Below is a slightly edited excerpt from a recent e-mail from a reader. Some details have been generalized to make the scenario a bit more.. general.
I'm a 30-something Physical Science PhD. I finished my PhD a few years ago, just before my middle child was born. Since then I have been primarily a stay-at-home mom, but I have remained involved with my collaboration in a low-level way - I've worked with my collaborators to finalize our analysis and to write and publish the associated paper, given some seminars, and traveled to give talks at conferences. Last year, my former advisor noticed that I had been doing quite a bit of work for free and offered to pay me by the hour, so I am currently working 0-10 hours per week. Recently, I have been writing a paper and looking into the possibility of a new analysis.
My third (and final) child is now over a year old and I am applying for postdoc positions. My CV doesn't exactly have a "gap" - I have papers and/or talks for every year since my PhD -- but my unusual situation obviously requires some explanation. I have added "stay-at-home mother, no employer" to my CV and I explain in more detail in the cover letter.
I'm wondering how all this is going to be viewed by the professors with whom I'm applying to work. I was a good student in a high-ranking department, my thesis was a high-profile analysis, and my advisor tells me that his letter of recommendation is quite enthusiastic, so I should be a strong candidate unless people see the time with my kids as a deal breaker. I'm curious how you would feel about an application like mine and if you have any thoughts on how I am handling the topic in my applications. It would be very helpful to hear any concerns you might have about hiring someone in my situation - especially things that you wouldn't actually bring up with a candidate.
I would hire her, and I would have no hesitations or concerns about doing so.
Her record or accomplishments and research potential is strong, the letter of recommendation from the PhD advisor is apparently strong, and the evidence for an ability to get things done is impressive. I have had single, childless postdocs who got less research done while employed (by me) full-time than what this woman has done while being a "stay-at-home" mom with three kids.
Of course the final decision (relative to other candidates) would rest on the quality of the work etc. etc., but my answer to the hypothetical question of whether I would hire this person or whether the stay-at-home mom episode was a deal-breaker is an empathic yes, I would hire her.
In terms of the mechanics of the application, I don't think she should dwell much on the "unusual" situation. It's fine to account for a gap in employment in the CV, but additional explanation need not be lengthy and certainly should not be defensive or be the first thing in the cover letter.
The recommendation letter from the advisor could be worded to turn this situation into an example of the impressive abilities of his former student; what might seem like a liability could be a strength. This woman apparently has superpowers when it comes to being focused and productive.
Would you hire her? Why or why not?
And: What (if anything) would you like to see in the application materials in terms of an explanation for the stay-at-home mom "gap" in employment?
10 years ago