#iwanttoliveinaworldwhere...

Feb 08 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

...postdocs who are pregnant do not have to live in fear of letting anyone know until it's unavoidably obvious. And then don't have to have their jobs held over their heads once it is. Where recent PhD grads never have to feel anxiety about whether their offers for postdoc or other positions will dissolve if they let it slip that they are, or would like to soon become, pregnant (a fear my sister recently experienced). Where postdocs on the TT market (or any other job market for that matter) don't have to feel fear, stress and hopelessness about it, either.

THAT is one thing that could help improve the diversity of the biomedical research workforce. But what will/could the NIH do about it? I know what each and every one of us can do individually about it: work on our inbuilt and resource-motivated biases. But systemically? Hell if I know--brainstorming here...

19 responses so far

  • Dr. Dad, PhD says:

    Agreed. I know a lab (run by a woman) that unofficially forced all female grad students to take birth control. Not cool in so many ways....

    But sadly, I have no idea how to implement this in a system where paper production is the barometer of PI success/job retention. At the end of the day, I fear that little of this has to do with the postdocs and most of it has to do with PIs struggling for tenure/grants....

    If and when I become a PI I know how I will respond to this issue. However, I think there needs to be a way to make institutional changes so that the "good guys" aren't penalized in the short term (I feel that in the long run treating people is always the best practice and will eventually pay off).

    Just lending my unqualified two cents...

  • notme says:

    I just had a missed miscarriage at 11 weeks. We found out at the ultrasound, was getting ready to figure out how to tell boss. I was going to put the u/s picture in as figure 10 of the manuscript I was working on. When I told my boss I would be missing work, I was relieved in a way b/c I didn't have to tell them that I was pregnant. It was a very sick and twisted way, yes, but the idea of telling them was making me sick.

    They were supportive for the procedure, but afterwards, I was an an emotional wreck (still am, but better) the next week and screwed up _every_ experiment. I was asked if I had data to show at the end of the week. Um, that would be a no.

    Was I working on the manuscript? Um, that would also be a big old no.

    Didn't I tell you I was here to get out of the house and to try and get cloning done? That was my biggest goal was to get cloning done and I screwed that up as well. This whole thing has put a lot of stuff in perspective for me and I really think I don't want my own lab anymore.

    • chemicalbilology says:

      this is incredibly sad. I am so sorry. It is so hard to go through that in any case, and having your work environment make it worse is terrible.

  • gerty-z says:

    I also want to live in this world. One thing that could make it better for both the PI and postdoc that is pregnant is if NIH allowed you to request a supplement for family leave. I don't really know how it works, but it would be really hard (especially as a start-up lab) to have to pay for someone who is not going to be in the lab. Maybe if you could get a supplement then you could hire a tech or something to help cover for when post-doc is doing the family thing? I don't know if that is the right answer, but I'm glad that you started the conversation.

  • [...] for a postdoc/other job when you are pregnant.  There is a fantastic, and important post over at Chemical BiLOLogy about this. You should go read. Now. I'll [...]

  • I agree with Gerty-Z that it's important that a PI is (financially) able to allow a postdoc to go on maternity (or paternity leave). It would also be really nice if there's a set time for this. Since I come from socialist Europe (and since I think that this is the bare minimum after you've had a baby) I would argue for a minimum of 12 weeks maternity leave. Now you're totally dependent on how much time your PI allows you, which in my case was 3 months, but in the case of a pregnant post-doc friend of mine, probably only 6 weeks. I was in no state to go back to the lab after 6 weeks.... and besides, our daycare only accepts babies of 12 weeks and over, so that also poses a problem.
    In relation to that, affordable daycare for post-docs would also be great. For us (2 post-docs with only one baby), about 40% of our combined income goes to daycare... (having twins would have meant applying for food stamps I think...) I certainly hope that when we are ready for baby #2, we'll either earn more money or we'll be back in socialist Europe, but in the meantime I surely hope for a better world for post-docs here!

  • Anon says:

    How does one even determine who is in favor of this world? I will be starting my PhD this fall at the age of 28, so there's a chance I'll end up pregnant in grad school. I am not sure how to find out if a potential mentor would be supportive of this, but I dare not flat-out ask and risk being labelled as a potential procreator. A postdoc in my current lab had a baby last year and my female PI was less than enthusiastic and debated having to pay for her 6 weeks of leave. The postdoc was also scared to tell my PI she was pregnant and waited until it was physically obvious. Rightfully so, because I carefully noted my PI's enthusiasm for her project and career plummet to where she is barely being mentored at all now that she is back from leave. I don't want to end up in a situation where I put off starting a family because my PI would not allow it, which I have heard from some current students.

    • chemicalbilology says:

      That's the difficulty that makes it suck so much. My sister's strategy was to look at the makeup of the labs she was interested in: were there plenty of women in the lab as grad students, postdocs, techs? At the interview, did those women talk about having kids or were any of them pregnant? In some labs she interviewed in, it was readily apparent that there were plenty of women, several of them married and with babies or young children who were not afraid to talk about it (i.e. it was safe there). My sister knew someone who had graduated from one of the other labs she was interviewing in, and asked that person straight up what the PI's attitude towards family leave and balance was like.

      Don't be afraid to ask the people who work in the lab. They will give you a straight answer, and if they are a group that looks down on you or thinks less of you for asking that question, they are a group you do not want to work with anyway.

      • Yael says:

        YES and YES. I only applied to labs where a significant proportion of the people had some kind of life outside the lab (significant others/spouses/family they spend time with). One lab was almost all male, but people were talking to me about their kids and the PI was talking about how former postdocs tried to juggle work and kids in a two-body type situation. My grad lab is very family friendly. Guess the acid test will be if I try to procreate while in my postdoc lab.

        Also, only applied to institutions that stipulate parental leave in the postdoc contract.

    • gerty-z says:

      Do you actually have to be pregnant to be in favor of this world?

  • CLR says:

    1. Be open - if your potential lab mates look horrified, you don't want to be there anyway.

    2. Do not be ashamed of wanting a personal life to go with the professional one.

    3. 6 weeks maternity leave, 6 months PARENTAL leave. For everyone. (Thanks in advance, governments of the world).

  • sara says:

    I had my children in Quebec, where year-long parental leave is normal. However, I was in grad school and not ready to delay my PhD (mama needs her science fix). So barring governmental policy I think there are smaller changes that can be made in 'my perfect world':

    1- As a boss, expect both spouses to take time off: have two scientists/workers functioning at a part time level is more efficient than one trying to work (while not getting sleep) and the other staying home worrying about getting back to work. Even if you marry the sweetest motherly husband in the world, if his boss is antiquated in his beliefs he might not be able to take time off.

    2-Allow/plan for more flexibility: allowing for some part time/work from home progress will also make things easier. Forcing parents to go back full time at 6 weeks will make for angry/frustrated parents more likely to make mistakes. I wouldn't want an engorged new mom hurrying her protocol to get to the lactation room in time.

    3- encourage institutions to provide daycare subsidies: look at every worker at every level - does their salary cover the cost of childcare? While I'm generally a fan of public daycare/preschool, I have appreciated the idea behind institutional subsidies (even if they aren't always enough)

    • gerty-z says:

      The problem is that these suggestions aren't really helpful if you are a PI running a lab.
      1) both folks may not work for you. I have no control over the work schedule of my lab peep's SOs.
      2) flexibility is great, but the work we do can't be done from home. It's mostly benchwork. Part-time might be an option, but really this will require at least a part-time technician. And that costs money that perhaps a lab doesn't have.
      3) it would be great if institutions did this. But how do you propose to "encourage" it?

  • Dr 27 says:

    Amen! When I was living in Canada my boss was very cool about students/postdocs being pregnant. There was a 6 month leave and he would be very accommodating, even letting a student spend work part time until she felt comfortable leaving the baby on daycare. It is astounding the leave (or lack of 'em) unis have and how granting agencies haven't grown and put their feet down to accommodate the needs of families.

  • GMP says:

    I had a baby when I started grad school, and my then grad advisor was OK with me working from home (I do theory) for about 4 months. Then my hunband's mother came to babysit for a while, then we put him in daycare (which was a major financial strain and left us with a lot of debt).

    In the US, it's about how to pay for a student/postdoc on leave. I sympathize with people who have labs and cannot have the person telecommute. It's easy to say "evil PI" but if the money is tight (in the physical sciences the grants have become minuscule) and the work is time-sensitive (competition etc), what is the PI supposed to do? Not sure what the best policy is. Certainly if someone else (federal agencies or universities) offered to foot the bill for the student/postdoc on leave, many many more PIs would be much much more supportive of the family leave.

    Having said that, in my past I have wasted so much money and time on students who did not work out because of lack of background, motivation, sheer laziness, cheating on their data, and overall being just rotten as scientists-in-training, that having a good student or a postdoc who has to take some time off for family, while I pay them, would be no big deal. I am talking hypothetically, as I have not had a pregnant student or a postdoc, but think I would not have a problem with ~ 6 months paid leave. Since I do theory, the new mom can perhaps ramp up and do some part-time work from home. I have two guys in my group who have families in a city 2.5 hrs from where I am, so they come in one or two days when we schedule to have meetings or there are seminars, otherwise they are with their families. They are both conscientious and productive, and the telecommuting has worked well for all. We could certainly do that with a new mom for a while, too.

    Not sure what folks with labs should do, though.

  • Alice says:

    I would like to see the NIH consistently apply its own guidelines. For example- Early Investigator Status should be based on the number of years an individual has spent doing science since their PhD.

    I have a gap of 3 years between PhD and postdoc. My daughter was born in the last year of my grad program-- after I defended I decided I wanted some time to just focus on parenting. My 2nd child was born 1.5 years later.

    I'm now on the TT job market and I have multiple interviews (yay! scary-- but yay!) despite this dreaded "gap". So I'm thinking about the timing of my first grant submission and I looked into the EIS extension rules. I would love to be proved wrong but it sounds like NIH will not actually extend my EIS by 3 years. Although that was the amount of time i was away from the lab, they consider 3-6 months a "reasonable parental leave". A longer leave is considered a "personal choice". (Though they do note that if there are circumstances, such as a child's disability that require extra care, then exceptions are possible.)

    I really don't see why the NIH should have to decide whether I took a reasonable or unreasonable leave, by anyone else's definition. If EIS is determined by years on the job, then that should be the criteria.

  • drugmonkey says:

    One of the stupidest things NIH has ever done was to tie the ESI to the time since degree instead of time since first faculty appointment. IMHO.

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