For me right now, being a postdoc is better than a professor – Dr Alice Lefebvre

WICGE member Dr Alice Lefebvre (MARUM – Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen) shares her experiences of managing her academic career with parenting and life, including withdrawing her application at the interview stage for a tenure-track job.

Since my Ph.D., I always thought I wanted to become a professor because I like the diversity of tasks it gives; it is also simply the job towards which we are, somehow, all aspiring when doing a Ph.D., being a prestigious permanent university position. I am currently doing my third postdoc so I would like to find something permanent soon. Recently, a junior professorship position opened at the university where I work, in the city where I live with my boyfriend, where we have bought a house and where our kids were born. The expected research fits very well with my work. It would be stimulating to have my own working group, design projects, plan for the long term and mentor students. This was my dream job and I knew I had a good chance of getting it, so naturally I applied. However, I am not only a scientist, but also a mother of 3 young children (aged 1½, 3 and 4½) and therefore, I had to carefully think whether this is the right job for me right now.

Fieldwork on the island of Sylt (Germany) investigating seagrass dynamics

The professorship is tenure-track, with an initial contract of 3 years, renewed for a further 3 years before becoming permanent (in 6 years). Being renewed and becoming permanent being “a formality as long as the candidate shows that (s)he is doing the job (s)he was appointed for”. Job expectations included:

  • 4 hours of teaching per week (half the teaching load of a full professor) including at least 4 weeks of geological field excursions per year,
  • Organising and taking part in scientific cruises,
  • Getting grants,
  • Supervising bachelor, master and PhD students,
  • Service for the university (i.e. sitting in meetings),
  • Attending conferences,
  • And of course still writing papers (not formally said, but expectations are at least 1 first-author paper in a high-ranking journal per year).
  • Nothing exceptional, this is what is expected from most tenure-track/junior professors.

My current funding comes from the German Research Foundation (DFG) to carry out the research project I designed for myself; I am therefore a “free postdoc” with all the benefits that go with it:

  • I can concentrate on my scientific research work
  • I have chosen my own research topic and methods: when starting my family, I shifted the focus of my work from field measurements to numerical modelling to be able to do interesting work from my desk. I haven’t done fieldwork or gone on a cruise in the last 6 years
  • I do one week per year of teaching because I like it, but I do not have to
  • I am currently organising a conference because I find it interesting, but I do not have any obligation to the university for such service
  • Most importantly, I have reduced my working time to 26 hrs a week, which also lengthened my contract from 2 to 3 years.

My partner, also a scientist, but in the research department of a company, has also reduced his working hours and minimised time at sea and at conferences, so we can spend time as a family.

Cruise onboard the RV Senckenberg in the tidal channel Knudedyb (Denmark) studying flow over subaqueous dunes

I am happy. I can bring my 3 kids to nursery in the morning and after working around 6 hours, I pick them up in the afternoon. We arrive home early so we have time to play, prepare food, do the inevitable house chores, have a family dinner, put the kids to bed and even manage to have an hour of quiet time just the two of us. I go to the occasional conference, so does my partner. I don’t bring work back home. If a kid is sick, I stay home and take care of him, I don’t bring him to the office. I go for a run during my lunch break twice a week. I take the time to attend the numerous parent-children events from the nursery.

I haven’t been on a cruise or done fieldwork since I started my family but I still enjoy building meandering rivers and dams on the beach with my kids

I was short-listed for the junior professorship and invited for an interview. I prepared by talking to a lot of people, asking what exactly would be expected in terms of teaching and research, what instruments are already available, etc. I also talked to a woman professor who got 2 kids just as she got tenure, to see how the job goes with small children at home. She told me:

  • It will be difficult to find time for sports or social activities during working hours and requires a high level of organisation,
  • In principle, you can work part-time, but your working load does not decrease, only your salary (so what is the point?),
  • If you want to leave work early to pick up your kids from nursery, you will have to work in the evenings (when you are not too tired),
  • You are permanently struggling with time, there is much more to do than what can actually be managed.

Nevertheless, she was very motivating and liked being a professor very much, she couldn’t imagine doing anything else and she strongly recommended the job to me.

In the end, I decided not to go to the interview, and leave the job to someone who was sure (s)he was going to be happy to change her/his life to accommodate with the work load. I didn’t want to spend the years when my kids are small working too hard to enjoy them. For now, being a postdoc is the best for me and my family. I decided I would take the risk to wait for a job which gives me the balance I want: stimulating but not overloading. It made me very sad to give up my dream job. But I feel I made the right decision because, although it would probably have made me professionally happy in the long term, I would certainly have been personally unhappy in the short to medium term. I hope universities will start offering jobs where both professional and private satisfaction can actually be combined. I know many of us (women and men) would like to have the opportunity to have long-term family-friendly research positions.

Alice Lefebvre, MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen

Dr Alice Lefebvre is a researcher in coastal zone processes, interested in the interaction of hydrodynamics, sediment dynamics and morphodynamics. After studying geology at the University of Bordeaux (France), Alice did a PhD in Oceanography at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (UK) and has been doing postdocs at MARUM – Center for Marne Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen (Germany) in the last 9 years. During this time, she had 3 children who, living in Germany with a French mother and a Dutch father, are raised in 4 languages. Alice is now working on her own project funded by the German Research Foundation to investigate flow and morphology of tidal bedforms.


MARUM webpage

Posted on: 06/11/2018, by :