at that stage of your career to feel a bit insignificant, to feel a little bit overwhelmed by what others are doing, typically with very large groups and large students, bodies, large postdoc numbers, and you’re not quite there yet.

Julie Gould: 09:55

This might sound familiar to some of us, this imposter syndrome can happen to anybody.

But Andrew found a way to make things a little easier for himself. And he realized that he had a lot of value to bring to the table with his background in industry.

Andrew Forbes: 10:10

You know, rather than being compared on an apple-to-apple basis, I could always argue, “Well, you know, my career was slightly different path. So you can’t compare me directly to you. I’ve got advances that you can’t put on your CV, while you have some that I can’t put on yet. But I’ll be there very soon.”

So I think that helped tremendously. You can view it almost as a sideways move coming in with a different value proposition to what the others were offering.

Julie Gould: 10:37

Andrew is now a professor at Witwatersrand University in South Africa. And when looking back to his mid career, he told me that this stage felt very short lived. He puts it down to his very careful choice about the research direction he wanted to go into when he came back into academia.

Andrew Forbes: 10:55

So I chose a field that was very much aligned with my skills, the sort of things I love to do, and I was good at.

And that sounds kind of obvious. But surprisingly it’s not. A lot of people choose fields based on how topical they are and not based on what they’re really good at, or what they really enjoy.

And the second thing I did that really made a huge difference was that I entered a field that looks, you know, I really liked it, there was going to be great to work in, but I entered from a position of strength.

Julie Gould: 11:29

What does this mean? Well, he used his industry knowhow to his advantage. Andrew had spent a decade working with lasers. And when he came back into academia, he could see that in the field of structured light, nobody was doing this.

Andrew Forbes: 11:44

And at the time structured light was mostly orbital angular momentum, it was controlling light beams digitally, it was a little bit of quantum work.

But people were not really doing laser work in that context. What I did was I came into this field of structured lights with this laser angle, which others didn’t have.

And that helped me to very quickly stand apart. It helped me to accelerate my position within that community.

So for example, if people were going to call a conference and discuss structured light, of course, you would say, “Well, who’s the quantum person?” And he’s “Oh, yes, this chap in Vienna.” Who is the classical person? “Oh, yes, this chap in Glasgow.” And sort of go and then you say, Well, who’s the laser person?” And is is “Oh that is Andrew, down in South Africa.”

And I think having that niche is very important. So when people make the move, no matter which direction it is, I think you need to look very closely at what you’re good at, what is the community that you’re entering missing? Where could you add some unique value, and take that as your starting point.

Julie Gould: 12:59

My final story in this episode comes from someone who moved the other way during her mid career. Leslie Rissler loved science, and she still does. It’s part of who she is, it’s part of her identity.

And she spent almost 12 years at the University of Alabama in the US, working her way up the career ladder, from early career researcher to tenure. And then through the mid career stage, all the way to becoming a full professor of biology.

Leslie Rissler: 13:26

I was settled at that time, I felt successful. But always wanting to be challenged.

Julie Gould: 13:37

But sometimes the dream job isn’t quite what you had in mind.

Leslie Rissler: 13:41

I loved being a faculty member. I loved graduate students and mentoring, and all of that.

But I also was doing the same thing, year after year after year. Also, you know, it’s really hard to get grants and to write grants all the time, and to keep up with all the literature and the techniques, especially if you don’t, you’re not in an institution where it’s easy to get postdocs and graduate students, right?

And it’s difficult to attract people in particular institutions because of where they are, perhaps, or for a variety of reasons.

Julie Gould: 14:15

At the same time, Leslie had some other personal things going on.

Leslie Rissler: 14:20

I got divorced. You know, I had children. They were middle school, starting high school age. I was interested in, you know, getting them into really good schools too, so that that was part of it. Am I going to be single in Alabama? You know, there were lots of those kinds of things going through my mind as well.

Julie Gould: 14:43

Personal issues, or life basically, at any stage, will impact your decisions. And making decisions when so much is going on is really really hard, whether it’s a two body problem or looking after elderly family members.

Leslie decided that it was time for her to leave her academic career behind and start on a different track. So she took on a role 650 miles away at the National Science Foundation in Virginia and relocating her family in order to do so. Again, another thing that a lot of early career researchers wanted to know about the mid career is “How do you make difficult decisions like this?” So I asked Leslie,

Leslie Rissler: 15:24

For me, it was about, you know, where did I want to be geographically? Who were the people that I was interacting with, colleagues? All of that went into play.

I don’t know. I don’t have a really good answer for that. It was just, uh, you know, it was really hard.

When I made the decision that I was going to take the job at NSF and resign from my academic job, I sat in my lab, shut the door in a closet and sat on the floor and and cried, because you work your entire life to go through, you know, to get an academic job, and then do really well and get tenure and publish and get grants and students and all of that.

So it was a really hard decision. And I didn’t know if I was making the right one. But in the end, I’m very happy. And I feel like I work with fantastic people. And I get to, you know, write solicitations to make a difference for other people. And that’s very satisfying.

Julie Gould: 16:27

And that moment that you had in that closet, were those tears of joy or tears of sadness?

Leslie Rissler: 16:39

They were more tears of sadness. It was kind of like a big part of my life I knew that I was severing, and that I couldn’t come back to it, you know. And I’ve worked really hard. And now I was moving on. And that was, that was scary. And it was just like “You’re signing that piece of paper, you have made a serious decision that will affect the rest of your life and your kids.” So it was a big deal.

Julie Gould: 17:08

I can imagine it was a lot of pressure with a decision like that. But I’m glad now that it worked out for you. So sorry, I misunderstood earlier. I thought, maybe I’ve got this timeline wrong. Apologies. Just in case I talk about it. Your divorce. Did that happen whilst you were in Alabama in the mid career stage? Or did that happen before?

Leslie Rissler: 17:41

It took several years. It started while I was in Alabama. But when I made the decision to move to NSF, that pretty much finalized it. But legally, it wasn’t finished for a few years after that. So it was a long, stressful process.

Julie Gould: 18:01

Sorry to hear that.

Leslie Rissler: 18:03

I also had, like, a bilateral mastectomy. And reconstructive surgery during that time as well. So there was other stresses, personal stresses as well.

Julie Gould: 18:16

Wow, just throw that in there as well. Oh, my goodness, wow.

Leslie Rissler: 18:23

It was preventative. It was prophylactic, you know, because of genetic and family history.

But it was also something that I needed to do to make sure that I was around for my kids later. So that was a big decision as well. And my father died. He had Alzheimer’s and was in the latter stages of that. So there were a lot of things.

Julie Gould: 18:46

Wow. Okay, that mid career stage definitely wasn’t an easy one. Yeah. Goodness, How was it handling all of that, at the same time, whilst working as hard as I know, people work, to get that full professor role?

Leslie Rissler: 19:06

Um, I just don’t think that my situation was special or unique. Which is, you know, it gives me a way to see other people, you know, who are in it now.

And they’re, you know, they’re experiencing COVID. We all are.

But for researchers, it’s a particularly hard time, I think, for all career stages, maybe more so for early career right now. I’m not sure.

But for me, yeah, there were a lot of a lot of challenges, but I don’t think it’s…I don’t think it’s unique and that’s, you know, it’s a hard stage.

Julie Gould: 19:45

Okay, so one thing that I’ve like to ask you is, you know, what, what did you do?

You know, you had all those personal things going on the divorce, the double mastectomy and the career decisions going on. What did you do to stop yourself from falling apart and to make sure that you stayed you know, mentally in a good mindset in order to see you through to the other side of all this?

Leslie Rissler: 20:20

I think for me being a biologist is who I am and I love biology. I love evolutionary biology. It’s so much a part of who I am that I cannot imagine my life without without science, so I would never throw that away or I would be completely lost. I guess so.

I don’t have any magic answers of how it all worked out or whatever.

But I also got a golden retriever and that helped a lot.

Julie Gould: 20:58

Puppy cuddles, definitely. Really wonderful.

With all of these different things going on I imagine it can sometimes feel overwhelming. There’s so much on the to do list that you often don’t know where to start.

Inger Mewburn and several of the others who I spoke to for this series, said that being in control of your time helps you when you feel that everything else in your life is out of control.

So in the next episode of this series, we’re going to hear a little bit about how some academics control their time, and more importantly, why it works for them. Thanks for listening. This is Working Scientist. I’m Julie Gould.