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PARENTHOOD: THE POSTDOCTORAL PERSPECTIVE
by Susan Chacko, Ph.D., DCRT
"Being a parent and a scientist are not mutually exclusive; however, working around the clock and being a good parent are."
--Patricia Walker, NCI
With the time spent in graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships lengthening, many scientists are having children - or at least starting to worry about when they will have children - while they are postdoctoral fellows. Finding themselves already in their 30s, with uncertainties about future prospects for jobs, funding, and tenure, they worry that their biological clock may stop ticking before they are securely settled and ideally situated to have children. As Robert Caudle, a senior staff fellow at NIDR, observes, "With today's job market for Ph.D.s, it is entirely possible that the current crop of postdocs will not be in secure jobs for many years yet."
To get some perspective on postdocs and parenting at NIH, The NIH Catalyst interviewed or received e-mail feedback from about 50 postdocs - 60% women, 40% men, including parents and nonparents. Although many of those without children worried about whether they would be able to take time off to have a baby and care for it - and about how they could afford good childcare - all the postdocs who actually had children felt that postdoctoral research was quite compatible with parenthood. They also felt that their mode of working had changed after parenthood. The consensus was that "priorities change, but most parents learn to be more efficient" to compensate for the new constraints on their lives.
One of the biggest concerns among the postdocs surveyed was parental leave. Whereas staff fellows and senior staff fellows, like permanent NIH employees, are entitled to use accrued personal and sick leave and to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, postdocs in other categories, such as visiting fellows and Intramural Research Training Authority (IRTA) fellows have no such guarantees (see Leave box). For them, absences are at the discretion of their mentors. Guidelines from the Board of Scientific Directors suggest that supervisors grant IRTAs six weeks of excused absence for childbirth.
Many people surveyed felt strongly that a more formal and more generous parental leave policy for postdocs should be established at NIH, especially for visiting fellows. Although many supervisors extend the same benefits to visiting fellows as they do to IRTAs, policies for both groups are at the discretion of individual supervisors. Several women felt that the recommended six weeks of excused maternity absence for IRTAs was barely enough time off, especially for mothers who had cesarean sections. One parent pointed out that at six weeks, many infants are still feeding every two or three hours during the night, and nursing mothers are bound to be exhausted. This was echoed by another mother, who said she was constantly tired during the eight months that she breastfed her infant. She would have preferred to work part-time for a few months, she said, but there is currently no official option for part-time or unpaid leave for postdocs.
Even when a supervisor is willing to grant excused absence to an IRTA who has recently become a parent, there is no consistency in how this will affect the postdoc's five-year-maximum stay at NIH, and practices vary widely across institutes and laboratories. One fourth-year fellow at NIAID was offered up to six months of "stop time" by her supervisors so she could spend some time at home with her baby. Fellows in other institutes said that they were expected to return to full-time work within six weeks and were offered no stop-time, part-time, or excused absence options.
One reasonable, uniform approach, suggests NIDR's Caudle, would be to give all IRTAs and visiting fellows excused absences parallel to the leave accorded to the staff. Such a policy would allow male postdoctoral fellows, as well as female, to spend more time with their new babies.
Although all the parents surveyed endorsed, in principle, the idea of a "stop-the-clock" policy for postdocs to allow them to extend their total stays at NIH to compensate for time off to raise children, they also recognized that requesting the break would have drawbacks. Some respondents noted that requesting such extended absence was likely to affect the supervisor's perception of them as serious scientists. Most postdocs were also sympathetic to the supervisor's need to maintain lab productivity and thought that postdocs could lose touch with rapidly advancing research areas if they were absent for a year or more. Detlef Leipe, a fourth-year fellow at NLM, made the point succinctly: "The world at large does not have a stop-the-clock policy." Barbara Vance, a third-year IRTA at NCI with two children, observed, "It is naive to think that while your peers are in the lab and you are at home, you can keep up with them."
Money was another major concern of postdoc parents and would-be parents. Judy Ehrenstein, a librarian in the Montgomery County library system whose husband is an NIH postdoc, thinks that decisions about when to start a family are closely tied to economic feasibility. She pointed out that the salary earned by someone with a master's in library science (a degree that can be earned in a year of full-time study) is $30,000 - more than the starting salary for an NIH basic research postdoc. One postdoctoral parent said that the low salaries in science had not bothered him until he had a child and realized firsthand the cost of childcare. Now he wonders whether he will continue as a scientist in the long run.
The financial concerns are understandable even if you look no further than the NIH childcare and preschool facilities on campus (see Schools at a Glance). The yearly cost for one infant at the Childkind facility is $10,260, about half the post-tax salary of a starting postdoc. Tuition at the Parents of Preschoolers Inc. (POPI) preschool in Building 35 is $7,020 per year, although some tuition support is provided for low-income families. Several parents felt that such childcare costs are prohibitive, and wondered whether a more graduated scale could be implemented. Caudle, whose wife is a childcare specialist, says that they would have been in serious financial trouble if they had had to pay for childcare. Another IRTA fellow states, "A postdoc salary basically prohibits you from having more than one child in daycare, so I understand why postdocs leave science when they have two children."
Waiting lists are an additional problem with campus daycare facilities. Some postdocs reported that they had to scramble to find alternative childcare in the window between their six weeks maternity leave and the three to six months it took them to get their child into one of NIH's infant daycare slots. Mary Haas, director of POPI, says there is typically an 18-month wait for one of the preschool's 65 places. About 200 children are currently on the waiting list. "It's a real problem for families coming here from abroad or who have just moved to the area," Haas says.
An alternative approach for two-income postdoc families may be in-home care. One NCI clinical fellow whose husband is also a physician thinks that their dual careers would have been impossible without their live-in nanny-housekeeper. "I feel very bad for non-M.D.s with limited salaries who have to struggle to bring the kids to outside daycare, rush home early to pick the kids up, and struggle to manage housekeeping," the fellow says.
All the parents interviewed for this article felt that a supportive supervisor was a crucial ingredient in their attempt to combine research and parenthood. Most of the postdocs interviewed felt that their own supervisors were very supportive. Some, however, thought that supervisors often confused physical presence in the lab with productivity. They felt that a postdoc who spent more hours at the bench was viewed with more favor than one who might spend fewer - but more efficient and focused - hours in the lab. Some cited a general perception that a woman's productivity declined when she had a child, but all felt that this was a perception and not a reality.
Smaller numbers of respondents had other concerns, including the need for sick-child care on campus. Such back-up care, typically paid for by those who used it, has become a coveted "perc" provided by high-profile corporations and upscale law firms that cannot afford to lose key personnel when their kids are too sick to go to school or daycare. Two postdocs mentioned NIH's lack of private or comfortable rooms where breastfeeding mothers could express and save milk to be fed later to their infants. (They clearly hadn't heard of the "pumping room". See Nursing Mom's Room.)
Postdoc parents at NIH said personal resources were vital in juggling the responsibilities of work and parenthood. These included a supportive spouse or parents, domestic help, careful organization, and sheer physical energy. Several postdocs said the relatively flexible time schedule of researchers could also be counted as an advantage to parents. An NIEHS IRTA who does not yet have children said that her work hours depended on how she designed her experiments - a flexibility unavailable in most other jobs - and that she had chosen to be in research for this reason.
But more typically, postdoc respondents felt that other aspects of science, namely the low incomes and competitive job market, conspire to make biomedical research careers hostile to raising families. Intensely aware of the competition in science, and of the need to be productive as a postdoc in order to land that elusive "real" job, many postdocs echoed the opinion of NCI's Vance: "Science is competitive. If you can't play - or even if there's a perception that you can't play - it will hurt your chances of getting that faculty position."
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