Support for faculty on long-term leave is a career lifeline

Institutions and academics both benefit when support frameworks are in place to help extended leavers back into work. Four educators offer a case study in what one might look like




Cranfield University
14 Feb 2024
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A lifesaver represents career support for academics on extended leave

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The “leaky pipeline” of women leaving academia after having children is a well-documented symptom of failures in the higher education system to support academics who might need to, or choose to, take extended periods of leave. However, it is possible to support an extended leaver (those who choose to take more than one year out for family or caring responsibilities) and we show what that can look like – from the perspective of the leaver, her principal investigator (PI), their line manager and a human resources professional.

Why solutions are needed to re-integrate academics on maternity and extended leave (Theresa Mercer)

“I am so sorry, Jim, but I don’t think I will be able to return to my research fellow position after my maternity leave period.” This was the start of the teary conversation I had with Jim Harris, my PI, in 2014 during what I thought was the end of my academic career.

I discovered I was pregnant three months into my role working as a research fellow on an exciting research project investigating the link between biodiversity and ecosystem services. It came as a shock and I was heavily involved in the field planning, fieldwork and stakeholder engagement with the project, relishing the opportunity to work on interesting science with an interdisciplinary team across a large consortium.

Becoming a mother was a steep learning curve for me. I found that my priorities and perspective changed. My husband was already in a tenured position on the other side of the UK, so it made sense for me to move to where he was based while I was on maternity leave. As the end of my leave approached, however, I realised that cross-country commuting wouldn’t be possible. But I also knew that I wanted more time out to focus on motherhood and had no idea how I would get back into academia when I was ready.

At the time I didn’t know that support was available for extended leave beyond statutory maternity leave (52 weeks in the UK). There were no formal provisions in place that I knew of at my institution, and I hadn’t heard of any initiatives within the sector. So when I heard back from Professor Harris a few days after my call I was surprised.

“Theresa, you do not need to resign,” he assured me, telling me that I could continue working on the project on a casual contract. This was a forward-thinking and supportive move that allowed me to work remotely and flexibly (pre-Covid). It proved to be an absolute career lifeline for me. I was able to keep up to date with developments in my field and my PI and project manager (Ron Corstanje) gave me constant career mentoring and friendship for what turned out to be five years away from full- or part-time academic work – well beyond the timeline of the research project I was involved in.

While a growing number of initiatives designed to support women and parents back into academia after taking time out are helpful, what is missing is support while they are away. This can help make the transition back into academia less of a shock to the system. I managed to re-enter academia as a lecturer in late 2018 and I know this is because I was enabled to keep my hand in the work while I was on leave.

How principal investigators can offer empathetic leadership to academics on extended leave (Jim Harris)

I discovered how to secure Theresa’s continued engagement with the project, in which she had already invested significant time, effort and intellectual contribution, through discussions with colleagues in the university’s academic and support services. I was aware that this had been done for short-term contracts, mainly for graduates who were looking to secure permanent positions, but not in the context of extended leavers where maternity leave had come to an end. I had help from a supportive manager and an available budget. With some careful management of costs and activities, we were able to make it happen. Having a clearly identified task for Theresa was a significant help in making the case internally, and Theresa’s continued engagement with the whole project followed naturally. It would be harder to offer extended leave to an academic, even on a casual contract basis, if it were not tied to a specific project or task. Exploring honorary positions, such as visiting fellowships, could be a solution to ensuring an ongoing relationship with the extended leaver.

How line managers can help people return from extended leave (Ron Corstanje)

A career in science research or teaching is often substantially more than an exercise in paid employment. It involves wide-ranging commitments to the institution, the field of science and/or teaching. It is often described as more than a professional career, but rather a calling or vocation, with success measured by peer groups through the value of contributions to your discipline, students and institution. A period of time out, whether this is for maternity/paternity reasons, health or other personal circumstances, can have an impact on colleagues when they return to work and sometimes as their careers progress. However, the success of an organisation, a scientific discipline, a research or teaching community is entirely dependent on its people. It is imperative that we actively retain talented extended leavers who might otherwise become victims of the leaky pipeline.

As a line manager, research group and centre lead (of 40 FTEs), enabling the professional success of my team members is one of my key aims. This approach requires individual growth plans for my team’s personal opportunities and challenges. To work, these plans need to be embedded in an organisational culture that is invested in accelerating their careers, whether they are in research or teaching. Continued support for extended leavers should be led by them and take into account their level of interest and capability/ability throughout the period they are away. This needs to be coupled with a community-led return plan that, again, delivers the appropriate level of support. The framework with which to support and develop their careers should also rekindle the interest and enjoyment in careers in science that attracted them to it in the first place.

How higher education can support people on extended leave (all)

Our call to HE institutions is to consider how you can better serve those in your workforce who might want to take extended periods of leave, through both formal provisions such as casual contracts or honorary positions, alongside informal support. We found that there were no formal structures in place to keep Theresa engaged while she was on leave. What we achieved was down to the will of her PI and the strong working relationship they had. This support should not be dependent on relationships only; universities should also establish formal support frameworks that are specific to individuals’ needs, flexible and innovative.

Networks connecting parents and carers that give extended leavers the chance to share their experiences would also be helpful. And allowing for a phased return (similar to a situation in which someone has been off on long-term sick leave), providing a carers fund to support childcare at conferences and flexible working arrangements can also help extended leavers to remain in the workforce.

And for extended leavers, our advice is to speak to your university support services to see what is available; nurture your networks; keep your hand in with papers and developments in your field; keep your curiosity alive; and remember that, in your time away, you will develop new skills – such as project management or productivity – that will serve you well if you decide to return.

Extended leavers have so much to offer academia. And if they are able to maintain their careers then institutions will have greater staff retention. It is our hope that formal structures to plug the leaky pipeline will become the norm for our sector. Our institution has shown how life changing this support can be.

Theresa Mercer is a senior lecturer in environmental sustainability and environment programme director and Jim Harris is a professor of environmental technology, both within the Cranfield Environment Centre. Ron Corstanje is a professor of environmental data science and head of the Cranfield Environment Centre. Chhaya Kerai-Jones is a business partner within the people and culture department. All authors are based at Cranfield University, UK.

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