Dealing With Pauses in Research Productivity

Many faculty members remain uncertain about how parental leave and other gaps should be treated professionally, write Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra, who provide some advice for both job seekers and institutions.

December 15, 2016

Many American faculty members feel they must hide periods of childbearing or other pauses in their CVs and tenure and promotion files. Women faculty, in particular, may be advised to bury any indication of care responsibilities to avoid implicit bias against mothers or caregivers. Faculty members themselves sometimes feel shame about productivity gaps and try to underplay them. Yet short-term gaps related to caregiving or health are actually quite commonplace, and the focus instead should be on long-term contributions -- which, after all, are those that often make the most impact in our fields.

Grant-making institutions such as National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have created progressive policies requiring scientists to recognize caregiving leaves as a legitimate part of work culture. Those agencies understand that discarding scientific careers due to care responsibilities is wasteful and will tend to reproduce a less diverse work force. We would like to see this approach seep into the work culture of the rest of academe.

Unfortunately, many faculty members remain uncertain about how gaps in productivity and parental leave periods should be treated professionally. Indeed, although most universities provide no guidelines at all, some higher education institutions, particularly outside the United States, encourage faculty members to explain gaps, while others suggest not mentioning caregiving periods at all in order to avoid triggering gender bias.

Our advice is that it is far better to address a noticeable productivity gap in your vitae than to remain silent. And, institutionally, we believe that all universities must adopt standardized, paid care-leave policies with tenure clock delays, and that external reviewers should be routinely advised that such periods are not part of the research record to be evaluated.

In our personal and online social media discussions with faculty members about how they have navigated caregiving leaves, many report getting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” message from their mentors and colleagues. A humanities professor said, “I was told that I better overproduce and got no advice on whether to mention it [a birth].” A social science faculty member shared, “I was at an R1 (postdoc) when I had my kid and was simply told not to have a gap ever. So I don’t have any gaps, and I don’t mention my child.”

Professors who have received federal grants have often had different experiences in this regard. That is because grant agencies like the NIH and the NSF have made gender diversity in the sciences a priority. They build in flexibility and recognition for how personal circumstances can reduce an individual’s scientific productivity as a standard component of any grant application and reporting process. A social science professor described that she had routinely excluded caregiving leave information from her grant applications. Then she became a reviewer on a grant panel and saw that publication gaps with personal statements explaining the cause (caregiving, mental illness, etc.) were treated as normal procedure, while those with no explanation were often seen in a more negative light. She credits program officers for encouraging her to regularly disclose this information, and she has since included in her grant applications and tenure statement a one-sentence statement on when her children were born and how long she was off the tenure clock.

Such new grant-related norms are an important way in which external forces are influencing universities to change their practices in progressive ways. A public health professor told us that she was deeply influenced by her mentor’s experience in graduate school. This mentor had been funded on an NIH early career grant that reimbursed her for child care expenses and provided a grant extension for her maternity leave. She had, in turn, emphasized to the public health professor how important it was that she discuss her own childbearing-related lull in productivity in her mini tenure statement.

It is an embarrassment that the United States continues to be the only industrialized nation to lack a federal policy providing even minimal paid parental leave. American higher education has a slightly better track record for its full-time (usually tenure-track only) faculty compared to the country at large. But although a majority of American universities offer a short period of paid sick leave for maternity, only a minority provide a full semester’s parental leave. Our laggard leave policies present a major challenge given the timing of academic careers -- when faculty face simultaneous expectations to earn tenure within a tight time frame while often entering a life stage with intensive caregiving needs in the home.

The contrast, therefore, between the career experiences of international academics and American academics is quite striking. Among international academics who live in countries where (much longer, paid) parental leaves are a matter of course, the norm is to report births and associated leaves on their CVs and promotion materials. An Eastern European linguist, who had a year of leave for each of her children along with a semester at part time, told us she definitely reports her leaves, as it would be “madness to leave that caregiving period in anyone’s denominator if they want a fair evaluation for promotion.” Another scientist described the contrasting experience of having her first birth in Canada and her second birth while working at an American institution. An older, male mentor at the American institution advised her to remove the maternity leave line from her CV under the supposition that it “would make people look for dips in productivity on my CV and that I would be seen as looking for excuses.”

We understand the concern that reporting a caregiving interlude may activate gender biases. One of the faculty members with whom we talked described a number of hostile comments she received from her chair, concluding, “Given my experiences, my working assumption has been that any mention of my personal life would be interpreted against me, not empathetically.” Certainly the workplace literature shows that the gender pay gap is now almost entirely driven by motherhood. And further, it is likely that at least some of that is due to employer discrimination. A study of how employers treat equally qualified mothers’ and nonmothers’ résumés showed that evaluators consistently judged the mothers as less competent and less committed.

So what is the best approach for faculty members to take for their careers? In an ideal world, faculty members would always disclose childbearing periods to raise awareness of the normalcy of parenthood and caregiving in academe and make obvious the need for proactive, family-friendly policies. However, the reality is that, if you have no obvious gap in your productivity, it may be best not to risk the potential bias response of disclosing this information. Even if your university has a supportive family balance culture, the external reviewers within your discipline who will pass judgment on your past and projected future productivity may not come from similar traditions.

In contrast, if you have a clear gap (and, given the cycle of academic production, it is normal for gaps to appear between the first and second years following a birth or medical/caregiving leave), it is far more preferable to make a brief statement in your tenure/promotion file contextualizing the situation. A recent study showed that when there is a noticeable gap in employment, employers are 30 to 40 percent more likely to hire women when they disclose that they were raising a family compared with women who did not address the gap. Without the information, evaluators may fill in the blank with more negative judgment about the résumé holder’s work competence.

Examples of Framing a Leave

In our experience, less information is better. Institutional, broad language that is ambiguous about what the specific leave was for may be best, considering the possible bias of some evaluators. At our university, those people with obvious gaps in their record are advised to add something like this to their tenure or promotion statement: “My university offers automatic or optional tenure delays associated with certain types of leaves (such as parental leave, sick leave, leave without pay). The university provides those tenure delays because no research, teaching or service is expected during such leave periods. My time at this university has entailed such delays.”

We also inform external letter writers on tenure and promotion cases about our policy: “Please note that some candidates receive extensions under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the university and the faculty union. These extension are granted only for good cause and hence nothing should be inferred from them. Candidates should be held to the same standard you expect for a typical probationary period.”

Other choose to use more direct language in their tenure statement, adding a line such as: “After taking a leave to care for a sick family member, I returned to full-time faculty status in 2014, and my research has resumed its former pace and trajectory. Please note that no research, teaching or service was expected during this year of leave.”

Others add the information unapologetically to the work history of their CV. For example:

Associate Professor, Jane Doe University, Department of Shangri-La, 2011
Parental Leave, Spring Semester 2009
Parental Leave, Spring Semester 2005
Assistant Professor, John Doe University, Department of Utopia, 2004

But many professors who do not have the luxury of paid leave end up muddling through the process while still teaching, mentoring and doing committee work. In this circumstance, we have seen professors place an asterisk in a gap period between publications on their CV with a footnote, e.g., “*temporary research pause due to birth.”

Institutional Support Required

Of course, many faculty members have no wish to indicate their personal or medical histories on a CV, and we cannot rely on change being driven by the individual behavior of vulnerable junior professors. Thus, institutions need to support faculty members by regularly noting the existence of normal life events that require leaves. Further, they need to inform external letter writers that additional time on tenure track should not count against the faculty member under review, so that the focus is more appropriately on the quality of work being produced rather than the timing.

It is a mistake for academe to regularly expel faculty members who have the skills and ability to carry out high-quality work simply because their productivity may be temporarily lower during caregiving interludes. An enormous amount has already been invested in their education and training, and they have begun to give back to their fields, their departments and their students. Taking a leave or noting caregiving responsibilities is not “an excuse” for lower productivity but rather a reasonable explanation that must begin at the institutional level.

At our university, we have had continuing discussions around the normalcy of gap periods and how to frame them, while at the same time respecting the privacy of our faculty. Our faculty are not automatons who produce linearly throughout their life course -- nor would we want them to be. Creativity and impact are hardly linear processes. Careers ebb and flow, and it is expected that normal life stage events will require temporary reductions in research activity. One faculty member with whom we spoke pondered, “I do wonder if the generation of faculty coming up might bring greater awareness with them of life-work balance and be more open to multiple trajectories to tenure and promotion.” We surely hope so.


Jennifer Lundquist is associate dean of research and faculty development and a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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