Half Time

Jan 31 2011 Published by under career issues, postdocs

An early-career reader wonders whether faculty would be receptive to the idea of a half-time postdoc.

For some research projects, I think that a half-time arrangement would work just fine. In fact, I have had part-time (including half-time) postdocs cost-shared with a research facility or with another colleague at a different university. Although these postdocs were full-time researchers, the fact that they didn't spend 100% of their time on research that involved me has not been a problem.

I have not had a half-time postdoc who spent the other half doing something else entirely (e.g., being a half-time so-called stay-at-home-mom or -dad), but I would certainly be willing to work with someone in this type of arrangement. Certain projects would not be suitable for a part-time postdoc of this sort, but many would be.

So, faculty readers who supervise postdocs: What do you think?

Do you, have you, or would you work with a half-time postdoc, even if the other half was not spent on research or other discipline-related work?

19 responses so far

  • MZ says:

    Interesting idea, and I'm in favor in the abstract. In reality, though, "half-time" with any position, post-doc or not, often ends up being more than that. Our university system simply doesn't permit hiring partial appointment postdocs, so for us it's not even an option. It's open to abuse, too; it can be hard to scale back expectations for productivity, and I suspect people could end up being exploited.

  • Ah says:

    My husband is a full time post doc who tried to go part time after our baby was born. The official university position (in the UK) for researchers (faculty or postdoc) is that you can go part time iff you can find someone who wants and is qualified for the other half of the job. In practice, this often means you need two postdocs in the same lab to go part time synchronously. Of course, it is often very hard to do that, but it is at least an option. Other part time arrangements are entirely at the discretion of the PI.

  • S Seguin says:

    I work with a half time postdoc, her arrangement is that she doesn't work when her kids are home. If school is canceled for a snow day, she stay home. While she does come in for regular weekend work, she is consistently gone to pick up her kids at 3pm. The boss says he doesn't care what hours she keeps, but has asked her to do a couple 12 hour time courses this fall (which usually falls to an agreeable undergrad to finish). Her project is fairly low impact, but she's published a lot more often than I have during the same period. One major factor that prevents her from being exploited, is that she is personal friends with the boss's wife.

  • I would entertain this possibility, but *only* for a post-doc who had been productively full-time in my lab for some period of time before going part-time, and *only* if the post-doc wanted to spend the other half of the time doing something non-scientific. I would *never ever* have a post-doc in my lab who was splitting time between my lab and another lab.

  • Eilat says:

    When I was in grad school my advisor hired a "post-grad" (a college graduate who has not yet entered graduate school but is either planning to, or wants extra research experience to decide) shared with another prof. Half a year working for him and the other half working for the other professor.

  • psj says:

    I would hire someone part time -- they are cheaper! But I have a question: what about benefits? At a lot of places, if you are not a full-time employee, you are not eligible for health and retirement benefits. It seems to me that someone who wants to work part-time to accommodate family needs is likely to need the benefits that come with full-time work.

  • GMP says:

    I've had half-time postdocs for a limited amount of time, e.g. with students who have graduated with a PhD but want to stay around for another couple of months while wrapping up papers and interviewing for industry jobs. With the current job market, I have seen a number of faculty in my department give this type of a safety net to their recent grads.

    I am also considering doing a part-time postdoc with my current full-time postdoc who has a difficult commuting situation (family lives 2.5 hrs away). If his TT search doesn't pan out this year, he'd like a setup where he spends most of his time in the city where his family lives, while keeping the affiliation with my university and continuting to work part-time. He's been a very good and productive postdoc and telecommuting has worked out well for us in the past, so I don't have a problem with this arrangement.

    psj -- your question regarding benefits is a very good one. At my university anyone with at least a 33% appointment is entitled to health insurance, but postdocs (full time or not) don't get retirement contributions (hence the fringe&benefits rate is appreaciably lower for them than for faculty/staff).

  • plam says:

    psj: postdocs get benefits? I had no benefits at all when I held a Canadian government postdoc. They just mailed me two cheques a year. Then again, we have "socialized medicine" here. I can imagine that the rules would be different in the US.

  • drugmonkey says:

    CPP, are you being scientifically paranoid, egotistical or what? What's the diff if the other time is at the piano, at home w/ kids or working at another lab?

  • Miss Outlier says:

    I would expect they present different issues - if they are 1/2 time with another lab, you run the risk that the other PI demands more time, or the postdoc finds the other project more interesting and spends more time there. On the other hand, it may be hard to establish boundaries with the 1/2 time at home. I would find it hard to justify going home early, when all that waits at home is laundry. Or, maybe hard to justify going in to work, when children who need you are at home.

    So I would just guess it requires the postdoc to be very disciplined with time management, no matter what the other 1/2 time is spent on.

  • Lora says:

    I did a part time post doc recently (9-4 mwf). I think it was successful (2 papers after 2 years) because 1) I had done a previous post-doc for 3 yrs, took a break to have 2 kids, then wanted to get back into research (i.e., I had a good amount of experience already) 2) the project was not one that required long data taking, a lot of painstaking set-up or prep time. Not that it was easy, but just not brand new or ridiculously hard to get working. In looking for someone who would let me work part time, I found that most PIs were not interested. I ended up going to a prof who knew me from grad school and knew that I could be productive in 20 hrs a week. Finding a position like this I think is harder when you don't have connections. Now that my daughter is 6 and my son is almost 4, I am back to work full time at a gov't lab. It was the perfect transition for me and I wish it would happen more often. I can understand why a PIs might be resistant to this idea, though. My prof took a chance on me and I'm glad he did (and hopefully he's glad too).

  • msphd says:

    Yes, CPP, what drugmonkey said. Although I'm guessing it might be field-specific. In my field, splitting time makes no sense unless it's for an interdisciplinary project, and even then it's a nightmare for the postdoc who has to shuttle back and forth.

    I think this is an interesting proposal, but what about benefits? The problem with half-time is that usually there is no health coverage.

    Also, this only makes sense as a temporary situation or when it is designed to be a dead-end job. No postdoc who works part-time is going to be considered competitive when their "training" ends.

  • rs says:

    I worked half time for number of years until my children started going to school. I am now a junior faculty in a big publics state university, so yes, it is possible, but it is hard and the candidate will have hard time to justify that she/he is as smart as anyone else, and can be productive even in half time.

  • Russell says:

    Theres a half-time postdoc in one of the labs of my good friend (we're both grad students). My friend complains about their halftime postdoc all the time because the excuse of being half-time is often used as an excuse to shirk normal lab duties (like sufficiently cleaning up after yourself, or routine instrument maintenance). It gets worse that this particular half-time postdoc is the spouse of the professor!

  • sciencey says:

    There's a full-time postdoc in my lab. This person shirks normal lab duties all the time. He is not the spouse of the professor. Should we conclude from this that full-time, non-spousal, male postdocs are shirkers?

  • TheGrinch says:

    I think CPP probably means that if a postdoc is working in two science labs at the same time, it is hard to stay focussed and take the either project to the end in time.

  • Alex says:

    sciencey,

    You're right, there are slackers of all sorts. Like Russell, I have observed that when a slacker has any sort of unusual circumstance he or she will use that to justify the slacking. However, I've also noticed, though, that slackers without unusual circumstances to point to are still able to "wing it" and invent some ridiculous excuse.

    I would say that the biggest problem with doing half-time in two labs is not the division of time (every project has its lulls, its down time between tasks, etc.) but the division of thought. How many people here get great science ideas in the shower, or late at night, or just out of the blue when away from the lab? That happens because the brain is chewing on the project. If you're in the lab half-time because of personal reasons, the odds are that your brain is still chewing on the project in the background when away. (In fact, the brain might sometimes have even more time for it!) But if you're in the lab half-time because you're in another lab the other half of the time, now the brain has two projects vying for its attention.

    If the projects are closely-related, or if one is much more straightforward than the other, or if you're really just a true genius, maybe this can work. For most mere mortals, though, not so much. Unless you're really in a situation where you really have a collaborative project between two advisers, divided into two related sub-projects, and for administrative reasons you're listed as 50% in each lab. But that isn't really a half-time postdoc.

  • sciencecanary says:

    I think the ability to work on different projects -- successfully -- is going to vary a lot from person to person. Some of us like to work on many different projects at once, and that works for us. Others are uni-taskers and wouldn't be able to divide their intellectual attention successfully between two or more projects (like what Alex describes) but are great with more focus. It's actually kind of amazing when it works out that a research project, the researcher, and other factors all line up for maximum research happiness and productivity.

  • DeptofDeadEnds says:

    Under EU law part-time workers should be treated equally in terms of benefits, conditions and pay to full-timers. What the employee does in the time outside the workplace is irrelevant unless there is some obvious conflict of interest, as with full-time staff. Implying that part-time staff work less for their pay or are less committed than full-timers merely because they work fewer hours is discriminatory.
    In the UK anyone has the right to ask to work part-time without incurring any prejudice, though the employer is not obliged to grant the request.
    Part-time work of all kinds is mostly done by women and is mostly badly paid. A few years ago a survey of research staff at our university found that the availability of part-time lab contracts at all levels, not just post-docs, would be the best way of retaining women in science. As in some of the attitudes revealed in the comments here the university was resistant to the idea of hiring part-time scientists. So the surveyors went on to analyse how many part-time science posts actually existed. In fact, the university paid good salaries to numerous part-time researchers, mainly male emeritus professors.