Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Having children in grad school

A friend of mine sent me this article about women who decided to have children during graduate school. It being the Boston Globe, they naturally stuck to Boston area schools.

Having gone to a Boston area school for grad school and having had both my kids during my years there, naturally this article resonated with me. For me, having my kids during grad school made a lot of sense. As the article says:
Some women say having a child during graduate school is appealing because their schedules offer flexibility. They figure potential employers won't be concerned with how long it took them to get their dissertation done. And they know once they get hired as postdoctorates, they'll be too busy trying to get articles published in high-quality journals to have a child.

However, that isn't to say that it was easy. Heck, having kids is never easy, period.
"They want to know how this can work," Jaschik said. "They're trying to figure out: 'If I have a kid, am I never going to finish my dissertation? Will I never have a job?' "

...

"I want to have a career. I want to finish this," Mazmanian said. "At the same time, I love being a mom."

These are concerns that will never go away. Here I am, in my second postdoc, still wondering if I'll land another job. I am constantly torn by wanting to be both a good researcher and a good mother. And really, it doesn't matter when you have kids -- you will inevitably feel this sense of divided loyalties.

On a side note, I have to wonder why men never seem to have to face these issues. Sure, they don't have to deal with pregnancy and post-partum recovery, but surely they worry about childcare issues, too. Surely they love their children just as much as women do. Is it because they aren't allowed to admit how much they care? Is it because they delegate all that responsibility to the mothers? Is it because a mother who delegates that responsibility to the father is by definition a bad mother? Anyway, back to the main story...

There's a ray of hope:
[A student committee at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences] recommended that the school adopt a policy that would provide child-care assistance. It also recommended that Harvard let students take up to a one-year leave to care for a baby by enabling them to stop the clock on their dissertations, keep their health insurance, receive stipends, and, upon their return to school, provide them flexibility in course work and teaching positions.

That's awesome. I'm glad to see a prestigious school like Harvard setting an example by making it easier for grad students to have children.

However, I argue that this isn't enough. Most of my peers in graduate school weren't even married. Not that that necessarily precludes having children, but being in a stable, long-term relationship helps immensely. Not to mention that having children on solely a grad student stipend is financially infeasible. In fact, in astronomy at least, the prime child-bearing years seem to coincide precisely with the post-doc years.

What sort of policies does Harvard have in place for allowing their postdocs to take time off to have children? Does it make childcare arrangements accessible to postdocs? What provisions do the Hubble/Chandra/Spitzer Fellowships allow for maternity/paternity leave? How do hiring committees view publication gaps: is it better or worse to mention children?

The US already lags far behind most industrialized nations in terms of laws protecting maternity/paternity leave. The academic community could do a lot to make things better.