Keep the Thread

The Damm Family in Their Car, Los Angeles, CA, USA, 1987, By Mary Ellen Mark

I got a notice in my inbox the other day that the NIH was implementing a pilot program for us intramural fellows called “Keep the Thread”. The program will be tested first for labs on the NIH campus and depending on the outcomes, it may be recommended to all institutions who employ post-doctoral fellows.  In a nutshell, it is a program to offer flexibility to post-doctoral fellows if they need to take time away from the lab for a variety of reasons (new child, care for a family member, personal emergency etc.). It is not to replace the normal 8 weeks of leave for a new child. It will offer a variety of options like telework, flexible scheduling or temporary effort reduction. Both women and men will be eligible for the program. While trying to create a solution for a well-known problem, this program raises a lot of questions.

The program is intended to help fellows maintain their scientific career even in situations that might normally have dire consequences for career advancement. Many fellows leave science or do not enter science at all because they feel like the career process isn’t kind to fellows with families. Often graduate students do not have insurance coverage for their spouses or dependents and may delay starting a family. Post-doctoral fellows often can purchase coverage for their spouses or dependents but the low salary may still prohibit starting a family. Outside of children, it can be even harder to secure leave to care for another family member.

The most likely hurdle however, may be the intense pressure to work long hours and to publish high and as often as possible in order to secure one of the rare faculty positions. Even with support like “keep the thread” these fellows are still competing with fellows who either don’t have families or are not as invested in their families. Hiring committees often reward those who put in the excessive hours and don’t give any credit to those who are trying to manage both a scientific career and a family.

The program has good intentions and will certainly help some fellows remain in their post-doctoral positions and continue to pursue academic careers.  Will it encourage women with families to stay on the tenure-track path? Is keeping fellows employed really enough to keep them competitive for tenure-track positions? It is possible that extending this program broadly outside the NIH will increase the already flooded market of post-doctoral fellows on the hunt for an academic position. I think it is a great and needed step but I think that the culture of academia will need to shift in order to truly support scientists outside the laboratory. The “publish or perish” culture and current tenure processes will wipe out much of the advantage that the “keep the thread” program will create.

I’m interested to hear if any post-docs out there would have taken advantage of a program like “keep the thread” and if it would have made a difference in their career aspirations and prospects.

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