Academic Career Success and Responsible Motherhood: An Impossible Combination?

Emilie LAU

It was 8:30pm on Wednesday. She was sitting on a small chair in the children’s playroom at her residential clubhouse, watching her twin boys chasing each other in wild ecstasy. Her husband was, at the same time, helping their daughter complete her homework. It’s been 14 and half hours since she got up for work but her eyes were bright and her tone energetic as she told me about her career and family. Grace Wong, an academic clinician and mother of 3 children, a 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old twins, shows us with her own experience that young female researchers need not abandon their academic career aspirations in pursuit of a family and children. 


 7KC_8835 copy.jpg


The Career and Family Dilemma


It is a prevailing academic lore, transmitted verbally from professors to students, senior to junior faculty members: academic mothers are less likely to achieve tenure than men and even other women without children. Research has been conducted and literature published that augment this pervasive belief. Professor Mary Ann Mason, faculty co-director of Berkeley School of Law Earl Warren Institute at UCB led a decade-long study that tracked more than 160 000 Ph.Ds; surveyed and interviewed graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty members at the University of California. Her research findings indicated that more women with children than those without, work as part-time and adjunct faculty members; graduate students or postdoctoral fellows with babies are more than twice as likely as new fathers or single women to turn away from an academic research career. Married mothers in all disciplines have much lower chances than married fathers in securing a tenure-track job. Among tenured faculty, 70 percent of the men are married with children, compared with 44 percent of the women. 


Certainly, these findings depict a gloomy prospect for women considering an academic career.  That might be the big picture but it is not the whole picture. There are in fact real-life narratives that counter this discouraging belief. Grace, for instance, is one of those dedicated women who successfully manages the rigour of an academic career and the demanding responsibilities of parenting. 



Onto an Academic Path


Contrary to this prevailing belief that women should give up or put off family planning until after tenure, Grace became an academic shortly after delivering her twins (her second pregnancy). She had an early start in research. 1.5 years before her higher training, by the recommendation and encouragement of her mentor, Professor Henry Chan, Grace participated in some projects and learned to plan a study and analyse data. In the process, she developed a strong interest in conducting research. She wanted to continue pursuing answers for questions that have not yet been answered. She wanted to develop a better way to conduct studies. This drive to keep asking and answering questions motivated her to become an academic.


One might wonder if the additional academic duties might detract clinicians from their clinical duties. For Grace, she found that her academic responsibilities and research actually help her provide better patient care. With research evidence, she was able to make diagnosis more accurately. One most illustrative example is the non-invasive assessment of liver fibrosis. Grace’s doctoral thesis was about this topic with transient elastography. It has changed clinical practice by reducing the need of liver biopsy, which led to great healthcare saving and increased feasibility of liver fibrosis assessment for patients. The research also influenced international practice guidelines, which provide the guidance on the management of more than 2 billion patients with chronic liver diseases worldwide.



Academic or Clinician?


Being an academic clinician, one must expect more responsibilities than a regular clinician. There are administrative, teaching, mentoring and various other duties. But they are well compensated by a greater sense of freedom and flexibility. Grace observes that her junior clinical colleagues and young clinical fellows are burdened by heavy clinical duty so they have little time for other pursuits. If you have an inquisitive mind and an interest in research in addition to seeing patients, Grace advises that you should consider the option of academic clinician early in your career because once you become fully trained, it is difficult to change your career path. So it is important to identify your strengths and find your interest as early as possible.  


Some questions you might want to ask yourself when determining which pathway to choose.

1)  Are you good at interacting with people? Consider not only patients but their families, nurses, and other medical staff. Do you like a bit of personal touch?


2) Are you shy and like to work on independently?


3) Do you want to be more focused and pursue a more researched based career?



After you have carefully considered your personality and career aspiration, you want to ask yourself the most important question: would you like to perform the duties of a clinician or an academic clinician for the upcoming 3 to 4 decades?



Again, the earlier you choose your path, the better you will be able to plan your life and family. Grace is immensely grateful that she made her decision before becoming a specialist. She is now a clinical professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, a mentor of         undergraduate and postgraduate students and mother of 3 children aged 6 to 9. A highly productive and capable woman, Grace performs her academic, clinical and domestic responsibilities whole heartedly and efficiently. Her work and management skills are so effective that many conferences have invited her to share her strategies for success in her multiple roles.



This could arguably be the single most critical element for success in any career. Grace manages her time very effectively and shares how she does so with the following tips:



Sounds quite easy but the key is consistency. Grace gets up at 6 o’ clock every morning (including weekends and holidays) so she can have an early start of the day. Skipping makeup and an elaborate dressing-up routine means she can usually leave the house within 20 minutes after getting up.



Getting up early has many rewards, one of which is relatively uninterrupted time. Use these hours and devote your full attention to your research, writing papers, plan or any tasks that require deep thinking.



Set up goals and to dos for the day, week, month and year. Mark your tasks, big and small on the calendar so you can easily visualize everything at a glance. Doing so will help maximize your potentials and prioritize your activities.



Not even a minute. Throughout the day, there must be spare time in between different activities. Use these minutes well. When you are waiting for the elevator or for your coffee to brew, you can spend the time responding to emails or messages that require simple thoughts.



Especially simple tasks that doesn’t require deep thoughts, get them done before they pile up. Respond to messages or emails instantly can ensure you don’t forget about them.



If you take turn in looking after the kids, not only will you get more done, you will can both build a stronger bond with your kids too. They will learn that both parents are equally important to family life.  



Success in Multiple Roles 


Grace is grateful that her husband plays a large supporting role in the childcare. She owns that it is her hard work and his unwavering support that make the combination of a satisfying academic clinical career and a fulfilling domestic life an attainable reality. Of course, she has had her fair share of struggles but she’s found that balance. Many people have asked her whether her demanding career undermines her role as a mother or whether her young children detract her from her academic pursuits. Grace can always give a confident answer. Her multiple roles, instead of detracting one and another, helps her perform better in each. Being a clinician, she can provide immediate medical attention to her children when they fall sick. Her busy schedule teaches her to value all the more every minute spent with her kids so she seizes every opportunity to help them with their homework, watch them practice musical instruments, attend their school concerts, picnics…Likewise, after becoming a mother, she feels even more emotionally connected with her patients and can communicate with their families delicately. Domestic duties train her time management skills which she expertly applies in her academic role.  All in all, Grace is leading a happy and productive life as an academic mother.


Yet ever a modest achiever, Grace confesses that she is not suggesting she knows a magic way to succeed in academia. Rather, she wants to encourage aspiring academics that the academic motherhood path offers a huge payoff for people who are determined enough to make it work. 




Balancing children and academia is hard but by no means impossible. Grace sets an encouraging example and offers hope and optimism to the topic of work and family in academia. 



Grace is a clinical professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a leading researcher of hepatology in Asia. She was trained at the Prince of Wales Hospital. Her main research interest includes chronic viral hepatitis, non-invasive assessment of liver fibrosis, and hepatocellular carcinoma. A prolific researcher, she has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals including Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Gut. She serves Hepatology (Hong Kong edition) as the chief editor. She enjoys tending patients and mentoring students. A popular speaker at GI conferences, she travels around the world frequently but she does everything she can to reserve leisure time to spend with her family. One of their favourite pastimes is singing karaoke together.