While seeking a postdoctoral position at what is now the Carnegie Institution for Science in 2005, Daniel Gorelick did what many job-seekers are afraid to do: He asked his potential future employer about the availability of parental leave. The institution wasn't deterred, however, and he got the position. He took time off when his daughter Hannah was born a year and a half later. He used the benefit again 3 years after that, taking 6 weeks off to care for Simon, his newborn son.
Today, Gorelick is working to start up his own lab at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. He's determined to offer his own postdocs at UAB—as well as his graduate students and any other lab staff members who need it—the same advantages that he had. “I would be very supportive of anyone who wants to have a family, because that is very important,” he says.
Pro-family attitudes are becoming more common in the sciences, but the stigma hasn't gone away completely. Some senior scientists still believe that any life decision that takes time away from work demonstrates a lack of commitment. For them, parental leave is a sign of weakness, especially for dads.
This stigma also affects women, because, on the one hand, it means they have less help with early-stage parenting. On the other hand, parental leave may not become widely accepted until men routinely take it, too. Fortunately (for scientist-parents), that seems to be happening.
A test of commitment
Marc Goulden, a researcher at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, who has studied the issue, says that "constant and short-cycle requirements" in science careers make it hard to take off big blocks of time to bond with and care for a new child. It has gotten even harder over the last few decades: Today, with longer Ph.D. programs and extended (and sometimes multiple) postdocs, most scientists are pushing 40 when they are awarded tenure. Scientific training matches up with women's prime childbearing years almost perfectly.
Most academic institutions have recognized the problem, and many are improving their policies, especially for female faculty members. According to a 2009 report by Goulden; Mary Ann Mason, co-director of UC Berkeley School of Law’s Center on Health, Economic & Family Security; and Karie Frasch, also of UC Berkeley, in 2008, 58% of major U.S. research institutions offered at least 6 weeks of paid leave to faculty mothers after the birth or adoption of a child. Many institutions offer a semester off with pay.
But even if an institution has a good policy on the books, female scientists may still be reluctant to take significant time off for fear of damaging their reputations or losing precious time. Mason suggests that one good way of reducing this stigma is for fathers to take family leave. “Paternity leave is truly important because unless you actually have policies for fathers as well as mothers, mothers won’t take them,” Mason says. When men have access to leave as well—and take it—"then everyone takes it,” she says.
Paternity benefits, though, are far less common than maternity benefits. Although a few institutions offer a semester of paid leave for faculty fathers—Cornell University is an example—such policies aren't common. Only 16% of the institutions that Goulden, Mason, and Frasch surveyed offered faculty dads paid leave of a week or more. More common are other benefits, says Anita Levy of the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C., such as “stopping the tenure clock” or offering a reduced teaching load and fewer committee assignments to free up fathers' time for family duties.
When his son was born just 5 months after he accepted a tenure-track position in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Harald Junge, who studies vascular biology, got the whole package. Granted a full semester of paid leave from teaching, Junge continued to work normal hours in the lab during the first few months of his son’s life. He also took advantage of clock-stopping policies and leave from committees to maximize the time he could spend setting up the laboratory that he and his wife would later share.
Meanwhile, Zhe Chen, Jung's wife who is a neurobiologist in the same department took 3 months of unpaid leave to care for their son; as a new research professor, she wasn't yet eligible for paid maternity leave. Once Chen returned to work, they staggered their schedules so that each could spend time in the lab on a given day, while the other one took care of the new child.
Benefits for trainees
Below the tenure-track faculty level, explicit paternity leave benefits are rare. Goulden, Mason, and Frasch's 2009 study showed that only 8% of major research institutions offer male postdocs formal paid leave, and a much smaller percentage—3%—offered this benefit to graduate students. What's more, grad students and postdocs may not qualify for coverage under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
Last year, the National Science Foundation stirred things up by launching an initiative, called Balancing the Scale, to encourage family-responsive policies at universities with NSF funding. The initiative allows grant recipients to defer awards for up to a year while they care for newborn or newly adopted children, or to suspend active grants during their parental leave. The program also offers supplements to hire personnel to cover research duties when a recipient is on family leave, and promotes the idea of remote participation in proposal reviews so that travel-restricted researchers can more fully participate in professional life. The policies, not all of which are new, apply to NSF postdoctoral fellows and graduate research fellows. (They also apply to CAREER awardees, who have faculty appointments.) Both fathers and mothers qualify equally. NSF's scale-balancing policies do not, however, apply to postdocs and graduate students paid from research grants, at least not directly.
Still, Kathleen Flint Ehm, project manager at the National Postdoctoral Association in Washington, D.C., says that NSF's engagement with the issue is a big deal. “I think the agencies have had a number of mechanisms for doing these kinds of things, but it hasn’t been completely clear what is and isn’t OK, or what is and isn’t an allowable cost,” she says. Having a federal agency like NSF explicitly promote family-friendly policies, she says, may encourage institutions to extend paternity leave benefits to postdocs.
Goulden agrees. Over the past decade, as major research universities have ramped up family-responsive policies for faculty members, he’s seen graduate students and postdoctoral scholars benefit, too. “Having a federal agency like NSF pick it up, I think you could see some pretty rapid movement in those directions.”
Explicit policies for postdoc dads remain rare. To help fathers ask the right questions and navigate policies at their institutions, Flint Ehm worked with Amelia Linnemann, a tenure-track scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, School of Medicine and Public Health, to develop A Postdoc’s Guide to Paternity Leave. The guide was posted online in May.
Keith Micoli, the director of the postdoctoral program at New York University School of Medicine in New York City, was finishing up his Ph.D. in molecular biology when his three children were born. He wanted to spend time with them, but his institution—UAB (coincidentally, the institution where Gorelick is now setting up shop)—had no formal policy for paternity leave. “There wasn’t a lot of sympathy or support or suggestion that I take time off,” he says. “The discussions centered more on how to maintain the research productivity in the lab and how to minimize the disruption by taking a day here and there.”
Micoli's solution was to create a written plan to help other people in the lab keep the projects that he was involved in on track. His plan included detailed reports on the status of experiments that were under way, where to find things, and how to use his notebooks. And, mostly, he kept his work breaks short.
That's a common strategy for new postdoc-dads, says Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, director of postdoctoral affairs at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who serves on a National Academy of Sciences committee examining the postdoctoral experience. “Oftentimes, men requesting time off are choosing not to take it immediately, or they are taking blocks of time over several weeks,” she says. Women often want to take their allotted time off at once, or want to plan a gradual return.
Those longer leaves can be harder to manage. Skills deteriorate, the lab may be short-staffed, and the work in other labs continues. “In a competitive field, if you’re working on a problem that a lot of people are working on, you could end up getting scooped or you might miss grant deadlines or not be able to obtain the data you need to submit a fundable grant,” Micoli says.
What's the solution? There isn't one, really. A strong support system can help though, at work and at home. “We hear time and again from women who ask the ages-old question, when is the best time to have children? Is it graduate school or postdoc or faculty?” Flint Ehm says. “The answer is, there’s no good time, and it’s all a function of having a support structure and a supportive partner who can help you do it whenever it is that you’re inclined to do it.”