Solutions to Postdoc Parenting Problems

All working parents struggle to balance their work and family lives, but for many postdocs, the issues are further burdened by a lack of resources and support. In the Postdoc Network this week, Karen Spratt describes the efforts at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to create a child care subsidy program for postdocs. However, a subsidy program may not be the answer for all institutions. Thus, in this article, we'll cover a few additional financial support options and a couple of solutions that postdocs have created for themselves.

According to surveys of postdocs at a number of institutions, 30% to 50% of postdocs are parents. But that number only tells part of the story, because many scientists are married to other scientists. For example, the American Chemical Society found that almost 40% of female and more than 20% of male chemists are married to other scientists. And although only 17% of male physicists are married to other scientists, over 68% of female physicists are. The result of these unions is not just the "two-body problem," but also the "two-postdoc salary problem." Postdocs married to nonpostdocs (or nonscientists) may be more fortunate, because their spouses' benefits and/or salary can potentially ease the financial burden of child care. But for two-postdoc households, the low salaries and stipends may be stretched so thin that pay for quality child care is difficult or impossible.

Although many institutions are beginning to recognize their postdocs as a population and to address their needs by creating postdoc offices and policies, child care support--both information about and financial resources for--is lacking. For many institutions, the more pressing issues of status, salary, and health care are being tackled first. However, the Postdoc Network has found some solutions that can serve as models for existing and future postdoc organizations and offices.

In writing this article, we hoped to be able to offer a greater range of solutions. However, what we found is that in spite of the many postdocs juggling work and family, resources are limited. Please contact the Postdoc Network at if you, your institution, or association has a child care solution that we did not cover in this article.

Financial Support

To help postdocs pay for child care expenses, some institutions like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle (see accompanying article) and the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia provide subsidized day care. This type of subsidy is not common, and for postdocs with employee-like status at other institutions (see this article on postdoc status for an explanation), other forms of financial relief may be available.

For example, some institutions allow postdocs to set aside pretax salary in a flexible spending account that they can use to help pay for child care. At the J. David Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, postdocs can set aside up to $5000 for dependent care. The primary advantage of this system is that the postdoc will not have to pay taxes on the money being spent on child care. Alternatively, at Emory University's School of Medicine, postdoc "employees" are eligible for the employee discount at area child care facilities and a service to help them find appropriate care options.

Creating the Network You Need

While institutional financial support may not always be an option, postdocs and other scientists have created the informational resources they need by drawing upon the experiences of others and pulling together existing information. Here are some great examples that could be copied at your university or institution:

  • Some postdoc associations and offices compile information about local child care options in their handbooks or on their Web sites. Check out the NIH Fellows Handbook, the Committees section of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Postdoctoral Society Web site, and the University of California, Berkeley, Postdoc Association (BPA) Family Life Committee pages.

  • The Postdoctoral Scholars Association at the University of California, Davis (UCD), has created an "issue of the moment" page on their Web site for guest writers to discuss postdoctoral problems and concerns. Their first "issue," on Work and Family Life, focuses on the particular challenges of starting a family as a grad student or postdoc.

  • Also at the UCD is the Academic Careers and Babies Web site, which has been reviewed by Next Wave. Although the focus of this site is personal accounts of UCD women faculty, the format could be a great way for postdoc moms (and dads) to share their parenting experiences.

  • A great resource listed on the BPA page is the UC Berkeley Parents Network, a Web site run by parents who are associated with the campus. Started in 1993 by graduate student parents, the listings of recommendations and advice is impressive. In addition to the site, the UC Berkeley Parents Network also sends regular e-mail newsletters to subscribing parents.

Although these solutions will not provide all of the answers, they do offer ideas for postdocs, administrators, and institutions that are ready to address the child care needs of postdoc parents. We wish all postdoc parents the best of luck as they work to balance their personal and professional lives.

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