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 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:

You do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia

There is a persistent myth (some might even call it a zombie idea) that getting tenure in academia requires working 80 hours a week. There’s even a joke along the lines of “The great thing about academia is the flexibility. You can work whatever 80 hours a week you want!” The idea that you need to work 80 hours a week in order to publish or get grants or tenure is simply wrong. Moreover, I think it’s damaging: I hear routinely from younger folks (often women) who are seriously considering leaving academia primarily because they think that a tenure track position will require working so much that they wouldn’t be able to have any life outside work (including raising a family)*. So, this is my attempt at slaying the zombie idea that succeeding in academia requires working as much as an investment banker**.

This post was inspired by this comment from dinoverm on last Friday’s linkfest post, where I linked to the “7 Year Postdoc” article, even though I had already linked to it earlier, because I found that it kept coming up in conversations with grad students, postdocs, and new faculty. In linking to it on Friday, I said, “I really like the idea of deciding what you are okay with doing (maybe you aren’t willing to move anywhere in the country/world, or you really want to do a particular type of research but aren’t sure how “tenurable” that line of work will be), and then using that to set boundaries on what you do as a faculty member. I think this perspective is really valuable for people who are considering stepping off the tenure track primarily because they’re worried about work-life balance or quality of life. Obviously getting tenure will require working hard, but the lore that it requires 80 hour work weeks and ignoring one’s non-work priorities is simply wrong, and I think this perspective is a good one for thinking about how to balance things.” That led to discussion in the comments on how it is rare for someone to “admit” to not working 80 hours a week. This is something that we’ve discussed in the comments before. (Thanks to Jeremy for figuring out where!) You should go read this entire comment from Brian, because it’s great. (The rest of that comment thread is worth reading, too. There are lots of good thoughts there about parenting and academia, in particular.) But, just to quote part of it here:

I think it is time to start calling BS on such posturing. Nobody works 80 hours a week regularly (as she claimed in one post). It actually is physically impossible* over the long run. I used to be a consultant where you billed every hour. We were a bunch of type As in an environment where we were strongly encouraged to work long hours (indeed it’s how the company made money by paying us a fixed salary and billing hours worked). I think I exceeded 80 hours once in 9 years, and only rarely and only in times of crisis exceeded 60. The official company expectation was 45 (although of course if you wanted a good review you might aim to be a tad above rather than below). We don’t record hours in academia, but I know what 80 looks and I know what 60 and 50 and 40 look like because I measured it so carefully for 450 weeks and I haven’t seen anything truly different here. Most young profs are in the 40-60 hour range is my belief with most in the lower half of that. And yes 50 hours plus rest of life feels crazy and insane. But stop saying it’s 80 and making everybody else feel guilty they’re not measuring up. The game is incented to exaggerate how much you work, so believe those numbers other people throw out at your risk.

<cutting lots of great thoughts that you really should go read>

*Do the math on working 80 hours/week -112 waking hours – 14 hours/week eating/grooming/maintaining car house – 5 hours commuting = 83 hours and that is pretty sparse grooming and maintaining – e.g. no exercise – and nobody lives on 3 hours/week leisure time)

Why does this myth persist? Probably it’s in part because, if you think everyone else is working 80 hours a week, it can seem risky to admit that you aren’t, since that could make you seem like a slacker.

But I think another important reason for the persistence of this myth is that people are bad at recognizing how much they actually work. Unlike Brian, most of us haven’t spent years tracking our exact hours worked, and so don’t have a realistic sense of what an 80 hour work week would really feel like. As a grad student and postdoc, I thought I worked really hard. But then I made myself start logging hours (sort of like I was keeping track of billable hours, though I was simply doing it out of curiosity). I was astonished at how little I actually worked. It was something like 6 hours of actual work a day. I never would have guessed it was that low. I hadn’t realized how much time I was spending on those seemingly little breaks between projects. I used to count a sample, then go read an article on Slate, then go count another sample, then go read another article, etc. At the end of the day, if you’d asked what I’d done, I would have said I’d spent all day counting samples. But, in reality, I had probably only spent roughly half my day actually counting samples. I found this exercise really valuable and eye-opening. I think it probably did more to make me more efficient in how I work than anything else. And working efficiently frees up lots of time for other things (including spending time with my kids). I’ve recommended this to people who were struggling to keep up with tasks they needed to accomplish, and also have recommended keeping track of basic categories (maybe research, teaching, and service) when doing this accounting to see if the relative time devoted to those tasks seems reasonable.

So how much do I work? That has varied over the years, not surprisingly. When I started my first faculty position, there were times when I felt like I was working as hard as I possibly could, and I started to wonder if I was working 80 hours a week. So, I tallied the hours. It was about 60 hours/week. And that was during a really time-intensive experiment, and was a relatively short-term thing. (I’m not sure, but that might be similar to the amount I worked during the peak parts of field season in grad school.) I could not have maintained that schedule over several months without burning out, regardless of whether or not I had kids. Right now, I’d say I typically work 40-50 hours a week. I am in my office from 9-5, and I work as hard as I can during that time. I usually can get some work done after the kids go to bed, but there’s also prepping bottles to send to daycare the next day, doing dishes, etc., so I definitely have less evening work time than I used to. And I usually get a few hours total on the weekend to work, but that’s variable.

Again, I think the key is being efficient. This article has an interesting summary of history and research behind the 40 hour work week. It argues (with studies to back up the argument) that, after an 8 hour work day, people are pretty ineffective:

What these studies showed, over and over, was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits. Let ‘em go home, rest up and come back on Monday. It’s better for everybody.

That article points out that there is an exception – occasionally, you can increase productivity (though not by 50%) by going up to a 60 hour work week. But, this only works for a short term. This matches what I’ve found in my own work (see previous paragraph) and also seems to match with the quote from Brian above.

So, please, do not think that you need to work 80 hours a week in academia. If you are working that many hours, you are probably not being efficient. (I’m sure there are exceptional individuals who can work that long and still be efficient, but they are surely not the norm.) So, work hard for 40-50 hours a week (maybe 60 during exceptional times), and then use the rest of the time for whatever you like***. And, please, please, please, stop perpetuating the myth that academics need to work 80 hours a week.

* People who are regular readers of this blog will know that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with non-academic careers. I simply want people to make their decisions based on accurate information, and don’t want someone choosing to step off the tenure track primarily because of the myth that it requires 80 hour work weeks.

** As it turns out, investment bankers are being encouraged to work less, though “less” is still a whole lot by most standards. (Here’s another story on the same topic.)

*** I encourage exercise as one way to use some of that time. (Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that I have a treadmill desk.) In talking with other academics, it seems that exercise is often one of the first things to go when things get busy. I enjoyed this post by Dr. Isis (note: original link broken; here’s a cached version, though you might need to dismiss an error message to see it), which explains why she decided to start prioritizing exercise again. (The comments on that post are good, too.) When I made myself mentally switch from saying “I don’t have time to exercise” to “I am choosing not to prioritize exercise”, I suddenly got much better at working exercise into my schedule.