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Growing your international scientific career as a parent

An international reputation is considered by many to be an important part of having a successful scientific career.

Traditionally, keeping or developing an international reputation has required a lot of travelling. Visiting conferences, going on sabbatical and doing speaking tours of overseas universities are effective ways to engage international researchers with your science.

All this travelling can be very difficult if you are a parent though, particularly if you are primary carer (i.e. usually a mother).

So does that mean parents should give up on having a successful international career? Unfortunately, a lot the advice I have recieved for growing an international reputation has revolved around travelling.

But, I think there are some ways to grow an international reputation without travelling. For myself I don’t plan on travelling much for a while while my children are so young (even though I’m not primary carer).

So here’s some activities I think parents can do.

Social media

Developing a solid social media network, e.g. on Twitter is a very time effective way to engage with scientists across the globe.

The key is that you don’t need a ‘big’ following, but you need a network of key people - those people that are most likely to be interested in your research.

A good way to engage people on Twitter is to listen to them and ask questions about their own work (just like in real conversations!).

Write people

Read an interesting paper? Write to the lead author telling you liked it and why. Maybe even share some of your own relevant research.

The problem with e-media (email and twitter) is that it does tend to go in one ear and out the other. Your interactions there are quite ‘forgettable’.

I haven’t done so myself, but if you start a conversation with a researcher online, why not suggest you follow up with a video call to discuss it further? Face to face interactions are much more memorable.

Conference sessions and talks

First up, submit abstracts to conferences you would go to, but can’t make. Then get a trusted colleague to present your work, take queries and suggest people follow up with you on email.

Ok this next tip is going to be a bit devious and could subvert the system a little (haven’t done it myself). But also remember if you are a primary carer, the system is subverting you, by largely not recognizing the time you are taking away from your career.

So the tip is: apply to host session at a conference you know you can’t make it to. Make sure you get someone you trust, who can go to the conference, to co-host the session. Then lead the organisation of the session (so your name is on all the emails inviting speakers etc…,), to maxmise exposure.

Then of course, you can’t make it, but your trusted colleague can go and introduce speakers. They should apologise to speakers and attendees that unfortunately you couldn’t make it, which ensures every one remembers you organised this session. Have your colleague hand out your business card too and suggest people follow up with you.

Then after the session, write a blog about it. My blog about our session on Ridge to Reef management at a conferencea few years ago still gets plenty of hits.

A blog will also pay it forwards - other people that couldn’t make your session can also learn about the frontier of research your session was addressing.

Take longer trips to a single location

If you’ve travelled with young kids you will know it is easier to go one place and set up there, rather than dash around to a new city every other day.

So plan an overseas sabbatical with your family of say 3-6 months. This way you have time to build some meaningful collaborations. Also, put the trip on your CV. Work overseas is considered an important CV ‘trait’, but can be hard if you are tied to a single city/university for family reasons.

I have seen a few people list sabbaticals on their CV and it works well to communicate their international reputation I think.

Visit every scientist that visits your city

I’m lucky to live in a city with three (or so) universities. This means a lot of visiting academics from overseas, with whom I can connect.

It surprises me how often folk say they are too busy to attend talks from visiting scientists, even those visiting their own institution. Seriously, make this a priority.

Today I spent 2 hours commuting on my bike, after staying up most of the night with my newborn, just so I could make it from my uni to another one and meet a leading international scientist for a 1 hour lunch meeting. Still, easier than flying 30 hours to meet her.

So go to the talks of visiting scientists and then ask to meet them and talk science.

These kind of chats can turn out to be very valuable. I just had accepted a paper that was written with a scientist on sabbatical. The paper started as the direct result of a few chats over coffee.

Count the science you didn’t do when you were on leave

If you take a fair chunk of leave for parental care, like months or years, then you should account for missed opportunities when you when apply for grants or jobs.

One way to do this is: add up your total productivity (e.g. number of papers over 2 years) then multiply by 1 over you real FTE (full time equivalent). So if you published 3 papers in 2 years part-time (0.5 FTE), then your adjusted productivity is 6 papers.

Emily Nicholson explains this great idea (her idea!) in more detail.

In fact, if you are taking parental leave, you should also read this post.

That’s all I have now, but message me on Twitter if you have more ideas (or other useful links).



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