MTP Cases: Balancing Work-Life

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How to Assist Effectively as a Mentor in Balancing Work and Life

The following case scenarios are to assist in defining challenges and solutions when balancing work and life. Each case offers tools to evaluate, handle, and improve challenging situation you may face mentoring.

How to Assist Effectively as a Mentor in Balancing Work and Life

The challenge of asking for personal information

A fellow (or post-doc) has just joined your research team. You have met several times to discuss their professional goals and career objectives, potential research projects, sources of funding, and general timelines for their professional life, but you realize that you know very little about their personal goals and objectives and general timelines for their personal life. Should you ask about this "personal" information?

Comment 1: There are several issues included on the Individual development plan (IDP) that I give my mentee that they may or may not discuss. These issues should be addressed, but do not need to be documented. (a) Work environment: How are things at work? Are there any problems with financial/administrative issues, colleagues, resources, etc.? (b) Home environment: Are there any stresses or problems at home that we can help with? How are things going generally? How is your quality of life?

Comment 2: To respect the whole person—researcher, professional and human being with a life (maybe...)—I think you should ask. Integrating the whole person allows the best career advice. These questions should be a routine part of most discussions about a mentee's career goals and planning. This mentor is a bit late in addressing personal issues/needs.

If the mentee doesn't want to talk about his/her personal life, that is fine. Be clear that you are asking to help them and not to pry or cross personal boundaries (and be careful NOT to cross boundaries—i.e. sexual preference, contraception, etc., unless initiated by mentee). This only backfires if the information is used against a mentee. For example, the mentor uses personal information in a discussion with others in the department to jeopardize the mentee ("she won't be able to do as much work as the other persons because she is thinking about having another child...")

Mentors should use their experience to educate the department about the imperative to nurture the whole person to achieve the greatest academic success. Rather than bemoaning that someone needs time for family care (childbearing, more time for family, illness in the family, etc.). They should encourage the longer-term perspective of a happy, well-cared for person who is more likely to both achieve academic success and contribute to others to allow them the same flexibility. For example, younger faculty members may need time for childbearing/childcare while middle-age faculty need time for elder care and older for their own medical care. Mentors may need to remind the department that the younger women taking maternity leave are likely to be the ones covering for the prostate cancer leave for the older men... This is an inherent problem in timing—reproduction and family needs often occur during junior years when one is expected to be exceedingly productive and focused and writing to secure funding support, which is much harder for junior (less accomplished) researchers. In the senior years, a researcher is often running pretty smoothly—a well-entrenched machine for funding, research and publications as well as a functional team are often in place. The old adage, why is youth wasted on the young comes to mind...

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When and how to ask about personal information

A fellow (or post-doc) has just joined your research team. You have met several times to discuss their professional goals and career objectives, potential research projects, sources of funding, and general timelines for their professional life, but you realize that you know very little about their personal goals and objectives and general timelines for their personal life. When and how should you ask about this "personal" information?

Comment 1: As the lead mentor, your mentee may not want to discuss their personal issues with you. It certainly seems reasonable to offer and also mention they have a team of mentors and they can discuss any issues they may have with one of them, if they feel more comfortable.

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How to handle the mentee's refusal to disclose any personal information

A fellow (or post-doc) has just joined your research team. You have met several times to discuss their professional goals and career objectives, potential research projects, sources of funding, and general timelines for their professional life, but you realize that you know very little about their personal goals and objectives and general timelines for their personal life. What could you do if the fellow/post-doc becomes angry and states that "my personal life is none of your business"?

Comment 1: Understandable—perhaps they should talk with one of their other mentors?

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The role of the mentoring relationship in promoting the work-life balance

Dr X is a 32 year old Assistant Professor who joined the faculty five years ago. When first hired, he had negotiated to work 80% time in order to spend more time at home with his young child but had planned to increase to 100% in a few years to pursue the research he had started during fellowship. Lately, however, he is feeling increasing work-life conflict and is thinking of cutting back to 70%, so he could have more time to coach his son's soccer team and pursue his black belt in Aikido. He has not raised these issues with his mentor, a 55 year old Professor, whom he senses is growing frustrated with him. What is the role of the mentoring relationship in promoting work-life balance? What are the responsibilities of the mentor and mentee to insure that work-life balance is addressed? How are work and life expectations identified, and can they both be met? To what extent are the differing value systems of Dr. X and his mentor a factor in their relationship?

Comment 1: Thinking through with them what would make them more successful and have a's usually that they are overcommitted. Perhaps, as their lead mentor talking with their mentor team and/or their chair or division director about how to free them of unnecessary unproductive duties. I have done this often—saying no for the junior person, helping them prioritize and what to say no to, educating their division chief or chair as to their series and demands.

Comment 2: The work-life balance should be discussed, without judgment based on the mentors perspectives and values, to promote balance. The mentor needs to facilitate these discussions of work-life balance, since they are often uncomfortable or scary to the mentee. The mentee is often terribly torn between what s/he wants to do, family needs and expectations, and too little time in the day. Most are working efficiently and exhaustively at work then again after kids are in bed or elder care is completed. They are often trying to take up as much slack as possible being super-professor, super-parent, super-spouse, and super worn out...

There needs to be explicit discussion of different productivity during different phases of a mentee's career. People with fewer outside demands may well work more and be more productive. How productive is productive enough? How can this be understood and supported within a department? How active can the mentor be in advocating for his/her mentee's in different phases of their career?

This is very challenging when the mentor wears many hats, as mentor/advisor, division chief responsible for clinical/teaching productivity, or research mentor balancing his/her research program productivity and staffing. We need to try our best to be a mentor when wearing that hat, even if our advice adversely affects our other missions.

The university has many tracks and it is reasonable to change when one realizes with thoughtful planning that they should be in a different track. Like all of us, mentees need to make sometimes painful decisions and compromise based on other life circumstances. While having young kids and wanting to be an active parent, the mentee may elect to choose a different track/career path at the University of California or find a different position that meets his personal needs. We can't have our cake and eat it too. We have to decide how best optimize our professional and personal needs (and avoid longer-term regrets). A thoughtful decision and informed compromise works the best for many people.

Leaving your personal values at the door is often necessary. The guidelines for promotion within each track are somewhat objective. The mentor can advise on how to most effectively and efficiently meet the goals, but needs to accept that others may do this in a different way than s/he did. We are in a new day with new roles for people beyond the stereotypical roles experiences by many 50+ year old professors. If you can't advise without judging, consider another role.

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A new baby and declining productivity

The mentee shows decreasing productivity as the result of a new baby in their family. The baby is now 12 months old, but things are still slipping through the cracks. What should you do?

Comment 1: It is important to plan and anticipate when it is known that life-changing events are imminent (impending births; illnesses; deaths).

Comment 2: Be mentee-centered. The mentor's obligation is to the mentee, not to the program or the institution, so it is important to get the mentees to think about what it is that they want from their career, their personal and family life. The mentor should be supportive regardless of the mentee's decision.

Comment 3: Don't be afraid to open doors and to discuss personal circumstances that might be at play, or to consider whether time-off or time away from work is the best option. A house call to visit the mentee and their home situation, or an invitation to the mentee and his/her family to your home can sometimes be enlightening.

Comment 4: Don't forget your research program. The mentor has to pay attention to his /her own funding and to make sure that the program's needs and future funding are being met and that all members of the research team are treated comparably.

Comment 5: Don't forget the institution. The mentor needs to keep the rules of the institution, e.g., amount of leave allowed to still be in line for promotion, in mind when advising the mentee.

Comment 6: Keep the mentee in balance. Mentoring is about more than just the CV; it is a personal relationship and requires checking in with the mentee.

Comment 7: If you feel comfortable talking about it, it may be very helpful to check in with the mentee regarding their home life and how the baby is sleeping. Some babies interrupt the sleep of the whole household for many months to years, which can impact the happiness and productivity of everyone in the family. A referral to a sleep consultant may work miracles!

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Seminar 4: Addressing academic advancement and taking time off

Your mentee has been successful and shares with you his partner is pregnant with their third child and he would like to take some time off. What and where are the rules and regulations for the university? Who can he talk to? Your mentee also wants your assistance with maintaining his on-track promotion. How can you assist?

Comment 1: Carefully review their commitments. Perhaps talk with their Division Director or Chair to limit the clinical load, administrative or teaching requests, so they can focus on writing grants and manuscripts. Offer to review all new requests and assist with evaluating, if they are important and focused for their career...and perhaps offer them to use your name if they need to say "No...Thank you for the kind offer to join the XX committee, however, after discussion with my lead research mentor, Dr. XX, who advised me to focus on my research at this time to be successful in my series, I decided to ..."

Comment 2: Flexibility—by the mentee/partner/family, mentor and division/department/university—is imperative to achieve work-life balance. Open discussions should be encouraged (and not punished) to help the mentee find the best plan. Time for family now will likely pay off for all when the mentee returns happier, more dedicated and productive. If he doesn't find this balance, he may elect to pursue a different track.

Comment 3: Advancement needs to be based on productivity and accomplishment but the bar should be somewhat flexible. People with fewer outside demands may well be more productive. Yet, how productive is productive enough? How many publications and how much grant support are needed? Defining these requirements and allowing some wiggle-room for different work-life issues helps create uniform expectations. The mentee needs to do "enough" to be ready for his on-track promotion or accept the compromise of a delayed promotion for spending more time with family. You can't have your cake and eat it too, even in a really supportive environment.

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Assistance for promotion despite new baby

Your mentee shares with you that s/he wants your assistance with maintaining their on-track promotion even though they have a new baby, and it has been a struggle. How can you assist?

Comment 1: I think as in case 6. Maybe also recommending that the mentee talks with their departmental mentor as to the departmental rules and regulations or how it has been done before? Are they on track and can the departmental mentor make suggestions?

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Academic career or family life

One of your mentees indicates that academic career is just not compatible with having a family life given the challenges of continued research productivity, obtaining funding, in addition to the increasing demand of more clinical work. What would be your response?

Comment 1: There are many tracks in the university and others may be more suitable for him/her. Encourage him/her to identify goals, make an informed choice on how to achieve the goals and help him/her navigate the system.

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"Life events mentoring"

A postdoctoral fellow goes to his mentor and reports that he is having marital problems. What should you do? Should the mentor be involved in helping him? If so, should the mentor become involved personally, or should the mentor make a referral to other people/agencies? To what extent should the primary mentor be involved in mentoring "life events mentoring" vs. "academic mentoring"?

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An illness in the family

One of the junior faculty in your department with aspiration to be an independent investigator tells you that her father has recently suffered a debilitating stroke. Her father resides in Florida. Since she is the only child and because of her close relationship with her father, she wants to visit with him more often to care for him. In order to do this, she is thinking of a part time career.

What would be your advice?

Comment 1: What are the options within the University of California and with the constraints of her research commitments? Can her work be done remotely with periodic trips to San Francisco? Can she be freed form clinical and administrative commitments to allow her smaller time commitment to be focused on research? Does this break allow time to do analyses and publications or grant writing?

Comment 2: As her mentor, I would help her solve the problem and navigate the system to find a reasonable solution.

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Addressing the financial stresses of an academic career

Dr. John is a 35 year old Assistant Professor who joined the faculty seven years ago. Both he and his wife work at UCSF are committed to staying in San Francisco and would like to buy a home. They recently had a child and they are now both back at work "full-time." Among many life stressors, they are struggling with affording childcare. Dr. John is excelling at his career and will likely be advanced to Associate this year and his wife is also doing well and enjoying her position. He talks with you, his lead mentor, about their challenge of wanting to stay at UCSF but also wanting to buy a home and afford to live in San Francisco. The affordability dilemma is adding tremendous stress to his family and relationship and interfering with his work productivity. What is the role of the mentoring relationship in promoting this affording life balance? What are his options? Are there resources to help him?

Comment 1: The high economic cost and subsequent family burden of living in the Bay Area is a problem for many/most faculty. Faculty end up moonlighting, starving, making challenging family decisions about partners working, moving out of the city, leaving academic medicine or simply not coming to UCSF, making recruitment a nightmare.

Comment 2: In addition to the comparatively low salaries paid by UCSF, we need to deal with the high costs of housing, tuition for grade school, the absence of a faculty "discount" for college/university, etc.

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Support for talented junior faculty who have encountered professional or personal impediments

Your Mentee had been productive with manuscripts and pilot grants, however, over the last year, their mother was diagnosed with and recently died from pancreatic cancer. Prior to her diagnosis and illness, their mother provided substantial support for the mentee's family including childcare, cooking, and general support. This life event has put the mentee's productivity on a slower course, and your mentee needs support to complete a pilot project for future funding from the NIH.

Comment 1: UCSF Faculty Development Awards are intended to provide support (up to $25,000.00) for talented junior faculty who have encountered professional or personal impediments. A lack of funding alone is not a sufficient obstacle. For examples, unexpected loss of mentorship, unexpected loss of colleagues resulting in increased teaching and clinical responsibilities, and personal family losses or illnesses. The funds may be used for release time, purchase of research and laboratory equipment, research assistance, or research-related travel allowances and/or support for attendance and participation in professional meetings.

Here are some resources:

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Funding for care expenses during conference travels

Your mentee would like to attend a national or international meeting, but s/he is with significant elder care responsibilities. S/he asks you whether you know any funding opportunities that support care expenses while faculty travel to conferences.

Comment 1: The School of Medicine Travel Award Program supports faculty development by providing one award of up to $2,000 to finance child, elder, or other dependent care expenses while faculty travel to conferences.

Regardless of series, all Assistant, Associate, and Full Professors are eligible for one award. Faculty members who have received a Travel Award are not eligible for a second award. Funding must be requested in advance of travel, and the presentation of research at the conference is required.

The application must include a budget about how funds will be used to support care for child, elder, or dependent care expenses related to attending either at the meeting or at home, a one paragraph explanation about why this funding is important for you, identification of the conference, as well as its location and dates, and an explanation of how your presence at the meeting will help your career advancement.

The application form can be found at this School of Medicine website. All applications may be submitted to Russell Fitzgerald or at Box 0410.

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Local fun vacations

Where can we go for local vacations?

Comment 1: For smaller kids before they are big time skiers or snowboarders: Granlikbakken

Comment 2: When kids are learning to ride bikes: highly recommend a paved path near Half Moon Bay: Park at the Princeton Harbor and find the bike path near the boat ramp—it goes all the way to HMB and is paved and flat!

Comment 3: The Point Reyes National Seashore is just a 1-hour drive north from San Francisco and seems so remote you can hardly believe you are near a major city. My favorite things are to hike out to Tomales Point to see the tule elk and to wade in the Limantour Estero with the bat rays and leopard sharks.

A fascinating paper by Nawjin et al. (Appl. Res. Qual. Life 5:35-47, 2010) showed that the anticipation of a vacation promotes more happiness than the vacation itself!

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How to achieve (or at least come close to achieving) the elusive work-life balance?

During a recent meeting your mentee discloses that the demands of academia often leave her feeling unbalanced. She enjoys her work, does not mind the focus or drive necessary to thrive in this environment, and has several compelling reasons why she wants to remain in academia. However, her family, friends and outside interests are important too, and she periodically realizes that an intense work focus compromises her ability to maintain relationships and interests. Since this state of unbalance fluctuates, she knows that it is possible to be in a "good phase," and asks how you maintain balance in your life.

Comment 1: Work-life balance seems to be an issue for just about everyone in academia. Even when one achieves a semblance of balance, it may be short-lived because both work and life change continuously. Given the constant flux, it’s important to keep checking in with yourself about the people and things you value, and whether you’re paying enough attention to them. Everyone has their own system for doing this and mine involves a weekly check-in with myself about whether I’m satisfied with the balance of my attention to 10 areas. The answer is almost always that I am not satisfied, so I make active decisions to shift.

  1. Partner
  2. Family
  3. Friends
  4. Exercise and Nutrition
  5. Dreams and Goals
  6. Home Organization
  7. Learning
  8. Exploring and Travel
  9. Community
  10. Work/Career

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Advice on balancing a new baby and work needed or not?

Your mentee is an Assistant Professor, step 3, who has recently had twin girls. Up until now she had been a highly productive faculty member and well on track to make tenure. She has not been struggling since having the babies, and feels she will not have any problems maintaining her career as she has a very supportive family. She shares with you some recent comments made to her by her department chair who suggested she take a year off to take care of the children. Her department chair stated that she took off time when she was had children. What advice would you give your mentee?

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Work-life balance—faculty negotiations

Your mentee is a married mother of two young children whose husband and family are well-rooted in the local community. She is finishing a training program and is in search of a job. Her options include a medical center department well suited to her personality and immediate family situation, but out of state and away from her support network. Another is a more local position but with less academic opportunity for advancement. As a mentor, how would you counsel her on her decision making?

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Explaining personal circumstances

How do I explain personal circumstances that may have reduced my productivity?

Comment 1: This can be included in the biosketch. This modification of the Biographical Sketch will permit Program Directors/Principal Investigators and other senior/key staff to describe personal circumstances that may have reduced productivity. Peer reviewers and others will then have more complete information on which to base their assessment of qualifications and productivity relevant to the proposed role on the project.

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