Evaluating Paid Parental Leave Policies in Higher Education & Academia

The views represented in this post are entirely my own and do not reflect that of my employer, Vanderbilt University. The views expressed in this post also do not reflect those of the Vanderbilt University Staff Advisory Committee, nor do they represent the views of the Parental Leave Subcommittee.

Background

Librarians love serving on worthwhile committees so it should be no surprise to anyone reading this post that I leapt at the opportunity to volunteer to serve on the Parental Leave Subcommittee in Fall 2020. The Parental Leave Subcommittee is a subcommittee of USAC, the University Staff Advisory Council, Vanderbilt University’s staff advisory group to administration. The purpose in forming the Parental Leave Subcommittee was to evaluate Vanderbilt University’s current paid parental leave policy for staff, with the goal of preparing a proposal to present to administration on how to improve upon Vanderbilt’s current policy. My service on this committee became even more timely and relevant when I became pregnant with my first child in September 2020.

Vanderbilt University’s Current Paid Parental Leave Policy

Two (2) Weeks for Staff But One Semester for Faculty

Vanderbilt’s current paid parental leave policy allows staff parents to take two weeks of parental leave with 100% pay following the birth or adoption of a child. Time away from work beyond these two weeks must be cobbled together from a mix of PTO (full pay), short-term disability insurance (66.7% pay) (unpaid status), and unpaid leave (also unpaid status). A result of the current parental leave policy is that only an exempt staff member who has worked at Vanderbilt for more than five years and who has a full PTO bank can receive 8 weeks – the minimum amount of time needed to recover from the vaginal birth of a child according to most medical providers[1] – of leave at 100% pay. That staff member would then return to Vanderbilt with no accrued or banked PTO and would be forced to take unpaid leave to extend their parental leave time for the full sixteen (16) weeks, as permitted under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Tennessee Family and Medical Leave Laws (TMLA), or when the inevitable doctor visits, illnesses, or other life events occur.

To contrast this policy with how Faculty are treated, Vanderbilt’s current paid parental leave policy permits faculty to take a full semester, approximately sixteen (16) weeks, of parental leave with 100% pay following the birth or adoption of a child, the maximum amount of time permitted for leave under FMLA and TMLA. This is a benefit that is nearly eight (8) times greater than that currently granted to staff members.

Administrative Red Tape

The current parental leave policy also requires that staff navigate a complex and burdensome web of policies and procedures related to leave under FMLA and TMLA, short-term disability insurance, and health insurance during the days and weeks following the birth or adoption of a child – a period where efforts should be focused on recovery and bonding. Because current policies and practice rely so heavily on short-term disability insurance, employees who take parental leave often have to coordinate their reduced (66.7%) pay with an outside insurance vendor while also coordinating the payment of health insurance premiums with a different vendor. This model places high administrative burdens, in addition to the financial burden of reduced pay, on new parents during an acutely vulnerable period.

Here is an example checklist put together by a group of staff mothers at Vanderbilt, in an attempt to cobble-together instruction and guidance for new staff moms to follow as they attempt to navigate the administrative red tape:

  • Complete the Medical Leave Request form to request FMLA or Non-FMLA leave
    • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that provides employees the right to take a leave of absence for personal or family medical reasons and leave for military families while maintaining job protection.; in order to be paid while on leave, PTO, Parental Leave and/or Short Term Disability will need to be used. FMLA alone does not provide compensation
    • Approval letter will be sent by email once approved
  • Review your PTO balance for your own information as you may want to incorporate PTO in your leave
  • If both parents work at Vanderbilt, both are eligible for the 2 week parental leave, but cannot take it at the same time. Both parents will need to complete the Medical Leave Request form to in order to use Parental Leave
  • Review VU’s Short Term Disability Info
  • Map out a leave timeline that fits your needs and your leave types (example below)
Leave TypeStartEndPaid/Unpaid Status
Parental Leave (2 weeks 100% paid)May 31, 2021June 11, 2021Paid Status
Short Term Disability Insurance (6 weeks paid at 66 2/3% of regular salary, 2 week waiting period to begin STDi)June 14, 2021July 23, 2021Unpaid Status
PTO (2 weeks, 100% paid)July 26, 2021August 6, 2021Paid Status
Unpaid Leave (2 weeks)August 9, 2021August 20, 2021Unpaid Status
Return to workAugust 23, 2021Paid Status
Example Leave Time Schedule
  • Identify your HCM (human capital manager) and share your leave timeline with them so that they can update your status accordingly.
  • If you will be using Short Term Disability, call the University’s STDi vendor 30 days before the expected delivery date of a child
  • Call STDi vendor when baby is born; this will allow them to finalize the claim and get everything processed.
  • When on Short Term Disability/in an unpaid status at Vanderbilt, HR is unable to collect an employee’s portion of insurance premiums; be prepared to be direct billed for those from BenefitExpress.

Other items to consider when expecting a child/becoming a new parent:

Staff Couples Are Prohibited From Taking Paid Leave at the Same Time

Finally, the current policy prohibits staff couples from taking their paid parental leave at the same time, as only the parent designated as the primary caregiver is eligible to utilize parental leave. The first several weeks of parenthood can be very challenging for two caregivers, let alone one. Research has shown that families benefit when both parents are able to be together with the child following a birth or adoption. Beyond the benefits to maternal health that occur with having a partner at home to assist with recovery and care for the child, bonding parent time at home during early infancy is associated with higher female employment, less gender stereotyping, higher life-satisfaction, and better health outcomes for the child.[2]

[1] Note that while the minimum amount of time needed to recover from the vaginal birth of a child is on average eight (8) weeks, the minimum amount of time needed to recover from a caesarean section is twelve (12) weeks. https://familydoctor.org/recovering-from-delivery/; https://www.parents.com/pregnancy/my-body/postpartum/healing-hints-what-postpartum-recovery-is-really-like/; https://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/recovery-vaginal-delivery#1. It should also be noted that while the minimum amount of time needed to recover from childbirth, according to medical providers, is eight to twelve (8-12) weeks, several studies have contradicted this finding and place recovery time as long as six months to one year.

[2] Willem Adema, Chris Clarke, and Valérie Frey. Paid Parental Leave: Lessons from OECD Countries and Selected U.S. States. OECD Publishing, 2015.

How Does Vanderbilt’s Leave Policies for Staff Compare to the U.S. News 2021 Top 100 National Colleges & Universities?

In order to get a sense of how Vanderbilt compared to other national colleges and universities, I compiled a spreadsheet of the 2021 U.S. News & World Report Top 100 National Colleges & Universities and then set to work with two research assistants to populate the spreadsheet with comparisons of staff paid parental leave time, faculty paid parental leave time, and even state action meant to address gaps in paid parental leave. You can review the totality of my research and findings in this Google sheet: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1sTlVAmXTNOrK2GRT0-9wHKgRawbvelMtEsBtB8dEtAQ/edit?usp=sharing.

If you don’t like spreadsheets or want a quick snapshot of the findings without having to scroll through a list of 100+ schools, here are the highlights:

  • When you combine staff and faculty parental leave time, the average amount of paid parental leave time is seven (7) weeks. If you just look at the top 25 institutions the average amount of paid leave time increases by one week to eight (8) weeks of paid parental leave time.
CalculationFaculty & Staff Paid Leave Time Combined (Weeks)
Overall Average7
Top 25 Average8
Overall Median5
Top 25 Median9
Faculty & Staff Paid Parental Leave Time Combined (Weeks)
  • If you compare staff versus faculty, then the overall average paid parental leave time for staff is four (4) weeks, including at the top 25 institutions.
CalculationStaff Paid Leave Time (Weeks)Faculty Paid Leave Time (Weeks)
Overall Average410
Top 25 Average412
Overall Median28
Top 25 Median216
Staff Paid Parental Leave Time Compared to Faculty Paid Parental Leave Time (Weeks)
  • Finally, there are several schools where faculty and staff are treated equitably and given the same amount of leave time. A few of those schools (but by no means all of them) are the following:
School NamePaid Leave Time (Weeks)
University of Washington While paid leave time is technically 0 weeks, employees can use up to 18 weeks of sick time off with other buckets of accrual time and the majority of employees are able to take a full 18 weeks of fully paid leave18
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)12
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor12
University of Maryland – College Park12
Worcester Polytechnic Institute12
Arizona State University – Tempe12
Johns Hopkins University10
University of Virginia8
University of Florida8
William & Mary8
Northeastern University8
Virginia Tech8
Yeshiva University8
Elon University8
Ohio State University – Columbus6
Purdue University – West Lafayette6
Santa Clara University6
University of Minnesota – Twin Cities6
American University6
Michigan State University6
Stevens Institute of Technology6
Auburn University6
University of Arizona6
Miami University – Oxford6
Saint Louis University6
University of Colorado Boulder6
Schools Where Faculty and Staff Are Treated Equitably and Given the Same Amount of Paid Parental Leave Time

Why are Staff Treated Differently from Faculty When It Comes to Paid Parental Leave?

Faculty births and child placements are no more life-altering than staff births and child placements. Faculty children are no more deserving of parental care, breastfeeding, or bonding time than staff children. If any institution of higher education recognizes the value and medical necessity of paid parental leave for one semester for faculty then the same benefit should be extended to staff parents who experience the exact same medical condition and recovery timeline.

Why Does Paid Parental Leave Matter?

The importance of paid time away from work after the birth or adoption of a child for the health and well-being of the family unit cannot be overstated. Paid leave improves children’s health by giving mothers time to breastfeed, by allowing for more time to go to pediatrician appointments to become fully immunized, and by facilitating family bonding.[1] Paid leave is also associated with lower rates of postpartum depression, psychological distress, and intimate partner violence amongst families with new children.[2] Longer periods of parental leave correlate to better health outcomes for the child and for the parents.[3]

Not only does paid parental leave support the well-being of employees and their families, but there is also evidence that paid leave policies benefit employers as well. More generous paid leave has been shown to increase workforce participation and job retention amongst new mothers.[4] Lowering turnover rates can significantly reduce costs for a university and increase productivity across campus. Studies have shown that the cost of worker turnover averages 25% of an employee’s salary and that, once the empty position is filled, it can take six or more weeks for a new staff person to achieve the productivity of their predecessor.[5] Furthermore, longer durations of paid leave can result in future increased wages and income for mothers, thereby fostering workplace and pay equity for women.[6] Finally, one of Vanderbilt’s own faculty members, Vanderbilt law professor Jennifer Shinall, recently completed a study that was published in the Cornell Law Review where she concluded that “paid family leave programs increased employment rates by up to 1.7 percent, labor market participation up to 5.2 percent and increased the average number of weeks worked by up to two weeks.”[7] In addition, Professor Shinall concluded that “[s]hort-term disability [insurance] did not appear to offer any benefit [to labor market outcomes], and in some areas may have had a slightly negative impact.”[8]

[1] Berger, Lawrence M., Jennifer Hill, and Jane Waldfogel. “Maternity Leave, Early Maternal Employment and Child Health and Development in the US,” The Economic Journal 115, no. 501 (2005): F29-47. Accessed March 4, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3590462.(concluding that American babies whose mothers were back at work within twelve (12) weeks were less likely to get doctors’ visits and immunizations and be breast-fed. This same study showed that infants whose mothers went back to work even earlier than twelve (12) weeks were likely to have more behavioral problems and lower cognitive test scores at age 4.).

[2] Van Niel, Maureen Sayres, Richa Bhatia, Nicholas S. Riano, Ludmila de Faria, Lisa Catapano-Friedman, Simha Ravven, Barbara Weissman, et al. “The Impact of Paid Maternity Leave on the Mental and Physical Health of Mothers and Children: A Review of the Literature and Policy Implications.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry 28, no. 2 (2020): 113–126.

[3] Chatterji, Pinka, and Sara Markowitz. “Does the length of maternity leave affect maternal health?” Southern Economic Journal, vol. 72, no. 1, 2005, p. 16+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A134679941/AONE?u=tel_a_vanderbilt&sid=AONE&xid=bea9f739. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.

[4] Arijit Nandi, Deepa Jahagirdar, Michelle C. Dimitris, Jeremy A. Labrecque, Erin C. Strumpf, Jay S. Kaufman, Ilona Vincent, et al. “The Impact of Parental and Medical Leave Policies on Socioeconomic and Health Outcomes in OECD Countries: A Systematic Review of the Empirical Literature.” The Milbank quarterly 96, no. 3 (2018): 434–471.

[5] Investing in the Future of the Federal Workforce: Paid Parental Leave Improves Recruitment and Retention: Joint Hearing before the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia of the Committee on Oversight and Government, 2008.

[6] Nandi et.al.

[7] Entman, Liz. Paid family leave, pregnancy accommodation laws boost labor market, myVU, Apr. 29, 2020, available at https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2020/04/29/paid-family-leave-pregnancy-accommodation-laws-boost-labor-market/.

[8] Ibid.

What Can You Do About the Lack of Paid Parental Leave in Higher Education?

If you work in higher education, whether you are faculty (tenured or non-tenured), adjunct, staff (exempt or non-exempt), or some other status then reach out to your Staff Advisory Council and administration and advocate for equitable paid parental leave for all university employees. While you’re busy advocating, feel free to use my spreadsheet and data to make your arguments – just make sure you use the data while it’s current or update it if you don’t stumble across this post until 2022 or later.

I also encourage you to consider signing the Marshall Plan for Moms petition, and then reaching out to your congressional representatives to encourage them to sign onto H. Res. 121 because employees of universities don’t just deserve paid parental leave; every parent in this nation deserves paid parental leave as the United States remains the only country out of the 41 nations of the OECD and the EU without paid parental leave.

Words of Wisdom for the Graduating Class of COVID-19

I taught my last class of Advanced Legal Research for the Spring 2021 semester yesterday (and what I hope is my last class of teaching in the middle of a global pandemic). Even though Advanced Legal Research is research focused, I thought it worth my time and my students’ time to impart some words of wisdom that is applicable to not just the graduating class of 2021, but also to all of us who are soon hopefully soon going to emerge from underneath the veil of the threat of COVID-19 and head back into the “real world.” So, for all of you out there who are ready to graduate from COVID-19, this one is for you.

To the Graduating Class of COVID-19

To the graduating class of COVID-19,

We made it! We survived COVID-19 and we survived the school year! We’re all getting vaccinated! Movie theaters are opening back up. Schools are planning to go back to in-person instruction in the fall. Your employers are chomping at the bit to pull you back into the office!

If you’re like me then you learned a lot about yourself, your employer, your classmates, your coworkers, your family, and your pets during the last 1.5 years of lockdown, for better and sometimes for worse. In many ways, we found balance in lockdown, relishing in the extra time we gained by not having to commute and the ability to sleep in until our alarms went off at 8:55am, giving us just enough time to roll out of bed and log into our remote work stations. In other ways, we found disruption and chaos, blurring the lines between work, life, and family in our cramped 1,000 square foot homes or apartments. But, there is hope for the future — after all, everyone says the world will never be the same, the workplace will never be the same — well, let’s make sure those changes are for the better.

In keeping within the vein of eternal optimism that I just can’t seem to shake, here are some key lessons that I’ve learned from my experience working, teaching, and living through the last 1.5+ year pandemic that helped make my pandemic life better than my pre-pandemic life. I hope some part of it is helpful to you and if so, I hope you find a way to adopt it into your life to make your post-pandemic life even better.

No. 1: Create Systems, Not Goals

It’s not enough to just have goals in life. You need more. You need a system.

Goals focus on the destination while our systems focus on the journey — it is the difference between taking a long-term view versus a short-term view. For example,

  • If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and your marketing.
  • If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.

The beauty of systems is that you can completely forget about your goals and still make progress. Think about it: If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results? Absolutely.

Goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress.

If you still don’t believe me then here are three more reasons why you should focus on systems rather than goals:

  1. Goals reduce your current happiness: when you’re working towards goals you are essentially telling yourself “I’m not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach my goal.”
    • This is some hardcore negative self-talk; you’re teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved. It is the equivalent of telling yourself “Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, then I’ll be successful.”
    • Choosing a goal puts a huge burden on your shoulders. Can you imagine if I actually achieved my goal of revising one book, drafting a new one, and writing twelve short stories this year? Just writing that sentence stresses me out.
    • But we do this to ourselves all the time — we place unnecessary stress on ourselves to lose weight or to succeed in business or to write a best-selling novel. Instead, you can keep things simple and reduce your stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to your schedule, rather than worrying about the big, life-changing goals.
    • Solution: Commit to a process, not a goal. When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.
  2. Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress: Goals don’t always keep you motivated over the long-term.
    • Consider your friend who trained for a half-marathon — many people will work hard for months but as soon as they finish the race they stop training. Their goal was to finish the half-marathon and now that they have completed it that goal is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it?
    • This creates a “yo-yo effect” where people go back and forth from working on a goal to not working on one. This irregular cycle makes it difficult to build upon your progress for the long-term.
    • Solution: Release the need for immediate results. A goal based mentality will push you towards burnout while systems-based thinking is never about hitting a particular number, it’s about sticking to the process and as a result never missing out on your progress.
  3. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over: You can’t predict the future (hello COVID-19).
    • Every time we set a goal, we try to predict the future. We try to plan out where we will be and when we will make it there (I’m looking at you, you five-year and ten-year planners). We try to predict how quickly we can make progress, even though we have no idea what circumstances or situations will arise along the way.
    • Solution: Build feedback loops. Building feedback loops to measure the metrics of your progress is essential toe give yourself feedback to let you know if you’re doing things right. Feedback loops are important for building good systems because they allow you to keep track of many different pieces without feeling the pressure to predict what is going to happen with everything else. Forget about predicting the future and build a system that can signal when you need to make tweaks and adjustments to your system and process.

How to Build Systems:

  • [ ] Identify your goals (what you want to achieve)
  • [ ] Split them into bite size chunks
  • [ ] Use those smaller goals to create repeatable systems
    • [ ] Identify and document a repeatable series of tasks to perform (a checklist)

This eliminates the problem of finding the motivation that will inevitably disappear on certain days because you can setup a reminder of when your checklist is due to be completed.

Example System: Get Fit & Lose Weight

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm as soon as you finish work:

  • [ ] Change into comfortable clothes for exercise
  • [ ] Fill a pint glass with water
  • [ ] Jump rope for 20 minutes to warm up
  • [ ] Perform a bodyweight circuit routine for a half-hour varied exercise
  • [ ] Cool down with a 20-30 minute yoga session

Use a Five-Year Plan to Come Up with Goals, Which Then Help You Identify Your Systems

If you’re unsure of where to start or how to identify goals and systems, then start with a five year plan. I know I threw some shade on five-year plans earlier in the post, but that’s only for those who have five year plans without implementing the systems needed to achieve those goals. With systems, five year plans can be really effective ways to identify long-term goals and break them down into bite-sized chunks. For example:

GoalsYear 1 (2021-2022)Year 2 (2022-2023)Year 3 (2023-2024)Year 4 (2024 – 2025)Year 5 (2025 – 2026)
Career– Advance to Librarian II– Focus on Professional Development Step 1– Focus on Professional Development Step 2– Advanced to Librarian IIII– Focus on Professional Development Step 3
Spouse/Partner Career– Full time work in Nurse Residency– Year 1 BSN– Year 2 BSN– Year 3 BSN & Graduate– Job Advancement with BSN
Financial– Emergency Savings
– Save for Ireland Trip
– Pay Off Credit Cards– Pay Off Car Loan– Save for New Home Down Payment
– Save for Japan Trip
– Save for New Home Down Payment
Health– Lose 50 pounds
– Healthy Diet & Exercise
– Healthy Diet & Exercise– Healthy Diet & Exercise– Healthy Diet & Exercise– Healthy Diet & Exercise
Travel– Ireland Trip– Japan Trip
Unicorn Space (Passion Project)– Draft New Book Project
– Develop & Incorporate Weekly Writing Routine
– Writing Routine– Writing Routine– Writing Routine– Writing Routine

Based on this table, I can prioritize goals that require more immediate focus and implement systems into my life. For example, as far as reaching our financial goals go, a system might look like:

  • [ ] Create a monthly budget, prioritizing spending less than we make
  • [ ] Follow the budget
  • [ ] At the end of every month, evaluate the budget – did we go over? under? Were there any unexpected expenses that need to be factored into next month’s budget?
  • [ ] Revise next month’s budget as needed

This system will ensure that we save money and based on our goals, we now know what to do and how to prioritize the money we’re able to save.

No. 2: Time Block or Time Theme Your Calendar

If you don’t take control of your time someone else will take control of it for you.

Rather than spending your life and your workday responding to others’ needs, put yourself first and prioritize your time.

There’s a great and free SkillShare Class on Time Theming that I cannot recommend enough. The class is run by Productivityist founder Mike Vardy as he shares how creating a simple, flexible, durable productivity system will transform the way you work. Whether you’re a freelancer balancing multiple gigs or a 9-5er with a calendar full of meetings, this class will give you the tools you need to create helpful habits for work and home that will actually stick. You’ll learn to:

  • Time-theme your days to work more efficiently
  • Create daily routines to simplify your workflow
  • Utilize tools like Todoist (or Notion) to support your daily goals

After taking this class, you’ll have an arsenal of strategies to personalize your productivity and ensure you’re getting the right things done, freeing time and energy so you can focus on the things that matter.

No. 3: Use the Eisenhower Matrix

In keeping with the skills you will learn from Mike Vardy’s Skillshare Class, utilize the Eisenhower Matrix to avoid the “urgency trap” that we so often fall into, especially when checking our emails.

You can read and learn more about the Eisenhower Matrix here.

No. 4: Beat Distraction

This is easy and consists of five simple steps:

  1. Nix Notifications – Turn off almost all notifications (phone, computer, tablet, any and all electronic devices, email, social media, etc.). Consider investing in a landline, so that people can get ahold of you in emergencies and so that you can ignore all of the other noise and chaos brought on my cellphones.
  2. Leave Devices Behind or Put Them Away (like in a drawer)
  3. Schedule Your Email Time & Empty Your Inbox Once a Week – I schedule my email time Monday – Friday from 9am – 9:30am and again from 3pm – 4pm
  4. Shut the Door
  5. Start on Paper – Don’t just dive into the internet, the computer, or your phone. Grab a sheet of blank paper and put your thoughts down before you start a new project or task. Bonus: this gives you a great excuse to go out and buy a fabulous notebook.

No. 5: You Are More Than a Brain

This lesson is the most important one and is the culmination of all of the other points made above. You are more than just a brain.

If you can increase your energy every day then you will turn moments that might otherwise be lost to mental and physical fatigue into usable time. That doesn’t mean that all of your newfound usable time should go into churning out more work and more productivity – no, it means that the usable time should go towards nourishing yourself.

Charge your battery with exercise, food, sleep, quiet, and face-to-face time. It is up to us to see to our own mental health, physical health, and spiritual health. Prioritize your health and well-being. Don’t be afraid to unplug. Take a vacation – use your vacation time! And most importantly, make time for yourself and your loved ones.

Congratulations, graduating class of COVID-19. Now go out and live your best, well-balanced life!

2020/2021: How I evolved from a pandemic and parenthood induced existential crisis into an entrepreneurial technical girl boss in-progress

There’s nothing like the pending transition into parenthood to shake things up and make you question everything you’ve ever done with your life and career. I am less than two months away from giving birth to our first child and I am having a massive existential/career crisis. Does this happen to everyone or is it just who I am and where I’m at in my life?

Every year, instead of doing annual resolutions or yearly goals, I focus on quarterly goals. I find that this makes me more productive while also giving me the flexibility to grow and change my goals as life throws me curve balls. For the last year I’ve done a planning exercise, using the Roadmap from the Passion Planner to envision my dream life and then work my ways backwards to goals and milestones that I would need to meet at various points in order to make my dream life a reality (3 year goals, 1 year goals, and quarterly/three-month goals). This worked great for a while, but the last few quarters I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concretely envision that dream life.

Since I know that motherhood will permanently change me, my life, and my priorities, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and taking stock of where I am, where I came from, and where I’m going, particularly as it relates to my job and career. For those of you who might not know very much about me, I currently work as a full time law librarian where I mainly provide research, instruction, and training at a top twenty law school. While I enjoy my job and find it deeply rewarding (most days) it’s also not the end-all, be-all of what I want to do with my life and my career.

  • Original dream job: full time fantasy author
  • Reality: student loan debt and family financial considerations (most full-time authors don’t make enough to support themselves, let alone their families)
  • Modified dream job: full time librarian, part time author
  • Reality: full time librarian means that I regularly work more than 9-5, I have to deal with the academic politics of being a staff member in a world that favors faculty benefits at the expense of staff benefits, and I burn a lot of the same creative energy as I would use for writing, meaning most days I don’t have the energy or time to write or work on my fantasy novels

Pandemic & Parenthood Induced Existential Crisis

A few years ago, I started exploring the more technical side of librarianship (I’m a reference law librarian with an interest in data, design, and development) and began working with my supervisor to develop and transform my job from that of a purely reference law librarian to a more hybrid, technical, data driven empirical librarian. I put together a coding curriculum in Notion, enrolled myself in several data visualization groups and workshops, and registered for several conferences. But even with the support of my supervisor, the training and transition has moved at a snail’s pace (as all things do in academia). And then, the pandemic hit and everything changed.

Higher education took a pretty steep hit during the pandemic and there was a period of time where I was unsure if I would keep my job or be laid off. Fortunately, I kept my job, but I took a pay cut and also lost several colleagues to retirements and lateral moves to other academic institutions. This loss of colleagues meant that during the pandemic, my job duties increased and changed, and my job went from a relatively low-stress job to a very high-stress/high workload situation that was ripe for burnout. Since the pandemic (which has been the last year) I have not had the time or support to develop my data and coding skills or work on evolving my job description – it froze as it was and became much more intense. The pandemic also unveiled just how unstable the industry of higher education is, particularly as it relates to the current model, structure, and size of institutions.

During the darkest hours of those stressful pandemic work days, I found myself daydreaming about if this was what I wanted to do if I didn’t have student loans of an insane amount (thanks law school & library school) that kept me dependent on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. If and when I reached my 10 year mark for student loan forgiveness under Public Service Loan Forgiveness (and fingers crossed my application for forgiveness was actually approved), would I still want to do this job? Or would I want to go out and try to make it as a full-time author? Or would I always want to work a 9-5 or part-time job while writing part-time? This questioning got more intense after I got pregnant in the fall.

Here are a few things I discovered about myself during this period of pandemic/new parenthood self-reflection:

  • I really like getting regular paychecks,
  • I like having employer provided benefits (health insurance, retirement contributions/matching, pay raises and promotion incentives, paid parental leave, etc.),
  • I also love writing and want to do it every single day, but
  • I want need more job security, and
  • I want more job flexibility (particularly as it relates to geographic location and hours worked)

So while I figured out that:

  1. I probably would never be comfortable working full time as an author (unless I was just making obscene amounts of money, which is highly unlikely) and that
  2. I would probably always want to work for a company (just for the benefits alone), even if it was just part-time

it was still unclear to me if I could mold my current librarianship job into my dream job or if my dream job meant doing something else. So, of course, in my moment of self-doubt, I turned to the internet!

Finding My Ikigai

Out of a desperate attempt at a better work-life balance and less stressful daily existence, I turned to several books, blogs, YouTubers, etc. during the pandemic. This led me to discover the concept of Ikigai. Ikigai is finding your career sweet spot so that you can find your purpose, passion, mission, and get paid for it while solving real world problems (without burning out). So, I took a Sunday and sat down and worked through the Ikigai exercise. I asked myself five questions:

  1. What do I love doing?
  2. What am I good at?
  3. What can I be paid for?
  4. What does the world need?
  5. What do I hate doing?

After answering these five questions I took a personality test (any other INFJs out there?). I explored my Ikigai worksheet, my personality test, googled career options, and what did I discover? I discovered that I’m pretty damn close to my ideal job – librarianship is an excellent fit for both my Ikigai and my personality, but maybe not this exact version of librarianship. In every area of my Ikigai worksheet, a few concepts kept popping up: digital informatics systems, digital environments, content creation, system creation and organization, entrepreneurship. So I turned my focus back to my original interest in coding, data, development, and design and started exploring how I could bring that back into focus and even potentially transition to a full-time career in a more technical setting.

New Dream Job: Entrepreneurial Technical Girl Boss In Progress

So, after a year of existential crisis, several self-help books, worksheets, quizzes, tests, exercises, etc. I have landed back on where I was almost two years ago, once again wanting to explore coding and data analytics. I want to break into a new career in the tech industry, probably focusing around data science, data visualization, and product design.

The great thing is I can begin to leverage learning these skills in my current job, evolve my current job to incorporate more of these skills, and then if I’m still not enough 100% satisfied with my current job then I’ll have the knowledge and skill to jump into a technical industry job as a full-time product designer or data scientist. But where to begin?

I started researching technical education pathways on the internet, looking into how I could incorporate learning these new coding and development skills into my schedule and my budget. Going back to school for a four-year computer science degree is completely out of the question – I do not have the time, money, or energy for that. So that leaves me with two options: 1) self-education or 2) attending a coding bootcamp.

In an ideal world, I would love to do a coding bootcamp – the structure and guidance would work really great for me, but it also costs money (anywhere from $10,000 – $13,000, depending on the program). In reality, money is in short supply, especially when you’re the sole income-earner supporting a spouse in school full-time while also getting ready to have a baby (in the middle of an economically depressing pandemic). So that means, for now at least, I need to invest in my own education and use the free resources that are out there on the internet to develop these skills. Luckily, there are a ton of free resources, but it can also be overwhelming to know where to get started when there is just so much information out there.

Well, don’t worry about me – processing massive amounts of information and navigating the internet is just what my library science degree is for. I’ve already mapped out a rough self-led curriculum in Notion that I hope to have finalized within the next week. As soon as I finish that up that curriculum I’ll be posting it up on my Free Notion Templates for any of you who are also looking for your own pathway into tech.

Easy enough, right?

Oh wait, did I forget that I’m pregnant and due in two months? Oh right, yeah, babies and parenthood, that’s something else that I have to deal with.

How I Get Shit Done

If you’ve read this far into the article, thank you but also, you probably think I’m insane to try to take on learning these new skills, in a pandemic, while also becoming a parent. You might be right, but also, I’m really good at getting shit done. Allow me to elaborate.

I’m taking four months off from work, the maximum amount of time permitted under FMLA and TN MLA. When I return to work in the fall (probably mid-September) I won’t be teaching any for-credit courses because it will be in the middle of the semester and I knew that there was no way that I could balance being a new mom, going back to work full-time, and teaching several classes of law students. So, fortunately for me, I have both a boss who is understanding and co-workers who are supportive so that I can take this semester break from teaching. That means that from now until December, I am done teaching. That is a huge load off of my shoulders and a huge time investment that is no longer going to be around. So, basically, I have from now until December 2021 to teach myself foundational coding, data, development, and design skills so that I can be sure to incorporate them into my “normal” job come January 2022 when I transition back into a normal work load. This is feasible because all I have asked of myself between now and December 2021 is to dedicate two hours a day, every day, to learning and developing these technical skills. So in reality, this is the perfect time for me to do this because I will never again have these gaps of time in my work that will allow me to dedicate two hours to this new venture (unless I quit my job or have more babies – both of which are unlikely).

So now, onto the logistics of planning. I mentioned the self-led curriculum that I’m currently compiling in Notion, and once that is done (ideally by next week) I’ll be ready to start learning without having to wonder what to do next or taking breaks in my education to figure out what to do next after I finish one skill or one program. But how do I actually manage my time and plan out my days, weeks, and quarters? I do it using Notion & Lavendaire’s Artist of Life Workbook.

Artist of Life Workbook in Notion

The Artist of Life Workbook is a guided journal meant to help artists create their most intentional and meaningful year in 2021. Have I lost you yet? I’ve been talking about tech and now I’m talking about a tool for artists? Yes, stay with me!

Lavendaire is a resource for personal growth and lifestyle design. Founded by Aileen Xu, her goal is to empower people with the tools and resources needed to help people create their dream lives. Each item, blog post, YouTube video, podcast episode, etc. is created with the intention to guide personal growth and help individuals realize their true power as the artist of their own lives. “Life is an art. Make it your masterpiece.”

So while the name, Artist of Life Workbook, might make you think of artists or creatives, it can really be used by anyone and I find it incredibly helpful as I plot and plan out my self-led technical education. I purchased the digital download version of the workbook and incorporated the questions and exercises into templates that I use every day, week, and month in Notion.

While I would love to share these templates with the world, they are a result of Aileen Xu’s hard work so if you want to incorporate her material into your Notion workflow then I encourage you to purchase either the digital download or physical copy of the workbook from her website (this is not sponsored nor affiliated – I just believe in giving people due credit).

Google Keep

In addition to using Notion and the Artist of Life Workbook, I use Google Keep to manage not just my task lists, but any and all task lists that I share with my husband and a couple of friends that I collaborate with on other creative projects. Notion and the Artist of Life Workbook allows me to visualize, plan, and organize my life while Google Keep allows me to keep track of tasks for myself and others.

That’s it – those are the two primary tools that I use to get shit done and between the two of them, I get a lot of shit done.

Apologies for the Rambling

While I also wrote this post mostly for myself, I also wrote it knowing that the chances of there being other women out there in periods of transition who are interested in leaving one career for a technical career, or utilizing tech to improve their current careers, is very high, so I decided to write down my thoughts and experiences about the whole thing, even if it came out in this rambly post. Rest assured, I know that this post is long and rambly and I promise it is not the norm of what to expect from me on this website. But if you have read this far, thank you! Also, if you have read this far, I’m curious – why? What kept you reading? Are you also interested in transitioning into a career in tech? Are you a librarian? Are you a Notion nerd? One thing I hope to accomplish with this blog is sharing my experience, insight, and knowledge so if there is something specific you’re interested in or something specific that kept you reading let me know and I’ll do my best to incorporate that in the future!

Until next time,

💌 Sarah

Notion Templates: How I Organize My Life and Work

I’ve been a Notion user for years now and it’s been an absolute game-changer for me and my side-hustles. I hope to do a full video tour of my notion workspace at some point, but in the meantime I’ve gone ahead and made several of my pages publicly available as downloadable templates. You can access my Notion templates hub here.

My shared hub includes productivity templates for:

  • Simple Weekly Planning
  • Blog & Content Calendar
  • Monthly Habit Tracker

It also includes technical, coding, and programming templates, including:

  • Personal & Networking CRM (specifically geared towards women in tech)
  • Resume Template Repository
  • Design Workspace
  • Design Documentation

And finally, the shared hub also includes several free lifestyle templates, including:

  • Reading List
  • Capsule Wardrobe Organizer & Planner
  • Daily Journal
  • Recipes Library

Basically, there should be something there for everyone to enjoy! Feel free to download and duplicate the templates, modifying them to fit your needs. This list will be ever evolving, so make sure you check back regularly for updates! For example, a template I’m currently working on is a Self-Taught Coding Curriculum that I will make available as soon as it’s ready – stay tuned!

💌 Sarah