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IN MY OPINION

Balancing parenthood and grad studies

Grad-student parents need better institutional support.

By JANICE ALLEN | JUN 11 2014
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Support for Canadian graduate student parents is variable across both universities and funding agencies. While some institutions offer considerable support for graduate-student parents, in many cases these students face unique challenges in completing their studies. As the image of the Canadian graduate student evolves, a more serious consideration of the role of family is in order.

The question of balancing family and professional responsibilities is certainly not a new one, though it has seen particular attention in the context of academic work. There is an ongoing discussion of the challenges facing young faculty, particularly women, who struggle to manage the demands of academic life with family responsibilities. This conversation has been extended to include postdoctoral fellows, in light of recent debate about the status of postdocs (i.e., whether they are employees of the university or not).

Graduate students, while not university employees, form a vital component of the research community and face many of the same challenges as faculty and postdocs, as they work to build a reputation in academe. The mean age of graduate students, about 27 to 39 years at the University of Alberta and University of British Columbia, overlaps with the average age, 28 to 30, of Canadian women at the time of childbirth.

While some aspects of the support structure for grad-student parents are consistent across Canadian universities, many features are not. Most schools offer parental leave of up to 12 months, during which students are not expected to conduct research or teach. Many schools also extend degree-completion timelines by the duration of a leave of absence.

In terms of financial support, however, there is considerable discrepancy. A few schools, such as the University of Waterloo and the University of Alberta, offer paid parental leave, at 55 to 95 percent of the student’s regular stipend or scholarship. Wilfrid Laurier University offers some financial support, but only to doctoral students. The majority of schools, including the University of Toronto, McGill University, and the University of Calgary, offer no paid parental leave for graduate students who are supported through the university. The U of A also offers subsidized child care to graduate students who demonstrate financial need.

Students supported through Canada’s tri-agency awards are entitled to varying degrees of paid parental leave. Those with an award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research can claim six months of paid leave; those with a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council scholarship receive only four months of support. Social Science and Humanities Research Council scholars will not receive any supplement while on parental leave.

Students with a tri-agency scholarship who are entitled to employment insurance benefits (which would typically pay appreciably less than their scholarship value) receive no supplement to EI while on parental leave. But most graduate students will not qualify for EI payments while on parental leave, since they are supported through a non-taxable scholarship and are not required (nor permitted) to pay EI premiums.

I’ve had two children during my (ongoing) studies at Dalhousie University. When my first was born, my stipend was financed by the university and I didn’t qualify for financial assistance through the university or EI. So I took only two weeks’ off, mainly because I couldn’t afford an extended unpaid leave of absence. While expecting my second child, I held an NSERC scholarship and was eligible for four months of paid leave, which I did take. The difference was significant; with the burden of financial support lifted, I’ve spent the first few months caring for my new son and have returned to my studies with a renewed focus.

Recent discussion has highlighted a range of motivation for attending grad school, the need for breadth of experience in graduate programs and the need to consider postdoctoral career paths outside academe. The choice to start a family during graduate studies is another facet of this discussion, in that it highlights the friction between high expectations of commitment to one’s research and the desire, on the part of the student, for balance. This is particularly true of women, for whom pregnancy is a rather obvious reminder of their decision to set priorities beyond research.

The lack of consistency in aid for Canadian graduate-student parents points to a disregard for the importance of supporting student parents in completing their studies. Starting a family should not be a barrier to success in academia, and this message needs to include not just faculty and postdoctoral fellows, but graduate students as well.

 

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  1. Jeff Wilson / June 11, 2014 at 9:50 am

    Thank you for this article. Please note that the link for WLU incorrectly points to the same link as the Waterloo one.

  2. Tara Siebarth, UA web editor / June 11, 2014 at 9:54 am

    Hello Mr. Wilson. Thank you so much for your comment. The link has been updated.

  3. AEMcDonald / June 12, 2014 at 11:20 am

    Thanks for highlighting the issue with the Employment Insurance (EI) program in Canada. I warn graduate students considering starting a family that they will likely not qualify for EI parental and maternity benefits and that they should be proactive about making plans. It was a real shocker to me that a system that I’d paid into since I started working at 16 wasn’t there to support me financially when I needed it the most.

  4. Grace Karram Stephenson / June 20, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Thanks so much for this article! I often get asked how we manage kids and grad-school… somehow it all works out. Actually, I think the PhD is an excellent time to have children when you are at a school like UofT that has several levels of support for families. Let me know if you’d like me to write the other side – the grand adventure of parenting and proposals, diapers and dissertations.

    Two corrections to the article(from my personal experience last year)

    1. UofT students are eligible for paid leave under CUPE 3902 – Since most students belong to this if they don’t hold external awards – this is widely available (http://www.familycare.utoronto.ca/tipsheets/files/Information%20on%20Becoming%20a%20Parent%20(Graduate%20Students).pdf)

    2. SSHRC students are eligible for 4 months paid parental leave and the remaining year unpaid. http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/funding-financement/using-utiliser/guide-B/regulations-reglements-eng.aspx

    Definitely not as good as full paid mat leaves or the EI many of us deserve – but it does help.

    • Cynthia Waltho / July 19, 2017 at 7:57 pm

      I would really love to learn about your “grand adventure of parenting and proposals, diapers and dissertations.” I am currently doing my PhD and would love to start a family, and would appreciate a positive point of view on this matter. There are too many naysayers saying its a bad time (though they may not have necessarily gone through it themselves), so I really appreciate you saying that it is a good time… especially since lots of women in my department seem to be having kids at this time too!

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