Home > Daily Struggles, Why There Are No Women in Science > How Do You Find Part-Time Work In Science?

How Do You Find Part-Time Work In Science?

One of my readers recently wrote to me to talk about the frustrations of trying to manage a career in science while needing to work part-time for a period of time, due to health concerns.
Part-time employment is something that many of us might want to consider for a variety of reasons, at various stages in life. Maybe, like my correspondent, we’re temporarily ill and can’t keep to a full-time (read: 80 hours per week) schedule in an academic lab (or even a more “normal” sort of schedule in a corporate setting). Maybe there’s a new child that needs our attention, and working part-time for a few months or years would be preferable. Maybe we are responsible for the care of a seriously ill family member or an elderly parent, and working part-time is an absolute necessity.


What do you do when you are in one of these situations? How do you maintain some connection to a career in science when you cannot maintain a full-time position? How do you find part-time employment in a scientific field?
There doesn’t seem to me to be any reason why science, even or especially research science, could not accommodate part-time workers. Maybe the head of a lab group can’t easily go part-time, but lab technicians, for example, could certainly be part-time employees. In industry, jobs like medical writing are often done on a contract basis; some medical writers decide for themselves how many hours they are willing to work in a week.
For myself, the curse of my migraine disability has been, on occasion, a mixed blessing since my mother has been so ill over the past few years. Because I don’t work, I can often be there for her when she needs me, when she comes home from a hospital stay or is recuperating from a serious bout of illness. Even though it’s a strain on my health, I’m able to spend the time caring for her. I often think that if I am ever able to go back to work, the best thing for me to do would be to try to establish myself as an independent contract medical writer, so that I could set my own hours. Or, see if I could find a company willing to let me work as a medical writer out of my home most of the time, so that I could take my work with me. That way, I could still be available for my mother if/when she needs me. But what would I do, what would my family do, these past few years, if I were still working full time? I’m not sure how we’d have juggled everything. I’m pretty sure none of us would have had any vacations for the past two or three years; we’d have used all our vacation days caring for mom and taking her to various doctor appointments and medical procedures.
Besides being a lab tech, or an independent contract medical writer, what other kinds of part-time science work have you engaged in or do you know of others taking part in? How did you or others find this work? How did you manage the transition from full to part-time back to full-time work? If you have a story to tell along these lines, please share it here. I suspect there are many more readers than my one correspondent who would be interested in this topic.
The challenges of managing this sort of transition are many, and as my correspondent suggested, this may be where many women “leak” out of science, simply because satisfactory part-time arrangements are not available and full-time employment in science becomes untenable.
Tell me your stories, share your thoughts. How can science be more accommodating of the need for part-time employment at various stages in our careers?

  1. Natalie
    October 9, 2007 at 8:45 am

    I teach as a part-time adjunct in the biology department at one of our local colleges. I only teach one class a term, which gets me out of the house enough so I can have some intelligent adult conversations that I don’t go stir-crazy, but I can still be home most of the time to raise my two young kids. It works out well for our family, but the pay isn’t great and there are no health benefits. It’s a decent supplement to my husband’s income, and since he’s a teacher as well, we both get summers off (although I could work that if I wanted to as well – I just choose not to).

  2. anoncomment
    October 9, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    The thing is, especially in academia, there is no reason in principle why you can’t work part time especially if you are already post-grad. But the attitude is that you aren’t ‘serious’ if you aren’t nailing yourself to the cross of science and working at 8am on Sunday. Part of it is charade as much as work. And yet the mentality triumphs over most. I have yet to see a single non-full time job where you get treated as an important contributor and not just some disposable tech, disposable adjunct, disposable whatever.

  3. October 9, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    I agree. In academia, you’re not serious about science unless it’s your life. And if it’s not your life, most labs won’t give you the time of day, much less a job. While science should be flexible enough to accomodate all kinds of schedules, it seems the only ones that are selected for are the ones where you live at lab and sleep in the lounge while your column is running.

  4. October 9, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    my experience in science has been that because i am female, therefore, i am disposable.

  5. Tom Ames
    October 9, 2007 at 11:13 pm

    My wife does very well part-time in science. She’s a clinical psychologist with a research gig in the Dept. of Neurology at a major medical school: she designs and coordinates studies, and writes up and presents the results.
    She got her initial position as a post-doc. Then, as we started a family and she developed her private practice, she scaled back.
    It’s not a particularly unusual circumstance. I think the key is to start off full-time and make yourself indispensable, so that ANY amount of time you choose to work thereafter is useful to the lab.
    (She’s on soft money, of course, but most work in science, other than as tenure-track faculty, is subject to funding considerations.)

  6. anoncomment
    October 10, 2007 at 11:20 am

    Tom, that’s interesting to know.
    However medical research is a very different set of circumstances from the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, biochem, math etc..). And these unfortunately operate very differently especially in academia. Also, your wife is on soft temporary money, and it’s not a concern for you because she has a private practice. Most physical science researchers have no fall-back position like that available.

  7. October 10, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    Other than freelance medical writer, there are other freelance writers who do things like documentation, proposals, manuals, SOPs, textbooks, editing….. (technical writing) and journalism (science writing). There’s also consulting, which works if you are are an expert in a field and can sell that expertise to others. These can all be done part-time, or at least with very flexible hours.
    There are also many recruiting agencies that will hire scientists and place them in temporary positions, for a matter of days, weeks, months, or sometimes years. While the work may be full-time during a placement, many offer flexibility to move between assignments, and take time off in between.
    The work world is becoming much more accomodating to these sorts of working arrangements. Especially if you get out of the “I’m a scientist so I must work at a lab bench” mode, there’s a whole world of opportunity out there.

  8. catswym
    October 11, 2007 at 8:54 am

    but what if you LIKE working at the lab bench and want to be part time?
    i have to agree with the person who said that there is NO reason that scientists couldn’t work part time–what job couldn’t be done on part time work? except that you are not taken seriously as any kind of scientist (bench work or otherwise) unless you are devoting your life to science.

  9. kate chen
    October 12, 2007 at 1:14 am

    After working in lab all these years, I’ve been sadly convinced that everything takes time in this career, I mean if you are working on getting degree or publishing papers on high-impact journal. If more data is required, there would be no other choice but stay in lab longer. Even the salaries were too few for me to live on when I was a graduate student, there’s no other way to make more money by anyother part-time job. What I can do was to try to finish my thesis in time. This is also true for the opposite. In our lab there were few part-time employees once. It turned out that NONE was really part-time worker at last.
    However, I believe part-time workings are possible in lab. For example, I’ll be very appreciated if one can routinely maintain and take care of my animal. For this kind of work, it doesn’t take full-time. But it’s relatively boring.

  10. kate chen
    October 12, 2007 at 1:14 am

    After working in lab all these years, I’ve been sadly convinced that everything takes time in this career, I mean if you are working on getting degree or publishing papers on high-impact journal. If more data is required, there would be no other choice but stay in lab longer. Even the salaries were too few for me to live on when I was a graduate student, there’s no other way to make more money by anyother part-time job. What I can do was to try to finish my thesis in time. This is also true for the opposite. In our lab there were few part-time employees once. It turned out that NONE was really part-time worker at last.
    However, I believe part-time workings are possible in lab. For example, I’ll be very appreciated if one can routinely maintain and take care of my animal. For this kind of work, it doesn’t take full-time. But it’s relatively boring.

  11. wildlifer
    October 12, 2007 at 8:54 am

    I work(ed) seasonally for the NPS monitoring T&E (aves mostly) species. I say worked seasonally, because I just received a 4-term appointment. The seasonal work averaged 6-mo/year, leaving the other 6 for other opportunities/interests.
    But I do admire all the folks working in labs, I couldn’t cut it and must be outdoors.
    But maybe this wasn’t quite what was meant by “part-time.” 🙂

  12. wildlifer
    October 12, 2007 at 8:56 am

    *4-year term

  13. October 15, 2007 at 8:01 am

    Surely, freelancing is the solution. If one can manage to gather the clientele willing to pay the bill and afford you a correct lifestyle with a minimum number of hours of work per week, you have the perfect scenario. Otherwise, you need to settle down for any other job which is part time and not well paid (restaurant, etc.), and run your career at a different pace. Although this may not be a well accepted (or gratified choice) among colleagues, it allows for a different way of doing things which is truly rewarding if you’re passionate about your work!

  14. whatevs
    October 16, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    @Bruno. So someone with illness or kids should work in a restaurant part time and THEN work hours on the side in a lab for.. what, free?? What?? As far as the illness part goes, anyone who can hack a restaurant can still work in a lab. And I believe part of the point of this post was anyone who is part-time for whatever reason is never treated with enough respect or seriousness for that person to have any “career” left anyways.
    Also, I’d like to know what one “freelances” in. Everyone always mentions that and it inevitably translates to proofreading or editing. It’s never lab work, it’s not working with industry, and most consulting agencies (e.g. environmental, engineering, government) are simply not interested in people who can’t work long hours on demand. I would be curious to know who has a flex-hours freelancing job involving bench work.

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