Mind the gap(s): Some tips on how to deal with interruptions in your CV

The other day I sat on a committee in charge of deciding which promising post docs would be granted a personal fellowship. I read quite a few CVs that had interruptions such as parental leave, illness, time devoted to changing research field, part time research activities, or unemployment. However, in all cases, these interruptions were mentioned but not written down explicitly in a manner that would allow fair comparison with others.

So what is a good way of writing a track record with such career interruptions? The main point is to write explicitly and clearly about these interruptions, and make it easy for the reader to see what you have achieved. If you hide career interruptions or only mention them, then it will likely just weaken your apparent track record. Below I have listed some tips on how to deal with such interruptions.

Tip 1. Calculate your effective research time. Express the time that you have spent on research relative to the full time equivalent. So, if you have a six month interruption within one year, you have worked the equivalent of 50% full time during that year. Keep a log in e.g. an excel file and (re)calculate regularly to keep your effective research time updated. The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) refers to effective research time as EOT, the number of full time months spent on research.

Tip 2. Reassess your achievements within your effective research time. To help readers of your CV, fellowship or job applications to assess your research achievements within your effective research time, correct your achievement indicators – such as number of publications, citations, grants – per year to account for your career interruptions. For example, I took 6 months off when my son was born and have since worked less than full time. In the four years since my son was born I have published 12 first/last-author papers, which is equivalent to about 17 papers if I had been working full time. Again, update regularly.

Tip 3. Write about career interruptions up front and in a positive way.  I present the data on my career break and effective years worked at the top of my CV and in a prominent position on grant applications. Here’s an example: “Since 2013, I have worked the equivalent of 70% full time. Yet, this has been a highly productive period as, for example, I have since obtained 1.3M€ grant money as Principal Investigator and published 12 first/last-author papers, which, on a pro rata basis, equates to about 4 first/last-author papers per year full time.”

Tip 4. (Lack of) snowball (or Matthew) effect. Even after expressing your research achievements within your effective research time, some effects of career interruptions are difficult to counter. One such effect is that the strong reinforcing feedback loop that exists in research is halted, or, at least, slowed down. Research outputs do not occur linearly over time. Instead, if you have high achievements and gain research experience, then you are more likely to be successful. This is referred to as the ‘snowball’ effect, ‘Scrooge McDuck’ effect, Matthew effect, or the ‘success of the successful’ syndrome. It could be helpful to include in applications for grants, jobs or promotions a brief explanation and citation of this paper: O’Brien, K.R., Hapgood, K.P. 2012. The academic jungle: ecosystem modelling reveals why women are driven out of research. Oikos 121: 999-1004.

Finally, I would like to say that I find being on a tenure track while raising a son is not easy. I’m not complaining (except for the lack of sleep!), but there is no way around the fact that reduced working hours and reduced travel opportunities means fewer networking opportunities, which affects collaborations and citation rates. Nevertheless, I have managed to establish new (inter)national collaborations and my research has scientific impact. But I do not want this to set the tone of my CV. Instead, what I want readers to think after reading my CV is “If she managed all this working reduced hours and with sleep deprivation, imagine what she’ll do once her son is older!”.

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