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Research & Academia: You Can Dial Back Up

Achievement and success are still within reach after taking a break from academics and research.

Brown Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Yael Chatav Schonbrun's New York Times Opinionator piece "A Mother's Ambitions" revealed her disappointment and frustration about her stunted career prospects despite the joy she is experiencing as a mother. This was the result of a personal decision she made to allocate a higher percentage of time and mental energy to be with her children and a lower percentage to her academic career. She is afraid she has permanently derailed herself professionally.

I understand her concern, but think she has made a smart strategic decision to maximize both goals of spending more time with her kids and making her mark professionally. She is keeping a strong professional connection with part-time academic research and part-time clinical work. Just because she has dialed back in the early years of her children's lives does not mean she has lost what it takes to be, as she says, "on the path to what I considered possible research greatness." Tenure track academia and NIH grant-based scientific research are notorious for the relentless demands placed upon those who participate. Yet there is precedent for achievement and success in both pursuits by those who have taken complete career breaks. If they can do it, then certainly people who have dialed back but who have not left, like Dr. Schonbrun, can also.

Dr. Margaret Rayman, Professor of Nutritional Medicine at University of Surrey, and expert on the use of the mineral selenium in cancer prevention, rose to her position after relaunching her scientific research career following a 17-year career break. She did so via the Daphne Jackson Trust, a U.K. foundation offering two-year scientific research fellowships to women and men who want to resume scientific research in academe or industry after multi-year career breaks. The Daphne Jackson Trust boasts over 250 success stories since it was formed in 1985.

The NIH itself has been offering "Reentry Grants for Scientific Research" since 1992. The grant is structured as an "add-on"; the recipient must identify a current NIH grant researcher and request to be added to the research team with the reentry grant as funding. Medical geneticist Carol Waghorne used a reentry grant to do research at Children's Hospital in Boston on modulators of prostate cancer following a nine-year career break. She had left a tenure track professorship when she began her career break. Using the reentry grant, she directed her career toward translational research and continued retraining at Brigham and Women's Hospital where she participated in a mentored clinical research project through the Scholars in Clinical Science Program at Harvard Medical School. After graduating with a Master of Medical Sciences (MMSc) degree, she began her industry career in cancer drug development.

One could argue these cases are anecdotal, and they are. But so is Dr. Schonbrun's case. Even the statistically reliable studies on women returning to work after a hiatus are limited because they draw conclusions about compensation hits and seniority setbacks based on the initial moment of career reentry, and not what happens once these women are back in the workforce for longer periods.

I remember speaking before a group of academics and scientific researchers at the Harvard Medical School affiliated hospitals in 2008. The consensus was loud and clear; if you stepped out of a scientific research career for even six months, you were done. I have now seen enough examples to the contrary that I am convinced this view is misguided. Dr. Schonbrun writes, "it is a certainty that others who didn’t pull back from work will be miles ahead." That is true and there's nothing she can do about it. However, her longer-term professional prospects are another story altogether. Dr. Schonbrun has stayed in the workforce, on a schedule that is working for her right now. She will have to be patient, but she should not write herself off for "research greatness." She can still get there.