A portrait of a former SAHM who went back to science

As I explore my next step / career, I interviewed one of my best friends, DoubleAgentMom (DAM), PhD, who recently returned to working full time at a pharmaceutical company after being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) for five years.  The interview was conducted in a form of email exchange, with my asking questions and her answering, and my following up.  Excerpts from emails in which we were just catching up and not necessarily intended for this blog post were also incorporated with her permission.

You and I have known each other for almost 15 years.  We met in a graduate-level Pharmacology class. You lent me your lecture notes when I missed a couple of classes for attending a conference (our friendship started when I went to your apartment to borrow your notes).  We are in many ways twins (born and grown outside the US, moved to the US in our teenage years, pursued PhD in science, married to computer nerds, raising two daughters, love good food, and were [until recently] SAHMs) except you actually have twins. I know a lot about you, but for the interest of readers, will you tell us your background, i.e., how did you choose your subject?  What made you pursue a graduate degree? 

DAM:  I think I chose the path of science because of my disadvantaged English ability as an immigrant. My family moved to the US when I was in ninth grade. Math and science were easier than humanities, and chemistry and physics were easier than biology for someone who didn’t really speak English. Otherwise I probably would have studied a foreign language or perhaps education. My undergrad degree was in Biochemistry since it covers a broad area of science. I figured I could decide later. While chemistry and physics were less language–dependent, I personally preferred living things, hence my choice. After college, I got a Master’s degree in human nutrition which was really fun. However, the program did not train me to become a dietitian nor a research scientist, so I decided to pursue further training. I was interested in preventive medicine, and my mentor recommended that I approach it from pharmacology. Everyone said pharmacology graduates could find high paying jobs in the industry easily, so I went for it. The program at my graduate school was strong and trained many successful scientists both in academia and in the industry. Without much guidance, I chose a lab based on my gut feeling. My instinct led me to a very supportive mentor who was almost like a mother to me; however the topic of research was not very popular in hindsight. Fortunately I got into a very competitive lab anyway for my postdoctoral training, and switched my research direction to a more industry-relevant area, metabolic diseases.

During your postdoctoral training, you gave birth to twins. You went back to work after maternity leave, but when your girls were one and half years old, you became a stay-at-home mom – was it a conscious or forced decision?  Did you miss academia? research?  working?

DAM:  Being a SAHM was not planned. In fact, during my maternity leave, I got so bored with daily mundane routines that I thought I was never going to stay at home. When I was finishing up my postdoc training however, I did not have much success finding an industry position. I did not have a first author paper ready, and my relocation destination was very specific due to my husband’s work. At the same time, having children changed how I felt about research. I was no longer willing to waste my time on endlessly failing experiments. Leaving my twin babies at home while I repeated experiments that were going nowhere just didn’t seem to worth it anymore. Once I left the academia, I never missed it actually. I did not miss mice one bit. Sometimes though I did miss talking to my former colleagues. Talking to other people about my research was very exciting and energizing.   

You were a SAHM for five years — what was it like? did you like it?  

DAM:  I loved being a SAHM. I never regretted dropping my career for it. To me, the best part was knowing that my babies were safe and well with me, and that they knew their mama loved them. There were plenty of perks, too. I got a chance to learn and grow with my kids the American way and had the freedom to be someone other than a scientist. I spent a lot of energy doing the mommy thing: cooking baby meals, planning baby activities, and socializing with other new moms.  I got to interact with different types of people and explored a different side of me.  I got quite involved in parent participation in my girls’ school. I went from preparing art materials for preschoolers to managing all of the educational materials and preparations for the whole preschool.  When the girls were in kindergarten, I was a class cooking coordinator at their school. I also got to spend a bit more time on developing my new interests.

Five years went by very fast. The kids were growing fast and things were always changing so I never got bored. There is a lot of moms with a similar background around me, so I felt very comfortable in my community. I felt good being able to spend time and take care of my family, not just my immediate family, but also my siblings and other relatives.

 And then you went back to work full time — how did it happen and how is it?

DAM:  Honestly, I pretty much gave up going back to science. My opportunity came from a former colleague who moved to the Bay area (where I live) to work for a small pharmaceutical company. We kept in touch and spent holiday dinners together since he is local. He started asking me about my interest in going back to work about a year ago. I didn’t feel ready at first but at one point realized that this was an opportunity too good to pass on. The first plan was to get me hired as a research associate, but the management thought I was overqualified for the position. Since neither the company nor I knew how I would do after a 5 year break from science, I started as an intern working with the former colleague who introduced me. I started out helping my friend with his project and ended up extending my internship and had a completely different project of my own. After demonstrating my range of skills and the ability to work in a team, I went through the whole job interview process and was hired as a full time senior research associate.

My work is located 40 miles away from my house, so I have 2 hrs of commute everyday. So far things are going well. I like the people I work with, and the company is doing well. I was worried that I didn’t remember anything from lab but most skills came back. I am also picking up new techniques. I don’t know what other companies are like, but my company’s environment feels a lot like my old postdoc lab. I am hoping to move up to a “scientist” position in a year.

How has your life changed? How is your family handling it?

DAM:  Life definitely got a lot busier, and my schedule is much less flexible. My kids started to go to school full day around the time I went back to work.  I have to get up very early to pack their lunch and make the meals for the day ahead of my one hour commute. One major change for my family is that my husband has to do almost all of the pickup and drop off at school and after school activities.  All the credit goes to him for being a very supportive partner and a very involved dad. I spend a lot less time with my kids as well as my other mom friends. My kids are adjusting better than I anticipated and haven’t shown any major behavior change from this huge difference in our lives. My social circle went from a group of SAHMs to my coworkers who are scientists. The topics of discussion are definitely different now.  

You mentioned in our discussion in person that you felt like you had to prove something to your colleagues and bosses, because you were a SAHM.  In what instances did you feel that, and how did you deal with it?

DAM:  This might all be in my head. After being away from science for all these years, I felt very insecure about going back. I felt inadequate. I thought I had to start from zero and be a junior research assistant but the management did not want to hire an overqualified person. In my mind, I just felt like they did not trust a former SAHM.  I tried really hard to show that I am a very good team player and that I am resourceful, motivated, and hardworking. I deal with it by being as proactive as I could be. Be prepared and be involved. It also helps a lot that I have coworkers who are reassuring and encouraging.

Do you like working outside of home?  Is it fulfilling?

DAM:  I do enjoy my job quite a bit although there were occasional nuances. I like that I can achieve quite a bit during the 8 hours I am at work, and that my work may someday make a real impact. Since it is an industry job, there is very little room for error, and I do not feel like I am wasting my time on experiments going nowhere. For the most part, I feel fulfilled. I am finally doing what I am trained to do, again.

Now that you are a working mom, do you feel like you “have it all?”  Did you ever regret going back to work?  Do you contemplate coming back to being stay-at-home mom?

I do not think about whether I “have it all”. I am happy with my life for the most part and I never regretted going back to work. Time to time when I run into schedule conflicts, when kids have a day off from school, or when I have a long summer vacation to plan for my kids, I really wish I was a SAHM again so I do not have to leave them in someone else’s care. I miss picking up my kids from school and taking them to places myself. I know my opportunity to go back to work is too precious to give up, so as much as I miss my old life, I would not give up my job easily.

Do you have any advice for others who are contemplating returning to work after a long absence?

DAM:  I keep hearing from my mom friends their fears and concerns about going back to work. They lack confidence, worry about childcare, and unsure about what to do in general.  A lot of these I also felt are often just in their heads. I hope someday I can create a space for moms to share their experience and encourage each other.

My specific advice are:

– Stay active and involved in your community while being a SAHM. I met moms who previously worked in all different areas. Some became good connections and some were good mentors that I looked up while preparing to go back to work. I met a mom who is a Ph.D in Biochemistry. She was working very hard to get back to work so I learned a lot from her. She took me to various networking events, gave me advice on resumes, interviews, salary negotiation, and even work outfits! Volunteering at school could be a good way to hone your “management” skills and fill up your resume. A position like VP, treasurer, and board member at a school should look pretty good on your resume. Definitely way better than a big blank! I truly feel that my years of being a SAHM makes me a better scientist at work. I have learned better ways to work with people of various background, become more creative with my approach to science (since I got to do a lot of non-science activities) and be more proactive in general (benefit of being a mom!) People at work appreciate that I don’t leave mess behind for people to clean and I am courteous and helpful to others. These are all very good mom-traits!

– Be confident. I understand how we all feel like we are left out of the real world all these years, but in reality, moms are very capable and resilient people! Yes, it will take a little time to adjust, but moms really can do everything. I left science for 5 years and thought I forgot everything. The truth is, things didn’t change that much, at least the basics are the same. There might be better, faster tools we can use now, but many people trained in less well-funded labs didn’t have those fancy tools either.

– Be realistic. Many of my mom friends are looking for jobs with flexible hours, part time, etc., so they can be there for their kids. I fully understand why that is important, but even a freshly trained super postdoc don’t get to ask this, let alone us who left the lab for years! My family is very important to me, but if you don’t have childcare figured out, you don’t want a job bad enough. I recommend planning your childcare strategy before you even get to an interview. My mentor friend spent months looking for a job and during this time she already had her kids in the child care for when she went back to work. This is brilliant. You don’t want your children to adjust to a new lifestyle with no mama following around AND a new child care at the same time! You will feel much better when your kids are in good care and you head back to work full force.

– Go to networking events and see options!

 

Thank you so much!  This gives me hope…that it is and can be done!  I really appreciate sharing your experiences and wisdom.  

DAM is developing a blog in which she discusses challenges of SAHMs going back to work and for women going through a similar transition to share experiences and support each other.  I will advertise it here when it is ready!

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