About Margaret Kosmala

I am an ecologist exploring the complex dynamics of plant and animal systems. I am especially interested in understanding how species communities change over time and how humans impact them.

Is citizen science about science or outreach?

This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and co-founder of citizen science projects Season Spotter and Snapshot Serengeti. She blogs regularly at Ecology Bits.

Back in December, I wrote a post here on Dynamic Ecology about citizen science data quality. I was in the midst of drafting a paper about the same topic (that I hope will be published soon-ish in a publication near you), and it was nice to explore some less-quantitative ideas in blog format.

You may recall that I had a brief survey at the beginning. It asked about career stage, level of involvement in citizen science, and one’s opinion about the primary purpose of citizen science. With the caveat that Dynamic Ecology readers do not form a representative subset of anything (and the caveat that that particular post attracted a disproportionate number of people involved in citizen science), I’m going to tell you about the results. I tried to capture the couple dimensions that I thought might most matter in influencing people’s opinions of citizen science. So I think the survey is actually a reasonable representation of what ecologists – or at least web-savvy ecologists – think of citizen science.

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Citizen science and data quality (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and co-founder of citizen science projects Snapshot Serengeti and Season Spotter.

There’s no doubt about it: citizen science is a growing field. In the past two years, three major citizen science associations have been founded, an international citizen science conference was held, a new citizen science journal is on the horizon, and a new cross-disciplinary online citizen science journal has launched. Aggregator SciStarter and citizen science platform Zooniverse have recorded a linear – or faster than linear – increase in the number of citizen science projects and participants.

But before we go any further, a little pre-survey, if you don’t mind:

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Plumbing advice for the leaky pipeline (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

Having children is a critical issue for many early career researchers in academia. Whether grad students, postdocs, or new faculty, having a child can create a lot of stress and difficulties in the workplace for women as well as men who want to be involved dads. Parental leave policies can make or break a parent’s decision to stay in academia, as it can literally cost upwards of $10,000 — or one’s job — if there are no paid leave policies in place.

Putting the squeeze on early career parents forces out many bright young scientists. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s how you can help:

1. Help put parental leave policies in public view. Institutions with terrible policies need to be known – not just so that you can avoid them if you plan to become a parent, but also so that there is competitive pressure from other institutions for change. I was only able to examine policies at a fraction of universities that offer ecology programs, and I probably made some errors. Look up the parental leave policies for postdocs at your university – or even better, get an interpretation of them from your HR rep – and put them in the comments. I’ll update my charts with the new info. Make sure your PI, your department head, and your dean see how your institution stacks up. Email them, forward them the statistics, show up in their offices. Don’t assume they already know — they probably don’t.

2. If you are a faculty member who has grad students or postdocs, find out what the parental leave policies are at your institution. I am constantly amazed that so few faculty know what their employees’ benefits are. And I’ve heard story after story about PIs being horrified when they discover what the benefits actually are for those they supervise (usually too late to be very helpful). Be a responsible PI; know what your employees’ benefits are, including parental benefits.

3. If you’re a PI who hires postdocs, think ahead of time about how you could run your project if your postdoc were to be gone for three months. Could someone else keep the project moving in the meantime? Could it be put on hold? Letting a newly hired postdoc know that there’s a plan in case she or he needs to take a few months of leave will reduce the stress and conflict the postdoc might feel about the decision to start a family. (Believe me, telling your PI that “hey, you know that project we’re both excited about and working on? Yeah, I’m going to take off and leave you in the lurch for three months,” is not something to look forward to.)

4. If you’re in a position of power (tenure-track faculty, especially), lobby your institution for better parent-oriented policies and leave:

  • At a minimum, make it a written policy that postdocs can take three months of unpaid job-protected leave. Better: six months.
  • Next, encourage the institution to offer employee postdocs short-term disability insurance; it shouldn’t cost the institution much, if anything, to offer such a policy if postdocs pay the premiums. Better would be for the institution to automatically cover all postdocs with short-term disability insurance at the university’s expense.
  • Third, lobby for a policy in which both mothers AND fathers can take sick leave to care for healthy newborns and newly adopted children. Better: the same, without restrictions.
  • Next, lobby for a sick-leave policy that allows postdocs to take sick leave when it’s needed, within reason, without regard to number of days.
  • Finally, lobby for paid parental leave; while universities might balk at the expense, it’s worth pointing out that many new mothers leave the workforce all together because they’re forced back to paid work before they’re ready. Having to rehire for a postdoc position mid-project is disruptive at best and possibly fatal to the project; many projects can better withstand a 3-month pause.

5. Lobby funding organizations for better parent-oriented policies. Both NSF and NIH (and others) have begun making steps to make sure their grants are “family friendly.” But both typically still defer to the awardee institution, which does not guarantee any protection to postdocs with regard to family leave policies. Funding organizations have a lot of power in determining how their money gets used, and they have the leverage to even the playing field among institutions when it comes to parental leave. They also have a mandate to ensure that the system they fund doesn’t disproportionately force out women and other underrepresented groups in the sciences. A lack of strong policies by funding organizations isn’t just lazy, it can waste funding dollars. In addition to explicit parental leave policies for postdocs, funding organizations should adopt comprehensive policies that provide bridge funding while postdocs are on parental leave. These will reduce disruption to funded projects, as well as reduce potential conflict between postdocs and PIs. They should also ensure that no-cost extensions are available for projects in which a postdoc has taken time off for family reasons.

Do you have more ideas for bettering university family leave policies? Horror stories? Happy stories? Do tell.

Parental leave, beyond the numbers (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

My series of posts on the statistics of parental leave has prompted responses like

Sorry for bringing you down the past couple Mondays. I’d like to stress that not all university parental leave policies are bad. Indeed, someone commented that her university leave was better than her leave at her former employer, a non-profit. The issue is that there’s so much variation and that leave policies are hidden and not well known. One of my goals is to bring this information out into the daylight.

Simon Goring tweets:

And this, I think, is a very good question. How many grad students are sitting around with multiple postdoc offers? It’s not likely that postdoc parents-to-be are going to choose their positions based on parental leave.

Instead, I hope these posts open the eyes of PIs and administrators. If you’re a PI hiring a postdoc, you should know what your parental leave policies are at your institution. Full stop. If they’re good, you can advertise that fact. If they’re not, then you should prepare a lab policy for what happens when a postdoc has a baby. Because if you hire postdocs regularly, sooner or later one will.

“But wait,” I hear some of you arguing, “in my lab it doesn’t really matter what the formal policies are. Postdocs just take the leave they need and our PI is fine with that.” Or: “our department is really family friendly and I can’t imagine postdocs being fired for not coming in after a baby.”

I want to argue that formal policies are really, really important. Without them, it becomes incumbent upon each parent (and especially mothers) to negotiate their own leave and accommodations (like working from home). What that means is that everyone is not treated equally and some are treated unfairly. I’ve heard and read a steady stream of horrible stories since I was pregnant for the first time in 2009 about the difficulty of women who are having babies being accommodated by their institutions.

Even mine has a murky lining. Yes, Harvard grants 12 weeks of maternity leave (great!). But what’s lost in the small print is that 4 of those weeks are “parental leave,” which is paid for “by the funding mechanism that normally pays the parent’s salary.” In my case, that’s an NSF grant. But NSF does not allow grant money to be used for maternity leave. (After all, with a 50% overhead, parental leave OUGHT to be coming out of fringe.) I had to point out the fact that they couldn’t use my PI’s NSF grant to pay me for parental leave, because neither my PI nor the administrator in charge of managing my leave knew it! But Harvard the University doesn’t have a fund for parental leave. So where does the pay for my paid leave come from? In the end, I believe they raided my PI’s start-up funds to pay for my 4 weeks of parental leave. (Although I’m still trying to confirm that.)

My PI is thrilled.

And that brings to my final point, and maybe the most important. It’s not the raw numbers that really matter. It’s the difficult decisions, the straining of interpersonal relationships, the feelings of moral and ethical unease, the emotional turbulence that really push women (and men) who become parents to leave academia in the end.

A while ago, a friend wrote to me:

I just started my postdoc and got pregnant soon after. I’m starting to feel SUPER guilty. My poor boss, hiring a new postdoc and then having me lose half of my productivity for the first trimester, with the promise of a completely unproductive field season after the baby is born!


This here is the problem. My smart and talented friend should not be made to feel guilty by the academic system just because she wants to do a very normal thing and have a family. This, Academia, you need to address. First, by having formal parental leave policies so new moms and dads don’t feel like they’re shirking their duties or scamming their employers when they take extended leave to have children. Second, by addressing the very real difficulties faced by PIs when postdocs need to take extended leave (for whatever reason).

Postdoc parental leave policies, part 3 (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

Note from Margaret: This is the fourth post in a mini-series examining the enormous variation in U.S. postdoc leave benefits. (See first, second, and third posts.) While most postdocs do not consider benefits packages when choosing a position, the benefits available can greatly affect quality of life, and sometimes mean the difference between staying in academia and leaving it — especially for caregivers and those with chronic health conditions. I surveyed 21 U.S. universities with highly ranked ecology programs (according to The Chronical of Higher Education and U.S. News and World Report) and the U.S. federal government by looking up postdoc benefit information on their webpages, and present the data (with commentary) here. (Note that this information is up-to-date as of July 2014. Please provide updates and corrections in the comments. I also welcome data about other universities and will add them to the charts if full info is provided.)

Last time I talked about all the various vehicles universities can use to grant parental leave to (employee) postdocs. But because different universities choose different combinations of these vehicles, it’s very difficult to compare them. So I decided to use myself as an example case and see how different institutions measured up. I asked, “what if I was a postdoc at this university?” and used my real information: I started my postdoc on January 1, 2014. And I gave birth on June 9 of the same year. I intended to (and did) take three months off after the birth. I also assumed that I had taken no sick leave or vacation leave prior to birth. (Which, of course, is impossible. Between January 1 and June 9 in real life, I had eleven prenatal appointments, a dentist appointment, and a baseline appointment with my new primary caregiver.)

There were several main things I wanted to compare:

  1. Would my job be protected if I took three months off after birth?
  2. If not, how much unpaid time could I take off and still keep my job?
  3. If I could not afford to take time off unpaid, how much time could I take off?
  4. How much money would I lose in salary by taking three months off after birth?

For the fourth question, I assumed that I was paid the same at every university, and picked a reasonable salary for an ecology postdoc: $42,000

The answers are pretty scary – and very variable. I’ve made a graph so you can follow along (click to embiggen).

maternity-graphOf the 21 universities and the federal government, at only two (Yale and the University of Washington in St. Louis) could I take job-protected leave for three months. There were five more universities that got me “close enough”; these counted in weeks (12 or 13 weeks) or days (90 days) that were just short of the three months I wanted (13.1 weeks, 92 days).

At the other 14 universities and at the federal government, my leave would have had to be significantly curtailed unless I personally negotiated a longer leave. But very few universities have policies guaranteeing protected unpaid leave. Remember, I haven’t been in my postdoc position for a year yet, so I’m not covered by FMLA.

At the low end, the University of Montana and the University of Florida would allow me just 7 or 8 (respectively) days of guaranteed leave! The U.S. government was not far behind at 14 days.

There was also a large range in the pay I would lose for having a child. Yale would ensure that I lost nothing; it was the only one to offer three months at full pay. Colorado State was next, where I lost just $800. Conversely, I would lose more than $7,000 at 7 of the universities (and the federal government). At the University of Montana and the University of Florida I would lose over $9,500 — almost a quarter of my yearly income. (No problem! It’s not like you need money to raise children pay for the birth…)

A couple things were noteworthy: I was ineligible for maternity leave at 4 universities because I had not worked there long enough (typically a year). There need to be better policies without these waiting periods for postdocs, whose tenures at an institution are typically 2 years or less.

Also, in all cases but two (Harvard and Yale), I was forced to use all my sick and vacation leave. All of it. All sick leave. All vacation leave. (Though at the University of Montana I wasn’t eligible to use my vacation leave because I hadn’t been there six months yet.) That means that at most institutions, I have no leave reserves left to take the time off I *will need* for my baby’s four-, six-, and nine-month doctor appointments for vaccinations, not to mention any I need to take off if I become sick, one of my children becomes sick, or, heaven forbid, I want to visit my family over the holidays so they can meet their new relative. Cornell and Indiana University should be commended for having a formal “sick-leave-as-needed” policy. At a couple places I had to use leave from two fiscal years to try to meet my three-months off after birth; at the University of Washington in St. Louis and at Colorado State, I wouldn’t be eligible for any more leave (sick or vacation) until July of 2015 — more than a year after I gave birth! At five more, I must wait until January 2015 to get any more leave.

Let me make this crystal clear: at the majority of universities (and the federal government), even if I’ve made it through my maternity leave and kept my job, the fact that I have no leave reserves means that my job is in jeopardy if I must miss work for one day to vaccinate my baby, stay home because I’ve got the flu, or need to take my baby to the doctor or hospital due to disease or injury.

How does your university stack up?

Postdoc parental leave policies, part 2 (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

Note from Margaret: This is the third post in a mini-series examining the enormous variation in U.S. postdoc leave benefits. (See first and second posts.) While most postdocs do not consider benefits packages when choosing a position, the benefits available can greatly affect quality of life, and sometimes mean the difference between staying in academia and leaving it — especially for caregivers and those with chronic health conditions. I surveyed 21 U.S. universities with highly ranked ecology programs (according to The Chronical of Higher Education and U.S. News and World Report) and the U.S. federal government by looking up postdoc benefit information on their webpages, and present the data (with commentary) here. (Note that this information is up-to-date as of July 2014. Please provide updates and corrections in the comments. I also welcome data about other universities and will add them to the charts if full info is provided.)

All universities tout their “great benefits” and “work-life balance” policies in big letters somewhere on their human resources web pages. But don’t fall for the hype. If you are considering adding a child to your life during your postdoc years, research the parental leave policies of the institution and the state it’s in before accepting a postdoc job. If you’ve been offered a postdoc job at an institution that has a poor policy, use the opportunity to negotiate the leave that you want. You’ll be in a better bargaining position when being hired than later on when a child becomes inevitable.

Institutional policies generally only cover employee postdocs. Postdocs on fellowships are subject to the terms of the fellowships. Generally, funding agencies (including NSF and NIH) expect institutions to provide the same benefits to fellowship recipients as to employee postdocs. But due to various laws, institutions can’t provide some of the options (such as short-term disability insurance) to fellowship postdocs. Therefore the following only applies to employee postdocs.

There are three main vehicles institutions use to provide paid parental leave: short-term disability insurance, explicit paid parental leave, and regular vacation and sick leave.

Short-term disability insurance (table)

Short-term disability insurance is only available to birth mothers and technically covers the incapacity of the female postdoc to do her job due to pregnancy and childbirth. In many cases, the postdoc will need to present a note from her doctor confirming the date of birth and the length of incapacity. While not written in law anywhere, the standard rule of thumb is that a woman needs six weeks to recover from a vaginal delivery and eight weeks from a Caesarian. Most institutions and short-term insurance policies match these recovery periods and expect doctors’ notes to not vary much unless there are substantial complications.

Thirteen of 21 universities offer some sort of short-term disability insurance (and the government does not). Of those, in six cases, the insurance is paid for by the university automatically at no cost to the postdoc, in one case the policy is paid for by the state, and in the other six cases, the postdoc must opt for the insurance and pay premiums when hired (typically around $10-$15 per month). Got that? If you’re planning to have a child during your postdoc years, you should consider opting into short-term disability insurance at the time of hire.

Short term disability insurance often has a waiting period, during which the postdoc must be incapacitated and not working, but will not receive any payments. Waiting periods among the thirteen universities vary from none (Harvard and Princeton) to four weeks (Duke). Most policies have a one to two week waiting period.

Payments from short-term disability insurance vary from 60% to 75% of salary at 11 of the universities. The other two (Yale and Colorado State) are more generous, with 100% of pay for the length of a normal childbirth claim.

Some short-term disability insurance policies have a pre-existing condition clause. Therefore, if you are pregnant when you start your postdoc, you will not qualify for disability payments. The terms of most insurance policies are either not available to the public online, so I was unable to determine how many have these pre-existing condition clauses. Some do and some don’t. Harvard’s short-term disability insurance does not have a pre-existing condition clause. The University of Florida’s does.

There are other small-print restrictions on short-term disability insurance as well. Stanford and the University of Chicago require that you work for three months or a year, respectively, before you are eligible for payouts. Five policies require that you use up some or all of your sick leave and/or vacation before you are eligible for disability payments.

Paid parental leave (maternity table) (paternity and adoption table)

Paid maternity leave is available in some form at 13 of the 21 universities (and not the federal government). The policies vary a lot, with different lengths, payouts, and restrictions. The maternity leave policies are typically crafted to supplement short-term disability and other policies. So, while Princeton’s payout is only at 1/3 of salary, it is for six weeks, with no restrictions, and is meant to supplement the short-term disability policy that pays out at 2/3 of salary for those six weeks. At the minimal end of the paid maternity leave spectrum, Washington University in St. Louis offers 7 days at 100% of salary after all sick leave and vacation are used. Not great, but at least that’s more than the zero days offered by nine universities and the federal government.

One thing that is not usually well documented (at least online) is where the funds come from for supporting maternity leave. Funds could come from the university itself, or the state, or they may need to be provided by individual departments, or else from the grants that support the postdoc’s salary (or other monies belonging to a PI, such as start-up funds). In case of the latter two, a postdoc might be entitled to paid leave, but the funds might not exist to cover it. These zero-sum cases are seriously problematic not only because of their arbitrariness, but also because of the conflict they create. Neither departments nor PIs want to be spending money on leave when they could be spending it on research or other priorities. (It should be noted, however, that NSF has recently instituted policy to partially offset such conflict. It allows PIs to apply for additional funds to hire personnel to cover the research that is not being done when a postdoc is on family leave.)

Paid leave for fathers is identical to paid leave for adoptive parents at all universities I surveyed and the federal government. Nine of the 21 universities offer paid paternity and adoption leave of some sort (and the federal government does not). Leave length ranges from two weeks (University of Minnesota) to eight weeks (Yale, University of Maryland), with payouts from 60% to 100% of salary. Most universities (7/9) have some sort of requirements for paternity/adoption leave, such as a non-paid waiting period, needing to use up some or all sick leave and vacation, the requirement of having been employed for 9 or 12 months already, or the certification of being the child’s “primary caretaker” (which is code for “the other parent can’t also be on leave at the same time”). Yale requires that the postdoc be single or have a spouse who is working at least half time to be eligible. And the University of Maryland goes so far as to proclaim that an employee can only use paternity/adoption leave twice per lifetime and never more than once per year. Of course, most universities don’t offer paid paternity or adoption leave at all.

Regular Leave

The final type of leave available to new parents is the usual sick leave and vacation that everyone gets. Birth mothers can generally use sick leave during the six to eight weeks they are considered incapacitated. And spouses of birth mothers can often take sick leave to care for her while she is incapacitated. Some universities have explicit policies that allow all new parents to take sick leave after a birth or adoption. But many expressly forbid the taking of sick leave to care for a healthy newborn. And some even prohibit taking sick leave to care for a sick newborn or the incapacitated birth mother (ahem, University of Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis). Vacation leave can generally be used by all new parents, providing that it is approved.

The amount and timing of sick leave and vacation that universities grant postdocs varies a lot. So it is difficult to determine how these policies affect parental leave. There are also restrictions at some universities about when leave can be taken (e.g. not until having been employed for six months). Most universities and the federal government grant about 12 days of sick leave per year, with a range of 8 (Princeton) to unlimited-within-reason (Cornell). Vacation days usually range from 12 (Stanford, University of Texas, Yale) to 24 (Princeton and the University of California). Colorado State offers postdocs zero vacation days and the University of Chicago specifies that postdocs get the four weeks between quarters off, but not any days of their choosing. Six universities also offer two or three days of “personal time off” each year in addition to sick leave and vacation; these days can be used for parental leave.

Job-protected unpaid leave (table)

For postdocs who don’t have access to enough paid leave to cover the time they want off for birth or adoption, they can opt for unpaid leave. Even if you don’t qualify for FMLA, all universities and the federal government have provisions for the petitioning for time off without pay. In almost every case, the leave is not guaranteed if the reason is being a new parent, and usually someone – sometimes at a high administrative level – has to sign off on it. Only five universities out of 21 (and not the federal government) have written policies that guarantee that new parents can take unpaid leave for those who don’t qualify for FMLA – four guarantee three months of unpaid leave and one six months.

As for the rest, being fired for taking care of a newborn is a real possibility. Universities do not have to grant unpaid leave to new mothers and fathers, and it should not be assumed that they will. Purdue makes this policy – an unwritten one at most universities – explicit (comments in brackets are mine):

An employee who has exhausted all available sick leave and FMLA [assuming the employee was eligible in the first place] may be terminated. … The determination whether to grant personal leave [Purdue’s name for unpaid leave] due to an illness, injury, pregnancy, or pregnancy-related medical condition should be based on considerations of the business needs of the University.”

Birth vs. Death (table)

I want to end by pointing out the mismatch between birth and death policies in my research. I noticed early on that some of the universities with the worst parental leave policies have the best bereavement policies. Fifteen of the 21 universities and the federal government allow postdocs to take extra paid time off to attend funerals and to grieve the loss of close family members. (All the rest allow postdocs to take sick leave to do so.) Bereavement leave is typically capped at three days per event, but is granted up to 5 (Stanford, Colorado State, Emory) or 6 (University of Kansas) days at some universities. Of these 15 institutions that explicitly grant paid bereavement leave, six of them – the University of Texas, Michigan State, the University of Kansas, Utah State, Emory, and the U.S. government – do not grant any paid parental leave. Why the mismatch? I assume it’s a legacy of the time when academics were predominantly men. Bereavement is a universal experience; issues pertaining to birth primarily affect women. Universities, you’re on notice: it’s time to update your policies.

A footnote: All tables are here. I did my research online by probing through institutional policy pages and documents. I did not talk to any HR reps. Sometimes I was not able to discern whether a particular policy applied to postdocs or not, because postdocs can be classified as regular employees or in a special category by themselves. Sometimes I had to do some interpretation, because policies were vague. The results I present are my best attempt to understand the policies at these institutions as of July 2014. They may change. (I hope so!) Please let me know if you find errors or if there are policy changes by adding a comment.

Postdoc parental leave policies, part 1 (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

Note from Margaret: This is the second post in a mini-series examining the enormous variation in U.S. postdoc leave benefits. (See first post.) While most postdocs do not consider benefits packages when choosing a position, the benefits available can greatly affect quality of life, and sometimes mean the difference between staying in academia and leaving it — especially for caregivers and those with chronic health conditions. I surveyed 21 U.S. universities with highly ranked ecology programs (according to The Chronical of Higher Education and U.S. News and World Report) and the U.S. federal government by looking up postdoc benefit information on their webpages, and present the data (with commentary) here. (Note that this information is up-to-date as of July 2014. Please provide updates and corrections in the comments. I also welcome data about other universities and will add them to the charts if full info is provided.)

I am writing this in July on maternity leave from my postdoc. Like just about everyone else, I didn’t consider the benefits package when I accepted the job. I was just happy to have a postdoc position doing something interesting in a desirable place. I didn’t know I was pregnant when I accepted the postdoc offer. But I was already four months pregnant when I started the job. When I finally looked into the parental leave policy, I was pleased to discover that I would be able to enjoy 12 weeks of maternity leave at 75% pay.

It turns out that I was lucky – Harvard has one of the best maternity packages in the United States for postdocs. How do I know? Because I was curious and decided to look into it. How good are maternity benefits for postdocs? There are several studies*  that have found that postdoc parental benefits are generally lacking. But how bad do they get? And how much variation is there?

Your access to parental leave in academia depends on your position. Parental leave for grad students is atrocious – at most universities, there is no written policy, and so grad students must negotiate their leave individually. (Good luck with that.) There’s not a lot to research. Conversely, parental leave for tenure-track faculty is relatively good; universities are planning to keep their junior faculty for decades, and it doesn’t make sense to jeopardize that for an issue that can be measured in months. Even if institutional policy isn’t very good, faculty have some leverage to negotiate. (Although, I should note that even for faculty, leave options can be terrible and difficult to get even when a legal right.) I wanted to focus on the postdoc level, because I am one and because I wondered whether postdoc parental leave was more akin to that of grad students (non-existent) or faculty (reasonable).

I only looked into leave for postdocs in the United States. This is because, in general, every other major country that has postdocs also has a national system of paid maternity leave. In other words, it’s pretty easy to find out what your benefits are if you’re going to be a postdoc outside of the U.S. – you just need to look at the national policy. And likely, the policy will be a pretty good one. (NB: I just saw that the U.S. Department of Labor is lobbying for paid family leave in the U.S. There may be hope in the distant future. But it will likely be too late for anyone reading this blog.)

U.S. National Leave Policy

If you are not a parent (yet), you probably assume that there has to be some sort of allowance for people having babies in the United States. After all, millions of Americans have babies each year. I thought so. But it’s not true. Job protection for new parents in the United States is terrible, especially if you are in academia. I’ll explain.

There are laws that prevent discrimination against pregnant women. You can’t deny a woman a job, for example, just because she is pregnant. But those protections end as soon as the woman is no longer pregnant.

The Family Medical Leave Act

The major law that provides protection to new parents is the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, commonly referred to as FMLA. This law allows new parents to take 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave, among other things. “Job-protected” means that the employers may not fire or demote a parent taking the leave allowed by FMLA. “Unpaid” means that neither the employer nor the government is required to pay the parent a salary during FMLA leave.

This sounds, uh, well, terrible as the best possible protection to new parents. But not as terrible as not having FMLA at all. It’s something. But there are a set of qualifying rules to be eligible for FMLA. One is that the employee must have worked for the employer for 1,250 hours in the year before the birth (essentially 60% of full time). Another is that the employee must have worked for the employer for a total of a year’s worth of time before the birth. That essentially means that anyone having a child in the first year of a postdoc is not covered by the FMLA. Further, only actual employees are eligible for FMLA leave. So if you’re on a fellowship stipend – either from the university or an outside institution – you are not technically an employee and so are not eligible for FMLA leave. Because so many postdoc positions are short and/or through fellowships, a good number – probably over half – of postdocs are not covered by the FMLA.

What if you aren’t covered by the FMLA? Then you might be covered by the laws of your state or city. California is a notable leader in the field, granting paid parental leave (but not job protection) to all its citizens. Rhode Island and New Jersey also offer some paid parental leave. But Rhode Island requires that an employee be continuously employed for the previous twelve months, so first-year postdocs don’t typically qualify. And New Jersey requires that you’ve first earned at least $7,300 in salary by the time of birth. Other states may guarantee unpaid leave with better provisions than FMLA. For example, Massachusetts requires that women be allowed eight weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child, as long as she has been employed for at least three months (rather than the twelve for FMLA).

If you’re not covered by FMLA or state laws, then, unless there are institutional policies to the contrary, you do not have the right to take time off to give birth and take care of a newborn. If you do, you can be fired. So those institutional policies really matter. But they vary a lot. I researched policies at 21 universities with top ecology research programs as well as the federal government (which employs ecology postdocs via federal agencies such as the USGS, NIH, EPA, USDA, NOAA, NASA, and DOE). I will describe my findings in detail in my next post.

* Further reading:

Postdoc leave policies (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

Note from Margaret: This is the first post in a mini-series examining the enormous variation in U.S. postdoc leave benefits. While most postdocs do not consider benefits packages when choosing a position, the benefits available can greatly affect quality of life, and sometimes mean the difference between staying in academia and leaving it — especially for caregivers and those with chronic health conditions. I surveyed 21 U.S. universities with highly ranked ecology programs (according to The Chronical of Higher Education and U.S. News and World Report) and the U.S. federal government by looking up postdoc benefit information on their webpages, and present the data (with commentary) here. (Note that this information is up-to-date as of July 2014. Please provide updates and corrections in the comments. I also welcome data about other universities and will add them to the charts if full info is provided.)

When you become a postdoc, you jump from being a student to being a contract employee or self-employed fellowship holder. The implications for taxes and benefits are quite important, but rarely discussed. In this post, I will talk about one small aspect of being an employee postdoc: paid leave.

Surprisingly, leave policies for postdocs vary quite a bit from university to university, from minimal to quite generous. Employee postdocs are expected to be working eight hours each day Monday to Friday, just like any other normally employed full-time employee. Some universities (and the U.S. government) put postdocs on the clock like other staff and require them to track and report hours on timesheets. At other places, postdocs are treated more like professors and are expected to be working full time, but do not have to fill out timesheets. In these latter cases, sometimes postdocs are supposed to record their time off even if they don’t do hourly timesheets.

Leave can be granted in lump amounts to be used throughout the year, or else can be accrued in small amounts each pay period. (Postdocs are frequently paid monthly, but some are paid bi-weekly.) Sometimes leave can be carried from one year to the next, and sometimes there’s a cap on the amount of leave that can be accrued. Sometimes leave can be used immediately, and sometimes there’s a minimum length of employment before leave can be used.

Most universities (and the federal government) provide sick leave and vacation leave (which goes by many names, such as “annual leave”, “personal leave”, “paid time off”, etc.). Six of the 21 universities I surveyed also provide two to three “personal” days. As far as I can tell, these personal days differ from vacation in that they can be used without getting permission; in most cases, vacation days technically have to be approved in advance by the supervisor.

Sick leave (table of postdoc sick leave by university)

Sick leave is the most standard type of leave, and typically allows postdocs to take leave with pay when they or immediate family members are sick, injured, or have medical appointments. Many universities also allow the use of sick leave for pregnancy, post-pregnancy recovery, adoption, and for bereavement. A couple universities I surveyed (University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis) have severe sick leave policies* that allow sick leave to be taken only for personal illnesses and no other purpose, including caring for sick dependents.

Universities (and the federal government) generally grant postdocs 8 to 15 sick days per year. A few universities don’t offer standard sick leave, but instead have alternative schemes. Indiana University lumps together sick leave and disability leave and allows postdocs to take up to six weeks of sick/disability leave per year. Cornell doesn’t have sick leave at all and just asks postdocs to take a reasonable number of unrecorded brief absences as needed for illness and injury. The University of Florida lumps sick leave and vacation leave together as “postdoc leave,” of which postdocs receive just 16 days per year total.

Vacation (table of postdoc vacation leave by university)

Vacation leave is more variable across universities than sick leave. But it tends to be more generous than in industry, with 3 or more weeks of leave per year the norm (in addition to holidays). At some institutions, the amount of vacation leave increases the longer the employee is there. For my survey, I only considered vacation leave in the first year because most postdoc appointments are short and most policies only increase leave amounts in the third year of employment or after. Vacation leave can typically be taken whenever the postdoc wants – subject to the approval of the supervisor. However, at the University of Chicago, employees (including postdocs) are expected to take vacation during the four weeks between quarters; there is no provision to take leave outside of these periods. And Colorado State does not give postdocs any vacation at all! The most generous universities (University of California and Princeton) offer 24 days of vacation per year – that’s almost five weeks! But I wonder: how many postdocs actually take that much time off?!

* Real, actual sick leave policies (I am not making this up):

University of Chicago: “Sick leave shall be used in keeping with normally approved purposes, including personal illness; medical appointments; and, childbearing. It may not be used to care for others who are ill.”  Let me paraphrase: the University of Chicago’s sick leave policy forbids you from leaving work to take care of your ill children – unless they’re so ill that they die, in which case you can take sick leave to attend their funeral (since sick leave CAN be used for bereavement).

Washington University in St. Louis: “Sick leave may only be used for the illness of the postdoctoral appointee only [sic]. Time away to care for an immediate family member’s illness is considered vacation time.” Let me enact a scene. Place: St. Louis. Time: Winter.

Postdoc1: “I had a great time on vacation, swimming in the blue Caribbean waters… how was your vacation?”

Postdoc2: “It was swell; I spent the first half comforting my young son who was vomiting every three hours, and the second half worrying that my baby was going to stop breathing because her croupy cough was so terrible. I can’t wait for next year’s vacation!”

How to get a postdoc position (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. It’s the first in a planned series on life as a postdoc.


I did not start thinking about getting a postdoc position until it was almost too late. I was focused on my dissertation research and finishing up before I ran out of money. About six months from defending, I suddenly realized that I would be unemployed once I did defend. I knew that I had to start trying to find a postdoc position right away. And then I realized I had no idea how to go about doing so. This was at the beginning of last summer and so I spent the next months talking to as many people as possible. Here is what I learned.

There are essentially two ways of obtaining a postdoc. The first is to write your own. The second is to apply for job with someone who already has a project.

To write your own postdoc may be the best option if your objective is a future research career. However, you need to start early. Assuming you already know what sort of research you want to do, you have three potential methods of obtaining the funding to support yourself. You can co-write a proposal with your future postdoc mentor, you can look for fellowship opportunities, or you can look for a postdoc advisor with deep pockets.

If you know who you want to work with and what you want to do, co-writing a successful major grant proposal can be great experience and look stellar on your CV or in a letter of recommendation. If you want to try this route, you should start contacting prospective postdoc advisors a couple years before you expect to defend.

Yes, I said a couple years.

Why a couple years? Most organizations have just one or two funding cycles per year. For example, if you expect to defend May 2016, and you would like to be funded on an NSF DEB grant, you would need to have that grant funded by January 2016. In order to do that you would need to submit your pre-proposal in January 2015. And then order to submit in January, you will needed to start working on the proposal this fall (2014). Which means that should probably have established a rapport with your future postdoc advisor by now.

Defending before May 2016? Fellowships are your thing? You can look for postdoctoral fellowships offered by funding organizations such as NSF, by research centers like SESYNC and NIMBioS, and by private entities like the McDonnell Foundation. Generally speaking, you will need to have a postdoc advisor in mind.

A less well-known source of fellowship funding is universities themselves. Some universities offer institution-wide fellowships on a competitive basis. At other universities there are research centers focused on environmental issues that also offer fellowship opportunities. Finding out which universities provide these opportunities can be tedious however, so it’s often best to ask potential postdoc advisors what, if any, opportunities are offered at their institutions.

If you’re looking for postdoc fellowships offered through large agencies or foundations, they often have just one or two deadlines per year, which means that you may need to write a competitive proposal about a year in advance. When I started thinking about a postdoc position six months ahead of defending, I was too late for almost all postdoc fellowships.

Which brings me to the third method for writing your own postdoc. Some professors have, at times, a pot of money they can use to hire a postdoc. It may be in the form of an endowed professorship, start up funds, prize money, etc. If you’ve only got six months or so before defending, you might start asking around to see if anyone you know – or anyone those people know – expect to have money to fund a postdoc in the next year or so. Sometimes researchers get money they weren’t expecting and need to use it relatively quickly, so keep your ears open. You’ll want to be able to pitch an exciting idea to your prospective postdoc advisor and have a handful of references (friends of the prospective advisor are ideal) who are willing to attest to your awesomeness.

Finally, the remaining way of obtaining a postdoc: applying for advertised positions. I won’t say too much about this method, since it’s pretty straightforward and there are other websites which give guidance as to where to look for job ads and how to best position yourself. In a nutshell: you find a position that looks like it would fit you, send in an application, perhaps get an interview (often by phone or Skype), and sign a contract if you’re offered the position and accept it. In applying, you should do smart things like read the webpage(s) and some recent publications of the job offerer. If you’re offered the position, interview other postdocs and grad students in the lab before accepting; you should like your work environment as much as the research itself. And you might take a glimpse at the benefits package to make sure it’s sufficient.

Hurray! You’ve got a postdoc position. Now tell everyone you know, save up a couple thousand dollars or raise the limit on your credit card in preparation for your move, and say goodbye to your friends. Check out ESA’s new Early Career Ecologist Section. Oh, and definitely finish that dissertation.

How, and why, to take a grad student sabbatical (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, whom you may recall from her previous guest post talking about citizen science in ecology. We’re hoping that this will be the first in a series of several guest posts from Margaret over the next few months.


My husband finished his PhD at the end of my third year of mine. He had started three years ahead of me, but we had never really planned what would happen when he finished. At this point, we had a seven-month-old infant, and so we rejected the idea of living apart. When an ideal postdoc position came up for him across the country, he accepted (after talking it over with me, of course).

But I was torn. I really wanted to support his career, but moving from a place where we had established friends and a social network to one where we knew no one – and being away from my grad program – was not something I was looking forward to. A conversation with my advisor made me realize, though, that I wouldn’t have to work at home in isolation. Within six months, I was jokingly referring to my “grad student sabbatical.”

I’ve since found that such two-body problems are quite common at the graduate student level, though it’s not something that’s much talked about. Many grad students (and post-docs) I know quietly live apart from their partners for long stretches of time. Several people have asked me what I did when I moved away and finished my dissertation remotely, so I thought I’d share some things that I learned in the process.

There are many reasons you might need to relocate: moving to be with a partner is one such reason. But you may also need to move to be closer to an ailing relative or else to be close to a facility that can best treat your own illness. There are also cases where there’s a strong case to take a sabbatical of a year or longer for professional reasons: perhaps your advisor takes a new job, or dies, or is fired (it does happen!), and the best person to advise you is at another institution. But you’ve already done several years at your home institution and want to graduate from it, so transferring doesn’t make sense. Perhaps you’ve established – or want to establish – a collaboration with a professor elsewhere; in this case it might be profitable to take a shorter sabbatical of a month to a semester to work on the collaboration.

Whether you pursue a sabbatical for personal or professional reasons, the experience can be very rewarding. Here are some tips for navigating the process:

1. Choose when to go. If you must move for personal reasons, this may not be something you get to consider. But if you have some flexibility or want to do a sabbatical for professional reasons, you’ll want to think about timing. Generally speaking, you’ll want to be done with your classes, unless the visit is a semester or shorter. And you’ll probably get more out of the sabbatical if you’re done with preliminary exams, too. I think going in your fourth year is ideal; you’ve got mainly your dissertation to think about, and could most benefit from some new perspectives and feedback, with enough time left to incorporate it. I recommend against being on sabbatical when you’re “finishing up,” as regular in-person contact with your advisor and committee is very valuable at this stage. Also, if you’re going for professional reasons, avoid the summer; departments empty out as people do field work, travel, and even (gasp) go on vacation. There typically are no departmental seminars, and many lab groups suspend weekly meetings in the summer.

2. Secure funding. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to doing a sabbatical. Generally speaking, it’s not possible to be a teaching assistant at another institution. A fellowship is ideal, but make sure to check its stipulations to make sure you’re not required to be in residence at your home institution. If you must move for personal reasons, you may have to rely on personal finances. I should mention that there exist formal competitive programs that provide fellowships to grad students on sabbatical in specific places (though they don’t use the term ‘sabbatical’) – for example, the Smithsonian Institution provides fellowships for students to do research at one of their facilities and Fulbright grants allow students to do research at universities in foreign countries. When considering finances, also look into funding for travel expenses to and from the sabbatical; you may be able to find travel grants for professional development to provide full or partial assistance. And don’t forget to consider health insurance.

3. Get a sponsor. This sponsor should be faculty at the institution you’re visiting. If you’re pursuing a sabbatical for professional reasons, you probably already have someone in mind. If you’re moving for personal reasons, browsing a department’s faculty web page will generally give you an idea of who would be the best match – or ask your advisor or others in the department for suggestions. You may want to select a few different faculty to approach, in case one or two can’t or won’t sponsor you.

Once you have selected a potential sponsor, get in touch. It may be most comfortable to find someone who can introduce you, and hopefully your advisor or a committee member (or other mentor) can help arrange such an introduction. The earlier the better. You’ll want to actually talk to your potential sponsor before showing up, if possible. Skype or Google Hangouts makes it easier than ever to do so, but you can always just use the phone.

Explain your situation. If you are moving for personal reasons, you don’t need to go into detail. A simple, “I will be moving to your city, where my partner is starting a postdoc” or even just “for family reasons” is sufficient. If your sabbatical is purely optional, then say why you’d like to come.

Make it clear what you want, but don’t ask for more than you need. Desk space may be the hardest thing to provide, and you may need to be flexible with space use. If you need lab access, ask, but remember that any chemicals or supplies you might use cost your sponsor money. Access to lab meetings and department seminars is usually one of the easiest things to ask for.

In addition to asking for things, try to convey what you might offer: a fresh perspective for lab discussions, expertise in particular protocols, modeling skills, an idea for a possible collaboration. As a grad student, your most valuable asset may be your time. Offer to help with lab management or field work. Maybe there are undergrads in the lab who could benefit from additional mentoring. Try to offer your time in a way that is constructive to you as well; helping with field work could lead to learning new methods or meeting potential collaborators, for example, whereas organizing the holiday party probably won’t further your career as much.

4. Formalize your affiliation. Institutions classify affiliates by category – for example: faculty, staff, fellow, graduate student, etc. Most universities (and other institutions) have a category called “visiting scholar” or something equivalent. Typically, you’ll need a sponsor for this classification, and the sponsor will be officially responsible for you. Having an official affiliation with the institution you’re visiting will allow you various accesses, though they vary from place to place. They might include: ID card, keys/keycard access to building and labs, library access, access to gyms and other recreational facilities, and access to local transit and parking. Ask your sponsor about what paperwork needs to be done to get you an official affiliation.

5. Get on department e-mail lists. Email the relevant administrator to get on seminar lists, grad student lists, and any others that will help you feel part of the department.

6. Offer to give a talk. One of the best ways to introduce yourself quickly to others in your visiting department is to give a talk. It’s best if it’s to more than just your new lab, but it doesn’t need to be to the entire department. Some places have multi-lab meetings or seminars; others have an informal seminar series for grad students to present. The goal is to meet faculty, post-docs, and other grad students who have similar research interests as soon as possible. Especially if you’re doing a short sabbatical, meeting relevant people quickly will help you get the most out of your visit.

7. Stay in touch with your advisor, committee members, and collaborators at your home institution. Academics are always busy and it’s easy for them to forget about students they don’t see. Schedule regular meetings (by Skype or Google Hangouts) with people important to your dissertation research. I was able to participate in my weekly home lab group meetings by asking a labmate to Skype me in, and also “attended” interesting talks in my home department the same way. Making sure that people saw me – even if it was just on a screen – helped remind people that I was still around and doing research. (Although nothing beats in-person contact; if you’re going to be gone for a long time and you can afford it, travel back to your home institution regularly.)

Setting up a grad student sabbatical has numerous benefits. If you’re moving for personal reasons, it provides an intellectual “home” where you can continue mature in your field as well as providing a social outlet that you wouldn’t otherwise get working from home. And whether for personal or professional reasons, a successful sabbatical introduces you to new people, new ideas, and the culture of another institution.