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.