New book examines the rigors of balancing academic science career, family life


Balancing home life with a career in science at a top university is less than idyllic, according to a new book from Elaine Howard Ecklund, the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice University, and Anne E. Lincoln, an associate professor of sociology at Southern Methodist University.

1010_ecklund-b“Failing Families, Failing Science: Work-Family Conflict in Academic Science,” published last month with New York University Press, examines how the stresses of a career in academic science make it difficult to balance family and work. The book is based on surveys of 2,500 junior and senior scientists in the U.S., both male and female, as well as 150 in-depth interviews.

Ecklund and Lincoln’s book is the first to thoroughly examine the experiences of both men and women who work in science at top universities. The authors show that careers in academic science and family are deeply intertwined. “In the course of our interview process, we found that gender, individual choices, as well as university and science infrastructures all play a role in shaping science careers,” Ecklund said. “In turn, science careers shape family life.”

According to Ecklund, the question of how to balance work and family in the midst of a science career is “no longer just a woman’s problem” because more scientists are marrying and partnering with other scientists.

“While women are hit harder by the pressures of elite academic science, the institution of science — and academic science, in particular — is not accommodating, possibly not even compatible, for either women or men who want to raise families,” Ecklund said. “Perhaps most importantly, our research reveals that early career academic scientists struggle considerably with balancing their work and family lives.”

“Working in science at a top university is unique,” Lincoln said. “The academic science workday has no strict boundaries, and academic scientists feel a constant pressure to produce more publications and get more funding. They also worry that prioritizing family obligations could have negative ramifications for their careers. Concerns over how to balance work and family are not eased at the most elite research universities, which supposedly provide the most resources to support their employees and are leader institutions.”

Ecklund said that this challenge might preclude these young scientists from seeking roles at top research universities — or further pursuing academic science at all.

“We hope the book provides an honest look inside the world of university scientists, while providing concrete steps forward so that universities, national science bodies and individual scientists can make a difference in bringing change,” Ecklund said. “Ignoring the situation may come at great cost to our national science infrastructure.”

A National Science Foundation Gender in Science and Engineering grant supported the research for the book. More information is available online at

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.