Women in Science – managing family and career

Finding the balance…

Combining a scientific career and being a mum was never going to be easy, but is it worth it? As mother from 2 young children and being a junior group leader trying to set up our own lines of research and getting a foot in the door as an independent research group in the field of stem cells is not an easy one. It’s basically about running 2 fulltime jobs, which both take all the energy, attention and time you have and even more. Of course there are the sleepless nights, because there is always one of the kids waking up in the middle of the night from a bad dream, teeth that try to get through, or just because they are convinced sleeping time is over. The constant lack of sleep makes concentrating on writing grants and papers not an easy task. And then there is the time management. Before the children were there you had the whole day and evening for yourself. If days were packed with meetings, talks and administrative burden, there were always still the early morning, late afternoon and evening hours, when everybody had left and you could just concentrate on reading and writing and getting things done. But now, by the time it’s 5pm, it’s time to pack my bag, pick up the kids from daycare or kindergarten, make sure they get fed, take a bath, get their bedtime stories read and get them to sleep. And by the time that’s all achieved, there is the rest of the evening to try to still get some work done with all the energy that’s left. On top, during the day there is always the pressure of knowing you only have a limited amount of time to get things done in the lab before the mum job starts again. On top of this, as a scientist, there is the traveling. Attending conferences and visiting other institutes is an important part of our work to enforce the networking and making sure the community knows you and knows the work your group is doing. But being a mum of young children does not make the traveling to meetings an easy one. Not only is there the organizational part to make sure that partner and children are fine while mum is away. There is also the emotional part of leaving your kids for days and for them cooping with mum being away.

But is it all just difficult and exhausting? Well, it’s not for no reason that women are the better multi-taskers! Of course it takes practice and does not always go smoothly but running these two full time jobs forces you to do some good time management, and makes you more efficient than before. There is simply no time to waist. And yes, as much as I would want to, it is difficult to keep every deadline there is and have all the work done in time. But it also enforces making decisions about what really matters and the things that can be ignored or delegated to others. It is impossible to get the same amount of work done as the male colleague without a family or with a partner who takes care of everything. But as long as you are not to hard on yourself, not wanting to do everything perfect, but excepting that a little less perfect is also still ok, it is doable. And having the right partner on your side, so you can step in this adventure as a team, backing each other up when necessary, taking shared responsibility in making sure this balance between family and careers will work out is absolutely essential. Then, it’s absolutely worth it. Having children is the greatest gift. But being able to be a scientist as well and doing what I like most, only makes me a better mum and that’s beneficial for us all! So don’t ask yourself whether there will ever be a good time to get children in a science career. If you are ready for it, just go for it and one way or the other you will make it happen, I’m sure!

Marieke Essers, PhD
ISEH Publications Committee Member
Group leader
'Hematopoietic Stem Cells and Stress'
Division of Stem Cells and Cancer
Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum (DKFZ)


HI-STEM - Heidelberg Institute for Stem Cell Technologies and Experimental Im Neuenheimer Feld 280
69120 Heidelberg


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