“Why don’t you have a K award?” the interviewer asked, referring to a postdoc award granted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health that is seen by many biomedical scientists as a ticket to a faculty position. It wasn’t the first time this question had come up as I interviewed for faculty jobs. But it still left me feeling frustrated. I had published first-author papers in Science and Cell and acquired plenty of other funding, and I offered the department a unique research plan. I knew I was a strong candidate. Yet in the eyes of some interviewers, my CV was lacking because I did not have an illustrious postdoc award. I struggled through a mental tug of war with myself, wondering whether to shift the conversation and focus on my other accomplishments—or simply tell the truth.
The truth was that when the K award applications were due, I was busy dealing with challenges in my personal life. I waited until after I completed my Ph.D. to become a mother, and I gave birth to our first child during the second year of my postdoc. We were relieved when she was born without any complications, because my first pregnancy, 1 year earlier, had been ectopic, resulting in emergency surgery and the loss of a fallopian tube.
The following year, I became pregnant with our second child. My pregnancy was going well until my 20-week checkup, when the ultrasound technician paused and said, “One moment please. Let me get the doctor.” We learned that our baby had abnormal kidney and bladder development and a vascular anomaly in her brain that could be fatal at birth. To our great relief, she survived the cesarean section. But she had urinary problems, her left leg was significantly larger than her right, and she was later diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder.
The next 2 years of her life were a blur. Taking care of her was a full-time job, requiring hundreds of doctors’ appointments and procedures. The procedures eased her health issues somewhat, but the reality is that there’s no cure for her condition. It’s progressive; it will only get worse.
I am not writing this for sympathy. I am writing this to remind academics that life happens outside the lab. I spent most of my postdoc years struggling to keep up with my research in the midst of major life events at home. Some days, I cried in the corner at work after receiving a worrisome test result from a doctor. Other days, I could barely think because I had stayed up all night with my daughter.
I persisted in academia thanks to the unwavering support of my postdoc mentor, who never forced me to choose between my science and my family. With her encouragement, I put together faculty job applications during my sixth year. I worried that reviewers might balk when they saw I had no prestigious postdoc awards, but I didn’t know how to address that. As far as I knew, personal information did not belong in a CV or cover letter.
The interviews would have been more enjoyable … had I been able to focus on my science.
When this interviewer asked about the K award, however, I decided to be honest. I told him that I didn’t have an award because my daughter’s health complications had taken priority when the applications were due. He stiffened up and appeared flustered. Clearly that kind of personal disclosure was not the norm. But it didn’t seem to hurt me—I ended up receiving an offer from that university and others.
Even so, I wondered whether putting the information in writing as part of my application would have been easier on everyone. In that interview and later ones, I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about my daughter. The interviews would have been more enjoyable and productive had I been able to focus on my science.
I’d like to recommend a solution: When universities advertise job openings, they should invite applicants to describe any events that may have impacted their professional progress. That way, an applicant would feel comfortable explaining that during their 2-year publication gap, they were caring for an ailing parent. Or that they didn’t travel to conferences for 4 years because they had two small children at home.
I know that some people will argue that personal information has no place in hiring decisions. But I disagree. To fairly evaluate a scientist’s CV, it’s important to understand their full journey—children and all.