Taking a break from science: experiences of flexible working

Veronica Kinsler leads the Mosaicism and Precision Medicine Laboratory at the Crick, researching the causes of and designing new treatments for children's skin disorders, which are often linked to cancer. We spoke to Veronica about her experience taking a career break and working part time, and asked her advice for others considering flexible working.  

How have you made use of flexible working in your career?

I have used flexible working in my career primarily to try to combine having a family with having a career, so I can only really talk about that particular reason although there are many reasons people may want to do it.  

I initially trained as a medic and specialised in paediatrics, then paediatric dermatology. The contracted hours were an average of 72 hours a week, which meant some weeks were 120 hours, all of which had to be spent in the hospital.

When I went on maternity leave for the first time in 2000, I planned to go back to work on the minimum part-time contract, which was 48 hours a week, including many evenings or weekends, and the shifts changed every week. 

When I had my first baby I found there were two major problems. The first was finding childcare that would accommodate these working hours, which unless you had the money for a live-in nanny, a partner who was able and willing to go part time, or a grandparent who could step in, was really difficult.

The key message is if you want to look after your family it doesn’t mean you can’t have a career. 

The second was I unexpectedly found I wanted to look after my baby myself, although part of that was the difficulty with the childcare. So I tried to find a way to work extremely part time, including trying to give up my hospital career and become a GP. Eventually I was able to continue in paediatric dermatology doing half or one day a week for six years on an obscure ‘retainer scheme’. This scheme saved my career but unfortunately no longer exists.

After those six years, during which I formulated most of the hypotheses which form the basis of my current research, I came back to work part time for the next nine years, and switched to training in science. I did a PhD and then postdoc jobs, so thankfully I wasn’t working nights and weekends, and my partner could do the early morning school drop offs.  

In this period, I would be in the lab really early every day, get back early for the routine of the school pick up, homework, dinner, putting the children to bed, and then do laptop work till late in the evenings. I was really lucky that my supervisor didn’t care which hours I did providing I got the work done. They also let me concentrate on lab work during term time and do writing and reading in the school holidays so I could work from home. I started working full time again in 2015, and this year my youngest has just finished school (hooray!).

What are the challenges of taking a career break or working part time?

One of the main challenges was that many people’s perceptions of me changed when I went part-time. Colleagues stopped viewing me as someone with career potential. I can understand how this arises, because you aren’t there all the time, and you are not flexible with your hours, but in my experience these perceptions are usually wrong. The excellent candidate who goes part time to look after children is still excellent, and working unbelievably hard to be there and to do the job. 

One of the other challenges is that, because you are limited in the hours you can spend at work, you often can’t take advantages of things like seminars or stopping for lunch. 

I think it made me a better manager, because I understand how stressful it is when people in my team have childcare or other family demands.

And the benefits?

Firstly, you get to spend time with your children at a time when they want to spend time with you, which disappears surprisingly quickly.  

Secondly, you become super efficient in the lab, and I definitely benefited from those time management skills later in my career. 

Lastly, I think it made me a better manager, because I understand how stressful it is when people in my team have childcare or other family demands.

What advice would you give to anyone working in science considering flexible working?

The key message is if you want to look after your family it doesn’t mean you can’t have a career. Ideally find a sympathetic mentor who believes in your future career as a scientist. I’d also recommend trying to find a lab or team which already has people working flexibly.

The other message is that there is no good time to go part time. There’s not a correct answer for when to do it, it’s personal. But be a bit wary of always holding off “for a better time”.

Family issues don’t last that long. It is often a question of supporting people through a period of just a few years, but if that doesn’t happen at that critical time, all the expertise and training within that individual can be lost.

What can organisations do to support flexible working? 

Flexible working is open to everyone and parenting affects everyone, so on paper there shouldn’t be a problem. In reality, the issues above are engrained in our society. 

Although it’s not the only reason, we likely lose many women from science because statistics tell us they still do the bulk of household work and childcare, and combining that with a career is just so hard. The tragedy of it is that the family issues don’t last that long. It is often a question of supporting people through a period of just a few years, but if that doesn’t happen at that critical time, all the expertise and training within that individual can be lost.

Measures I think that could be implemented in an organisation are:

  1. Develop and advertise simple flexible working options – developing a couple of standard formulae for flexible working that employees could choose from would mean that it was a real thing you were allowed to do, not something you had to think up yourself and propose nervously to your boss;  
  2. Support the rest of the system – make it easier for those running teams to make it work given the realities of delivering the workload in the lab, potentially by having a bank of scientists who could cover leave or support part-time working; 
  3. Reality childcare – arrange good affordable childcare on-site or nearby that fits with the real working hours of the job, not just with 9-5 Monday-Friday, and not just term time. 
  4. Role model it, don’t hide it - how senior scientists have incorporated flexible working into their career structure should be on their CV or public website as part of their career pathway.

Sign up for our newsletters

Join our mailing lists to receive updates about our latest research and to hear about our free public events and exhibitions.  If you would like to find out more about how we manage your personal information please see our privacy policy.