Computing Profession

Work-Family Balance in Academia?

What I learned from the obstacles that came my way as a new parent and doctoral student.

Luisa Herrmann

This article is based on the talk “Work-Family Balance in Academia? — Reflections on my Ph.D. Time as a Parent” I gave at the Logic Mentoring Workshop (LMW 2024) this year. Even though I was speaking from the perspective of a parent, large parts of it concern academic staff in general, not only researchers with a family. However, these aspects often become apparent at the very moment when suddenly there is no free time left to spend for (extra) work. I pointed out a difficulty that affects almost everyone, but especially mid-level academics (doctoral students and temporary postdocs)—the challenge of finding a good balance between free time (or family time or care work) and work time which, although set at 40 hours per week in Germany, in academia often goes far beyond that.

Although I clearly have no solution for the problem in general, I can share a handful of obstacles that came my way and what I learned from them.

Why Do I Emphasize the Family Perspective?

Because it is my perspective. But it is (or might be) also the perspective of many other women pursuing an academic career: In Germany, according to the official statistics [1,2], in 2022 the median age of all Ph.D. candidates in computer science was 30.2, whereas the average age of women when giving birth for the first time was 29.9. We want to get more women into science? Then let’s also talk about work-family balance.

It is important to note that fathers can also be affected by these issues and should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, it is unfortunately still the case that women often bear the main burden when it comes to balancing work and family life.

How My Journey Started

I had my first child during my doctoral studies. At that time, I was a scholarship holder in a Ph.D. training group and my daily work was comparable to that of other doctoral students: I conducted research, wrote papers, and participated in conferences and workshops. To be candid, I believed (perhaps naively) that my work would continue in a similar manner after giving birth: I would read exciting papers during my parental leave, I would also use a future part-time position efficiently for research, and I would simply bring my children with me to all conferences.

The reality was different. Despite only staying at home for six months after my children were born, during this time I was not only completely invisible to my research environment, but also blind to it (yes, with a newborn and later two small children, I didn’t read any exciting papers during my parental leave). Although I was able to complete my doctorate relatively quickly in my scholarship position (even working part-time), I faced significant challenges in my subsequent university-paid position: due to my teaching obligations, numerous administrative tasks (which were not always proportionate to part-time work), and the lack of a clear research plan following my doctoral studies, my working hours were over quickly each week, despite the fact that I had not conducted much active research. Furthermore, I refrained from attending conferences during this period (a mistake!): as we are all aware, babies soon become 3-year-olds with their own ideas and, by the time they start school (at age six in Germany), traveling together outside school holidays is no longer an option.

Despite the (logistic) challenges that arise when it comes to taking children to events or refusing certain tasks due to time constraints, one particular fear was the main reason for my way of working: I did not want to be perceived as a “mom,” but as a full colleague. Unfortunately, there were no role models of part-time working scientists-and-mothers in my immediate environment which I could have followed.

Lessons Learned

When I look back, there are a few things that I wish had gone differently or that I would do better now:

  • Networking is crucial in research, visibility is necessary for any advancement and, above all, scientific exchange is not only very beneficial, but also very motivating. Even if it might complicate things, in retrospect I would be willing to invest a lot more organizational effort to take part in scientific events despite (and with!) children and to isolate myself less.
  • I had the most problems at times when I was lacking a clear roadmap, especially after my doctorate. Even though a well-planned research project is certainly helpful at any time, it is all the more important in times of part-time work and in the presence of many other tasks that can otherwise easily make you lose focus.
  • I’m still working on communicating my limits better and comparing myself less with others. At the latest when I found myself reviewing papers at home with a newborn because I felt uncomfortable saying I was on parental leave (again), I realized I need to work on this. Ultimately, honest communication not only helps yourself, but also contributes to making our working environment more family-friendly in the long run.
  • Last but not least: role models are incredibly important. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t had to learn all these points the hard way myself, but that someone had been there to prepare me. Now that I’m in a working group where I’m not the only one with children, I can see how helpful the exchange would have been at an earlier stage.

A Broader Perspective

I think it’s essential to create visibility for the huge challenge of “combining work and family life.” For me, the point at which I had children led to the biggest change in my (even long-term) working life, and many of my female colleagues and friends left science at this point. I think everyone would benefit from a larger and more open exchange (including with colleagues without children) about how difficult it is to no longer be able to invest as much time and energy as you want/can into your own research—in an environment that actually still demands exactly that. It would help all of us to perceive colleagues who were overcoming these difficulties and to know that these are not mere personal struggles.

And: especially because our job with conferences, workshops and research stays goes well beyond a normal 40-hour week, for which childcare is usually organized, I would like families to be given more consideration and children to be more visible at our events. Ultimately, this would perhaps allay young mothers’ fear of not being taken seriously with children in tow.

Luisa Herrmann is a postdoctoral researcher in the Computational Logic Group (  at TU Dresden and in ScaDS.AI Dresden/Leipzig ( She is mainly working in the field of formal languages and automata theory.



Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More