Kids in bids

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 7 March 2019 as ‘Let’s talk about the kids’. It is reproduced with the permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


An statue of Clara Campoamor as a little girl, sitting on books and reading a big book with her name on it.
Clara Campoamor (detail) by Anna Jonsson, in Seville, 2007

Before I begin, I need to make it clear that I have no children.

As such, I apologise if some of what I say about families and research is a little off-kilter. This post stands in stark contrast to Sarah Haye’s beautiful piece, ‘How having kids made me a better academic‘. Think of me as the stereotypical reviewer of your research funding bids – an older male, with no kids in sight.

Recently, I read a grant application where the applicant had written:

“I am a mother of two small children (ages 5 and 8) and therefore for this period there was little time for research.”

There has been a strong movement over the last ten years to acknowledge the impact that being primary carer has on research careers. Many granting bodies now make allowance for the impact of raising a family, which is wonderful and long overdue. It is a step towards fairness and equality, and it recognises that researchers are people.

However, we don’t often talk about people in funding bids.

When we write research applications, we often shift into a depersonalised space, where the focus is on the ideas. When we talk about people at all, we speak formally: “CI Needs-Grant will take responsibility for…” and “PI Wants-Funding is a recognised expert…”.

For the most part, these conventions abstract us from our personal situation. I don’t think that is always a good thing, but it is the convention. Also, we describe a fantasy land of Full Time Equivalent workloads and balanced budgets, knowing full well that much of the work will be done out of hours, as self-funded overtime that takes us away from our families. We talk about research partners and research assistants in purely abstract terms, stripping away any indication that they are also friends and valued colleagues, who might be depending on this grant to save their job.

We shouldn’t do that when we talk about our families. They are special and shouldn’t ever be abstracted away.

Talking about kids breaks the conventional focus on ideas, because kids aren’t abstract. They aren’t ideas. They are messy and unpredictable and rewarding and sometimes troublesome (much like research, I guess). No wonder it can sometimes be difficult to incorporate the intensely personal (your family) with the detached (your ideas).

I feel that there should be a better way to talk about families in funding bids. I don’t like the idea of blaming the kids for career interruption or slowdown. It doesn’t feel right. Most of the academic parents that I’ve met have loved their kids, loved being with them, and loved the wonder that they bring into their lives. So, the very first edit of the sentence above might be to decouple these two ideas.

“I am a mother of two small children (ages 5 and 8).
For this period there was little time for research.”

That feels better (less blame, more forthright), but it still doesn’t feel quite right. Part of this is the clash of the personal (ages 5 & 8) with the detached (little time for research). One approach might be to dehumanise even more – take out any reference to ages, so that the children become cyphers. I’m not a fan of that idea.

I think that it might be time to inject some personality (and honesty) into the bid. When I was critiquing this application, I wrote back to the author and said “I have no idea what your relationship is with your kids, but you might think about this example, and how it resonates with you.”

“I have two small children (aged 5 & 8) whom I adore. While they have opened up a world of new possibilities for me, they have also had an effect on my research output. They have brought a renewed focus and resonance to my work, and made it clear how important it is for the future. They have also slowed my rate of publications. Slower, but richer.”

If you wish, you could then go on to quantify that difference, by comparing your publication rate, and the quality of your publications, before you had kids and after. This feeds into a managerialist mentality of counting research papers as if they were factory widgets, but that may be what is needed in some situations.

You might also want to talk about the fact that you are travelling less than researchers without family responsibilities, which limits the conferences that you can attend.

“While I have often been contributing to conference papers, I do not generally present them, as conference travel with small children seems unfair on both them and me. While this has constrained my ability to network with and, at times, work in situ with international colleagues, it has not prevented me from collaborating with significant people in the field, such as…”

Most of the academic parents that I have met are extremely organised. They are often doing extraordinary work on part-time employment, and trying extremely hard to corral their work life into their work hours, so that they have time for kids and family.

I’ve seen people talk about the organisational skills that they apply to their families as they would a small business or a large project. They talk about the size of the family budget that they are responsible for, and the way that they manage multiple overlapping requirements and timelines.

I like this idea, but it feels like it is still taking the concept of the family and squeezing it into a paradigm that doesn’t quite fit. I haven’t yet figured out a good way to talk about this that doesn’t make your family sound like a cog in the military-industrial complex. Let me know what works for you.

The important thing is to make it clear that you believe that, while you might have less time for research, and therefore fewer publications and conferences, the quality of your work has not decreased. Perhaps something like this:

“Even though I have less time for my research, I feel that the work that I am doing now is some of my best. I am more selective about what projects I undertake, who I work with and which papers I write. This selectivity acts like a sieve, clarifying my work and making it more fulfilling.”

As I said at the start, I don’t have kids, so I’m really just riffing off some of the best things that I’ve read over the years, and the conversations that I’ve had with researchers with families.

However you write it, you need to write what is true for you, in a way that the reader will understand. It may be that none of the ‘spin’ that I’ve delivered here rings true for you. Your family may be a constant distraction from your research, and you don’t feel that they’ve made you a better researcher at all. If that is the case, find a way to write that. But also consider that you love your kids, and would do almost anything for them. So, you need to find a way to express all that clearly, truthfully, and without turning your kids into scapegoats or excuses. In the end, you need to be comfortable with your application.

On the other hand, if there is the germ of something here that might be useful, please feel free to explore it and make it your own. The fact that funding agencies are recognising the importance of families gives us licence to bring more of our ourselves into our (all too impersonal) bids, and we should grab that opportunity and run with it. Joyously, like a little kid.

About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia. All opinions are his own. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia. His ORCID is 0000-0001-5435-235X. The views expressed here are his personal views and are not the views of the University of Melbourne.

4 Responses to Kids in bids

  1. sofiapw says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Jonathan. I don’t have kids, but I do see them and their healthy, happy upbringing as important. After all, they are part of the future for which we do research to begin with.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I finished my PhD thesis twenty five years ago. I was a single sole-support mother of twins who were six when began the PhD and twelve when I finished. At the celebration after my defence, somebody asked my daughter if she was happy for me. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this!” It must have seemed like a lifetime to them. At that time, I think it would have been impossible to mention family responsibilities in a grant proposal. I did put in the thesis acknowledgements, “This thesis is dedicated to my children, without whom it would have been finished in half the time… but without whom it also might never have been written at all.” The second part was true for two reasons: first because I was so determined to do well and make a better life for us and second because the thesis topic was inspired by conversations I had with them. Your post really resonated with me and your advice is excellent. Thank you!

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Elizabeth.

      A generation ago, the world was different. In Australia, the Australian Research Council was advised that their process for assessing track record would disadvantage early career researchers and people taking a break. They did it anyway. That policy stood for 10 years – that is an enormous cohort of researcher who never got a chance to get the funding they needed to secure their jobs.

      Now, that has been totally reversed. A break from research is given consideration when assessing track record. That means that we are seeing different people win grants. That’s a good thing, but my heart aches for that lost cohort.

      Like

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