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.
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?