Juggling Motherhood, Mentorship, and Burnout During a Pandemic


Many studies are showing that women are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. How can we build more supportive environments for women to succeed in STEM, especially in these trying times? NYSCF – Robertson Stem Cell Investigator Alumna Kristen Brennand, PhD, a Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University, recently joined us to discuss critical topics around gender equity in STEM such as career advancement, mentorship, imposter syndrome, parenting, and other issues of work-life balance.

Building Successful Mentor/Mentee Relationships

Dr. Brennand has been a mentor for countless students and young scientists, and stressed that supporting mentees, especially during the pandemic, can take more than just advising on their science.

“[When I meet with my mentees], I try to look them in the eye and ask if they’re okay before we get into the science,” she said. “Sometimes it costs you a whole science discussion if the answer is no. But if the answer is no, we need to be okay with focusing on that and addressing it because it’s so important for someone’s wellbeing.”

She also advises mentees to seek out multiple mentors who can offer input on different areas of life.

“You need more than one mentor. You can’t get everything that you need out of one mentor,” she remarked. “As a grad student, I was in a really big lab and I had a PI, but the postdocs were also like my mentors. And I also had a few other faculty that I would go to. You want to have science mentors, career mentors, and life mentors, and they don’t all need to be the same person.”

Those looking for advice on their work can also benefit from more informal group meetings with peers where they can ask questions and receive feedback.

“These types of gatherings are nice because in a sense, you are there to chat and catch up, but you can also come prepared with a problem you’d like advice on,” Dr. Brennand said. “You can talk about your most urgent problem and ask others what they would do and who they would suggest speaking with for more help.”

Overcoming Challenges for Women in Science

While there have been many significant strides made toward gender equity in STEM in recent years, many hurdles still exist. Dr. Brennand reflected on her own career, and how gender inequity has impacted it.

“Not only did I feel like I had to work harder and constantly prove myself, but I also felt a strong sense of responsibility to the community, trainees, journals, and grants. No one tells you what your share of the burden is, so I think women inherently take on more of it.”

Dr. Brennand also pointed out differences in how men and women advance their own careers.

“Men ask for promotions or apply for jobs when they think they have a shot at it, and women ask for promotions or apply for jobs when they are sure they are qualified. That’s a really big distinction. It can be hard and uncomfortable to advocate for yourself and do things like ask for raises, but it’s important.”

Whatever challenges women face, ethnic minorities often face to a greater degree, and women minorities even more so. Dr. Brennand stressed that addressing this inequality will require change at the institutional level.

“Women’s papers are less likely to go to a high-impact journal, and her grants are less likely to be funded. This is true of minorities too,” she remarked.

“Women and minorities can also become overburdened when the same two women or the same two minorities are asked to be on every committee. We need to better prioritize diversity and eliminate institutional biases.”

Coping with Imposter Syndrome and Burnout

Many people in high-achieving professions like STEM research face imposter syndrome: the feeling that they aren’t good enough for their profession and the constant doubt of their abilities. Women and minorities are especially susceptible to this.

“One of the things I teach my trainees – because often they are in meetings surrounded by really smart people and feel like they don’t know what’s happening – is that in a good meeting, you should always feel a little stupid,” said Dr. Brennand. “Everyone should have a different perspective to add – that’s the point of the meeting. There’d be no reason to meet if everybody already knew everything that was said. There’s a reason for that feeling [of inadequacy], and we all experience it.”

Dr. Brennand also recognizes that a lot of us are facing burnout from the pandemic, and that support systems and self care are imperative.

“You need hobbies, you need family, you need support. I have been encouraging the people in my lab to take time off to recharge,” she said.

“Especially since science often has you move every five years, you may not be living close to your family, and you might have just left all the friends you made in a previous city behind,” she continued. “So that’s been my lab’s mantra for the past year: ‘take care of each other.’”

Balancing Work and Family

Dr. Brennand emphasized that she always perceived it as a choice between a career or a family, but it was only upon reaching her position at Mount Sinai that she had a mentor who showed her that both were possible.

“Before that, I never had a female faculty mentor who had kids. I actually thought that you had to choose either a family or a career,” she recalled. “No man goes through their career thinking they have to choose between a career and a family. I had to have my boss tell me I could do it.”

“What I tell my trainees now is that you [have kids] when it’s the right time in your life” she continued, “When you’re younger, you have more energy and less money, and when you’re older, you have less energy and more money. Do it when your life tells you it’s the right time.”

Dr. Brennand also reflected on the pressure she put on herself to be productive after her daughter was born, and advises others to prioritize caring for themselves and their newborn ahead of their work. Her biggest regret: not putting on her out-of-office autoresponder.

“When I was on maternity leave, I was still responding to people and working because there were a lot of people who ‘just needed one thing’ from me. And I did nothing for myself. Looking back, work is the least important thing to be doing when you’re on maternity leave. If you’re going to work, work for you. Know yourself, and know what you need.”

In parenting, and in all aspects of her career and life, Dr. Brennand offered one final piece of advice.

“Try a bunch of things. Stop doing the ones that don’t help, keep doing the ones that do. And reach out for help if you need it.”

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