The Travel Dilemma: Stories From Parents and Carers in Research
Three researchers share their experiences and their suggestions for how the system could be improved for parents and carers
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A large number of researchers have caring responsibilities, including looking after children, parents, spouses or any other dependants. But in our recent survey of researchers, just 4% reported receiving support with childcare or family member travel expenses for international travel, and 1 in 5 have been prevented from travelling because of family responsibilities. That means that a significant proportion of the research community are potentially missing out on travel and the associated opportunities for career advancement.
We wanted to understand the effect this has on researcher’s lives, so we spoke to three people who have first-hand experience of the issue and ideas about how to make things better. Here’s what they had to say:
Murielle Ålund Postdoc, Boughman Lab, Michigan State University
I am a biologist, a postdoc and a mother of two little girls: an #academicmum. My oldest is 5, has already lived on different continents and travelled on numerous international flights to join me for conferences, research stays and fieldwork. Things got more complicated with a second child and now that they are both over two and pay full flight tickets, it is simply not affordable anymore for them to join me on my professional travels without any help. This means that I have to very carefully select the meetings I want to attend. I do not know how we are possibly going to organize next year’s extended fieldwork abroad as a family.
Travelling is not simply one of the perks of academia, it is very much a necessity in a profession based on exchanges with a worldwide community. I met my current employer at an international conference, two collaborators at another one and wrote a whole chapter of my thesis thanks to a stay in a lab abroad. With two children during my PhD, this was only possible thanks to the generous funding of a private foundation at my former department, and extensive Swedish parental leave that allowed my husband to follow me abroad and take care of the kids while I was networking or learning new skills.
As we moved for my postdoc, I realized I did not know of any funding source that could help me with childcare during professional travel and started to look for conferences offering any sort of support. I quickly realized that, while some societies are taking important steps to accommodate parents, these options are not always well advertised and are often buried on a subpage of a website. I decided to share my findings by curating a list of meetings that provide childcare, nursing rooms or financial help, or allow caretakers to join the meeting. I also list funding agencies that explicitly provide help with childcare for traveling academics. I chose to keep the list of already passed meetings on this page, hoping that this can be used by parents to show their respective societies that it is possible to help parents attending conferences, and even demand to them that they help. I am hoping that future conference organizers will be able to use the list as a resource to contact others for tips on how to best implement parent-friendly initiatives at their events.
Given the extra burden of traveling costs for a whole family, I do think that it is important to both provide childcare options on a meeting’s site, and to make sure that it is affordable. I have personally attended two meetings offering free childcare, and am currently listing eight others that did or will do in the near future. It does not need to be that fancy, babysitters hired for a few days to play with the children might be enough. This step probably wouldn’t cost very much, and could even be covered by sponsors. One of the options that I’ve come across is science camps organized for older children, including field work, classes and hands-on experiments by educators and science communicators. This sounds like an amazing opportunity for tiny future scientists, as well as for students to get some outreach opportunity!
Janet Midega Science Officer, Drug Resistant Infections, Wellcome Trust
I completed my PhD at 32, by which time I was a mother of 2 children and separated from my husband. I was interested in research work at a laboratory in London and, keen to join the lab, I applied for a postdoctoral position and was accepted. Shortly after, I moved to London with two young children, aged 4 and 1 years old. As a young scientist, I was excited about my new position and my future career prospects. As a single mother, I wanted to bring my young children with me.
I was faced with real challenges around the cost of childcare for my younger son while I was at work, as well as after school care for my older son. I knew that childcare in London would be expensive, but did not realise the actual cost until I arrived. With the help of friends, I found a live-in nanny. Even though my childcare was much cheaper than the local nursery, the costs were still high and had to be paid from my postdoc income. It was difficult, having moved from Africa where similar services are inexpensive, but giving up was not an option.
Faced with situations like this, one can either forego opportunities that could change career prospects, or persist, and deal with financial insecurities that can affect productivity. This is a common situation, so what can we do about it? How can parents who are also scientists get support to meet the cost of childcare?
Non-EU citizens arriving in the UK on a work permit are disqualified from claiming child benefits, even though these benefits alone are not sufficient to cover full-time childcare. When travel is the other way around, from high income countries to low income countries, the package received is always sufficient to cover family and childcare, and enough to have a good quality of life.
Having experienced this dilemma, I think that it is extremely important for research organisations, universities and funders to consider including a mobility allowance for parents moving with children. It is time a childcare fund was established to support international families and single parents leaving home to pursue collaborative research. A few models exist from which some learnings can be drawn, for example the German Academic Exchange programme (DAAD) have included in some of the their fellowship schemes an allowance for each accompanying child. This would go a long way to supporting parents, especially in London where the cost of childcare is exceptionally high.
At a time when a lot of emphasis is made on the value of North-South collaborations and raising the number of female scientists, the conversation should include childcare support to ensure that no-one is left behind for being both a parent and a scientist. Where possible, consideration should also be made for days off in compensation for the time that working parents spend away from children and family when attending international meetings and conferences. Hopefully, these considerations can be developed into a funding model that does not lead to the discrimination of parents.
Sannia Farooque Final year PhD student, School of Chemistry, University of Leeds
Attending conferences is important for scientists; not only is it a fantastic opportunity for your personal development, but it also enables you to start building your own networks. Although I have a school-going child, I do not want to miss out on the opportunities that travel brings. However, attending conferences as a parent can be a complicated affair.
Recently, I spoke to my supervisor about wanting to attend a conference which was being held in Virginia, USA. He was supportive of the idea and encouraged me to submit my draft. Once my draft was accepted, I started looking up funding opportunities to support my daughter’s childcare. To my surprise, I could not find a single grant available to support parents and carers looking to attend a conference in the field of chemistry.
I spoke to my postgraduate tutor and was informed that I would get £100 from my institution, which I was grateful for, but unfortunately — given that it’s approximately £12–18 per hour to hire a nanny — it was not enough to cover my childcare costs. I ended up dipping into my overdraft in order to attend the conference and it took me months to pay it off.
This is not an ideal situation for anyone. I wish conference organisers and professional bodies would consider the needs of postgraduate and early career scientists who also happen to be parents. Carer’s grants would be particularly useful for scientists who have older kids that can’t be pulled out of school to accompany their parents on visits. I understand that it’s hard to find one solution that works for everyone, but some help is better than none.
There are more stories and suggestions from parents and carers in research in our community post, which explores the response we got from the science community on this issue.
Our parents and carers reading list collates articles and videos that explore the tensions between researchers’ parental and caring responsibilities and their travel for work.