Career Network for student Scientists and Postdocs at Yale

Creating a platform for discussion of scientific careers

Acknowledge Breaks in Your Career

Nobody’s life moves in a straight line. Instead, life is often a zig-zagging course of ups and downs and unexpected interruptions, many of which can temporarily derail your career.

Some examples of these life/career-interrupting events include having a child (or multiple children), needing to take a medical leave of absence (either to care for yourself or a loved one), experiencing a death in the family or a similarly traumatic event for which you need time to recover emotionally and/or physically, and many other situations…

In the sciences, particularly for the academic career track, these interruptions can be a major detriment because bumps and other life events along the way can give the impression that you are not a productive researcher.

For example, if two job candidates are applying for the same faculty position, but one has published 8 papers in 4 years (8-in-4yrs) and the other has published 8 papers in 8 years (8-in-8yrs), it’s a no-brainer in terms of figuring out who is the more desired candidate… on paper at least, based on simplified metrics.

However, what if the 8-in-4yrs candidate was pregnant with her first child at the time of the interview and the 8-in-8yrs candidate was a mother of four children under the age of six? Does that change things???

Considering that the mother of four took 6 months of maternity leave with each child, that automatically changes her 8-in-8yrs rate to 8-in-6yrs of full-time of work. Let’s take this a step further…

Let’s say the recommendation letters for the pregnant 8-in-4yrs candidate revealed that she was a very hard-worker, often staying until late in the evenings and working weekends to get her projects done. This indicates that her “4 years” may have really been more like “6+ years” of full-time work, given how much she worked beyond the 40-hr/week pay rate she was receiving. So, let’s say her current rate of work is really 8 papers in 6 years, or 8-in-6yrs…. Identical to the mother of four.

So who is the more desired candidate now? The expectant mother or the mother of four, both of whom have adjusted rates of 8-in-6yrs?

Odds are that the expectant mother’s working rate will inherently decrease once her new little bundle of joy arrives, however, it seems as though the mother of four has already figured out a way to juggle work and family responsibilities such that she is still incredibly productive in the lab even with her ever-present family obligations. SO… if you were the department chair, who would you hire? Who is actually more productive?

This example highlights why it is so important to acknowledge and highlight your career gaps. Whether it’s for maternity (or paternity) leave, a leave of absence for any reason, or a even a significantly traumatic event that may have affected your ability to focus at work even if you didn’t take any significant amount of time off from work to recover…

For example, I had a classmate in graduate school who went through a particularly difficult and nasty divorce, and for the better part of a year, she was a complete mess – she couldn’t focus in the lab, sat at her desk and cried nearly every day (all day!), and subsequently made zero progress on her thesis project that year. This type of hardship should be acknowledged, too.

Life happens… but you don’t have to suffer because of it as long as you are open and forthcoming about your gaps and significant periods of unproductivity. Acknowledging these hiccups in life “levels the playing field” so-to-speak between you and other job candidates.

A recent article in Science Careers highlights the benefits of acknowledging your career gaps…

Emily Nicholson had three children during her longer-than-usual postdoctoral fellowship(s), and when she applied for tenure-track positions, she received zero interviews (and therefore zero job offers) after following the typical metrics and strategies for CV-writing and application preparation.

She had listed her postdoctoral fellowship(s), the years she had been working there, and her publication record… However, with three major career interruptions, this approach made her appear very unproductive when all was said and done.

The following year, she revised her application packets… She calculated an adjusted productivity rate for herself, discussed these gaps openly in her cover letter, and subsequently received numerous requests for interviews and was able to secure a faculty position in her desired location!! Success!!

Here’s the full article in Science Careers with Emily’s tips on how to calculate and present these adjusted productivity rates in your job applications:

Early in my scientific career, I pursued research while remaining blissfully unaware of the difficulty of securing a permanent academic position, especially for women and mothers. I drifted happily through a Ph.D. and two postdocs abroad, guided by interesting science, people, and places—and a nonscientist husband with ideas about where he wanted to live. It wasn’t until I had been a postdoc for several years, with two children and a third on the way, that I recognized the need to adopt a sound strategic approach to securing a tenured faculty position, particularly given my career breaks.

For each of my three sons—born in 2009, 2011, and 2013—I took 8 months of maternity leave, and since then I’ve worked largely part-time and continue to do so. Counted over calendar years, these breaks make my track record look ordinary.

My early job applications—using a standard CV that mentioned my maternity leaves only in passing—reflected the apparent ordinariness of that track record: I didn’t get so much as an interview. Then, with mentoring and advice from colleagues and friends, I reshaped my CV to account for the time I’d spent raising my family. I put my career breaks front and center, and I reported my productivity metrics to account for my time away from work. Numbers of publications, citation rates, and grant income are used widely to assess and compare researchers, so I wanted to make sure I was judged fairly.

The result: My first application after I made the adjustments yielded a tenured position in the city we had already settled in. Reframing my track record undoubtedly helped. Here’s how I did it…

Get the data. First, I calculated how many years of full-time equivalent work I’ve done by tallying the time worked each month (e.g., 0% when on maternity leave, 60% when working part-time, and 100% when working full-time). Accounting for time off and part-time work, I’ve worked 5.6 full-time years during the 8.5 calendar years since I finished my Ph.D., the equivalent of 66% of full-time. Since my first child was born 6 years ago, I have worked the equivalent of 3.3 full-time years, or 55% of full-time. Next, I worked out how much I’d achieved each year in terms of publications, grants, student supervision, and so on.

Do the math. Rather than hoping the readers of my application would do the math on their own, I did it for them. I corrected the number of publications I had each year to account for my maternity leaves. For example, in the 6 years since my first son was born I had 23 publications—equivalent to about 42 publications if I had been working full-time. Similar corrections can be made to other common metrics: citations, grants, and so on.

Write about career interruptions up front and in a positive way. I present the data on career breaks, effective years worked, and achievements at the top of my CV, in cover letters for job applications, and in a prominent position on grant applications. Here’s an example: “Since 2009, I have worked the equivalent of approximately 3.3 full-time years, 55% of full-time. Yet it has been a highly productive period: 23 publications—including 12 as lead or last author—a research fellowship, and a major grant. On a pro-rata basis, that equates to about 42 publications in 6 years of full-time work.”

I also like to emphasize—without complaining—that working part-time while raising kids isn’t easy. “This does not account for the effect that reduced working hours and travel opportunities has on networking opportunities, which affects collaborations and citation rates. I have nonetheless established several fruitful national and international collaborations, and my research has scientific and practical impacts.” I want readers to think, “If she managed this working part-time, with breaks and sleep deprivation, imagine what she’ll do once the kids are older!”

Here’s the link to the original article:

This is valuable advice for those who have significant gaps in their career tracks, and we recommend that you take heed to these tips and strategies if this scenario applies to you.

Of all the advice though, the most important thing she highlights is that simply mentioning her three children wasn’t enough. Instead, she “did the math” for them and laid it out nice and neatly in an easy-to-understand (and positive) format.

Never make your application reviewers figure out how productive you are, just tell them! If you make anyone do extra work to figure out your background, they simply won’t do it, and instead, they’ll just move on to the next candidate (like they did during Emily’s first round of job applications). So make sure you do the math for them and explicitly explain how productive you are/were.

This strategy of creating an adjusted productivity rate “levels the playing field” and ensures that you are “judged fairly” against other candidates, as Emily points out. It makes you more competitive in an already competitive market, and in some cases, it may make you a BETTER candidate than those who haven’t had any major gaps or interruptions in their careers! So give it a try!


** Create an adjusted productivity rate for yourself on your next job application and let us know how it goes! **

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  1. great post.well thought and well written one.

  2. Amazing post. I have never thought of doing this math for career break. Yes, I agree that no one do it on your behalf and will do to the next candidate. Women who are going on maternity leave will find it very useful. This is teaching us a way of writing covering letter in a proper way. Today, i read one more interesting article related to career.

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