PartTime Science in Perspective

Most academic scientists probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear their accountant say he works part-time to spend more time with his children. But ask them to imagine a part-time researcher in their own lab and the response is likely to be, “Impossible. Can’t be done.”

Data and anecdote show otherwise. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) 2003 Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), 4.7% of doctoral-level scientists and engineers who conduct basic research work part-time. Several funding agencies offer opportunities to people who want to work part-time or have that flexibility built into their policies. And universities are recognizing, as industry has for years, that to be competitive and attract the best scientists, they need to offer flexible work policies.

“I was comfortable with the idea that to have both family and a career I would have to make concessions … given that the alternative was to not have a family,” says Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, now an associate professor of cognitive and neural systems and biomedical engineering at Boston University, who worked 2 days per week during her postdoc after her first child was born. “I have no doubt that I would have more published papers if I didn’t have my family, but I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now, by any stretch.”

As the SDR statistics show, Shinn-Cunningham isn’t alone in choosing part-time work as a way of balancing the desire for a fulfilling personal life and professional life. Part-time scientists work anywhere from 8 to nearly 40 hours per week. The circumstances of every scientist who works part-time are unique, and most agree that part-time work requires sacrifices, compromises, flexible funding, and a boss and colleagues who are understanding. Yet their experiences demonstrate that being a part-time scientist is a viable career choice.

Family, flexibility, and productivity

The postdoctoral and junior-faculty years correspond with the prime childbearing years, and indeed, most of the part-time researchers interviewed for this article adapted their work schedules so that they could pursue a scientific career and raise a family.

It’s easy to appreciate the benefits of part-time work for families. Kendra Kratkiewicz, an associate technical-staff member in the Information Systems Technology Group at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, emphasized the point. “It’s so important that a parent be there to meet the bus to stay connected with the kids,” says Kratkiewicz, who has contributed to the lab’s research on a part-time basis for 15 years while raising two children and earning a master’s degree part-time in 6 years. “If something happened at school, that’s the time the kids will talk, when they’ll run into my arms.”

For Ugo Mayor, a postdoc at the University of Cambridge’s Gurdon Institute, working part-time means that he and his wife (an industry scientist who also works part-time) can both contribute to raising their daughter and ensure that she learns their native languages, Basque and Ukrainian. Mayor worked half-time for a year after the birth of his daughter and recently increased to 75% time. He sometimes has to work longer hours when his experiments require it, but overall, his part-time schedule gives him more time to spend with his family.

Essential in the part-time formula is flexibility–both in work schedule and in work environment, notes Sue Cobb, principal research fellow and director of the Virtual Reality Applications Research Team at the University of Nottingham, U.K. Cobb worked part-time for 15 years as her two children grew. “Of course, flexibility requires compromise, and you may need to adjust your weekly hours to ensure project deliverables are met,” she says. “How you do this depends on your own sense of fairness and balance.”

As anyone juggling multiple responsibilities knows, high productivity in limited time requires focus and efficiency. This is amplified for those who work part-time. Erin Matthews, now a postdoc at Yale University who works part-time in the lab and part-time from home, recalled the amazing change in her productivity after her son was born: She wrote five of seven thesis chapters and defended her Ph.D. in the first 14 weeks of her son’s life. She found she had more respect for her own time because “my time with him was critical, so I worked much more efficiently. I was more focused.”

And it’s not just Matthews who found that the competing demands of work and family can increase efficiency. “Some of the research shows that people who are working either reduced hours or flexible schedules … are actually in some cases more productive, they value their time more, [and] there’s evidence that people use their time more efficiently,” says Nancy Costikyan, director of the Office of Work/Life Resources at Harvard University.

Drawbacks, pitfalls, and concessions

Despite such evidence, however, people who work part-time may face stigmatization from peers who believe that, to be successful, scientists have to spend 100 hours a week in the lab and publish a half-dozen papers a year. “Anything that smacks of less than 100% effort is frowned upon,” Costikyan says. Although confident in his ability to effectively conduct research on a part-time schedule, Mayor noted that his peers made good-spirited jokes about his being “never here” in the lab.

A major drawback of a part-time schedule is the reduction in “face time” in the lab. The extreme focus necessary during the precious time in the lab means that there is less time to interact with colleagues, even informally. Such casual interactions are instrumental in cultivating innovative ideas and building respectful, collegial relationships that persist throughout a career. “Even if only 5% of the conversation is on science, that small piece could be critical to my work,” Matthews notes.

Spending less time at the bench or at the computer also means that results just won’t come as quickly, rendering the research more vulnerable to being scooped, especially in the basic-research realm in which publications and funding are key to tenure. “Results matter more than effort, and impactful results come from the amount of intellectual time devoted to work and the degree you’re connected to the field,” says Robert Cunningham, associate group leader for the Information Systems Technology Group at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, offering a supervisor’s perspective of part-time researchers. Despite the challenges, Cunningham, who is married to Shinn-Cunningham and supervises Kratkiewicz, is supportive of scientists who choose part-time research.


Working part-time depends on having an understanding supervisor and a flexible funding source. In the United Kingdom, the main public funding body, Research Councils UK, allows any of its fellowships to be taken part-time. The Royal Society awards its Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship to “excellent scientists and engineers for whom career flexibility is essential.” That fellowship, which partly funds Mayor’s research, allows the awardee to decide on the time commitment, reducing compensation and lengthening the period of support proportionately.

In the United States, established policies for funding part-time research aren’t quite as progressive. However, even funders who aren’t used to awarding grants or fellowships to part-time researchers may be open to the prospect. After the birth of her second child, Rachel Mitton-Fry, a postdoc at Yale University, thought she might not return to the lab, but her principal investigator, Joan Steitz, suggested she come back part-time. Mitton-Fry’s research on RNA structure was supported by the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund, a private foundation that didn’t normally support part-time researchers. At Steitz’s urging, the foundation allowed Mitton-Fry to continue her research part-time, reducing her salary and increasing the funding period.

The Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, stipulates that in the case of “unusual or pressing personal need,” a postdoc may submit a request to work less than full-time. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, and the situation is expected to be temporary. But NIH more formally supports the reentry of experienced scientists–especially women who may have opted out in favor of their families–with its reentry supplements to existing NIH grants. Reentering scientists are encouraged to apply for the supplement whether they plan to work full-time or part-time.

Ginger Withers funds part of her research and lab expenses with a fairly typical funding mechanism, a CAREER award from NSF. Her salary and work arrangement, however, aren’t as typical. Withers, an associate professor of biology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, splits her faculty position with her husband, Chris Wallace. Both seasoned researchers, they applied jointly for a tenure-track position to maintain challenging research careers and contribute to science education by teaching in a liberal arts setting. Both are now tenured and balance teaching, research, mentoring undergraduates, and parenting their 8-year-old son. Their college benefits as well: Together they cover one teaching load, but each one puts in a full complement of research time. The main disadvantage of this arrangement is that the couple pulls in only one full-time salary–manageable in Walla Walla but less so elsewhere.

Making it work

Although the personal circumstances and particular work arrangements vary, there is some general advice for those seeking to have both family and career. “Identify what you care about in family and in work, prioritize your interests, define your limits, inform others to dispel misunderstandings, and ensure sufficient support at home and at work,” Cunningham says.

Despite the inevitable concessions of working part-time, Cobb stresses the importance of taking a holistic view. “Put your whole life and work into the equation. Prioritize what’s most important to you, and understand the consequences of your choices and sacrifices,” she says.

Finally, have the courage to resist peer pressure in favor of a balanced life. Mayor found that the time he spent at home with his daughter was a good time to think about and plan his research, adding, “Having a clear and balanced mind leads to greater creativity and innovation in developing and pursuing research questions, … and life is much nicer.”

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