Monday, January 27, 2014

Do as I say, not as I do: advice for foreign post-docs in the US - part I

I have been in the US for nearly four years to do my post-doctoral training, and now that we're almost moving back, I feel that I have a lot of useful information to share with the internet. Even though 90% of my readers are in the US, I hope that there are enough people out there that can benefit from the things I've encountered. And maybe it's useful for USians as well. Because with many things, I realize now that I could have done things differently, hence the title.

For this first part, I want to talk about the thing that is on my mind right now: maternity leave. In my homecountry, women get 16 weeks off around the birth of their child. This is mandated by the government, so there are no differences in policies per university like in the US (where there is no such thing as paid maternity leave mandated by the government). When I talked about this on twitter today I discovered that for many, many graduate students and post-docs, there are no regulations regarding maternity, paternity or adoption leave at all. This leaves people very vulnerable, because it is up to your advisor to determine how long your leave can be and whether it is paid or unpaid. So if you're looking for a post-doc and you have the intention to start a family in the near future, it might be wise to VERY CAREFULLY try to find out what your future PI's view on leave is.

Some positions, like my current position, make you eligible to apply for Family and Medical Leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, you might want to study this before starting your family, because it requires you for example to be employed for longer than a year before you have a baby and to work a certain amount of hours to be eligible. In my homecountry, there's really not a lot you need to do to apply for this type of leave, but here in the US I found that you need to carefully follow the rules and make sure you are eligible before applying. This is especially important because if you don't get paid during your leave, you still need to pay for your health insurance that is normally taken out of your paycheck. In my university, when applying for FMLA you first need to finish all your sick, annual and personal days before the unpaid leave starts. So when you're considering having a baby it might be worth trying to save as many days as you can to make sure the unpaid portion of your leave is as short as possible. One might ask: but then what do you do when your baby is sick after you've gone back to work and you have no days left? I have no clue at all… Which brings me to the following question from twitter:

Please comment if your university or institute does, because others might be able to change this at their institute!
So as with many things my most important advice about maternity, paternity or adoption leave is: READ TEH FUCKING MANUAL!!


  1. something I found very useful pre-pregnancy was to check with the faculties safety officer if there are any restrictions on working in the lab when pregnant, esp. if your uni is high on safe work procedures and stuff like that.

  2. I also found it useful to look at policies for fellowships when I was applying/deciding on accepting a fellowship. I was very lucky and ended up getting a fellowship that has a much more generous leave policy than my university's, so that I'm ending up with up to 12 weeks of paid leave (for my baby that's due any day!) instead of the 6 weeks half paid (per CA law) + 6 weeks unpaid (through FMLA) that I could've gotten with the default university policy. If you're lucky enough to end up deciding between multiple fellowships, it's worth looking to see how their leave policies vary.

    1. Very good point! And congrats on your impending baby! Can I add that I'm just a little jealous of people who can choose between more than one fellowship...

  3. NIH intramural postdocs get 8 weeks full pay, both male and female. Actual full time employees don't get this perk, but they get paid a decent salary...