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Careers

Maternity Leave For Graduate Students

by Sarah Everts
September 4, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 36

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Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
Payne English
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Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
Payne English

BENEFITS

The environment of doctoral self-reflection catalyzed by the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate propelled Emily Payne English into action. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, graduate student had heard that female postdocs applied for tenure-track positions at a fraction of the rate their male counterparts did. It got her thinking about why women drop out of the tenure-track game after playing it for so long. She knew universities were considering tenure clock extensions or were beginning to institute them for female faculty, but not much had been done at the grad student level. "When I read about the Stanford graduate maternity leave policy, I wondered if it could be done here," says Payne English.

"If we could support women at this point in the biological timeline, it might improve the faculty pipeline," says Payne English. "And decreasing attrition rates just seemed like a no-brainer."

At the very least, she wanted to see some guidelines in place for how faculty should deal with pregnant graduate students. "It's a sticky situation for faculty. How are they supposed to balance being fair to their entire lab group and being fair to the pregnant student who may need some time off?" After polling the grad students in her department and speaking with faculty, a plan was proposed through the department's new diversity committee. Graduate students would get 12 weeks of paid leave from the department's discretionary funds, not from government grants. They would also get extensions for milestones like cumulative exams. "The policy encourages women to tell their adviser early on, so that you can sit down and map out how to handle the next nine months. In a synthetic chemistry lab, some projects are unsafe, but there are alternatives: writing a review or writing up part of the thesis. The thing to avoid was the situation where a woman felt she couldn't disclose to her supervisor that she was pregnant."

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The implementation of this policy was approved by the department in May 2006 but is contingent upon final approval by university officials.

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