When I gave the presentation on how I obtained my VENI grant for ProUt recently, I showed two slides about my CV: one with my academic CV and one with my real CV. By far, most of the questions and (positive) reactions I received afterwards were about these two slides. What do I mean by “real” CV? Besides the professional activities that go on your “curriculum vitae”, we all do also have some “extracurricular” activities. While many of these activities might be irrelevant to your academic career, some have a crucial impact on your professional life, specifically for early career researchers like myself: starting a family and raising your children. The often meandering career path of a young academic is frequently due to what you don’t see on a professional CV.
For instance, in my VENI grant application I had to indicate my “work experience since graduating” and the total “man years of research”. Because I had less “man years of research” than years passed since obtaining my PhD, I needed to explain this apparent period of inactivity. Indeed, I had worked half-time for 6 months, both during my doctoral as well as my postdoctoral employment at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, due to parental leave.
For each grant I obtained, my wife and I also had a child. While this may sound like perfect balance on paper, reality is a lot messier. Rather than discussing how to keep your private and professional life in balance (as if it were a zero-sum game), here I’d like to talk about the background that made it possible for me to have both a career and a family at all.
I started grad school in Leuven, in Belgium, barely a month after marrying and was gone for three days a week. Already then we felt that our future employment would probably consist in a succession of short term projects and would require a lot of flexibility on our part. Hence, we had no certainty about the future, except that the future would bring no more certainty than we had right now. So why wait starting a family? We didn’t fear our children to negatively affect our future career as much as we feared our career to negatively affect our future family. Our first child was born while my wife and I were both still in grad school, she in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, and I still in Leuven. My wife started working part-time and I took as much parental leave as I could. Instead of staying in Leuven three days (two nights) a week, I reduced it to two (one night). After completing my PhD, I managed to obtain funding for a post-doc position, again at the Husserl-Archives in Leuven. My wife finished up her dissertation while pregnant with our second child and defended a few months after giving birth. I again took as much parental leave as possible, and concentrated all my face-to-face activities in Leuven (meetings, lectures, etc.) in one afternoon a week, so I didn’t have to sleep away from home anymore (it is a 3+ hour commute by train: I’d get there by lunch and be back home late in the evening). Since this was not really sustainable, I knew that I had to find work closer to home soon. Even though I still had a year of funding left in Belgium, I applied for an NWO VENI grant in the Netherlands, successfully. Now my commute is 20 minutes by bike, I can drop off my children at school around the corner from my office and do the shopping on the way back home. Moreover, at the beginning of last month we had our third child, which would have been unfeasible had I still been working abroad. This is also the reason that instead of working full-time and taking a one-time parental leave, I am now working part-time.
Several factors have made this path possible at all. First of all the Belgian FWO grants allowed for parental leaves and a (very generous) extension of the contract, and the Dutch NWO VENI grant had the option of taking 4 years at 75% instead of 3 years full-time (besides allowing for an extension in the application deadline of 3 years after the PhD in connection with parental leave). Secondly, besides the flexibility of the grants, I have to thank my supervisor in Leuven, Ullrich Melle, for understanding my situation and allowing me such great autonomy in working from home during grad school and as postdoc, and the Institute for Philosophy of the KULeuven, for enabling me to schedule lectures and examinations to suit my international commute. Being in grad school herself, my wife understood very well the demands of an academic career. Without her support (and proofreading), I would have gone nowhere.
Without the flexibility and support from my grants, employers, mentors and family, my life would be impossible. Not only do these allow me to better fulfill my role as a husband and father, but also allow me to pursue a professional academic career at all. Without all this I probably would not have had both a family and an academic career at all, as my wife and I would have waited for more favorable conditions to start a family or I would have pursued an alternative career, outside academia but closer to home.
So next time you meet a successful academic, ask yourself: what is going on behind the scenes? What had to be sacrificed and by whom to make this possible? What is the real CV that includes the secret life of the academic?