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Solutions for Pregnant Postdocs

In a previous Postdoc Network article, we covered the issue of being a postdoc parent (see "Solutions to Postdoc Parenting Problems"). But what happens before the baby arrives? How do pregnant postdocs handle the issues of disability and maternity leave? And how does their condition affect their relationships with lab mates and advisors? This week, the Postdoc Network addresses these topics in an article by scientist-mother Lynn Smith, and in this article, which focuses on how different institutions and postdocs have dealt with some of the issues raised by Smith.

With the expected arrival of a baby, all working mothers face a plethora of challenges. However, the nature of the postdoctoral experience--especially given the attendant uncertainties over employment and professional status--make some of the challenges even more daunting for many scientist mothers. We cannot possibly cover all of the potential solutions to these hurdles, but we can offer a quick overview of a short-term disability and maternity leave options, as well as some general advice on time management, productivity, and retaining the respect of your colleagues. And we can encourage you to share your own experiences in the Next Wave's forum.

Short-Term Disability and Maternity Leave

Most mothers-to-be realize that they will need some maternity leave--time to recover from the birth and to care for their new babies. However, as Lynn Smith's article points out, a pregnant woman may also need the option of short-term disability (or sick leave) if she needs to stay in bed or is otherwise confined before a child is born.

Doing the Research

Like many aspects of their employment situation, a postdoc's disability and maternity leave options will vary greatly, depending on each institution's policies and the postdoc's status. So, if you are pregnant or are thinking about starting a family, you'll need to do a little research to find out which funding agency and institutional policies pertain to your situation.

Some funding agencies and foundations have leave guidelines for postdocs. For example, the NIH National Research Service Award (NRSA) guidelines (found at; see the LEAVE sections for the Institutional Training Grant T32 and the Individual Fellowship F32) allow postdocs to use their annual 15 calendar days of sick leave for maternity leave. And if NRSA-funded postdocs are at institutions where comparable training positions allow for paid maternity leave, they can receive their stipends for up to 30 calendar days of maternity leave.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) doesn't have specific provisions for postdoc mothers, but according to Carter Kimsey, a program manager for biology postdoctoral fellowships at NSF, the Foundation "works individually with Fellows to make whatever accommodations are needed." These unpaid leaves can range from a few weeks to 6 months and are usually modeled on what the postdoc's institution typically does or what is required medically.

Some institutions have a maternity leave policy in place for all postdocs, whereas others have a policy only for those postdocs with "employee" status (click here for a primer on postdoc status). A number of policies allow postdocs to use their vacation and sick leave for maternity leave. After that, some policies will provide paid leave (e.g., Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions provide a week of paid parental leave), while others provide an unpaid leave option (e.g., Emory University School of Medicine).

We have provided a few institutional examples in the box below and encourage you to check out other institutions' policies via the links to postdoc offices and associations provided on the Postdoc Network Database page.

A Sampling of Institutional Leave and Short-Term Disability Solutions

Please note that policies and provisions are always being updated. To the best of our knowledge, these examples were accurate as of 28 March 2001.

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

Maternity leave is a total of 8 weeks, typically taken for 2 weeks prenatal and 6 weeks postpartum. If a postdoc chooses to continue leave beyond 8 weeks, she is entitled to up to 12 weeks under the Family and Medical Leave Act. These additional 4 weeks will be first taken from her accrued vacation time, followed by unpaid leave. During the unpaid leave, the postdoc will need to purchase benefits, as her normal health benefits will not be continued during this time. There is no sick leave policy for postdocs. More information can be found online.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Maternity leave (new child leave) is 6 weeks of paid parental leave, which is a combination of 30 calendar days of child leave and 15 calendar days of either sick or vacation leave. (45 days is just over 6 weeks.) Penn has no disability policy for its postdocs, but postdoctoral scientists can use 15 calendar days of sick leave each year. More information can be found at online.

Emory University School of Medicine

Postdocs at Emory can take up to 21 calendar days (3 weeks) of paid leave and 12 calendar days (2 weeks) of disability leave (sick leave) per year (see Emory's benefits page; scroll down to see the Summary of Benefits). Up to 6 months of total leave (paid plus unpaid) can be granted by a postdoc's advisor. If a postdoc has been at Emory for at least 12 months, she is eligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act ( FMLA), which protects her position for 12 work weeks.

University of California-Los Angeles

UCLA does not have a maternity leave policy for all postdocs, but only for those considered "employed" by the university (see the Postdoc Network's coverage of the status issue for a more complete explanation). The postdoctoral "employees" have 12 paid workweeks per year that they can use for maternity leave (or sick leave). The policy can be found online. Leave issues for postdocs without employee status are handled on a case-by-case basis.

Albert Einstein College of Medicine

For temporary disability (including illness and pregnancy), AECOM offers postdocs 12 paid leave days per year (earned at 1 day per month). A postdoc who has been at the institution for at least a year can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child. This unpaid leave starts after the temporary disability leave and any vacation leave (20 working days per year, earned at 1.67 days per month) are exhausted. Prior to 1 year of service, unpaid leave can be requested from the advisor and the chairperson. More information can be found at (look under Vacation and Leave Policy).

Remember: It may take a little perseverance to find the policy information that you need. As pointed out by a postdoc from Yale, "Postdocs are entitled to 6 weeks paid leave [at Yale], but the problem is that not every postdoc knows about the policy--it's buried in the faculty handbook."

Discuss Your Options

The difficulty in identifying the institutional policy that applies to your particular situation highlights the next point: Discuss the situation with your advisor and with administrative personnel. They may be able to provide needed information, and they can help you find a workable solution for all involved. For example, one postdoc contacted by the Postdoc Network was able to negotiate with her advisor for 3 months of paid leave, provided she did some work from home, writing up results into two papers.

Another postdoc, Sally, * was told that she could not go on maternity leave after the birth of her second child (by suspending her NRSA grant) and keep her health insurance. Obviously, having no health insurance was not an option, so she approached her human resources (HR) department for help. HR was able to guarantee her that if she went on leave, she could still use her NRSA supply money to pay for her insurance. Sally's suggestion? Talk both to HR and to your grants' administration office to figure out how to maintain your health insurance, even if you do take unpaid leave.

Time Management, Productivity, and Retaining the Respect of Your Colleagues

In Lynn Smith's article this week and Jane Curry's earlier perspective ("Why Bench Science May Scare Off Scientific Mothers-to-Be"), women postdocs discuss the possibility of losing the professional respect of their colleagues as they move toward motherhood. Lynn notes that both her colleagues and advisor treated her differently, stemming from a perception that Lynn was no longer committed to her career. And one of Jane Curry's colleagues "perceived a general lack of understanding for parents who try to balance the rigors of scientific research with family demands."

For Sally, who struggled to obtain her leave and maintain her health insurance, the biggest challenge was her first postdoctoral advisor. When Sally told her advisor she was pregnant with her first child, she was an employee of her institution and was guaranteed maternity leave. However, her advisor told Sally that she herself had taken only a few days of maternity leave. And if Sally took a few weeks, her projects would be given away, leaving her with nothing upon return.

Faced with a no-win situation, Sally was able to quit and find a better situation. However, not all postdocs have the option of quitting, either for professional or financial reasons. As Sally notes, "The problem is the expectation that postdocs, be they employees or nonemployees, should not take maternity leave and/or should not have children."

Unfortunately, no institutional or funding agencies' policies can change this perception. But postdoc mothers will be reassured by some results of studies on scientific productivity. For example, Mary French Fox at the Georgia Institute of Technology surveyed 1215 faculty in Ph.D.-granting departments in computer science, chemistry, electrical engineering, microbiology, and physics. She found that women scientists with preschool children have higher productivity (as determined by number of publications) than do women without children. ** However, she cautions that the research scientists with young children show signs of being a selective group in terms of marriage (they are usually married to another scientist), research interests, and allocations of time (they typically spend less time advising students and sitting on committees).

A 1999 study by Yu Xie of the University of Michigan and Kimberlee Shauman of the University of California, Davis, compared men and women in similar job and funding situations and found that women publish just as much as men. (Previous studies had shown that women publish less than men, a problem described as the "productivity puzzle.") And married scientists have significantly higher productivity than unmarried scientists do. (Want more information? See "Commentary: Gender Differences in Research Productivity"--free registration to The Scientist is required for access.)

Additional Reading

"The most prolific women are those married to other academics, whether or not they publish together."

--from "Why Don't Women Publish as Much as Men?" on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Web site

"The more hours that mothers work outside the home, the less free time they spend with children. For fathers, however, the opposite is true."

--from "Men Have More Free Time"

Perhaps the best advice that the Postdoc Network can give postdoc moms-to-be is to seek out other scientists--at your own institution or outside it--who are in similar situations or who have lived through the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and postdocing. These women can provide practical advice and offer suggestions about how to navigate a tricky career path. At some institutions, these interactions have been formalized in the creation of online resources (see Creating the Network You Need in the Postdoc Network's "Solutions to Postdoc Parenting Problems" article).

If you are new to an institution or haven't met any postdoc moms outside of your lab, then check out your local chapter of the Association for Women in Science (a list of local chapters can be found here). Attending a local AWIS meeting will allow you to meet women scientists at all levels and with diverse backgrounds, perhaps giving you the opportunity to meet postdocs in a situation similar to your own.

Or, for a virtual networking experience, you can read the stories of other postdoc mothers in previous Next Wave articles. For example, in "Juggling Work and Family," Deborah Britt discusses her life as a postdoc mom and some of the ways she has organized her life to balance the demands. And in "All Sorted Out, At Last" Susan Gillespie describes how she resolved the often conflicting roles of mother and scientist.

Although balancing the needs of family and research are difficult, we hope this overview helps postdoc moms and moms-to-be figure out the easiest way to manage the demands they face. And postdoc mothers can take heart, as Deborah Britt does, that--in addition to doing the research that won her two Nobel Prizes (1903 and 1911)--Madame Curie raised two daughters, one of whom went on to win her own Nobel Prize.

* a pseudonym

** The results are found in "Gender, Family Characteristics, and Publication Productivity in Science," a paper presented at the Berlin-Brandenberg Academy of Sciences' conference on The Work of Science (June 2000).