From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research
Pay It Forward
NIH is well known for solving complex scientific problems that are often considered unsolvable. Yet one of the most critical and perplexing problems we now are facing is how to convince our scientists to use the resources available to them to maximize their well-being and scientific success. I am referring to times in which life events—such as childbirth, adoption, child care, personal or family illness, elder care, and emotional or intellectual burnout affecting yourself or people who work for you—conspire to undermine career aspirations.
Over the years, NIH has developed several Work-Life services and programs to alleviate the stresses that may be associated with these life events and promote a flexible, responsive work environment. (For lists of these resources, go to https://hr.nih.gov/working-nih/work-life.) More such work flexibilities are under consideration by a joint committee drawn from the NIH Equity Committee and the NIH Intramural Subcommittee on Women in Science in partnership with the NIH Office of Human Resources and the Office of Research Services.
Despite the existence of these options, many of our staff do not take advantage of these flexibilities. Why don’t we use these resources? What can be done to address this seemingly intractable problem?
The answer to the first question is fairly straightforward: Our scientific staff believes that they will be judged negatively if they take time off or ask for help when trying to balance work with life events. This reflects a perception of an expectation for constant work and dogged determination, creating a standard to which no one can or wants to adhere. The reality, of course, is that while the work we do is demanding, no one can succeed without help from colleagues, supervisors, and the NIH.
In my own career, there have been many times in which forbearance and tangible help from colleagues and supervisors have enhanced my ability to succeed in my research and administrative career. Every senior scientist with whom I have spoken has a similar story of someone coming to their aid when they faced difficult choices or unexpected circumstances. Ask other successful scientists you know for examples of how they have been rescued from a difficult situation by a generous colleague, a supervisor, or the policies of an enlightened institution.
Those of us who have benefitted from such assistance are willing and enthusiastic about offering similar aid to our colleagues, both junior and senior, when they need a boost to get over a bump in their scientific careers. We want to “pay it forward” in recognition of all of the help we have received and support others who are facing difficult situations.
So if you are feeling guilty about asking for help, remember that everyone around you has benefitted from similar assistance. Do what you need to do to preserve your emotional equanimity and scientific productivity in the long run. If you still feel a bit guilty, remember that if you accept help, there’s a greater likelihood that later you’ll be able to “pay it forward” and help someone else.
Let me also take this opportunity to remind supervisors of some additional considerations. If supervisors notice that staff (whether they are employees or trainees) are struggling with balancing work and life obligations, it is appropriate to ask whether they want to talk about the NIH resources that might be available. Supervisors should be aware of the broad range of flexibilities that NIH offers. If, however, immediate supervisors are not willing or able to provide information, staff should feel comfortable asking other scientists, training directors, administrators, or the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) for guidance.
Of course, such discussions should always be undertaken with mutual respect, understanding, and civility. And importantly, don’t forget that employees and trainees often adopt the behavior modeled by their supervisors. Are you openly acknowledging these stresses and strains in your own life and asking for help when you need it? Trainees and supervisors who are not comfortable with a situation are encouraged to avail themselves of the many resources that NIH has to support our staff.
Most of the scientific staff here have been in training and have had their careers supported by the NIH for many, many years. This support reflects a substantial investment of time and resources. It is unacceptable to see careers derailed by those inevitable life events that can be ameliorated by supervisory and institutional help. Our stewardship of public resources requires that we use all the tools we have to help our scientific staff through difficult times. In the long term, these tools provide a substantial return on whatever investment is needed to keep our scientific staff working effectively.
Let me know if you have other ideas about how to address this problem and remember to use all of the tools that NIH makes available to you.
For direct links to lists of resources, go to
- NIH Workforce Resource Eligibility Matrix (chart): https://hr.nih.gov/sites/default/files/public/documents/working-nih/work-life/pdf/nih-workplace-flexibilities-matrix-10.04.pdf
- NIH Workforce Resource Eligibility Matrix (text version) https://hr.nih.gov/sites/default/files/public/documents/working-nih/work-life/pdf/nih-workforce-flexibilities-matrix-text-version-10.04.18.pdf
- Keep the Thread Policy (for postdoctoral fellows only): https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/personnel/recruitment-processes-policies-checklists/keep-thread-policy).
Recent NIH Catalyst articles on resources:
“Aging and Adult Dependent-Care Resources” in this issue of the NIH Catalyst: https://irp.nih.gov/catalyst/v27i5/news-you-can-use-resources
“The Jugglers: Balancing a Scientific Career with Raising a Family” (May-June 2018): https://irp.nih.gov/catalyst/v26i3/the-jugglers
“Parenting Resources” (May-June 2018): https://irp.nih.gov/catalyst/v26i3/parenting-resources
“Caregiving, NIH Can Help” (July-August 2019): https://irp.nih.gov/catalyst/v27i4/announcements
This page was last updated on Thursday, March 31, 2022