With a lot of careful planning and luck, Molly had her daughter right after finishing her PhD in biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania. “I got permission to defend [my PhD] like four days before we conceived my daughter,” Molly jokes. (It’s true!) “Everyone tells you their pregnancy stories when you’re pregnant. One woman told me about how she gave birth two days before her PhD defense and she came in and said [to her committee], ‘I don’t want your pity. Give me the tough questions.’ She spent 6 years earning this and she didn’t want [the defense] to be a cop out.’”
Taking time off of work to be with her daughter full-time for a year or two was important to Molly. While she was in the sleep-deprived blur of having a newborn, she was contacted by her thesis lab about the possibility of doing a post-doc with a new faculty member, Brian Chow, at the University of Pennsylvania. Her future post-doc advisor had done a search and hadn’t found anyone he really liked, so he asked his colleagues if they could recommend any one. Molly went in for the interview shortly after having her baby. ‘I was so delirious. My husband was in the middle of Colorado backpacking with his friends…. I had to put together my whole interview in 3 days. I was so delirious and sleep-deprived that I thought ‘I should just do this for interview practice’. I didn’t really intend on taking a position so soon after my daughter was born.” Although she didn’t intend to take the position, she found her future boss to be so engaging and his work was really exciting to her. ‘I didn’t know anything about optogenetics. It turned out to be exactly what I wanted to be doing, though, which is using protein design for more translational and applications-based work.”
She was offered the job in August, but she told Dr. Chow that she wouldn’t be ready to start until January. “[And then], he let me put off my start date again because I had childcare issues. So I started in April. We had been having weekly meetings all along so I could get my head in the game and really hit the ground running when I got started. I actually wrote a grant before I got started. It was good to do that -- I didn’t feel as rusty and I didn’t feel any pressure because I wasn’t getting paid yet. But I feel like my head is much more in the game now. My daughter sleeps through the night mostly. It’s hard when you aren’t sleeping! And my husband can’t really help with night feeding because he really needs to be on his game because he works such long hours [as a pediatric anesthesiologist].”
I ask her what the transition was like going back to work after maternity leave, and she says:
“It was really hard the first week or two, but now I am happier for working. I feel like my old self and that I can be efficient again. There are few things that make you inefficient like a baby… [I almost felt like my life was too good, where I didn’t want anything to change. I just saw my maternity leave ticking down and time was punctuated by her aging so quickly…I felt the passing of time really viscerally. Going back to work and being around people who aren’t experiencing that sensation made me not experience that sensation as intensely. I’m definitely much happier in my ignorance and not thinking about that all the time. And by having time punctuated by things other than the aging of my child.”
I ask Molly if she has any advice for negotiating a post-doc position. After all, Molly was able to start 8 months after her boss initially wanted her to start and she was able to negotiate getting Fridays off. She tells us:
“They came to me. I didn’t necessarily want to go back to work really quickly. If he said ‘No, I want you to work 80 hours a week,’ I just wouldn’t have taken it. I don’t know if I would have been able to negotiate as hard if I had needed a job. I also had back-ups of things to do other than a post-doc after my maternity leave, so I didn’t feel pressure to get a post-doc.
“I asked for things I think I never would have asked for if I had needed a job. And everybody was more accommodating than I ever could have imagined. I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty assertive woman, especially compared to some of my peers, and I have a feeling that people, especially women, don’t value themselves enough when they’re asking for something. Really think about how much effort it’s going to take to replace you if you have a job already. What do you know that no one else knows? Are you irreplaceable? Because then you can ask for pretty much whatever you want.
“It’s not just asking for what you want. It’s also asking yourself, ‘What do I need in order to be successful? You don’t want to ask for too little and then burn out or not be effective. You just have to make a case for why you need it. I need my Fridays at home with my daughter. Especially when I first started -- that day is my sanity.”
We ask Molly what she hopes to accomplish in the future, and she tells us she could see herself working in academia, but she also has other passions. “I feel really strongly about publicly funded research being available to the public. And not just available, but there being resources available to help the public to navigate it. I’m hoping at some point I will either be blogging or potentially starting a journal that’s reviews of scientific articles for the public that’s not editorialized. There are so many unsubstantiated claims out there, and I’m hoping to create a resource of review articles to help the public make their own decisions.”
I learned a lot from hearing Molly’s post-doc negotiation story. Although I’m sure my situation will be different from Molly’s and I might feel a bit more pressure to get a position quickly after my PhD, I’ll still make sure to know my value and not be afraid to ask for what I need in order to be successful.
Do you have a job negotiation story you’d like to share with us? Post them in the comments! We’d love to hear!