Interview with Professor Catriona Hurd on preparing for parental leave

Professor Catriona Hurd studies seaweed physiological ecology. In 2015, she won the Phycological Society of America's Gerald Prescott award for her co-authored text book Seaweed Ecology and Physiology. She has supervised more than 45 postgraduate students to completion, the majority of whom have pursued careers as research scientists.

Q1. Tell us a bit about your work and family.

I am an Associate Professor at IMAS, living in Hobart with one daughter (now 15) and a partner who is also an academic. The rest of my family are scattered – I am originally from the UK, my parents (in their late 70s) live in Auckland, NZ, my brother and his young family in Adelaide, and my partner’s family in Ireland, USA and NZ.

Q2. How many times have you been on parental leave and for how long?

Once. The plan was for a 6 months’ parental leave – in the end I took 1 year plus a reduced workload for a second year!

Q3. What are the major challenges of going on parental leave and how do you address each challenge?

a. Not knowing what to expect (and therefore plan), both during pregnancy and once your baby is born. I took advantage of post-natal classes run by the local hospital. It helped me get a handle on what I might expect once the baby was born, but also emphasised that it’s really hard to know how you and your baby will be. For example, having problems with breast feeding is incredibly common but most people seem to think its going to be ‘easy and natural’. Similarly, we were told how common post-natal depression is, particularly among academic women who are >35 years old – something I’d never heard of!

b. Isolation: Being pregnant but particularly after childbirth can be quite isolating, so developing a network is really important – particularly if you do not have any family support. It’s a good idea to join parenting groups. My ante-natal group was great, as it gave me a network of people who were in the same situation (i.e. pregnant), some of whom I am still in close contact with. After my daughter was born, we would get together to share experiences, trade tips on parenting. Also it’s a good idea to try and work out what support might be available to you from e.g. your partner, friends, to help you get some time to yourself once your baby is born, help you have the confidence to get out and about with your newborn.

Q4. What preparation do you believe can help academics taking a career break?

a. Having a realistic and flexible to do list while pregnant. Pregnancy can really slow you down – feeling unwell for the first few months in common, and the last month can be physically draining, plus all sorts of unexpected pregnancy-related issues towards the end (I got horrible pains in my hands and couldn’t type!).

b. Be strategic in how you allocate your time and put yourself first. Make a list of everything that you think you have to do, and rank into a priority list. Think about what you want your CV to look like. Academics are judged largely on outputs, particularly publications. Therefore, I suggest ranking outputs as highest on your list. When you have completed your ranked list, get rid of as much as you can from the list. Focus only on things that will enhance your CV/career. Things like doing reviews for journals can be deleted from your list – they take a lot of time and add virtually nothing to your CV. Take a break if you are a journal editor. Excuse yourself from committees that are taking too much time – you can always re-join. If you have a teaching load, try to reduce it as much as you can – find solutions with your line manager, e.g. get help with marking, running pracs, lectures. If it’s all getting to much and you feel overwhelmed/unwell, go to a doctor and get a note to say you are unfit for work.

c. Say no to new things, unless you consider it will strongly enhance your career e.g. a co-authored paper that you can contribute to but that will take little time. Don’t feel guilty about saying no!

d. When you have a priority list, make a realistic time-line of how you will allocate your time during your pregnancy (bearing in mind that you will most likely slow down). If your list is too long, then cut it down to something manageable. Things can wait.

e. For publications, it’s a good idea to try and submit some before you go on leave, so that the review process occurs whilst you are on leave. Make sure to have a co-author who can help with revisions etc if the paper comes back when you are on leave. Although you are technically on leave, it can be a good idea to put in some time to keep your research ticking over. Keep in touch with people in your work group (coffee meetings – invite them to your house, go to a cafe), try not to get isolated.

f. Remember, it is really hard to plan – you can feel unwell, babies can come early, etc. There is nothing you can do about this, you have to try to chill and accept whatever comes along. I found this the hardest thing to deal with, as I am a serious planner, like to feel in control and to be organised.

Q5. What are the organisational structures or policies that you think help academics while they are preparing for, or are on parental leave?

Flexible working is key when preparing for and after childbirth. Flexible in terms of time (e.g. following childbirth, gradually build up from 0.2 FTE to 1.0 FTE over a period of time) and location (working from home can be helpful – I did this when my baby daughter was in day care, got myself some ‘space’).

Q6. What are the organisational structures or policies that you think hinder academics while they are preparing for, or are on parental leave, and how might these issues be addressed?

 Lack of flexibility in the workplace.

Having a kid was the best thing I did. Balancing academic work and parenting can be a bit of a juggling act but, on the positive side, my time-management skills improved by 1000% once I’d had my daughter!