For the past five years, there has been a blank space in my CV where papers and publications should live. These years were an academic desert in my career; in sharp contrast to the family that has lovingly and painstakingly grown from two to four. I have a research project I’ve been trying to complete since 2016, and at this point, I cannot fathom how I will finish it, having lost that initial momentum and curiosity that drove the project, as well as at least one co-investigator. I look with envy upon my colleagues who have been promoted and have published landmark studies and wonder how my languishing career will ever catch up to these dynamic powerhouses who churn out papers.
I was reflecting on this recently as I chatted with a group of colleagues who were a few years my seniors. These women all had children and were starting to publish now that their children were older. After conversations with them, I realized that to reenter the world of academia, I needed to strategize.
Three Strategies that Helped my Academic Career
First, I had to accept the gap in my career. I acknowledged that I was years behind my peers who either did not have children or who had children after they were more established in their careers. I had to recognize the “motherhood penalty”*; it is a real thing, and my career was proof that it had hit me hard. With my first child, I paid the tax, and then with my second child, it was a logarithmic payment that was essentially a “career stopper”for me.**
Second, I had to forgive myself. I agonized over why I wasn’t good enough both to have children and publish incredible research. I blamed myself constantly for my inadequacies. But who can think creatively when they are just barely surviving? Creativity requires persistence, time, and yes, sleep, and as a parent, I was lacking all three. My goals were simply to keep my patients, my children, and myself alive to survive another day. Although not impossible, it is rare for creativity to develop in such harsh conditions. I needed to stop blaming myself and take a line from Princess Elsa’s book and “let it go.” (I apologize in advance to all the parents who now have this song running through their heads for the rest of the day).
Third, I had to step back and reexamine whether I wanted to remain in academia. Having attended a competitive medical school, followed by a competitive residency, the unspoken rule was that of course we would all want to publish and be on the tenure track for promotions. I had to stop and think whether this was actually what I wanted or whether I was responding to the silent pressure of my work environment that disparaged those who remained “just” clinicians. I needed to free myself from the judgment associated with leaving academia to join a private practice group. Once I allowed myself to contemplate career options that existed outside of academia, I could make an active choice about whether to remain in it or not.
Now that the pre-work of acknowledgment, forgiveness, and reflection was complete, I was still at a loss as to how to actually be an effective researcher after so much time away from academia.
Here is what I learned in my conversations with my senior female colleagues:
- I had to identify my strengths. What was I good at it? How could I capitalize on these strengths to build a niche and make myself an expert? I sat down with two different mentors and had brainstorming sessions about my perceived strengths and how to merge those with my interests to produce novel research ideas or applications.
- I had to build a team. I had to identify and build a research team consisting of medical students, residents, and a research assistant so that I could delegate tasks instead of attempting to complete a chart review of a thousand patients myself (never again, I swore to myself). Even motivated high school students could help work on projects over the summer.
- To work effectively with my team, I needed structure. I had to plan ahead by thinking about which conferences to submit abstracts to and then set deadlines for my team. I needed to break up large projects into smaller components that could be completed in a timely manner, and then stick to the deadlines I set for the team.
- I needed to collaborate. Research does not happen in a silo. I needed to reach out to colleagues who were prolific publishers and build networks for collaboration. I also needed to connect with mentors who could help facilitate building relationships with more senior faculty. Returning from any extended absence requires a period of re-entry and retraining. Yet in academia, there is little guidance for people who have experienced a hiatus in their careers, such as mothers who have put their careers on hold to care for small children. When they want to resume their academic work, they are faced with what often appear to be insurmountable obstacles.
Through trial and error (mostly lots of error), I managed to write an abstract over the summer and submitted it, and began to organize the research projects I had left incomplete. Along the way, I made mistakes, miscalculated numbers, and missed deadlines. I felt nothing but frustration as I navigated through abstract submissions and writing, but tried to persevere as I thought not only about promotion but about sharing my ideas and my insights with others. Through these experiences, I have learned to value my role as an academic clinician, which has been a powerful motivating factor for enabling me to get work done. And as Kendrick Lamar rapped in his song “Element:” “You know careers take off, just gotta be patient.”
*Correll ST, Benard S, Paik I. Getting a Job: Is there a Motherhood Penalty?” AJS. Mar 2007;112(5):1297-1338.
**Pfleiderer B, Bortul M, Palmisano S, Rodde S, Hasebrook J. Improving female physicians’ careers in academic medicine: Chances and challenges. Best Pract Res Clin Anaesthesiol. Mar 2018;32(1):15-23.
Huma Farid, MD is an obstetrician/gynecologist in Boston. Outside of medicine, she enjoys baking, eating cake, and reading fantasy novels. She can be followed on Twitter @HumaFaridMD.