How graduate school with a baby should look like!

To begin, my husband and I were engaged during undergrad and were married the summer between undergrad and grad school. We delayed having children for a few years due to not being ready and wanting to settle into our new life. About three years into my graduate studies, after I finished classes and had “flexibility” in my research (e.g. come into lab when I needed, no hard deadlines like during coursework), we decided we were ready to have a child. Then, we realized we couldn’t afford it. My grad school stipend along with his starter job could not afford childcare in Boston on top of rent and other living expenses (“afford” is subjective, but we have a strict, written down budget, so we knew what we were doing with our money). Additionally, our closest relatives were 8 hours away, which meant family childcare was not an option. We delayed having children again for a few months until my husband settled into a higher paid job – enough to pay for childcare.

Prior to actually trying to become pregnant, I talked to my adviser whom had a child during each of her post-docs, and she enthusiastically supported me. Being a mother herself, she knew the commitment and the schedule I would be on with childcare. She felt it was a good time to have a child if I desired. Shortly after, my husband and I began trying to become pregnant.

We found out we were pregnant in September 2015 and were very thrilled and joyful. I was in the middle of an experiment and was planning the next few months of experiments until I would have the baby. Then one morning I had bleeding and cramping. As a precaution, my OB/GYN gave me an ultrasound and bloodwork. Results showed a miscarriage, and we were devastated. However, I had ongoing experiments and couldn’t just take a few days off. I went into lab and did the absolute critical pieces of the project and left. I did not tell my adviser or anyone else in lab, but instead told everyone I needed to take the afternoons off for personal reasons. It helped me so much to be able to take some time off and grieve for something we wanted so desperately. I needed to deal with the emotional and physical toll the miscarriage left. If I hadn’t, I would’ve been an emotional mess for longer than needed.

After a few good days of grieving (while going into lab and completing experimental duties), my husband and I realized we wanted a child even more. Soon after, we became pregnant again! However, I could not be joyful about it due to the unexpected turn the last pregnancy gave us. I was hesitant to tell many people, even after the first trimester. I did tell my adviser and she was so happy! She loved that she was getting the first “lab baby”!

The pregnancy was normal and uneventful. I rushed to cram in 3 experiments in the last few months of the pregnancy. I went into lab for 50 days straight, including weekends, to complete projects. I gave myself about 3 weeks between the last day of experiments and my due date to relax and “enjoy” my pregnancy. However, five days after that 50-day experimental stretch, I gave birth! Other than the early appearance, the timing worked out perfectly that it was during the summer (June) when I had no teaching obligations. During the academic year, students are teaching assistants for courses, but during the summer, advisers in our department are responsible for paying summer stipends from grants. My adviser fully funded me for the summer even though I did not do research. She knew it was important to take time off for the new baby, and also important to receive a paycheck. I am forever grateful for her understanding. Additionally, our school had no rules on maternity leave for graduate students leaving it up to an agreement between the student and the adviser (which many people can see that being problematic, depending on the adviser).

I decided to take maternity leave during the entire summer and “work when I could”. I think I wrote two pages of a review, and that was it. The exhaustion of a newborn is enough to deal with every day.

That September I work back to work. We found a daycare close to our home, but it only had an opening for 3 days a week. My adviser agreed that I could come back part time. I still received my full stipend from the school, because I was the teaching assistant for my adviser that semester (which we both wanted). She gave me minimal teaching assistant responsibilities, but enough to justify my stipend.

The semester I returned I had a lot of tissue processing to do that I accumulated while I was pregnant. My research was at the perfect time to not have to be in lab every day, but could still move it forward. I remained part time until the end of December (when my little one was 6 months), then she began daycare 4 days a week for 3 months, then fully returned to full time I believe in April. I thoroughly enjoyed working part time for the first 10 months of my little one’s life. It was gradual rather than being away from her for 40+ hours all of a sudden when she was so little. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything.

Additionally, our graduate program is a 5 year program. The beginning of my fifth year occurred at the end of my maternity leave. This meant I had about 8 months to finish my thesis and defend. Knowing that was not going to happen I asked for an extra year due to the slow-down in my research. One point I made was that tenure track assistant professors receive an additional year on the tenure track for every kid. I basically said, they receive an extra year for productivity, why shouldn’t grad students. The program was gracious and gave me an extra year to complete my degree. I began graduate school in fall of 2012, had my child in summer 2016, and defended my thesis in spring 2018! This past summer (2018) I also began my post-doc fellowship with an adviser who also has young kids!

I am so grateful for the academic and parenting guidance from my graduate school adviser and post-doc adviser. They truly understand my needs as a parent and are fully supportive every step of the way.