Click here for free access to our latest coronavirus/COVID-19 research, commentary, and news.

Support nonprofit science journalism

Science’s extensive COVID-19 coverage is free to all readers. To support our nonprofit science journalism, please make a tax-deductible gift today.

Postdoc and Grad School Parents


When I first started doing research for a story on people who chose to have children early in their science careers, my plan was to take everything I learned from the stories people told, extract the lessons, and combine them with a few quotes into a coherent article. But when I read over the raw material I found myself reluctant to pull the stories apart and reassemble them by theme; there is a poignancy to these stories that would be lost in the reorganizing. These are not mere lessons about science and parenting, they are real, human stories of people working hard to do science and have lives in the real, contemporary world.

For other young scientists they are, potentially, instructive and inspirational ... although the inspiration may go in either direction, depending on how you read the stories. For administrators and policymakers they provide an illuminating glimpse into the minds and lives of a few of today's young scientists ... lives that are very different from the earlier lives of today's senior scientists, who--with a few conspicuous and notable exceptions--likely had a spouse at home to take care of the kids, and possibly also a nanny.

So I decided to present these stories more or less intact, lightly edited, in the voices of people who did the telling ... and the living. The lessons, after all, are obvious enough to anyone who is paying attention.

Some respondents asked to remain anonymous; in those cases names were suppressed and readily identifiable details were altered or deleted.

I can tell you about having babies and graduate school. Been there, made it through, but it was tough. Now, I shake my head and wonder how I ever did it. Want details? I was pregnant with my first daughter when I started my Ph.D. When Maline was born, I didn't come to work for several weeks. I had thought I could go back to work after 2 weeks and trade off looking after the baby with my grad student hubby. Not so easy. My husband put his back out and I was exhausted from baby care and breastfeeding.

My supervisor asked if I was studying at home (she was leaving me an out), but I told her the truth. So she wrote to the granting agency that had awarded me a scholarship and told them I wasn't working. Before they could suspend my award money, I wrote and asked them if I could defer the rest of the payments. They conceded. Problem now was where to get money. At that point, I seem to recall that I borrowed money from my life insurance policy. ...

Eventually we worked out a system where I pumped breast milk for the day, worked from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., and ran home to feed my baby, while my husband went to the lab. My supervisor took me aside one day and told me that I could be a mother or a grad student, but not both. I ignored her. I also had any number of people hassling me because I wasn't home with my baby.

After my award ran out, we discovered that we qualified for subsidized child care, so we started hiring a babysitter for a few hours between my shift in the lab and my husband's. I started working as a teaching assistant, which slowed down my research even more.

My father died during this time and my mother came to live with us in student housing. She helped a lot with the baby. Then our second daughter came along. My mother used to walk the stroller to the lab so I could breastfeed Shaelin during the day. When my kids were big enough, we put them into full-time daycare on campus. I missed my kids so much it was like a white-hot flame in my heart.

All told, it took me 7 years to complete my Ph.D. There were other hardships in there (another death in the family, another family member joining us in student housing, divorce, single-parenthood, and moving to a new country among them), but talking about those won't help anyone else with parenting issues.

Things improved steadily during my six postdoc years, but this past summer, I finally decided to leave science. Now I'm a jewelry designer and loving it. You can read that story at

Tia Vellani

I had my daughter when I was a graduate student. When she was born I was done with course work and was entering the writing phase, so I didn't need to be in the office every day. I also decided to do a longer postdoc (over 4 years) because I had a young child. I have found it to be more flexible. I don't have to teach, and my mentor isn't concerned so much with how many hours I'm in the office, but how productive I am. My daughter was in full-time daycare.

Did I mention that I am a single parent, and am over 900 miles away from family? So daycare was a must. Daycare was also good because it provided a place for my daughter to socialize with other kids and it gives us time apart so that we can really enjoy the time we have together. But, anyway, back to being a postdoc ... as a postdoc I am able to take off early when needed, stay at home with her when she was sick, go on outings with her class, and take a few weeks a year off and go on vacation. I have also been able to be home with her every evening to do all of those little mommy things like cook dinner, read stories before bed, and give baths.

My fear, however, is that it will all change once I am a junior faculty member. From what I have observed, I'm afraid that I will not have nearly as much time to spend with my daughter. Between teaching, research, grant writing, and other departmental service commitments, I don't see how junior faculty balance family and career.


I became a parent the second year in graduate school. Our Nature paper had just been published when I told my advisor. I think becoming a parent while in grad school negatively affected our relationship more than publishing that paper did for the positive direction. I stuck it out. It was hard.

My husband's training and interests make him eligible for a high-powered job with excellent benefits, which we enjoyed before becoming parents. For the first year we both continued working; we switched off, child care and work, every 12 hours. After that, he became a stay-at-home dad, because my work had suffered greatly, my advisor was furious, and my husband was burnt out and really wanted to be at home. We were a family of four on a graduate stipend. You cannot imagine how poor we were, living in an expensive city. For him, the lack of health insurance was definitely the worst part. My productivity suffered tremendously, as much from the soured relationship with my advisor as from parenting.

Now I am a postdoc, on a National Research Service Award (NRSA). Scraping the money together to purchase family insurance has been prohibitive (almost $700 per month for the cheapest plan, which offers only the basics for the four of us). It is unsubsidized; the faculty and staff have a terrific and very affordable plan; I work alongside people with bachelor's degrees and no experience who pay $30 a month for a luxury plan for their whole family. My husband has gone back to work and now the children are in full-time daycare.

We were here for 7 months before we got the money to join the health plan, and the four of us spent November and December with some sort of cough which simply would not go away. The whole Fall and early Winter have been grim. We gave The Cough to everyone we knew. The children fell behind on their immunizations. ... I could go on, but the point is, effective family health insurance needs to be available to postdocs ... and grad students, too, for that matter.

My husband's time as a stay-at-home dad and our several relocations really shot his career in the foot. He was unemployed for an extended time after we got here. He is cheerful about it, but we are broke.

Fellowships, such as the NRSA, need to adjust the allotment for insurance based on family size. The expectation, apparently, is that if one has children they will be covered by the spouse's plan. However, the relocations expected of an academic affect many spouse's careers adversely, so the spouse may not have a plan, either.

Principal investigators should be able to charge family postdoc benefits to grants. Of course it will cost, but the human cost now is unacceptable.

I suspect, but cannot know, that those groups most likely to have children while a grad student and postdoc (women and some racial ethnic groups) are systematically affected by the lack of health insurance and other family-unfriendly policies, and this may play a role in individuals from these groups leaving full-time research in larger numbers.


I started graduate school at the age of 28, still single and not really looking for a husband or family. I had already worked as a technician at a university and in a biotech company, so I was older than a lot of my classmates. I entered graduate school with the thought of getting in and out within 4 years since I came in with a lot of lab experience. However, during my second year of graduate school, I met a man, fell in love, got married, and unexpectedly got pregnant right away. Because I was already 30 and wanted a healthy, happy family, we decided to make school and parenting work. My husband was a social worker at the time.

I unexpectedly found myself pregnant with our second child within a short time. My husband decided if I needed to stay home with the kids, or ever wanted to, he would have to switch careers in order to make enough to support our growing family. So he quit his job and went back to school full-time for a master's degree in business and we did a split shift to take care of the kids and eliminate daycare costs. So I would go to the lab from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and he would go to school at night from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.

With just my grad school stipend, we didn't have enough to make ends meet, so we took out student loans and lived off credit cards. Within 9 months, my husband got a paid internship position and the kids had to go back to daycare. We used in-home daycares licensed by the state because the rates were cheaper and the child-to-adult ratios were lower than most corporate centers.

With one more year of school left for both of us we found ourselves pregnant with our third child. After the birth, my husband found a job out of state and had to move there before I had completed my dissertation and defense. For 2 months, I was a single mom with three kids trying to finish my dissertation and defend it. It was a very trying time, especially when the daycare lady got sick and couldn't take care of the kids for a few days. I had to scramble to find friends or relatives to take care of the kids while I finished up some last experiments in the lab.

My PI was very understanding when I had the first pregnancy. However, after delivery I had a complication and was out for 10 weeks after the birth. I think he thought I would be back after 5 or 6 weeks. With each successive pregnancy his understanding became less and his annoyance became more. However, I was a fighter and became very efficient in the lab and would go in on the weekends to make up time lost.

I was still able to complete my Ph.D. within 4.5 years, with two first-author publications, all while having three kids. I guess I showed my PI, who is single, never married, and no kids, that I was determined to get my degree and move on. In fact, when I finally left the lab, my PI didn't want me to go, and he showed his disappointment by changing the tone of his recommendation letters to potential postdoc labs.

Since my husband found his job first, which, incidentally, pays a lot more than my postdoc fellowship ever will, I was limited in my search for a postdoc. I feel I got pretty lucky with my pick. I have a great PI who is married with no kids, but likes kids a lot and is understanding about leaving the lab for emergencies, school conferences, doctor appointments, or even Girl Scout meetings. I am in the 5th year of my postdoc and am at a time to make the next career move.

However, another glitch has entered the scene. My mother was diagnosed with cancer and my father has diabetes with a heart and lung condition. They were living in another state nowhere near me or my other siblings. Since I have the only grandkids, I convinced them to move near me so the grandkids can get to know them for the short time they both have left. Although I found them a nice retirement community with assisted living to reside in, I feel I have the primary responsibility of taking care of them.

With this new development in my life, I am not ready to start a new job where I might be less flexible with my time, even though it may pay more and we could finally pay off the credit card debt we incurred as graduate students. Luckily, the facility where I am currently a postdoc has a non-tenure-track staff scientist position that my PI has agreed to move me into later this year. I will continue to work under my PI, but on different types of projects where he does not have the expertise. I don't know if this will hurt my career, but my career plans may have to change as the responsibilities in my life change. I have no regrets at this point and I hope I can find people to work for or with in the future that have been as understanding and caring as the people I have worked with so far.

Thanks for listening to my story and I hope it helps others.