Message from the Board - December 2023

Newsletter

The Fragile Balance of Work and Personal Life: Biases and the Role of Institutions

Dear MCAA Members,

In this edition of the MCAA Newsletter, we delve into a subject that resonates deeply with our organisation – the intricate balance between family and career. In a nod to current trends, we turned to ChatGPT for its take on this complex issue. At first glance, the response from ChatGPT appeared to be comprehensive and enlightening. It began by acknowledging the widespread nature of this challenge, emphasising that successfully achieving such a balance requires thoughtful planning, effective time management, and clear communication. Furthermore, ChatGPT offered a list of tips that seemed to provide a pathway to improve this balance:

• Prioritise and Set Goals: Clearly define your priorities both in your career and your family life; set short-term and long-term goals to help guide your decisions.

• Effective Time Management: Develop strong time management skills to make the most of your work hours; use tools like calendars, planners, or apps to schedule tasks and appointments.

• Establish Boundaries: Set clear boundaries between work and home life; when you are with your family, focus on them, and when at work, try to minimise distractions.

• Flexibility and Adaptability: Be flexible and adaptable to changes in both your work and family life; learn to adjust your schedule and expectations when necessary.

• Communication is Key: Communicate openly with your family about your work commitments and schedule; discuss important family events and commitments with your employer or colleagues.

• Quality Over Quantity: Focus on the quality of the time you spend with your family rather than the quantity; be present and engaged during family time to make it meaningful.

• Delegate and Outsource: Delegate tasks at home and at work when possible; consider outsourcing certain tasks to create more time for family and personal activities.

• Self-Care: Prioritise self-care to maintain your physical and mental well-being; take breaks and vacations to recharge and avoid burnout.

• Define Success on Your Terms: Define what success means to you in both your career and family life; recognize that this definition may change over time.

• Seek Support: Build a support system at work and at home; don't hesitate to ask for help when needed.

• Learn to Say No.

Of course, we were also advised to remember that achieving balance is a dynamic process. What may work for one person might not work for another. It is about finding a rhythm that caters to one’s own unique situation and adapting as circumstances change. We really appreciate those types of coaching lessons. They represent the quintessence of basic and common sense. However, with all due respect, we will have to pass. Thank you.

In the concluding part of his inaugural speech on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy famously said, “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. The answer provided by ChatGPT aligns with the latter part of this maxim, focusing exclusively on actions that individual researchers can take to address a situation. This perspective intimates that solutions are exclusively found at the individual level, or more concerningly, implies that the root of the issue lies with the individual. ChatGPT's reply, while comprehensive, conspicuously lacks mention of the institutional dimension and its responsibilities. It infers that resolutions depend solely on individuals, thereby placing the entire onus on individual researchers. This omission is significant, as it narrows the focus solely to individual efforts, disregarding the vital roles and obligations of institutions in addressing these challenges.

Gian Maria Greco
Gian Maria Greco

According to Johri (2023), ChatGPT’s training dataset “consisted of text collected from multiple sources on the internet, including Wikipedia articles, books, and other public webpages.” Despite concerns regarding its representativeness, it can be reasonably inferred that this dataset offers a snapshot of the broader discourse on various topics. Therefore, the limitations in ChatGPT's responses might reflect the gaps in how humans generally discuss these issues. This is particularly evident in the discourse surrounding the balance between family and career, where the conversation itself seems to exhibit an imbalance.

Indeed, those points are reasonable and sound, focusing on self-improvement and personal initiative. However, this perspective is not all-encompassing. The role of institutions in enhancing our conditions is equally crucial. This brings us to question the practicality and feasibility of such advice. Are those recommendations effective and attainable in real-world scenarios? And, in light of the prior points, what implications arise when we consider this issue from a researcher’s perspective? The answer then may vary. We might assert “no” to universal applicability, “not sure” to their overall effectiveness, and “yes” to the uniqueness of our situation in the research community.

A career as a researcher could include, but not being limited to, teaching, investigation, management, administrative tasks, communication, dissemination, publishing, and mentoring. Balancing a career as a researcher and family seems closer to fiction than reality. Once your (paid) job is done, you go home to start the second phase of your day, what oftentimes may even feel like a second (unpaid) job. Even though family brings often joy and happiness, it simultaneously presents a multitude of challenges: sleepless nights (sometimes for years, not just for a few months), visits to doctors and the hospital almost every week (sickness, routine check-ups, vaccination, ….), managing challenging kids, and so on and so forth. One could say that this is the (Global North?) ordinary life of a parent working standard hours. However, from a researcher’s perspective this scenario appears grimmer. Typically, researchers start families later in life compared to the average individual in their society, often due to factors like unstable job conditions and living abroad, away from their family. Those simple facts imply that, by the time they have children, researchers are generally older – up to a decade older than the societal average – and consequently may have (much) less energy. Additionally, the family benefits available vary significantly depending on the country, especially in Europe where disparities can be substantial. Moreover, residing in a foreign country often means lacking immediate family support. And even in cases where family support is accessible, it may be limited, as parents are typically older and may not be able to provide the level of assistance required. In the most challenging scenarios, researchers may find themselves in a position where they have to care for their ageing parents while simultaneously managing their own family responsibilities. This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers without a stable position, who are in the constant cycle of applying for fellowships and positions, often face the necessity of working additional hours, typically at night, or while their children are asleep. This extra effort is crucial not only to complete their work but also to remain competitive and navigate the exhaustive paperwork required for job, project, or position applications every 18-24 months.

If by any chance they managed to have a permanent contract then they are less stressed. They may still require a partner who either works less or not at all, to balance the family duties part of their life, or they may need to hire help, or enroll their children in extra activities to carve out additional hours for work. These adjustments are often necessary for managing the lab, finalising grant proposals, or publishing research findings. Given the modest salary scales in academia, such measures can put a strain on family finances and lead to career changes. This phenomenon, commonly known as “the Great Resignation,” is now becoming visible in academia as well (Gerwin, 2022). A particularly worrying indicator of this trend is the noticeable decrease in PhD and postdoc applications.

Alexandra Dubini
Alexandra Dubini

As we have noted, the responses provided by ChatGPT, as well as the training data it is based upon, exhibit noticeable signs of bias. This is also true for the perspectives we have presented so far. Our discussion has largely rested on a traditional, perhaps outdated, view of family, typically involving two parents and children. But consider single parents who are researchers. This situation intensifies the challenges we have outlined and introduces numerous additional complications. And what about researchers who have a partner but no children? Surely, this too constitutes a family, with its own private life that requires care and attention. Furthermore, researchers without a partner also deserve a fulfilling personal life, free from being overwhelmed by their professional commitments. The absence of children frequently results in colleagues and employers assuming that such individuals are always available for late evenings and weekend work, or they better be. This attitude, whether inadvertent or often conscious, ends up undervaluing their personal time and treating them as second-class human beings who do not have a right to personal flourishing. The complexity of this issue escalated further when incorporating personal, cultural, and social factors, such as gender and disability. These elements not only add to the complexity but also create unique intersections of challenges that vary widely among individuals, making the pursuit of a balanced life even more daunting.

The very distinction between personal and work life is contentious. Ideally, work, and private life should be integrated facets of an individual's life, harmoniously coexisting rather than competing or being mutually exclusive.

So, what do we truly need in this situation? Let’s put aside ChatGPT’s answers and urge society, institutions, and employers to heed the first part of Kennedy’s maxim: considering what they can (and should) do for researchers. We need kindergartens. Employer-sponsored kindergartens everywhere, in order to support and maintain the fragile balance between work and family responsibilities. Promoting career breaks and offering flexible deadlines can also be transformative. A paid career break would provide better organisation and time to navigate towards a stable job, all while managing family and personal responsibilities. Flexible deadlines could also be a key part of the solution. Allowing researchers to apply for fellowships or projects at intervals that suit their unique circumstances, could greatly enhance their prospects. And last but not least, increasing salaries! It is a big deal because, let's face it, money matters a lot, even in research. Dedicating yourself to science is great and all – like the whole “giving your body to science when you are gone” thing – but we also deserve to live well now. Fighting for better pay and better conditions for researchers isn’t just good for us personally; it will actually do wonders for research overall.

Promoting a harmonious balance between work and private life is a fundamental aspect of MCAA’s mission, a commitment clearly reflected in this special issue of the MCAA Newsletter. This topic has been at the heart of numerous initiatives, either directly managed by or actively supported by the MCAA. In our continued efforts to support this balance, we have recently introduced the MCAA Whistleblowing Channel. This new avenue is designed to empower our members, providing a secure platform for raising concerns and suggestions, including those related to work-life balance challenges within the research community. We recognise the importance of member-driven innovation and encourage our members to actively participate by proposing new initiatives by writing to suggestions.box@mariecuriealumni.eu as well as join the MCAA Genders, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Working Group.

On another matter, since the publication of our last Newsletter, the MCAA has observed with concern the intensifying conflict in Israel/Palestine. We have issued a statement condemning the violence and expressing solidarity with our members in both regions, as well as their academic peers and families.

On a brighter note, the past months have been marked by numerous enriching activities. A prime highlight was the annual European conference dedicated to Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), which took place on 14th and 15th November 2023 in Toledo, Spain. Organised by the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, this conference centred on “MSCA Diverse Research Careers to tackle Global Challenges.” It was encouraging to see a strong representation from our MCAA Board and members, many of whom contributed as speakers and moderators. The conference concluded with an engaging workshop in a World Café format, focusing on MSCA project management, expertly led by our MCAA Working Group on Research Management.

In conjunction with the MSCA conference, the MCAA Board convened for a pivotal two-day meeting in Toledo. This meeting, which was also attended by our expanding Operational Team, provided an invaluable opportunity for face-to-face discussions on vital topics such as internal governance, alumni engagement, and the progress of the MCAA-New-Horizon project. This EC project supports MCAA’s governance and financial planning. The Board also dedicated time to strategize on enhancing career development, networking, and influence, finalising the Strategy Plan for submission to the European Commission. We are also pleased to report that Year 1 of the MCAA-New-Horizon project and most of its reporting requirements have been successfully completed.

Our Chair Fernanda Bajanca has participated in several events: Bridging European Science IV (20 October, Brussels), the 8th Conference of the European Women Rectors Association (2-3 November, Istanbul), and the Mediterranean Researchers’ Night Gala (2 November, Istanbul). Meanwhile, Board member Giulia Malaguarnera attended KRECon 2023 in Prague (9-10 November) and the Global Summit on Diamond Open Access in Toluca, Mexico (23-27 October).

We are excited to announce the official kick-off of the CoARA Boost project in October 2023, wherein the MCAA is co-leading Work Package 4 “Support to CoARA Working Groups”. CoARA Boost is an ambitious three-year EU-funded project with a substantial budget, a significant portion of which is allocated for cascaded funding. The MCAA is actively involved in two of CoARA's ten approved Working Groups: “Early-and-midCareer Researchers” and “Multilingualism and language biases in research assessment”, the latter co-chaired by our Board member Gian Maria Greco, who also leads its Task Force 4. Speaking of MCAA’s involvement in external organisations, our Vice-Chair Alexandra Dubini is now the vice-chair of the Working Group (WG) on research careers at the Initiative for Science in Europe (ISE), and our Board member Gian Maria Greco is a member of the ISE WG on Horizon Europe and leads the ISE task force on “Interdisciplinarity in Horizon Europe.” Several members of the MCAA Policy WG also contribute to ISE WGs.

Our commitment to enhancing the capacity of MCAA members is unwavering, with several key initiatives underway. These include: (1) the recently launched MCAA Academy, a mentor-mentee platform for career advancement; (2) the MCAA learning programme, where there are still several Coursera licences available; and (3) the MCAA Training programme, which is developing a full set of courses, preferably delivered by MCAA members, focusing on a wide range of soft skills.

Additionally, the Board has approved the creation of a General Interest Group (GIG) on Sustainability, spearheaded by our Vice-Chair Alexandra Dubini. This group is dedicated to promoting sustainable practices within the MCAA community and beyond. Members interested in contributing to this initiative are invited to reach out to sustainability@mariecuriealumni.eu or join online: https://www.mariecuriealumni.eu/groups/sustainability-interest-group

Image by Midjourney
Image by Midjourney

As we conclude this letter, we must spotlight the upcoming MCAA 2024 Annual Conference, set to take place in Milan from 14th to 16th March 2024. The conference will be dedicated to celebrating “10 years of MCAA: Past, present and future.” The preparations are progressing impressively, a testament to the dedication of our Conference Organising Committee volunteers and the support from our operational team. This event promises to be a landmark occasion for our community.

We are also excited to announce that the call for the MCAA Awards 2023 is now open. This is an excellent chance for members to either step forward and showcase their achievements by submitting their candidacy or to recognise and nominate a deserving peer within the MCAA community.

Furthermore, we have opened the Call for Posters and Lightning Talks. We encourage our members to seize this unique opportunity to present and share their research. This platform is not just about displaying your work; it's about engaging with peers, sparking collaborations, and gaining new insights. Whether you're an established researcher or at the beginning of your academic journey, this is your stage to shine and contribute to the rich tapestry of knowledge that defines our MCAA community.

Looking forward to the dynamic exchange of ideas and the vibrant network of collaboration that Milan 2024 promises, we invite you all to participate actively in these endeavours. Let's make this conference a memorable and impactful event.

Gian Maria Greco
MCAA Board Member
gianmaria.greco@mariecuriealumni.eu
Twitter: @GianMariaGreco

Alexandra Dubini
MCAA Vice-Chair
alexandra.dubini@mariecuriealumni.eu
Twitter: @alexdubini

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