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New Report Highlights Challenges Faced by Postdoc Parents
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Rewatee Gokhale


A new report, Parents in the Pipeline: Retaining Postdoctoral Researchers with Families, based on a nationwide survey of postdoctoral scholars with children provides a comprehensive look at the breadth of problems faced by postdoc parents while pursuing careers in academia. The report, prepared by the Center for WorkLife Law based at the University of California Hastings College of Law in association with the NPA, also makes recommendations for implementing institutional policies that would include parental benefits such as maternity leave, sick days, and access to on-campus childcare.


According to the survey, a major determinant of the overall experience of being a postdoc parent was the response and support received from the postdoc’s supervisor (i.e., the principal investigator, or PI). Postdocs fall into a grey area of being both institutional employees and externally funded researchers. Consequently, there is often a lack of clarity on which institutional benefits, such as pregnancy accommodations and parental leave, are applicable to postdocs. Postdocs reported relying on informal arrangements with their PI to grant time off. Absent any uniform, formalized policy regarding parental leave, such an arrangement was often a double-edged sword. Some postdocs reported that their PI went above and beyond the typical university policy and allowed extended flexible work arrangements, while others reported a lack of support and pressure to return to work as soon as possible. On the whole, a majority of survey respondents reported that their PIs encouraged them to take maternity leave and had a positive impact on their postdoc experience.


A major motivation behind this survey was to understand what factors contribute to attrition of women from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. A chief concern raised by more than half of survey respondents was the lack of paid maternity or paternity leave. Many mothers reported facing hostility from their PI regarding their new parent status or their need for time off. On the other hand, fathers reported facing gender biases and outdated beliefs about family in their efforts to obtain leave. Postdocs of color reported facing more hostility from PIs, with more than 25 percent reporting that their PI’s response negatively affected their postdoc experience, compared to just 14 percent of white postdocs. Lastly, postdoc parents overwhelmingly reported a need for access to on-campus childcare facilities and flexible work hours as two accommodations that would improve their postdoc experience.


Surprisingly, reducing the likelihood that postdoc parents quit their research careers may be easier than it sounds. One of the most important recommendations for institutions is to establish a formal parental leave policy. This is equally applicable to funding agencies. Many postdoc parents reported leaving labs due to discrimination, with grantors likely unaware of the situation. The report also recommends that institutions establish postdoc offices to help coordinate university efforts and policies for postdocs and ensure the quality of postdocs’ training. Moreover, postdoc offices can serve as a representative for the concerns of postdocs and can also help postdocs navigate institutional policies with regard to parental leave and benefits.


A concerted effort from administrators, postdocs, and PIs is needed to ensure that postdoc parents are able to meet the demands of a research career and family life, so they may continue to pursue careers as independent scientists. As the report eloquently points out: “…the postdocs surveyed for this report each represent the dedication of decades of study and the investment of roughly $500,000 or more of education—losing them doesn’t make sense.”


Rewatee Gokhale, PhD, is a postdoctoral scholar in the Oncological Science Department at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.


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