The P word.

P for Productivity.

I’m thinking a lot about this right now… and I want to put this in the context of tenure clocks. Many places allow their women faculty to ‘stop’ the tenure clock when they have a child (or adopt one, I presume). Ok, we don’t have very modern maternity leave policies in this country- you can take 3 UNPAID months by law without losing your job- outside of this things vary from institution to institution, but that’s a whole different soapbox. But it’s the tenure clock stoppage and whether or not that really helps anything, that is my particular sore point right now. These tenure clock stoppages are supposed to be a good idea because generally, when a baby is born, it takes a big chunk out of the mother’s life- pretty much full time for the first 12 weeks, and at least 6 months of sleeplessness to immediately follow (in my own experience w littleDrA#2 this took a good year out of my life- can you say 8 ear infections in one year?). The idea is to keep women moving up the ranks by allowing for this lapse in productivity. Presumably, it is not inappropriate to let your chair (or whoever) know that you are expecting… and do whatever protocol is necessary in order to achieve said tenure clock stoppage, right? That would mean that whoever is in charge would have to know your own particular ‘family’ circumstances- and I wouldn’t think that is inappropriate information.

But here is the thing- I don’t really think it makes a bit of difference if the tenure clock is stopped… if you are in a must-get-grant type faculty position. NIH has got a clock too- and it is a productivity clock… run by good-old-boys (and some good-younger-boys, and some good-old-girls that didn’t have kids… and yes there are exceptions to everything), that doesn’t take into account lapses in productivity due to childbearing (or any other kind of family obligation… like elder care etc). I suppose this bugs me because this will always be a problem for young women who have children either during their postdoctoral years or early in their faculty positions. These are times when productivity can just cease completely when the birth of a child happens- many postdocs and many young faculty may not have staff/students etc. working for them immediately. Just depends on the circumstances.

And, although it is considered perfectly appropriate to talk about this within the institution- where tenure-clock extensions are granted…my sense is that there isn’t a place for this consideration where federal grants are concerned. Just doesn’t seem like stopping the tenure clock makes that much difference without stopping the NIH clock,…. What do y’all think?


28 thoughts on “The P word.

  1. The place is the “Introduction to Revised Application”.

    Pre-empting the question is hard but if the productivity is criticized that is the opening to address the issue in revision.

  2. I think the point about grant funding not being tied to anything other than time and place of publications is something that needs to be reconsidered.

  3. bm-

    I was having a discussion with a colleague about this recently and they were VEHEMENTLY against any consideration of a woman’s childbirth history as it impacted productivity in a written application at any point. I suppose I was puzzled by this discussion, especially because I lived through this myself and know how difficult it can be.

    I have a n=1, I’m waiting for you all to weigh in.

  4. You should cite ’em as publications.

    Drdra X, Drmra X (2002) “LittleDrA2: Are second children more prone to recurrent ear infections? A case study.” Journal of My Uterus, vol 1, issue 2, pp 1-2000.


  5. Dr. J.-

    I could get about 20 publications out of this… let’s start with:

    -Are second children more prone to ear infections?
    -Illnesses acquired in doctor’s office waiting rooms, case studies.
    -Sleeplessness as a contributing factor to disorganization.
    -Dosing regimens for acetominophen and ibuprofen for pyrexia in children.
    -Asthma, allergies, and ear infections in a nursing child with no known risk factors.

    etc. etc. etc.

    I’m not even getting started with LittleDrA1!

  6. Just doesnt seem like stopping the tenure clock makes that much difference without stopping the NIH clock,.

    Also, what happens to the people in the lab? Do their clocks stop also when submission of a paper is put on hold for a year or they’re left to flounder in a dead-end project? I’ve never seen any discussion of these “clock stopping” schemes even mention the effect the PI’s serfs.

  7. I was having a discussion with a colleague about this recently and they were VEHEMENTLY against any consideration of a woman’s childbirth history as it impacted productivity in a written application at any point.

    In my view there is next to nothing you can do about the d-wads. You are not going to argue them around to your position with the brilliance of your rationale or logic, nor the overwhelming evidence of the cited data.

    So the conclusion is, this is not your audience and so do not try to speak to that audience. Your audience is your favorably-disposed advocate, first and foremost and the neutral reviewer second.

    I’ll endorse what the BM had to say and go farther. I just don’t see much of a good way to put this sort of thing in the initial application. You don’t want to draw attention to productivity issues if you don’t have to. Some fraction of the time it will never come up. When it DOES arise in a critique however it must be addressed in some way or another. And believe it or not, your peer reviewers are sympathetic. I am. and I’ve seen other members of my panel look favorably on various excuses. and not-so-favorably on other kinds of excuses. I have one very distinct memory of a study section discussion where the applicant said something about having two kids in X span of years and when this was brought up (as a positive comment on the reply-to-critique) heads were nodding-of course, I have no idea how the eventual score broke down and I can’t even remember the applicants’ name to check CRISP.

    Things that I’ve seen, done or been advised to do which apparently go okay:

    -the aforementioned nod to childbirthing
    -changes in workplace
    -natural disaster (not kidding!)
    -“yes our pub rate isn’t great but we’ve published X observations and have consistently presented data at scientific meetings”(followed by some version of illicit sneaking in of the abstracts- i’d say use the reference list, myself to avoid looking like you are ignoring the biosketch rules)
    -scientific reasons, such as dead end hypotheses, uncertain outcomes, etc. so long as it can be presented in a way that shows you were actually working your tail off, that subtly conveys that you have a high publication standard or that actually justifies the present proposal (“we really need to do these additional experiments to determine what was going on with those existing data..”)

    that which probably doesn’t go so well:

    -blowing off the issue entirely
    -“yeah, we have all this data that we’re trying to get to”
    -“the postdoc left”
    -“yeah but my competitors dr. X, Y and Z don’t publish any more than I do, wah!”
    -“We’re submitting them but those idiot reviewers at Journal of Bunny Hopping are biased and rejecting us!”

  8. DM-

    Really excellent comment and suggestions DM. How about adding a list of papers submitted or in preparation into the text of the ‘response to previous review’- indicating some level of confidence (be realistic, then make SURE you follow up in the update) that those in prep will be submitted in time for the update…

  9. How about adding a list of papers submitted or in preparation into the text of the ‘response to previous review’-

    I am personally not in favor of this at all. The rules are pretty clear that it is “in press” or nothing.

    but what are you going to do? people do include this stuff in their grant proposals. as in not just in response to critique but up front in the biosketch or the list of progress. So far as I can tell there is no mechanism to enforce this aspect of the NIH grant rules. (Take note that there may be such a mech and there may be tons of apps being returned, all I’m saying is that I see applications with in prep / submitted listings all the time.)

    Advocate reviewers are perfectly willing to count this sort of thing if they are trying to argue the point about productivity. so then how does it go? the detractor tries to point out that the papers are only “submitted” and could be complete crap or vapor ware? so s/he can start to look a bit petty. the argument devolves into what is really a tangential issue and muddies the water. some panel members care, some don’t. if any given panel member gets on about this stuff too frequently s/he looks like an issue crank and can become less effective-so s/he better mean it.

    in sum it gets tricky to make any sort of calculation. All I can offer is that if the advocate doesn’t know the information, s/he cannot use it. If you think it is critical to your case then I’d say you have to try to sneak it in hoping that your advocate will use it and that any detractors will fail to focus on that particular issue…

  10. This is a broken part of the tenure clock delay. NIH should develop a policy on the question. Even that won’t really work, because the bottom line problem is that having a baby slows you down. It slows down the work in your lab, and can do so at a critical period, that in turn effects the next step, the next decision. It removes you from visibility for a period of time. So, if you have babies, you take a real risk that you’re going to not only look, but actually be, less productive for a period of time (and I think that period of time is at least a year, maybe two for each baby, depending on how one’s pregnancy goes, and what one’s children are like).

    Some women weather it; others don’t. But, the least NIH could do is to develop an official policy on this for grants (including post-doctoral grants & NRSA’s). There should, at the very least, be some means of extending the period of those grants for maternity leaves.

  11. Another part of this story is graduate students & post-docs who have babies, impacting their PI’s productivity. I’ve now actually sat in on discussions where people discuss the risk of hiring a woman, who might have a child. In one case, I think the woman in question was actually pregnant at the time.

    Again, this is an awfully hard effect to counter. The fact is that if you have 3 years to complete a project, if you take on a woman who is going to have a baby, and loose a year’s work (and different women loose different amounts), you’re going to suffer.

  12. neurolover-

    I’m in favor of dads having time with their babies too- this is, after all the 21st century, and DrMrA has certainly sacrificed work time for the littleAs. Why does he have to work his tail off and not get the child-rearing exception? I know, I know, biology. All I’m suggesting is that it could be more sane for everyone… if men thought about this a little more too.

    And secondly, I really don’t like the subjective nature of certain aspects of peer review (not that my humble opinion matters much to anyone). Like DM- you don’t know if the person that reads your grant is an advocate for you or not… certain people are advocates for no one but themselves and their point of view- which may or may not be based on data. I think the fact that in my area there are only 3 junior faculty with R01s (out of 71) means that there isn’t anyone advocating for junior people. I don’t believe that the scads of junior people trained by the senior people in my field are all poor quality, or aren’t trying…

  13. And one more thing- neurolover-

    Recently I had the opportunity to meet the person in charge of the Office of Women’s Health, part of the Office of the Director of NIH- and I was very, very noisy about the lack of NIH-productivity-clock-stoppage to correspond
    to tenure-clock-stoppage.

  14. There are lots of things besides caring for an infant that can make a PI unavailable for months on end, so while it might suck for the staff in a new mother’s lab, it’s not a totally unique situation for them.

    There was someone pregnant or nursing in my lab group ( ~20 people including 6 PIs; both students/techs and PIs gave birth) for 7 or 8 years. Everybody deals. I know it’s super super difficult for the parent-PI, but it doesn’t have to kill a career.

    Sorry that was a little off topic — it was mainly in resonse to Jsinger.

  15. My institution-to-be does this clock stoppage for both new dads and new moms.

    There’s a program in the NIH as a result of the brainstorming of the “Working group on Women in Biomedical Careers” initiative that covers the funding of a postdoc for a year or two while a woman professor is on maternity leave. I can’t find a link to it right now, but I will get in touch with my friend’s friend who told me about it–she worked on that initiative during her time as a AAAS science policy fellow over the last two years.

    The aim is for the posdoc to continue some of the professor’s direct productivity as well as manage the lab overall. Sounds like a good opportunity for TWO people involved…

  16. In my department, all of the women that are full professors waited until they were tenured before they had children because of this very issue. Although I can see the benefits of waiting, I don’t particularly want to wait that long. It really does seem like there is NO good time to start a family in this field.

  17. Arleanna-

    Thanks for stopping by, and welcome. I checked out your blog, and have added it to my blogroll. As for the NIH Working Group on Women etc etc… I had a fortuitous opportunity to talk to their leader about this very issue. I have no idea whether or not anything will be done about it…. In any case I can’t imagine that they didn’t realize this before I gave my 2 cents.

    microbiologist xx-

    I always love to have another microbiologist around here- I put you on my blogroll as well. There were no T-T women faculty that had kids before tenure in my grad department, nor do I know any in the sciences at my current institution that did.

    There has to be a better way. In no other profession do we require women to do this. This is one of the important issues at the heart of WHY there is a leaky pipeline.

  18. What DM said, except that we need to distinguish new R01 applications from competitive renewals. In my experience as an applicant and reviewer, productivity plays a dramatically smaller role in review of a new application than a competitive renewal. In the Progress Report section of a competitive renewal–which replaces the Preliminary Studies–it is absolutely appropriate to explicitly describe any factors, scientific or “real-world”, that are relevant to productivity and to describe the status of publications not yet in press: in preparation, submitted, reviewed and being revised for resubmission, etc.

  19. we need to distinguish new R01 applications from competitive renewals.

    indeed. One should really think of this distinction between a Preliminary Studies section for a new proposal and a Progress Report on the competitive renewal. A narrative of what you did, what you changed from your original proposal (and why), drawbacks, deadends and, of course, your stunning successes are very much to be included at the outset.

    I did forget in my above list to add the best excuse for low productivity. “I have been so busy writing grants for a 9% payline expected value that I have no time left for doing science or writing papers!”

  20. “There has to be a better way. In no other profession do we require women to do this. This is one of the important issues at the heart of WHY there is a leaky pipeline.”

    But, what *is* the solution? PP & DM are suggesting trying to be open about it, and asking for a break. But, “breaks” are, as drphd points out, very arbitrary. They are field dependent — some fields are more generous than others; they are person dependent — some study section chairs/reviewers are more generous than others. I’m glad to hear that DM & PP try to give “breaks”, but clearly it must be very hard to do so, when pay-lines are at 9%, and everyone is suffering. You’re already rejecting an excellent grant because it only makes 15% and you have a weaker (less productive person) who had 1 baby that delayed her productivity. How exactly do you give the break?

    I’m venting — but I’m concerned about the end result. I think that the general perception is that women shoot themselves in the foot if they have babies before they get tenure. And, practically, I think it’s true. But it’s true because they are less productive. So, fewer women in the field. Then, next step, grad students who look and see no women, or see women who are childless, or admit they had only one child when they would have preferred another. What do they do? They leave, like all the bloggers we read about. End result: nothing ever changes.

  21. PS: Although I think the situation in sciences/academics is tough (not the least because it’s a point of contact with students, who make their life decisions about the future based on what they see), I think it’s not all that much easier in law & medicine. In medicine, women choose certain professions, demanding flexibility in return for taking on less popular & less lucrative professions. In law, they choose government, and other more flexible situations. It could be in the end, that’s the only solution in academia, as well (the “alternative” careers).

  22. I’m glad to hear that DM & PP try to give “breaks”, but clearly it must be very hard to do so, when pay-lines are at 9%, and everyone is suffering. You’re already rejecting an excellent grant because it only makes 15% and you have a weaker (less productive person) who had 1 baby that delayed her productivity. How exactly do you give the break?

    NIH grant applications are supposed to be assessed on their own merits. The prior history of the PI with respect to “productivity” is, in my view, properly used only as a predictor of how the productivity might be for the project under discussion in the application at hand. The current application score is not supposed to be a reward for prior performance nor a punishment for prior lack of performance.

    Consequently, it is not giving someone a “break” to entertain a defense of why productivity might have been lower than expected in a specific past interval. It is refining the accuracy of the prediction for future performance.

  23. I like your characterization — in an NIH app, productivity is supposed to be used to predict future productivity (I suspect you’ll admit that it is not used solely for that purpose, but it’s hard to parse out the multi-dimensional correlations). Therefore, a mitigating circumstance changes the function between pred(future productivity)=f(past productivity).

    Still, a complicated function, but I see how you justify it.

    (now, how do you do it for tenure clocks? Do you subtract the extensions, and then see if n(Productivity)/adjusted years is good enough? And, if so, how does one account for the fact that productivity is supposed to be distributed over a number of years? ).

  24. I can’t emphasize enough that this is not my characterization. The CSR has actual policy documents about review. Those who don’t follow these and award good scores to applications that suck “because Dr. Greybeard does such great stuff I’m sure more great stuff will come out of this” are actually violating the overt rules.

    People who think that holding all applicants, senior and junior, to approximately the same standards based on the CSR guidelines is evidence of “bias” really chap my hide…..

  25. If you compare the proportion of women scientists at the PI level across the developed world, there appears to be a roughly *inverse* correlation between the representation of women in such positions and the length of the allowed maternity leave. In the Scandinavian countries, which we consider more committed to gender equality (they also consider themselves to be this way) than the US, the proportion of women full professors in the sciences is much lower than in the US. Almost all women there have children, and almost all of them take the year or more off per child that they are entitled to– there are enough stable, relatively undemanding jobs in science for them below the PI level that they simply have no incentive to work like dogs. The government (women make up 40%+ of the parliaments) and society encourages this– it encourages the men to do the same, and a lot of them do, but enough don’t that there are *still* more than enough people competinng for full professorships. In the US on the other hand, women in science risk their careers and often even livelihoods when they have kids. Some respond by not having kids (at least before tenure), other permanently leave science to stay at home, but a sizable minority go back to work 70+ hour weeks with a few-weeks-old baby, even if only because they are afraid to lose their jobs, do brilliant science, get tenure, get elected to the NAS, etc (I’m at Caltech right now, and know quite a few (at least 6) of the younger tenured women faculty here had children on the tenure track or as postdocs-google will provide you with a few hundred examples of women at R1s having pre-tenure children (many on the tenure-track) and getting tenure, despite the odds). In American academia doing this is socially acceptable, even accepted- in family-friendly, feminist egalitarian Scandinavia, a woman who did this would be immediately labeled a terrible mother. Childlessness for academic women in America is also socially acceptable- while in Scandinavian countries childbearing is considered almost as much a civic duty for women as military service is for men. The result: in America, where having children is seen as a choice and minimally accomodated, and where many mothers don’t work at all- there are many more prominent women scientists, whether with or without children, than in Sweden, where *every* woman is expected to have a child, take year off, go back to 35 hr/week job, repeat twice more. And-oh yeah, the Scandinavians aren’t exactly out-performing Americans in science. Maybe in a field with many more applicants than job *incentivizing* women and men to take time off isn’t that useful…
    Forcing a female assistant professor to come back to work the day she gives birth or quit her job will probably compromise the quality of the scientific workforce- so will allowing her to take two years off with absolutely no penalty. The current American system seems like as good a middle ground as exists anywhere in the world.

  26. Pingback: Tenure Clock Stoppages and Productivity: Re-post « Blue Lab Coats

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