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 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.