Parenthood is always demanding. But having a baby during a stint as a postdoctoral researcher? That’s a special kind of challenge—a challenge that requires much support from institutions, co-workers and mentors. Unfortunately, that support can be sporadic and unpredictable, if it can be detected at all, reports Chris Woolston.
A new report has uncovered serious shortcomings in the support system for postdoc parents in the United States. The report, based on survey data compiled by the US National Postdoc Association and published by the San Francisco, California-based Center for Workplace Law, found widespread confusion, anxiety and frustration among parents. The report suggested several potential reforms, including clearly stated policies on maternal and paternal leaves.
Current leave policies are inconsistent. More than half of the institutions in the report offered no paid maternity leave and 60% offered no paternity leave to postdoc employees. Postdocs who did receive leave often said that it was too short to really give them time to recover. As one mother said, “I was still in physical pain when I returned to work…but I could not afford to take time off without pay.”
The survey found that 93% of pregnant postdocs got much-needed accommodations when they asked for them. But only 40% even bothered to ask, a sign of widespread unease. One respondent said, “I was too scared to let my colleagues in the laboratory know I was expecting until I couldn’t hide my pregnancy any further.”
Given a lack of system-wide parental policies, postdocs have to largely depend on the understanding of their principal investigators, with decidedly mixed results. “Other parents that I know have had widely different experiences,” says Sarah Supp, a computational biologist at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, who had a daughter in 2016 during her postdoctoral research fellowship with the US National Science Foundation. “Some are very positive, and some are negative.”
Supp says that her fellowship gave her the security and flexibility to take off as much time as she needed—and she needed a lot. “Some women are able to get back to work after 8 weeks,” she says. “It was six months until I felt like I was really ready to do science again.”
Likewise, Adam Palmer, a systems biology postdoc at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, says that he was able to work part-time for a couple of weeks when his new baby arrived during the first year of his position. Instead of depending on any institutional policy, he simply asked his principal investigator for the time.
Palmer observes that scientists can’t always wait until after their postdocs to start families. Many scientists are already in their late 30s or early 40s by the time they can get their first permanent positions. “It ought to be possible personally, professionally and financially for academics to have and to support children during their postdoc,” he says.
Family-friendly policies could help put that goal closer within reach, but policies don’t mean much without supportive PI’s and coworkers, Supp says. “We’ll all need to work at it if we want to build a better culture for parents.”
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana. He writes often for Nature Careers.