Pregnancy poses challenges in a researcher's career. Terms of employment may be unclear. A laboratory environment can be treacherous. And the vocational nature of a research career means that pregnant women often feel uncomfortable about adapting their work to their pregnancy or making cover arrangements for when they are on maternity leave. Pregnant scientists may also find that the level of benefits and support they receive depends on the stage of their career and the sector they work in.

Despite the challenges, pregnancy and the imminent career break it brings with it can also have a positive effect on a researcher's career. When pregnant, researchers need to be more focused and creative in managing their careers, at an earlier stage than they might have done otherwise. This can pay off long term in greater efficiency and productivity.

Maternity Leave and Rights for Employees

The long and unwieldy path that leads to a permanent position in academia means that researchers are most likely to become pregnant while they are doing a Ph.D. or a postdoc. Being a student or on a short-term contract may restrict maternity rights and benefits, so researchers in this position need to figure out their entitlements within their specific circumstances.

In the U.K., all employees are entitled to Ordinary Maternity Leave of up to 26 weeks. Most employees also qualify for Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP), which is paid by the employer. This amount is set by the government at a minimum level of 90% of full pay for 6 weeks, followed by £108 per week for the next 20 weeks. To qualify, an employee must be with the same employer for at least 41 weeks before the baby is due. In real terms, this means a woman needs to be employed for a week or more before she gets pregnant to be entitled to SMP.

Philippa Browning, vice-president of the University of Manchester branch of the Association of University Teachers, says that U.K. universities generally offer employees institutional maternity pay substantially above the minimum SMP set by the government. For example, Manchester University offers employees 6 months at full pay. Women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant, Browning advises, should "find out what their university policy is."

Learning about your employer's policies in advance is particularly important for research contract staff members in positions where the "timing is difficult," Browning says. For example, a researcher starting a new postdoc when already pregnant might not qualify for SMP, although some universities offer their usual institutional maternity pay even in this circumstance. In the worst case, research contract staff would be entitled to the basic Maternity Allowance, set by the government at £106 per week for 26 weeks.

There is some confusion about contract researchers' maternity pay when the grant is external. All staff on U.K. research council grants are entitled to the maternity pay provided by their institution; the research councils cover the full costs of this. However, Browning has come across cases in which "people were told that there is no funding, and they can't go on maternity leave."

Ph.D. Students and Maternity Pay and Rights

Often, Ph.D. students have an even harder time, because, as in many other countries, in the U.K., Ph.D. researchers are considered students, not employees. Agency-supported doctoral researchers' maternity rights and pay vary depending on the funding agency. For example, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funds 4 months of leave at full pay, although this is likely to be extended in the future. BBSRC's Ian Lyne says that the research councils are now looking into a "cross-council maternity provision of 6 months."

Director Janet Metcalfe of U.K. GRAD, the non-for-profit organisation responsible for professional development of doctoral researchers, says that maternity leave for doctoral researchers "is one of the issues that arises in the European Charter and Code of Practice for researchers that the U.K. should be addressing." Metcalfe explains that the code stresses that researchers--including doctoral researchers--should have equitable maternity leave in accordance with existing national legislation. "Because doctoral researchers are classified as students, the U.K. is conforming to the letter of the code but hardly to the spirit. It is hardly equitable that by undertaking a doctoral programme, a researcher does not have access to similar social benefits that a graduate entering the workforce would take for granted," she says.

Nora Schultz, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, had a baby last year. The Wellcome Trust--her funding body--"had a policy for Ph.D. students for maternity leave and treated you as if you were an employee of the host university." They agreed to pay the costs of her maternity leave (18 weeks at full pay, 8 weeks at £100 per week). But her host institution, she says, hasn't formally acknowledged she was on maternity leave, leaving her with some uncertainty about the terms of her continuing studentship. "If you are a student," Schultz advises, "contact your funding body about their maternity policy."

Health and Safety

Another major challenge for some pregnant researchers is dealing with the health and safety aspects of their work. Experimental science, particularly in the biological and chemical sciences, can be hazardous. Vicky Kett, a lecturer in pharmaceutics at Queen's University Belfast, is involved in her department's health and safety effort. When Kett became pregnant in 2004, she realised that some of the undergraduate research projects she was supervising may be hazardous to pregnant women. The solution? With a colleague's approval, she changed aspects of the projects to remove the potential hazards.

It isn't just research reagents; some manual duties that scientists perform can also be hazardous during pregnancy. Liz Khatri, a scientist working at a major U.K. pharmaceutical company, is 6 months pregnant. After doing a formal risk assessment with her line manager, parts of Khatri's duties--climbing up to reach equipment, lifting heavy items--were ruled out. But these restrictions, Khatri says, opened up new opportunities. "It teaches you to distance yourself from the practical side of the work and to delegate more," she says. The focus of Khatri's job has shifted into project management and strategy, which, she says, are "areas that I had wanted to gain more experience in." For Kett, too, pregnancy was a time of reflection. "You may have to put things on hold. You may decide not to do certain things," she says. By doing so, "you can think how it is going to fit in with longer term career plans."

Closing Doors

But not all pregnancy-related changes are positive. One female scientist Next Wave spoke to says her work life became difficult when she became pregnant a couple of years ago with her second child. Her work took her to altitudes so high that even people who are not pregnant should not be exposed to them for more than 12 hours at a time. When she broke the news of her pregnancy to her boss, she says, "I was still expected to go." Her boss, she says, "didn't take into account [that] it was risky." She refused. Recently, her contract was not renewed, even though the money was available. She believes that lingering bad feelings about her refusal to work at high altitudes might be at least part of the reason her contract was not renewed. Still, she encourages researchers to "stand up for yourself. People should not feel pressurised into doing things."

Juggling the Workload

In addition to research, pregnant lecturers also have to manage their teaching load and arrange to have their teaching covered while they are on leave. Kett says that she "didn't have quite as much help with teaching as I would have liked." Browning says she has heard of cases in which people were told to rearrange their teaching, "basically to get it all done before they leave," but this, she notes, would interfere with their research. Browning argues that maternity leave is a right, not a favour: "You shouldn't have to scramble around asking colleagues to cover your teaching as a favour." She even heard of a lecturer who was given exam papers to mark while in hospital. "Don't be pushed into something," she says. "Departments can take people’s goodwill too far. Watch out for this."

Keeping in Touch

Despite these commitments, Browning believes that academics should also be flexible about their maternity leave and try to keep things ticking while they are away. "You can’t completely give up," she says. "It makes sense to keep in touch." While she was on her own maternity leave, her research students came to her house to discuss their work. As for Kett, she made a point to e-mail her Ph.D. student weekly and came into the office once a month to see him. She feels it worked out well.

Get Support From Your Colleagues

Most of the women we interviewed say their colleagues reacted positively to their pregnancy. Khatri says her colleagues are supportive, but "I think people probably worry a little that the team is one person down and what resources are there to cover it?" Browning, a physicist, advises women who may be the only one pregnant to "team up with women in other departments" for support.

Taking Care

Even highly ambitious researchers advise not to put too much pressure on yourself before you take your leave. Schultz's self-inflicted deadlines before she took her maternity leave "didn't go as well as planned. Next time, I'd put less pressure on myself," she says. Khatri agrees. "Don't be too ambitious, don't push too hard. You do slow down."

Leaving work for maternity leave with a positive mindset and a healthy body is a very good way to start life as a parent and an equally good way to prepare for returning to work.

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Anne Forde is Next Wave's European Editor, North and East.