Helping Postdocs With Children

First-ever national survey of postdocs who are parents reveals a lack of access to paid parental leave, pressures to return to work early and extra stressors for parents of color.

June 22, 2017

Postdoctoral fellows hopefully enjoy close mentor-mentee relationships with the principal investigators on their research grants. Few would probably expect those investigators to show up at the hospital after a baby arrived, asking when they planned to return to the lab, however. Yet that’s what happened to one survey participant in a new study on parent postdocs from the National Postdoctoral Association and the Pregnant Scholar project of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings.

“So, what, about two to three weeks and you will be back?” the scientist reportedly asked the postdoc in her hospital bed. It’s the kind of “ridiculous,” professionally unacceptable treatment postdocs sometimes encounter due to a widespread lack of understanding or will to understand what their rights are, said Julie Fabsik-Swarts, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association. And if you’re a father, Fabsik-Swarts said, “there’s no prayer you’re getting much time off in most places. You have to feel for this set of highly educated, highly trained people who have dedicated their time and resources to being a researcher -- in many cases, to help this country. They’re being treated awfully.”

The new report, called “Parents in the Pipeline: Retaining Postdoctoral Researchers With Families,” is based on the first-ever national survey of postdocs with children, which yielded responses from 741 postdocs about 800 birth and adoption experiences. A handful of participants participated in follow-up phone interviews, and the report relies on additional association data about postdoc benefit policies nationally.

The paper urges institutions to update outdated policies to reflect a new reality: that the average postdoc spends four to five years in that position and most are nearing 40 years old by the time they find a permanent job -- meaning postdocs increasingly are parents.

“The average postdoc today can’t postpone solving the puzzle of work-life fit until tenure,” the report says. “To add to the challenge, parents of this generation,” more than their parents' generation, “feel the need to be more present for their children. For postdocs, the buzzers on their biological and research clocks are undeniable -- and in conflict. Yet despite these shifts, many institutions make no provisions for parental leave or accommodations for postdoc parents.”

A primary finding concerns the climate for pregnant workers who need health-related accommodations. While postdocs who requested pregnancy accommodations were provided them 93 percent of the time, they were less likely than other kinds of workers to request them. Just 40 percent of postdoc mothers did, and those in university appointments were especially unlikely to ask for help.

“I was too scared to let my colleagues in the laboratory know that I was expecting until I couldn’t hide my pregnancy further,” one woman said.

And that postdoc who was visited at the hospital by her investigator? She didn’t feel she could say no, so she got a release from her doctor saying she could return to work after four weeks, despite having had a C-section birth with complications. Another respondent said lack of leave left her health “in tatters.”

While these postdoc mothers continued their research, other survey respondents said they were pushed out because of their pregnancies or postbirth needs. One mother reported losing her appointment after her boss said he was “so sorry” about having no more funding. But the investigator soon hired a new postdoc to replace her. Another mother said that her boss referred to her children as her “constraints” and withdrew funding from her contract to fund another postdoc.

Fathers also reported encountering hostility toward their new family roles. “Peers often phrase paternity leave as if it’s a ‘vacation’ or you’re at home doing nothing,” one father said, adding that the prevailing mind-set “can lead to a view that you ‘aren’t serious about science’ since you took time off.”

Men are less likely than women to have access to leave and family-responsive policies, according to the study. “There is no such thing [as] leave for fathers,” said one postdoc dad. “They won’t even allow use of sick leave.”

Respondents of all genders stressed that “family-responsive accommodations,” such as scheduling flexibility or the ability to work from home, were essential to their success. If such accommodations had not been provided to one engineer, for example, he would “strongly consider leaving.” Another “would not have been able to continue” and yet another “would just have to quit.”

Parents of color reported facing hostility due to their new-parent status or pregnancy more often than their white counterparts, surprising the study’s authors. Postdocs of color are less likely to ask for parental leave or accommodations and are twice as likely to be discouraged from taking leave when they do ask.

“The impact of the hostility and lack of support for new-parent postdocs is profound,” the study says. “One in 10 postdoc fathers and one in five mothers reported that their [principal investigator’s] response to their new-parent status negatively impacted the quality of their appointment over all. This number is far higher for postdocs of color. For some, the challenge wasn’t worth it; ‘Don’t bother doing a postdoc,’ a neuroscientist advised aspiring postdocs who want to have children. Instead, ‘Work at McDonald’s,’ which would pay you equally or more, would give you more respect and [offer] a ray of hope through promotion.”

Simple Fixes

What will it take to retain postdocs, who each represent decades of study and approximately $500,000 or more in educational investments? “Simple adherence to federal law would go a long way,” the study says, noting that data reveal numerous institutional violations of antidiscrimination laws.

“Much of what postdoc parents need is common-sense: formal pregnancy and parental-leave policies that follow the law, changes in scheduling, and an end to the hostility and stigma that all too often attaches to the basic human need to have a family,” according to the study.

Other major findings include little to no access for postdoc mothers to paid maternity leave. Over half of institutions surveyed (53 percent) provide no paid leave to postdocs classified as employees, while postdocs categorized as trainees and individually funded postdocs fare even worse. Externally funded postdoc moms have it worst of all, with 74 percent of surveyed institutions offering no paid leave to them. Paid leave time, when provided, was often described as too short. Many mothers reported having to “fight” for the leave they needed, and a smaller subset reported losing their jobs as a result of their investigators’ negative reaction to their pregnancy or need for time off. One in five mothers reported that their bosses’ responses had a negative impact on the overall quality of their appointment.

Well over half of institutions surveyed provide no paid leave for postdoc fathers. Eighty-five percent of institutions provide no access to paid leave for externally funded dads. Many postdoc fathers also reported having no access to other kinds of paid or even unpaid time off, such as sick or vacation days, to help welcome a new child home. One in 10 fathers said their investigators’ response to their new parenthood negatively affected their appointments. The rate for fathers of color was one in five.

Many postdoc mothers had no access to paid time off at all to care for children, including sick or vacation time. Externally funded postdocs, again, had it worst, with 53 percent of institutions excluding them from paid days off.

Regarding unpaid time off upon a child’s birth, a right in theory assured by federal law, benefits vary greatly by funding sources. Five percent of employee postdoc mothers do not have access to such time, compared to 23 percent of institutional trainees and 44 percent of externally funded postdocs.

Over all, postdocs reported confusion about whether or not their institutions had parental leave policies applicable to them -- even after having gone through the process themselves. Human resources offices reportedly often misinterpret relevant laws and “struggle to navigate the varying grant-related policies that apply to postdocs,” according to the study. This is complicated by different funders having different policies for leave.

Additional problems include investigators’ reported unwillingness to grant accommodation requests, such as postdocs’ ability to work from home until their children are old enough to attend child care, or to attend work on different days of the week. Several postdocs reported leaving their positions when these requests weren’t met.

On-campus child care was also scarce, with postdocs commonly reporting being on waiting lists for a year or more. Other care was also expensive, with it in some cases costing 50 to 100 percent of postdoc salaries.

Postdoctoral positions were originally intended to be temporary stops for advanced training on the way to a permanent position. Now, critics say, they’re the backbone of a system dependent on if not addicted to cheap labor, with postdocs often spending years upon years in such positions instead of months. The National Institutes of Health, for example, established a rule saying postdocs can’t work there for longer than five years, unless they’re promoted to research fellows, which gets them a maximum of three more years. Altogether, that’s longer than a tenure probationary period.

One of the report’s major recommendations is that every campus create an office for postdoc services and assistance. But does creating offices for postdocs and otherwise shoring up institutional policies regarding postdocs risk further institutionalizing what’s been called the “permadoc” problem? That's where young scholars linger in postdoc assignments, lacking the opportunities to truly launch independent careers. Those involved with the study said ignoring the problem does more harm than anything, and that centralizing services for postdocs may help prevent their exploitation.

“The postdoc position is supposed to be a training position, and having a postdoc office is just a natural extension for that, making sure that these graduates have everything they need -- whether it’s advice on maternity or paternity leave or advice on their benefits based on how they’re categorized on campus,” said Kate Sleeth, associate dean of administration and student development and professional education at Beckman Research Institute of the City of Hope and chair of the National Postdoctoral Association’s Board of Directors. Sleeth spent seven years as a postdoc and said she found her own campus postdoc office helpful in that it made her aware of benefits she didn’t know she was entitled to.

“A lot of the time, rules and policies exist, it’s a just a matter of whether postdocs are aware of them,” she said. “They’re really there in an advisory role, to give the postdoc advice. If something should happen, they can advise the postdoc on what to do.”

Jessica Lee, the report’s lead author and a staff attorney at the Center for WorkLife Law at Hastings, said many of the problems identified in the report are linked to some institutions’ failure “to catch up to the new reality of longer-term postdocs and provide the formal support policies or structures they need.” Policies established when postdocs were more likely to be transient and male don’t meet current needs, and institutions that “turn a blind eye to postdoc needs, for fear of institutionalizing the postdoc, may be turning a blind eye to discrimination,” she said.

The hostility of many primary investigators toward postdoc parents, for example, is “unacceptable and in many cases illegal, and it is not only the [investigator] that is on the hook. Universities must prevent and respond to discrimination, and one of the best ways to start is by establishing clear policies that set the standard.” Whether a postdoc parent has a positive experience -- as many subjects did -- or leaves research entirely shouldn’t depend on the “goodwill” of the investigator.

There must be “structures in place to provide guidance and accountability,” Lee said. “We expect no less for our students and faculty and we should expect no less for our postdocs.”


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