I have a postdoc position in my dream lab with PI, who leads the field and has very cool projects for me. The thing is, I have two small kids (youngest is 3 weeks old) and I live one hour away from my prospective place of work. I have a great nanny and a wonderful daycare, but I am still worried if I can pull off the lab work and all the writing and not abandon my children. Anybody in the same boat? Tips for survival?

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    What people with kids do in my lab is: drop them off at daycare early, work for 8 hours, go back to pick them up. One hour commute is not that unusual.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 19:00
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    Thanks for posting this! As someone who did a postdoc with four kids myself, I can relate :) As stated, though, this question is very broad, in that "not abandon my children" means wildly different things to different people. Could you possibly make the question more specific so the answers can be more directed to your situation?
    – eykanal
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 19:28
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    Also see Ways to manage something like a 'work-life balance'? and Having children while at graduate school. To avoid repeating the advice already given in those, perhaps you can clarify the specific aspects of your situation that lead you to seek further advice beyond what's given in those.
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 19:38
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    Can you use a daycare closer to work? That way commute-time is also play-with-parent time. This doesn't work if commute-time is also study-time for you.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 21:23
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    Any way you can move closer to work? Even if it's more expensive, it would be an investment in your quality of life. Or: can you work from home once in a while? Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 8:34

7 Answers 7


I'm a postdoc and I work maybe 40-45 hours a week.

Things that make this work:

  • I don't check my work email at home. I did that in the past, now I don't. I never missed something (although once in a while a colleague will call with something really urgent).
  • I don't do everything around the lab. I clean up my own stuff in the lab, and I will do my "chores" but I'm not going to be involved with buying stuff, reorganizing stuff, salespeople, "better" kits / reagents, saving money, discussing the who-does-what etc.
  • I don't do all the experiments I can do. I can think of many things that are very interesting, but some are just more interesting than others and you can only do so many. Maybe at a certain point what you can think of still fits in the time you have (and you're going to work more to do it), but in the end there are only 24 hours in a day, so you have to start cutting at a certain point. Why not now?
  • Related: I don't write long papers. I gather the proof, make a point, find the holes, plug them and that's it. I don't do certain experiments "because everybody does them" or "because 4 methods to prove we made a known compound is better than 2". And your "interesting side-phenomenon" will probably be moved to the supplementary info.
  • And the most important one: I don't expect working more is getting me ahead. Good papers are. Smart questions are. A keen eye is. Collaborating with great researchers is. Of course you need to spend the time and effort and be productive, but there's no A for effort, nobody is going to think you're a better researcher because you did 20 experiments this week and even publishing a few more papers isn't going to make a difference.
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    I'm a slight bit skeptical about your very last sentence. Five years down the road, you'll be competing against someone who did indeed put in 60 instead of 45 hours in the lab and has 33% more papers - and did all the same good papers, smart questions, keen eyes and collaborating with great researchers, only doing more of them. If your priorities are your family, that is great, but there is no way around the fact that your career will be impacted. (Been there, done that.) Otherwise, +1 for recommending clear priorities. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 8:31
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    60 hours won't get you 33% more papers. It's doubtful that they'll get you any more papers. Decades of research into productivity at work shows that worker longer hours depresses your productivity to the point that you don't achieve any more and can actually achieve less. Scientists apply evidence daily yet seem strangely unable, or unwilling, to accept the conclusions of this work. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 8:45
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    Quality counts. 1 really good paper beats 3 "meh" ones. At the beginning of the career, perhaps some paper counting is done, but again, it is a matter of making a good case for oneself by publishing in the right places. I am a bit skeptical about the not contributing to chores of the lab, though (unless someone is paid to do specifically that). Because someone has to do them, so this work needs to be split. You do not want to "fellow travel" on your lab colleagues (having a family is not an excuse - they may want a life, too). Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 8:56
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    A person putting in 60 hours a week for 5 years will probably be LESS productive than someone who does 40 and kept his family happy. 60 hours is hard on everyone else too, not just you.
    – Nelson
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 9:30
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    @StephanKolassa and the guy that worked 60 will compete with the other that put 72 and had 20% more good papers, smart questions, keen eyes and collaborated with 20% more great researchers. The 72 hours guy is lucky that the 90-hours one is dead. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 20:37

I'm not in exactly the same boat, but mine is related. I'm working on my dissertation while working in policy research full-time and adjuncting a class, while having a 3 year old at home. My commute is only about 30 minutes though, lucky for me.

The key for me is drawing a line, beginning with my daughter's play time. Sacrifices have to be made, and that includes some family time, but you never sacrifice ALL of it. I plan to play with her either for a bit in the morning before work or a bit in the evening before bed, plus have one full or nearly-full day on the weekend. Occasionally I get two days on the weekend, or both a morning and evening play time, and all the better if that happens. But I never cross over the line of one day on the weekend and either a morning or an evening on other days.

Once you've decided on a (realistic) hard line for your family time, the rest becomes the standard juggling of work. Your two hours of commuting each day is unfortunate, but I assume if you could have cut that down already you would have. Can you spend it on mass transit, where you could get some work done?


To echo what a lot of others are say, I think the key is really to be present in what you do. You can't have/do everything, so treasure as much as you can because it really is amazing.

Personally I consider the time I spend with my young daughter (1.5 yrs now) to be more important than the time I spend in the car and at work, and as such, I try to be completely present when I'm with her (no fiddling with emails, checking twitter, etc.).

I shifted my working day earlier, so I can leave before my daughter wakes up, and get home in time to spend the evening with her, performing some of the rituals (play, dinner as a family, bathing and reading to her before bed). This has also helped with the commute (down to 1 hour each way, traffic makes it much worse).

I still work longer hours than I should, and the commute is an annoyance, but I don't feel guilty for leaving on-time (and my daughter is the best excuse to leave). I love my work, and have had to make compromises to the amount of work I commit to, but with a consistent day, I am regularly more productive than my colleagues (if only for keen task management and time-boxing).

I recommend you spend the commute on you. You don't get a lot of time to yourself, so spend it doing something relaxing and something you enjoy. I find it's a good time to listen to audiobooks for pleasure, or music, rather than trying to cram in studying or research.


I imagine this might be a question where you will get different answers depending on the norms and legal context of where you live. In particular, my impression is that the United States has much less support for taking time off and flexible work arrangements after having a child, than Australia (where I'm from) and many European countries.

For example, the standard approach in Australia would go something like this. The primary carer (usually the mother) would take maternity leave after the birth of a child. The duration varies a lot from parent to parent, but 4 to 12 months is quite common. When returning to work, it would also be common to come back to work on slightly reduced hours (e.g., perhaps 3 or 4 days per week; although full time is also common). Australia (and presumably many other countries) support this approach with various paid parental leave schemes and anti-discrimination legislation that requires employers to not discriminate based on parental status, birth of a child, and so forth. Such legislation and associated organisational policy (particularly in the university and government sectors) generally supports flexible work practices where possible.

The benefit of such approaches is that it makes it easier for primary carers to have some consolidated time with their children in the first year (and also makes breast feeding easier). Going back part-time also helps to shape a compromise between having a work life, earning money, and having quality time with your children.

Of course, there are many other considerations for families: financial, career progression, and personal interest considerations. Furthermore, the support of the university or post doc adviser in allowing for an initial period of time off and then potentially reduced hours is also an issue. In particular, because of the fixed-term nature of post docs and the nature of post doc funding, there may or may not be implications for the capacity to take leave or transition to something less than full time. And even where in principle it is allowed, post docs may be concerned that their CV will suffer or their supervisor may not feel that their contribution is as valued which may have implications for subsequent post doc positions.

More generally, it seems that universities, academics and funding bodies should take on the obligation of facilitating parents (and particularly mothers) in managing academic careers with parenting responsibilities. This is particularly important given the timing of post docs in people's lives. Not that this necessarily helps you, but I think that there are issues in Australia with this and the resulting reduction in the number of women who pursue an academic career, even with the legal and regulatory context. My casual impression is that it is much worse in the United States.

In terms of practical tips, it's tricky to make suggestions without coming across as trying to be prescriptive about what a good parent should do. But perhaps, if you want more time with your children, enquire about taking time off after the birth of a child, and enquire about flexible work arrangements (e.g., 3 or 4 days per week). Would your post doc be extended based on time off and pro rata-ed for the days you work?


I'm not in the same boat, but I'll still venture as a one-time hour-and-more-long commuter: Seriously consider moving close to your university/research institute.

Since you're a post-doc, you're going to be moving anyway; and since your children are small - I'll assume all are under, say, 3 or 4 - attachment to friends, kindergarten or school is not an issue for them. You might have to settle on the quality of your accomodations or pay more than you expected, but you will be a lot less tired - IMO and YMMV. Also, while some people can "power commute" and do things on the way, my experience is that trying to do so is more tiring than anything else. Do invest some of that extra time in sleeping, though. One of the dangers is being overworked and exhausting yourself; perhaps counter-intuitively, do less than you think you can manage rather than the utmost - like others have said, this will help you "be present in what you do".

Another suggestion is to figure out what everybody else is doing. I mean, there are bound to be other post-docs or doctoral candidates with small kids. What arrangements do they have? I'm sure you can learn more from their specific experience than from the inspecific advice of people here on the site.

Finally, where is Mr. Dad in this picture? I believe it's a father's responsibility to be nearly-or-as-involved in the rearing of and the caringfor his children as the mother (*) - even if you've separated, and regardless of whether you're married. So unless you feel he's a terrible influence on your kids, try to get the father more involved and be with them more. Comments suggest that maybe he's away on business a lot; if that's the case - well, he should be away less. You should not be the one shouldering all the responsibility.

  • I guess it is probably fair to infer from the questioner's chosen username that they are the mom... And then, yes, "Where is Mr. Dad?!?" In some cultures (cough-cough) fathers do have some responsibility for child-care and such. Unless the question-asker is a single parent, this conflict ought not have to be resolved by her alone. Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 21:49
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    "Mr Dad" may well be doing plenty of childcare, or may be away on business all the time. He may be permanently employed in the city an hour from the postdoc position. Or of course he may be - for whatever reason - out of the picture. While we may like to get him to pull his weight, we can't assume he's not
    – Chris H
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 7:58
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    @ChrisH: See edit ("involved" -> "more involved"). However, if he is "away on business all the time", then my suggestion is indeed that OP pressure him to change that and be more involved.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 11:07
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    My primary concern with the last paragraph is that the poster mentioned everything from nanny to daycare, and they are politely implying that's all. Asking about "Mr Dad" in this way is thus rude and comes off accusatory - if they were present or available, they'd have been mentioned. To fix this you could be a bit more circumspect - suggesting the importance of investigating the availability of any family support (extended family, other parent/partner if available, etc).
    – BrianH
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 16:14
  • @BrianDHall: It is sort of accusatory - towards him. Maybe I should make that clearer.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 18:16

I am worried if I can pull off the lab work and all the writing and not abandon my children.

My mother, J, saw very little of her mother, S. The few times they did see each other, J had to keep her distance so as not to mess up S's clothes and hair.

There were several servants in the household, and they made sure the children were bathed, clothed and fed.

Whenever J became close to one of the servants, S would fire that one. Which was incredibly damaging to little J, as you can imagine.

You're not going to be like S, right? If you allow your children to be close to you, and to their nanny, they'll be okay. (Yes, you will miss them and yes, they'll miss you.)

Tips for survival?

  1. Don't skimp on sleep.

  2. Arrange something in your office so you can take a short nap if needed. It could be a piece of cardboard, a camping mat and a pillow.

  3. Consider co-sleeping (if it's comfortable for you, and if it doesn't affect your quality of sleep).


Both require lots of work, time, attention, and love. Doing both means that you can't do both 100% - In other words trade-offs will have to be made. But I think you know that already! Children grow so very fast and the first couple of years are incredibly important to their emotional development. How they "attach" in these years (more so for the newborn) will go a long way towards how they relate to others as adults. Attachment styles include: Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent/Anxious, and Disorganized. Obviously Secure attachment is the hope for all of our children. Can the career wait... at least for a couple of years?

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    I am not that pessimistic. My observation both with myself and with others is that people with young children spent less time at work, and are less flexible when they are at work, but when they are there they are much more efficient than their childless counterparts. The only problem is communicating that to your colleagues. It depends very much leadership capability of the persons in charge of the lab. If they are supportive you will have no problem, if they are male chauvinist pigs than you are better of going somewhere with a more professional work environment. Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 19:49
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    I'm not an expert on developmental psychology by any stretch, but to my knowledge there is no compelling evidence that children of professional parents (working full time) develop more poorly or develop insecure attachment as compared to part-time workers or stay-at-home parents. If you are aware of any such research your answer would be greatly improved by citing it, as it otherwise alludes to modern research findings (such as attachment theories).
    – BrianH
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 2:37
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    As a small example, here's an advice sheet from a University of Minnesota researcher (now retired) that would seem to suggest the research goes in the direction of "quality of relationship matters - daycare and working is fine": cehd.umn.edu/ceed/publications/tipsheets/ericksontipsheets/…
    – BrianH
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 2:47
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    Dr. Sroufe also has a great interview on the podcast Science vs. which basically makes the argument that attachment is important, but attachment parenting doesn't change attachment. Abuse and severe neglect do decrease attachment. gimletmedia.com/episode/2-attachment-parenting
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 2:50

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