Making Grad School 'Family Friendly'

For years, the conventional wisdom (with research to back it up) was that having children pre-tenure was a good way for a woman to derail or at least sidetrack a career in academe. Of course, with biological clocks running up against tenure clocks, that conventional wisdom was ignored by many. But many female academics have continued to feel that they face huge disadvantages from having children early in their careers.

April 4, 2007

For years, the conventional wisdom (with research to back it up) was that having children pre-tenure was a good way for a woman to derail or at least sidetrack a career in academe. Of course, with biological clocks running up against tenure clocks, that conventional wisdom was ignored by many. But many female academics have continued to feel that they face huge disadvantages from having children early in their careers.

In a sign that some experts on academic employment patterns view as significant, Princeton University on Tuesday announced a package of new benefits designed to make graduate school more "family friendly." This "continuum" of assistance may exceed that offered by any graduate school -- and Princeton officials hope that it will make graduate students feel that having a child, pre-Ph.D., is a realistic option. Princeton's move comes at a time that several universities have recently added to benefits for graduate students who become parents and that some scholars of gender and academe are finding that concerns over having a family are discouraging some new Ph.D.'s from pursuing certain kinds of academic careers.

Indeed, Princeton's plan was developed in part because of concerns that the pool of applicants for assistant professor positions at the university was disproportionately male -- across disciplines -- compared to the pools of women receiving Ph.D.'s.

Among the new benefits Princeton is offering graduate students:

  • Three months of paid maternity leave, along with extensions of academic deadlines and fellowships, so leave time does not count against any limits on time to receive financial support or finish degrees.
  • Child care support of up to $5,000 a year per child (for up to two children).
  • Additional funds to pay for child care -- either at home or on site -- when graduate students need to travel for academic conferences or other events related to degree programs.
  • Additional funds to pay for back-up child care when regular child care is not available.
  • Mortgage assistance, which can be used anywhere in the country, that would reduce both points and closing costs for graduate students purchasing real estate.

"There are pieces of this package elsewhere, but this is the most comprehensive we've seen. This is very impressive," said Donna Phillips, director of the American Council on Education's Office of Women in Higher Education. Phillips and others said that they hoped Princeton's action would encourage other colleges to follow.

Other institutions that have recently added to benefits available for graduate students who become parents include Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.

Why the increased emphasis on these issues now?

"We have been thinking about how to make Princeton a more family friendly university for several years," but much of the focus has been on professors, not graduate students, said Joan Girgus, a professor of psychology and special assistant to the dean of the faculty for gender equity issues. "It began to make sense that we had to have a continuum of benefits, from graduate school to postdoc to faculty lives," she said.

About 40 percent of Princeton's 2,300 graduate students are women, so the university is aware that the Ph.D. pool from top universities is increasingly diverse. But Girgus said that as more and more searches for assistant professors ended with lopsided male pools, officials started to hear reports that women finishing their Ph.D.'s were deciding to have children then and were intentionally not applying for faculty jobs at top research universities. While some of Princeton's policies are designed to assure junior professors that they can have time off and support for child raising, Girgus said it was clear that graduate school needed more attention as well. Graduate students -- particularly women -- should not feel that they can't have children before a Ph.D., and they should feel supported if they opt to do so.

With the "converging clocks" of biology and tenure, it is unwise to close off graduate school as a time to have kids, Girgus said. She stressed that Princeton wasn't trying to specify any one time as the best for young academics to have children, but that the university wanted to open options that graduate students feel are closed. "We want to give people choices," she said.

William Russel, dean of Princeton's Graduate School, said part of the problem is financial. Princeton's stipends for graduate students are competitive ($21,500 is the standard for humanities and social sciences, and awards are higher in the physical and biological sciences), he said. "But our support has been enough to provide for one individual, not a family."

Girgus said it was too early to say how much the new benefits would cost because it is unclear how many graduate students will use them or will be motivated by them to have children earlier than they might have otherwise. She said that the plans were developed intentionally focused on what they were trying to accomplish more than on issues of cost.

Cathy Trower, director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, a Harvard University-based project that studies institutions nationwide, praised the Princeton effort. "We need to take child care off the table and see what happens. I think anything institutions can do to ease the burdens on women, especially, on child care and housing, is great."

Trower said her only concern was about the bias some of these grad students might face after they earn their Ph.D.'s and look beyond Princeton for employment. She noted studies like "Do Babies Matter?" as well as tons of anecdotal evidence that suggests considerable bias against junior faculty members who are mothers with children. The study, for example, found women without children much more likely to earn tenure and to be on the tenure track than women who have children pre-tenure.

"For whatever reason, women become seen as mommies and therefore less serious scholars and therefore there are fewer people -- men and women -- willing to mentor them, support them, throw money and opportunities at them," Trower said. It's great to support women's choices in graduate school, she said, but academe needs to be sure that those choices are also respected later.

The University of California scholars who produced "Do Babies Matter?" are now working on an in-depth study of graduate student attitudes in their university system. Marc Goulden, one of the lead researchers, said that he thinks that there has been bias, but that research projects like the one he is working on now may show university leaders that they need to change their attitudes.

The researchers presented preliminary results of their work -- only focused on Berkeley -- in December at a meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools. Some of the results are striking and suggest that Princeton's new policies will fill a real need:

  • Female graduate students were significantly more likely than their male counterparts to be frustrated with their ability to balance career and life goals.
  • The percentage of women seeking careers in research universities drops significantly during graduate school.
  • Of women whose career interests shift away from research universities, high percentages cite concerns about children and spouses.

Generally, Goulden said that these concerns seem to be greatest among women in top graduate programs. So if women in graduate schools at Berkeley and Princeton aren't satisfied with their options for career-family balance, academe needs to offer new options -- or the Princetons and Berkeleys will continue to have faculty hiring pools that don't have many women.

Goulden said that it appears clear from the relatively low percentages of parents in top graduate programs that there is a "delaying fertility strategy" being used, and that this is part of what frustrates young academics. Princeton's new approach is a "mixed model," he said -- with both policies and resources -- and that is likely to help.

But Goulden agreed with Trower that more will need to happen -- even if Princeton is doing the right thing.

"I think the biggest problem is that academia has a structure that is still full-time or no time, and that assistant professors" at research universities are expected to work longer than many young parents can. "I don't think this is going to solve that issue," he said. But he added that the new efforts to give graduate students more options about when to start families are still very important.

"It's absolutely critical for this to occur," he said. "I think it's a great thing."

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