June 25, 2014

Answers to Student Questions from Dr. Wolitzky-Taylor

Thank you to everyone who submitted questions for Dr. Wolitzky-Taylor.  Below are each of the questions followed by her very thoughtful and detailed responses.  

1. One question I have is related to pregnancy/childbirth/maternity leave as a tenure track professor. I'm not sure if Dr. Wolitzky-Taylor has personal experience with this but I wonder if she could point me (and other women on this list) to the appropriate resources. For example, in negotiations with the university, what should we expect for maternity leave and how do we ask to add that time to tenure clock? How do we as women prevent pregnancy and childbirth from hindering our tenure chances?

I was pregnant with my first child on internship and my second during post-doc. The timing with maternity leave worked well with my transitions from internship to post-doc and from post-doc to my faculty position. However, there is a tremendous amount of variation and I cannot speak to what it is like to go through the process once on faculty. The short answer is, you have rights. If you have been working somewhere for more than 1 year, the Family and Medical Leave Act will cover your maternity leave for (I think) something like 6 weeks, with some variations across states. The issue is whether you have been working somewhere for more than 1 year. When I was on internship, I had to save up all of my sick days and vacation days for maternity leave, and then I was able to negotiate an additional 2 weeks (plus I was in a family friendly environment, so when I did come back for the last few weeks of internship because my son came a little early so my timing didn't work out as great as I expected, my supervisors were very reasonable about not making me work full days). Having said that, I would have liked more than 8 weeks of maternity leave. It was kind of exhausting, but it worked out OK. The second time around, I was on post-doc. This is a great time to be pregnant and have a child if it works out with your family plans. I had my baby right as I was transitioning to my faculty position but since I had also just received a grant, I decided to stay in my post-doc institution to use my grant to cover maternity leave since I would not have been at my new institution long enough to actually get maternity leave. So I took a nice 3.5 months off, which was better. Had I already been at my new institution, I would have had to negotiate and they may not have been willing to give me more than 6 to 8 weeks. I don't know.

The real, bigger issue to consider is whether you are entering a family friendly environment with faculty who will be sensitive to these issues. If so, I think you will find that people will be reasonable and make the necessary accommodations. However, if you are being asked to teach a course in the fall and you agree to this, and then it turns out that you are having a baby in late Sept and will need to take off a significant amount of time during the time you are supposed to be teaching, this puts the department in a difficult position, and they may or may not be able to adequately cover your responsibilities. So I think as long as you plan it so the timing works relatively well, or you let your Chair know as soon as possible so accommodations can be made, things usually work out. I have known people who have been in very difficult situations when they started a new faculty position, immediately became pregnant, and then were unable to fulfill their obligations because of timing. So it is a mix between finding a flexible, family friendly environment to begin with, and also finding the best time (if possible) to have children, meaning a time that seems fair to those who are relying on you professionally. But of course these things cannot always be perfectly planned, so that is why it is also important to be working with colleagues who understand this. I would not join a department that I thought (or heard) was not accommodating to women faculty with small children, but that is my personal preference.

2. Would Dr. Wolitzky-Taylor be willing to expand on this point she made in the top ten list regarding being flexible?  (There are many ways to have a successful academic career as a psychologist. If you are unsure about the options, ask around (you can ask me too!)).

I actually wrote this from my own personal experience. During much of my training, I envisioned having a tenure-track faculty position in a psychology department. Also during my training, I got married, had two kids, moved around for grad school, internship, and post-doc, and my husband had to make sacrifices with his own career to make some of that happen. Most notably, he completely changed his career path (as a Naval submarine officer) so I could have my own career. Once we got to LA for my post-doc, he started a new career. By the time I was ready to move on from my post-doc (3 years and 2 kids later), his career had really developed in LA and we were not sure it made sense to move for me to have that job I had envisioned (nor was it necessarily fair to him either). I might have to find something similar but not exactly perfect. We basically decided to stay in LA, at least for a while. I received a lot of "but you could have your choice of faculty positions at top clinical science programs in the country" and I appreciated those comments of support and encouragement. However, I had to balance several aspects of my life that I may not have considered in years prior. This didn’t mean my career was less important than before, just that I would have to be flexible and creative.

I ended up getting a faculty position in a psychiatry department instead of a traditional psychology department. This means soft money, no grad students of my own, and training residents instead of psychology doctoral students. I could live with that, even if it wasn’t what I (and plenty of others) had pictured for me. But there are tons of psychologists in these types of positions. As I got to know more people, I have met very successful clinical psychologists in academic positions in a variety of departments besides psychology or even psychiatry, such as Preventive Medicine, Public Health, and even in private research corporations such as RAND. They are doing great work, teaching, mentoring, getting grants, conducting their own research and collaborating with others, etc. I think what I’ve learned is that “life happens” and we need to be flexible. Do what makes sense for your whole life, not just for your career. I’m pretty sure a psychology department would still be a perfect “fit” for me, and when those opportunities seem to arise outside of LA for me, it is hard to turn them away. However, I am seeing that for every one person in a psychology department faculty position, there are 2 or 3 other academic psychologists who have carved out something different in a different department, doing similar things.

3. I'm curious what her advice is regarding post-doc positions.  Would a post-doc in one's immediate or primary area of research or a post-doc in a secondary area of research be best? She mentions the importance of being open and developing complementary areas of research, and i'm wondering how/if this translates to choosing a post-doc.

This is a really interesting question I had not thought much about. Although my personal experience was to do a post-doc in my primary area of research, I think it depends. If you need to learn something that will help you get to where you want to go with your research, go for the secondary interest, but only if it complements the primary interest and will later be well-integrated. If you don’t have a plan for how you would integrate the two, it may be too discordant. For example, if you are interested in neural markers of mood disorders and have more traditional training in mood disorder research but no fMRI training, I think doing a post-doc where you can learn the neural part makes a lot of sense. But if you just think it would be interesting to learn fMRI but don’t have a plan for how it would be integrated into your primary interest and training, it will be a waste of time I think. I have a friend who did a post-doc in a secondary area and she has actually had some trouble with early career grant preparation because it has the potential to look like two discordant research interests and then it’s not as clear what your interests and expertise are in. So I guess the short answer is that secondary interest for post-doc could be a great way to go if you have a plan for how to integrate the two interests. If not, build your expertise even more by working with another mentor doing similar research to what you have previously done.

4. I've heard that clinical internship year is a busy time for clinical students. Because internship is time-intensive, i'm wondering what advice she has regarding how to make the most of your internship year to best prepare you for post-doc or a job immediately following internship, particularly for students who are most interested in an academic career.

The easy answer is to only apply to research-oriented internships, or internships where you are granted a full day of research time. Your colleagues, peers, and supervisors will largely be people who prioritize research and academic careers and this will make for a better environment. That’s what I did and I was able to get a lot of research done during internship, and was around people who could help me navigate the post-doc application process with an academic career in mind. If you are not able to go to one of those types of programs, I guess the best I can offer is to make time at night to do that! Having said that, whomever is reviewing your post-doc or faculty applications knows that research productivity takes a back seat during internship and it’s not really going to factor much into their decision. As far as finding time to actually complete the applications, that often just has to be done on your own time. It is a busy year.

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