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A new, three-year pilot program designed to increase work flexibility for postdoctoral fellows during times of increased family needs is underway. The “Keeping the Thread” program includes flexible scheduling, part-time work, fee-for-service options, and special volunteer status for fellows who are unable to work at some point in time, but would like to maintain access to NIH resources.
While the decision to do part-time research seems like a nice solution for fellows who require a little extra flexibility, the challenges, benefits, and practicalities of a part-time arrangement are rarely discussed. For this reason, I contacted Dr. Sarah Daugherty, a postdoctoral fellow who has worked part-time for several years. In a candid Q&A, Dr. Daugherty shares her part-time experience at the NIH. She offers a firsthand account of the realities associated with a part-time position and shares tips and suggestions on how to make the experience a positive and successful one.
A detailed description of the Keeping the Thread Program can be found in the NIH Sourcebook at https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/personnel/policies-recruitment-processes/keep-thread-policy [NOTE: This link was updated in April 2023.]
And now, a Q&A with Dr. Daugherty:
Can you tell us a little about the background that spawned your need to switch to part-time hours?
I started working part-time after the birth of my first child. I had been working at the National Cancer Institute in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics as a predoctoral fellow for the previous two years and had been invited back as a postdoctoral fellow. For me, it was never a question of whether I would work part-time or full-time, but whether I would work at all. Hard to believe that I would have walked away from such an amazing professional opportunity, so I am very grateful that my mentor and branch chief allowed me to stay on in a part-time capacity.
How did you approach your PI?
I approached my mentor and branch chief together to talk about my plans for transitioning into my postdoc fellowship. We talked both about my scientific and personal plans. Before entering into this conversation, however, I had to be very honest with myself about what I would be willing to sacrifice professionally to afford this type of flexibility. This helped me determine the extent to which I would alter my schedule.
Can you describe your part-time work arrangement?
I worked 60% time, which equated to three full workdays [per week].
For some fellows, the type of benchwork they perform makes part-time work very difficult. Did you come across a similar problem? If so, how did you address it?
I am an epidemiologist, so I am not directly involved in benchwork. That said, there are some universal challenges to working part-time whether you are a bench scientist or an epidemiologist. With less time at work, your productivity and visibility are reduced.
As a result,
- projects that require speedy completion because of their novelty are difficult to take on;
- a deadline is a deadline regardless of part-time status; and
- recalibrating expectations to match percent effort is difficult for the fellow and mentor to quantify since the benchmarks are set by your full-time peers.
Because of these challenges, working part-time may require more forethought and purposeful planning than working full-time and definitely needs the support of multiple mentors invested in and attentive to the success of the fellow and their career.
- Not all worthwhile projects require speed. Some projects require duration, and this is one aspect that a part-time fellow has to their advantage. Since the work time is pro-rated, you may be able to invest in a project that other full-time fellows wouldn’t consider because of the length of time it would take to complete. I was able to build a resource from start to finish during the course of my part-time tenure that not only is available to me for publication, but also is now an asset to the Division and extramural colleagues as well. Without a doubt, this experience has made me a well-rounded epidemiologist with enhanced study design and management skills that I might not have honed had I followed the typical full-time fellow’s path.
- While I usually stuck to my 60% schedule, when deadlines approached I found that I worked many nights and weekends to ensure that everything was complete and in on time. This allowed me to meet my scientific goals and yet still gave me the flexibility during the week that I wanted with my young children.
- This is one advantage to having a formalized Keep the Thread Program in place. It requires a conversation up front about expectations and this is critical to ensure that you and your mentor are on the same page.
How long did you work part-time? If you are now back at full-time hours, how did you make the transition back? Was it gradual?
I worked 60% time for four years and moved to 80% time this past fall. My time as a postdoctoral fellow was pro-rated based on time worked rather than calendar time, so I am now in my fourth year as a postdoctoral fellow.
What advice do you have for fellows who are interested in part-time work?
- Identify clear expectations with your mentor based on percent time worked before you begin your alternative schedule. These expectations can help guide your goals and productivity.
- Select projects carefully and evaluate time investments to ensure you are able to meet expectations.
- Talk with your mentor about projects that might contribute to resource building. This makes you a valuable asset to your immediate research community and is a unique contribution that only you might be able to make as a part-time fellow.
- Consider finding a balance between long duration projects and papers that can be published with relative ease to keep productivity up.
- High visibility projects become even more important for you—if you can, get involved.
- Establish a peer network—mentoring comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
- Consider all aspects of your postdoctoral training—including service and professional development and be sure to stay connected in small ways to each part of your training based on percent time worked---this prevents isolation and continues your visibility amongst your peers and coworkers despite working fewer hours.
- Explore all your possibilities before making a decision.
- Be true and honest with yourself about your needs and priorities. The needs and priorities will shift over time; so give yourself allowances to be present wherever you are.
- Have faith that your contribution is important and valued.
- Don’t underestimate the value of being time-rich, particularly when you have young children.
What do you feel the Keeping the Thread program adds to the arrangement you created before the program was around?
The Keeping the Thread program formalizes and validates a part-time arrangement for fellows. Its structured presence provides a foundation from which fellows and mentors can have an open conversation about the possibilities available to a fellow that would afford them greater flexibility.
The Keep the Thread program has wisely required an intentional re-entry plan. This encourages thoughtful planning from entry to completion of the program and ensures that the fellow will not languish. With this program guiding the way, the fellow and mentors are forced to make a formal commitment that establishes responsibility and accountability to the success of the individual participating.
Finally, this program offers the opportunity to establish a cohort of like-minded fellows that can provide peer-support and mentoring to each other. Choosing to reduce your professional commitments during a critical period in your training is a difficult choice. Knowing others who are navigating similar responsibilities can help facilitate better solutions to the challenges faced.
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