Monday, July 9, 2012

Is it okay to have a baby before tenure?

Last Friday, there was an interesting discussion over at DrugMonkey where people were rehearsed the same discussion about whether postdocs are undervalued or not. At some point someone brought up that it was hard to pursue an academic career AND have babies, and @sciliz mentioned that indeed the age at which women are still very fertile is more around 25 than around 35.
It is annoying to say the least that the age at which you’re still very fertile is also the age at which you’re finishing a PhD, doing a post-doc and/or transitioning to an independent position. All of which are things that probably go better and/or faster when you don’t devote your time procreating.  
This has been a dilemma for me and many women* that I know: do you try to get a tenure track position before you try to have a baby? I obviously decided not to wait for a stable position (if that even exists), because to me the desire to have a baby was from such a different, and more primal magnitude and order than the desire to become an independent scientist. I did however take this into account when searching for a post-doc lab. I found a lab with a relaxed atmosphere and a supportive PI, of which the downside is that some people are not really working that hard which doesn’t really create a dynamic and hard-working environment.

So what do I think can be done in the US to make this phase of people’s lives easier? First, it would be nice if there were rules about maternity leave for post-docs (or anyone really), and if NIH would pay for maternity leave, so that PIs don’t need to pay this from their grant money. I personally think that 3 months is a minimum for maternity leave; I had a pretty uneventful pregnancy and birth and still it took me 2 months to feel a little towards normal again and then another month to practice getting both me and baby up and ready before noon. Also, in order to support breastfeeding it is important to be home with the baby for at least three months to get beyond the phase in which it can be hard and problematic before you have to go back to work.
Second, it is important to have access to good and affordable daycare. We have found an awesome daycare really close to where we both work, but the only way we can afford it, is because we get financial aid from the university for which we only qualified because we weren’t married at the time of applying. So others who are in the exact same (financial) situation as the one we’re in cannot afford to send their baby here. In my opinion this is one of the most important factors in being able to work and have a baby, and it makes me sad to think that (at least around my university) this is unavailable to many grad students and post-docs.  
The third thing that would make it easier for post-docs to have babies is when fertility treatments would be paid for by healthcare insurance. Treatments like IVF, that some of us need because having a baby doesn’t miraculously happen for everyone, are expensive. Our peers that work for companies and earn much more than we do in academia (supposedly because we are still ‘in training’) can afford that, but we can’t. And seeing the pain that that causes nearby makes me sad too.

So why do I advocate for post-docs to have babies? Because I think that as a society it is important that the men and women who are most passionate about science, should be able to transmit their intelligence and enthusiasm to a next generation. Also, as a person I think it’s just an awesome thing to have a baby, (and a career as a scientist).

*It’s a dilemma for men too, but it needless to say that it takes more out of you to be pregnant and give birth both physically and emotionally.


  1. I thought that there were rules about maternity leave? 6 weeks is the minimum. Maybe that is specific to my locale.

  2. Holy moly! I just had to calm myself down after looking at that graph! I guess I'm getting broody now that I've found the partner I want to marry (yay!) and know what country I'm going to be in (such a relief!). But having a baby when neither of us has a steady job and the debt between us is so high just doesn't seem like a good idea. My nephews will just have to get spoiled for a bit longer :)

    1. It's hard to make those decisions, but waiting until everything in your life is perfect may mean that you've waited too long to have a baby... We both don't have a steady job, but decided to have a baby anyway. Good luck with this tough decision!

  3. no rules requiring maternity leave in the US, other than forbidding your employer from firing you should you decide to take (up to) 12 weeks off following birth/adoption.

    one thing i did not think of, when accepting what is considered a very desirable fellowship in my local circles, is that i am not an "employee" and therefore have no rights or job protections per any state or federal law. i reached a point where i was having to research these things as well, and fortunately they panned out ok.

    i have no idea how i am going to be half as productive (and/or awake) post-baby as i was pre-baby. and i have no idea what this means for my career trajectory. but it is what it is, baby is here- i work to live, not vice versa...

    1. My experience was that once I was back at work, I felt much less tired and distracted than I thought I would. Also, I'm able to work much more focused than pre-baby. I feel like I'm more efficient now. Good luck on going back to work in a couple weeks!

  4. I was pregnant with my son during a postdoctoral fellowship. The baby was due with about six months left on the fellowship. I negotiated with the department chair to spread out the 6 months of pay over the course of a full year. I took a short full time leave, and then gradually ramped my time back up to full over the year. This was a civilized arrangement, which worked for everyone.