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The Black Hole

Making Little Scientists: The Plight of the Postdoc Who Wants To Have a Family

BY BETH | APR 22 2010

A comment on one of Dave’s recent postings got me thinking about an “issue affecting trainees” that we haven’t yet talked about here on The Black Hole: babies.  Specifically, the having of babies and where to keep your babies while you are in the lab.

Having Babies
PhDs take a long time and by the time you are done that and have started a postdoc or two, you might start thinking you are getting to an age where you’d like to have a family!  So, the discussion about whether postdocs are “employees” or “trainees” has implications beyond the “taxable or not” question.  What kinds of benefits trainees get is important because maternity/paternity/parental leave is funded primarily by Employment Insurance (EI) and, if you are lucky, a top-up from your employer.  If your pay isn’t counted towards EI insurable hours, you won’t be eligible for EI should you decide to have a kid and take some time off for maternity or paternity leave.  And even if you are eligible for EI, it only covers a portion of your income, and given that postdoc salaries are already low, it may not be a livable amount.  If your employer doesn’t provide a top-up to this amount ((I don’t have any data on this, but I’m willing to bet that few, if any, universities provide maternity/paternity top-ups as a benefit to their postdocs)), it can be a big problem!

Where To Put Your Baby Once You Have It
If you manage to survive your maternity/paternity/parental leave on your meager EI (should you be lucky enough to get EI) and head back to the lab, you face something that all new parents who work outside the home face: daycare.  Daycare spots are hard to come by ((people start to get on wait lists for daycare during their pregnancy, even if they aren’t planning to send the kid to daycare until after a full year of maternity leave)) and the ones that are available are expensive – I saw a poster recently that pointed out that a year of daycare costs more than a year of university!.  For example, at UBC ChildCare Services, a month of daycare for a child between the ages of 4 and 18 months will cost you $1,105 – that’s $13,260 per year!  And if you are taking home $35,000 a year with an NSERC/CIHR scholarship, that’s 38% of your take home income!

Beyond the Money
Even beyond all the financial implications of having a kid, there are implications to taking time off that are particularly important for academics.

I remember being in my Masters program and hearing one of my profs lament that so many females who could have gone on to be excellent scientists left academics to pursue other careers because they wanted to have a family.  In his experience, a lot of females who did their Masters degrees went on to do a health profession degree, such as medicine or occupational or physical therapy, instead of doing a PhD because in those other fields, “if you take a year off for maternity leave, you can come back to your job and start up where you left off. In science, if you take a year off, you are left in the dust.”

Fast forward to my doctoral program: I remember having a conversation with a prof while we were putting together a grant application and her CV noted her two six-month leaves of absence for maternity leaves for her two kids.  She said, “Things are better now than they used to be.  Now you can put a maternity leave on your CV as a “reason for gaps in your productivity” and they have to accept it. You are still disadvantaged because if it comes down to you and someone else who didn’t take a leave, they have more papers and they’ll get the grant (or the job), but at least now you can write in your mat leaves.”

Academics is fast-paced and if you take time off during your postdoc to have a kid or two, you’ll have gaps in your publication and grant record and you’ll be behind on the latest advances in your field.  Waiting until you’ve attained a faculty position – when you’ll at least have a more reasonable salary and probably even a maternity/paternity/parental leave top up – isn’t ideal either, as a new faculty member needs to be focused on getting tenure, so again gaps in your publication/grant record and getting behind in your field will be a problem.  Wait until you have tenure, especially if you’ve done several years as a postdoc or research associate before landing that tenure-track job, and the fertility train may have passed you by!

Of course, all of this is just my thoughts on the prospect of having a baby while being an academic, based on discussions I’ve had with colleagues (some of whom have done it, some of whom have thought about it).  I’m curious to hear what others’ thoughts/experiences are with this?

ABOUT BETH
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  1. Marianne / April 23, 2010 at 12:26

    Hi there
    This is a HUGE issue for postdocs in Canada. Not only do most of us know contribute to EI/CPP thus cannot draw on this for parental benefits, most postdocs who take time off for their children do so at their own personal expense (i.e. receive zero funding) and peril. Sadly, as most postdocs operate at the level of yearly contracts, I have heard of many sad instances where postdocs whose contract were simply not renewed when they become pregnant or expect to take parental leave. That being said, there are many mentors across the country who are fully supportive of their postdocs taking parental leave and fund them, but I do not know of any university in this country that mandates it. Thus, as with most anything, the postdoc is at the mercy of their chosen mentor. That being said, there is no perfect right time in an academic career to have children, so the advice I have received time after time, was to pick the time that is best for you and your life situation, and if it is meant to be, academia will follow. Sadly though, with such an emphasis of encouraging women to enter science, we see a very drastic drop in the number of women from grad school to postdoc to faculty – and likely this issue is either directly or indirectly responsible.

  2. Carl / April 27, 2010 at 15:27

    Beth,
    You make great points all around, and they are some of the reasons why I’m definitely on the pro-employee side of the argument. My wife and I are looking to start having kids, but since I haven’t payed into EI, any paternity leave I take will be (at least partially) unpaid. Since my wife has a job outside of academia, and therefore makes a lot more than I do as a postdoc, it’d be impossible for us to live off of EI + my salary for a year.
    Marianne, I do agree that it’s a bit contradictory for there to be such an emphasis on getting women into science, yet no consideration made for the fact that there is no support available to them should they decide to have kids. In fact until we started up the Postdoc Association here in Toronto, postdocs didn’t have access to child care or the family care office yet graduate students did (go figure that one out).

  3. Tanya / May 2, 2010 at 23:04

    Beth,
    Thank you for your excellent post. I am in exactly this position now: postdoc, pregnant, with no prospect of any maternity benefits and no right to any leave. My university’s policy on the matter is: we don’t have a policy, talk to your supervisor. What is this, the 1950s? I’m not aware of any other country that doesn’t consider postdocs to be employees. Now that the government has clarified that all postdoc income is taxable, I don’t think the universities have a leg to stand on in considering us trainees, and I’m tempted to sue them for back E.I. payments. Class action, anyone?

  4. Carl / May 3, 2010 at 15:57

    Tanya,
    I think the class action suit is an interesting idea, but I don’t see it going anywhere. A recent letter from the CRA about the taxation of PDFs said that they tend to view us in the same category as apprentices (?!?), so there is precedent for us to fall into a category between students and employees.
    The idea of suing for EI benefits (and CPP benefits), I think, was already discussed in the Bekhor v. MNR case, where the tax court ruled that postdocs don’t qualify for CPP/EI because they have a student-type relationship with the university (it’s enough to give you a migraine!!)

  5. Tanya / May 3, 2010 at 17:13

    Carl,
    You raise some interesting points, thank you. I had not been aware of the very recent response from the CRA (available on http://www.caps-acsp.ca/en/), which I have now read. Indeed, they compare us to apprentices, articling students and medical residents. A quick search of the web suggests that apprentices are eligible for EI benefits (http://www.nlc.bc.ca/subsite.trades.apprentice.php), as are medical residents; though neither of these sites is definitive. I found one private firm that suggests that articling students are also eligible for EI, but most firms’ sites I browsed didn’t mention it. Do you have any suggestions about where to get authoritative answers about EI eligibility for these kinds of income?
    I think that these comparisons (to apprentices, etc.) are now much more relevant than the comparison to students. Given the recent statements in the budget and in parliament that postdocs work and pay taxes, I feel that our circumstances have changed enough since Bekhor v. MNR that a legal challenge to our “trainee” status is worth considering. Of course, this would not be easy, and negotiation with the universities may be preferable, but it might be helpful to get legal advice and (depending on the feedback) let the universities know that legal action is an option.