Let’s talk about Academia and Parenthood!

We are living in a time of change, where women are fighting against gender bias, and are doing an amazing job of balancing career and family. However, as a young woman at the start of her career in science, I do still wonder how it all works when you want to take time off to have kids. I contacted The Female Scientist to see if there was anyone who could write about their experiences and share them on the blog, however they suggested I write a piece with my questions, to kick-start this important discussion, so here goes!

I realise that experiences will be different between countries, and between individuals, but it would be great to hear a lot of different stories from women in academia who have had children.

Let’s start with Fellowships. Say you have a 2-year post-doctoral fellowship, when you go on maternity leave, does that fellowship ‘pause’ while you are on maternity leave and you pick up where you left off when you return? If so, how long can you ‘pause’ your fellowship for – the standard parental leave time, or longer?

If your salary is funded by a fellowship or grant, do you get paid maternity leave? If so, where does that money come from? The institution you work for?

Finally, how much time did you take off work? Did you work at home (writing papers etc) or did you completely switch off from your work? What were your experiences returning to work, whether you took a long period of time off or just a short period of time?


Note: This is supposed to be a growing guide. Can you help our author answering those questions? Would you like to add your experiences? Please comment or write to contact@thefemalescientist.com!


Here are some experiences of mothers in academia that commented on the original post of this article and were willing to share their experiences here:

From Sara Cross (@wildfarms on twitter):

For my postdoc I had paid time covered by the University’s health insurance (considered disability leave!) it in effect paused my postdoc for the 6 weeks it covered postpartum. I had my second child this year as an asst. prof in the @calstate system which is a teaching-heavy role. I had option for up to 30 days paid leave OR a reduction in my teaching load for 1 semester. I took the teaching reduction and am working from home mainly focused on research.

Right now best advice I’d give would be to find someone at your institution who has recently had a baby— they will probably know who to talk to in benefits office, and what to expect. So on top of the variation in leave policies between countries- there is also plenty between states (in the US), between universities, between faculty supervisors (for a postdoc) AND even between new vs more established faculty within some universities.

My supervisor for that postdoc was great and allowed for this flexibility— after the 6 week period ended I was able to work from home with baby and could do a soft transition into daycare for him once he was about 6 months old. My Postdoc was covered by a grant with a no-cost extension option. I ended up getting a faculty position that started when the postdoc was originally supposed to finish so we used the extra salary to hire a grad student to help with the work we were doing. If I didn’t have grant funding to ‘buy out’ some of my teaching time for research or wasn’t a new faculty member, I still would have had to teach at least one course this semester.

From Maren Mossmann (@TheAtomicMommy on twitter):

The GradSchool at my university pays for 4 weeks of parental leave for grad students, but this is uncommon. A full-time employee (like a postdoc) would be able to use FMLA for up to 12 unpaid weeks after having a baby, but no one really uses the full time.

I took 7 weeks off after my kids were born. 4 were paid by the grad school and the extra 3, I arranged with my advisor because I had 2 c-sections and needed the extra time to heal.My son was also born just before Thanksgiving, so it was easier to take Nov and Dec off when I would have already been taking time off for the holidays. For my daugher, I agreed to work/write from home while on my leave.

From Olivia H. Wilkins (@LivWithoutLimit on twitter):

I am US-based but was in Germany on fellowship when my son was born. Advisor gave me last month of pregnancy and rest of fellowship off for maternity leave and told me to tell him if I had any issues from the grant agency and that he would vouch for me that I did plenty of work. At least in my research group in Germany, having children was something to be celebrated. My advisor in US is of that mindset too but there are plenty who act as if 4 weeks paid is too generous.

At my current US institution, women get 4 weeks paid maternity leave. Any new parent can get 6 weeks UNPAID bonding leave. I told the husband if we ever have another baby we’re going back to Germany if we can afford it. Societal attitudes felt much healthier.

From Joanne Kamens (@JKamens on twitter):

Sadly, there is little standardization for grad students or postdocs who need birth-parent leave (and don’t get me started on non-birth-parent). It is crucial that you vet your future advisor for their attitude towards this. What have they done in the past? Do they get it at all?

I had a baby in grad school and got lucky. My advisor was awesome! He paid me throughout my leave and then I came back slowly for a brief post-doc while he helped me get my first job. BTW, people ask me all the time if they should talk about their kids when they interview Told my interviewers I needed two 1/2 day interviews so could be home to nurse midday. Do you want to work somewhere that can’t deal with the fact you are a parent? A place like that can be a nightmare – so I say, be open about it. Reactions will be informative.

From Debbie Gale Mitchell (@heydebigale on twitter):

I had a baby during my 4th year of grad school with no access to maternity leave. If I took unpaid leave I’d lose health insurance. Botched c-section resulted in working for 3 months with an open wound. I don’t regret it, but It’s a problem if you are the sole income earner and are struggling to recover from childbirth. My advisors were super nice. They let me bring my baby to the lab for 4 months! The problem was that my uni had no maternity policy and I had to go back to work almost immediately. My husband had to pack and clean my wound 3x/day. He would do this in the morning, on my lunch break, and in the evening. I could have really benefited from a maternity policy simply to allow my body to heal!  I had pretty bad PPD, and I know much of it was because of my situation. It was rough.