Working Life

The parent trap

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Science  13 Sep 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6458, pp. 1214
DOI: 10.1126/science.365.6458.1214

“Have babies in grad school,” several female professors advised me at a department reception during the first year of my Ph.D. “If you fall behind, it doesn't matter like it does when you're a postdoc or new professor.” I think I laughed at this suggestion; the idea of having a baby seemed absurd at the time. But as I thought about it, their advice began to make sense. I want to pursue an academic career. Grad students have a lot more flexibility in their academic timeline, and they're generally young and less likely to face fertility challenges. Fast-forward 2 years and I was pregnant. “It will be fine,” I told myself. “After all, this is the best time to do it.”


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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“Having a family was going to end up costing us my husband's career or mine.”

The big challenge, it seemed, would be finances—especially because housing prices in the area had nearly doubled since I started my Ph.D., though my stipend had not. But my well-resourced private university had on-campus day care and subsidized grad student housing. Surely they would accommodate the occasional grad student with a family, right?

I was wrong. The few grad student housing units reserved for families were full. As for the day care, faculty members had priority. For the rest of us there was a waitlist, which we were told took years to climb. My husband and I looked into nannies, only to find that in our area they typically make more than grad students.

The baby came anyway. After my meager 8 weeks of paid maternity leave, we still hadn't been able to secure affordable child care. My husband was back at work and didn't have much flexibility. My advisers allowed me to work from home when I could, and they even let me put a crib and changing table in an old microscope room so that I could bring the baby to lab with me. This worked well enough for a while, though it significantly reduced my productivity. But soon my baby was too big and active to keep in the carrier all day.

My husband and I were getting desperate. We teamed up with a friend to try to find a nanny we could share, but no one wanted to take care of two babies for a price we could even consider. We paid to join a local babysitting agency and attempted to cover as many days as we could with sitters, but the price was high and the reliability low. I was constantly scrambling to figure out child care for the next day, and my experiments—which often take weeks to plan and complete—were suffering. I knew we'd have to face reality soon: Having a family was going to end up costing us my husband's career or mine.

Then, a few months ago, we got a reprieve: a spot in the on-campus day care. It consumes most of my paycheck, but it also puts my goals back within reach. A huge weight has been lifted, and I have started to make progress on my Ph.D. again.

I'm one of the lucky ones. Many of my parent friends are either still struggling to find stability or have put one parent's career on hold—usually the mother's. So, we are pushing for my university—and all universities—to better accommodate young scientists with families. We need better leave policies for new parents and affordable housing and child care options, especially at institutions in high-cost areas. Recently, we made some gains at my university: a 1-month increase in paid maternity leave and the introduction of paid paternity leave.

Despite all the challenges I've faced, I wouldn't say that having a baby in graduate school was a poor decision. Because the issues I encountered are structural and systemic, I don't think there's much I could have done differently other than not have a family at all. Had I waited until later in my career, I would have just faced different challenges. Postdocs only make marginally higher salaries than grad students, and their career clocks are speeding up. Professors are on a tight timeline to secure tenure and, for women, their fertility is steadily declining.

Of course, many women have children at all these career stages and make it work. But there are no particularly good options. If academic institutions want to foster diversity and employ researchers from all walks of life, they need to recognize these challenges and step up their support for those of us who aspire to have both a family and a career that we're passionate about.

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