Professor Catherine Law FMedSci
Catherine is Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology at University College London, and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
“I worked part-time for 17 years after I had the boys – it was a necessary compromise between professional pressures and our family circumstances.
“Looking back, this was a long process of negotiation with myself, punctuated by frequent irritation and occasional rage. But I realised that I was lucky to have the choice.
“I felt quite comfortable with the decision, but I was surprised how frequently it was equated with an assumption that I was not committed to an academic career. What is so magic about a 5 day contract?
“I tried to keep at the fore-front of my mind the reasons that I worked part-time and why they were important to me. I decided that colleagues should judge my commitment from how I behaved and delivered, not the terms of my contract.
“However, it did mean that I took longer to achieve certain things and this was sometimes hard to accept, as I am naturally quite competitive. Since I have had a leadership position, I have tried to tackle institutional barriers to flexible working practices, which I believe are largely cultural. Limiting academics only to those who are able to work full-time is in nobody’s interests.”
“I was doing a PhD in the middle of public health training and in my final year we had our first child. My wife is also a doctor, and for six months we both worked part-time and dovetailed the childcare.
“It was relatively easy to organise. My supervisors were supportive and there was a precedent for going part-time for childcare.
“However I don’t think I stuck to the time allocated, which meant I was working much more than part-time. With my job, you can do it anywhere. So I’d put my son to sleep and then go back to work. I ended up working close to a full-time job but in a part-time capacity. I was trying to do the same thing in less time.
“I wouldn’t say there were other people putting pressure on me, but it’s part of the wider difficulty of post-doctoral life. In some respects going back to full-time work made life easier, because I just had more time.”
“After the birth of my second child, I was only able to work part-time for three months before lack of pay and pressure from work forced me back to full time.
“Now, I encourage female staff and mentees who can afford it to work a maximum of four days per week after having children: it makes for a much better work-life balance. With men now having paternity leave and a more equal effort in child support hopefully this is going to be the norm not the exception.”
Professor Philippa Saunders FRSE FMedSci is Professor of Reproductive Steroids at the University of Edinburgh. She has sat on the Academy's governing body since 2016.
“The more part-time you are, the harder it is. Two days a week is very difficult. But I have found three and four days can be managed, with institutional support, and manager level support, and a bit of confidence to push back.”
“Over six years I worked three days a week around three periods of maternity leave, and I now work four days a week. I chose to come back from maternity leave early this time because of a large grant starting but negotiated to have a month off in the school holidays instead, which suited my young family.
“Coming back from maternity leave in 2016, I saw an advert for the job I have now. I met the head of unit and it became clear the balance of teaching and research meant the post probably wouldn’t work part-time. So I said never mind: I’m not going to work full-time, and I’m not going to apply and waste my time and yours. Then a few days before the deadline, I got an email saying that they the job might in fact suit part-time working...
“I've really benefited from supportive managers. Once you start recruiting yourself, you realise it’s really difficult to find good people. For the right staff member, I would be flexible. Having the right member of staff is more important than having a full-time member of staff.
“I’ve also found it helpful to be confident about my boundaries. On the whole I've been pleasantly surprised by what happens when I’ve said no: I can’t do that because I work part-time.”
Professor Christopher Salisbury is an mentor with the Academy of Medical Sciences mentoring scheme. He is Professor of Primary Health Care at the University of Bristol and a practising GP. He works three days a week.
“I went part-time partly because work had become all-consuming and I wanted to have a bit more of a balance in my life. I find that I'm still working quite a lot on my days off, which wasn't really the plan. But on the other hand having a bit of slack has actually given me more space for ideas, reminded me how much I enjoy my job, and given me some slack for other things I want to do.
“I don't think the struggle between work and non-work time will ever be easy, whether working full or part time, but I have a stronger sense now that it’s up to me to choose how much to work.”
Professor Ellie Barnes FMedSci is Professor of Hepatology and Experimental Medicine at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
She worked flexibly for four years then was formally part-time for another eight years, returning to full-time work in 2013. She is pictured hiking with her family.
“Life is long, and trying to combine home life with an academic career and medical work is hard. If you want to sustain that over the course of an entire working career you have to pace yourself, and step down at some times and step up at others.
“I went part-time after the birth of my first child. I decided it wasn’t fair on everybody to be working at the kind of intensity I was before – it was necessary to take time to give to a new child and support the family at home. Initially I just flexibly worked: it wasn’t official. Then after four years I went to four days a week formally, and I did that for eight years, all the way through until both kids were at school.
“I’ve always had a partner who’s taken proper responsibility at home, and I still think that’s quite unusual. Don’t underestimate the importance of negotiating a partnership, and taking time to make that work.
“MRC is my major funding body, and on two occasions when major grant programmes came to an end I was given extensions to allow for the fact I’d been working part-time. Having that extra time was invaluable, and you never felt like you were losing out which was very reassuring. Grant giving bodies shouldn’t underestimate how useful that is.
“I may have just been lucky but when I did ask for part-time working, people were always supportive. I got very little push back. You need to ask for what you want because if you don’t ask, it isn’t going to happen.”