Mental health and early career academics

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My son turned 2 years old recently and is a significant milestone for our family as we went through lots of challenging days over the last 24 months. And I call this challenging not out of inexperience; I immigrated to other countries, twice, did my PhD with long-distance relationship from my husband for 4 years in another language, and lived abroad away from my family for the last 10 years, among the other challenges I had to overcome for the past decade.

Having a family while being an early career is something that brings anxiety for many of us. As early careers, we do not have stable positions, we are constantly looking for grants and opportunities, we are looking to establish ourselves in our academic circles, and being away from that environment for a couple of months means that we might lose our connections and opportunities. Unfortunately, there is not much support out there either to help alleviate this anxiety and frankly, these anxieties have roots in reality. But what if you want to have a family too? I should also say there is no perfect time to be 100% ready, sometimes are better than others though, but there is not a perfect time. Here what I had done during my pregnancy to boost my productivity. Hopefully, this will help some of you who are in the same position.

  1. Start early. As soon as you find out that you are expecting a baby, or even as soon as you start thinking about it, plan your time. Plan your projects, plan your next year (if you do not have a job lined up already). Have a conversation with your boss about extending your contract if you are on a fixed-term contract. If you are applying for new positions, you might need to be clear about your plans. I had a job interview while I was four months pregnant, and I mentioned my pregnancy at the end. I got the job, but I ended up declining it because it was not the right time to move and I would have had enough left to stay with my baby. But there should not be any discrimination, according to the laws, against you because you are pregnant. If none of your plans work out, try to look for positions when on leave. Putting an application together for a job is manageable during your leave, among all of the other activities you need to do for your job.
  2. Start with low hanging fruits. If you have many projects that are currently ongoing, and some need a little bit of nudge to be finished and submitted for publications, start with those. Start working on papers that you think are “closer” to the finish line, so you can submit them and hopefully, you get the first round of revisions before you go on maternity.
  3. Plan for your leave. Apply for some funding to cover your role while on leave. I was not able to get any support as the regional grants were not offered the year I was planning to take my leave, and my university also did not have any support for fellows on an internal grant scheme. Hopefully, you’re in a more supportive environment than me, and it would make a big difference for you. Related to planning, prepare a list of all projects you are involved in and try to plan on how you want to delegate responsibilities. I had several meetings when I told my work that I am pregnant and stated that I would like to stay on the projects and will do my best to contribute as much as I can while on leave. Next, you need to communicate that to your students and set boundaries, so they are not going to expect a lot from you in the beginning when you are trying to figure things out.
  4. Reduce the working memory load and be organized. If you have many ongoing projects and papers, find a way to make tracking them easy for yourself. It’s easier to get lost and be overwhelmed after a couple of months when you open an old document, but if you know exactly what are the next steps for each particular project, it would be much easier to start working on them in a small time window you get while your baby naps.
  5. Be flexible. Pregnancy and expecting to become a parent for the first time is an enjoyable time. Try to enjoy it as much as you can. Being stressed about not having a job is not going to help you during this time. Be productive and efficient. Stress will bring your performance down, and you would lose the time you need to focus on your priorities. Instead of stress, plan, plan, and then wait.

The academic environment might not be so supportive yet but if you are enthusiastic about your science, you will find something. If you cannot find anything, create something for yourself. Widen your search, investigate industrial positions, or start your own business. You are limited by your imaginations. Try to think out of the box. Having a baby will teach you this for sure, but do not be afraid of this change. This is going to be a great change, embrace it! There is ample evidence about posttraumatic growth, with increased wellbeing and self-awareness, which I can see can apply to when you become a parent too! This is a great time to recreate your future.

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