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The Black Hole

Postdoctoral Parent Series: Plans gone awry…


Editor’s Note: Today the Black Hole is delighted to launch a short series of posts dedicated to postdoctoral fellows with kids. Two current postdoctoral fellows (Jenn and Erika) who have recently had children whilst pursing science at the very highest levels have kindly agreed to share their experiences. We are really excited to be able to provide them a forum that will hopefully stimulate some changes in how we can do a better job of supporting the offspring of our best and brightest. We begin with introductions to Jenn and Erika and will continue over the coming weeks with their thoughts on what can be done.

Jenn’s story:

I was 32 when I defended, and I knew that I didn’t want to wait to undertake postdoctoral fellowship position (or two!) before having kids. I felt I needed some additional elements in place as well, including family and friend support, so I strategized and decided to stay in Vancouver for my first postdoc. I also joined a lab with a supervisor who has a young family of his own, and I outlined a fundable project for which I had even earmarked parts that I could work on while home on maternity leave. My new project evolved nicely from my previous work and despite staying at the same institution I managed to get a two year fellowship award for the project.

The first sign of a hiccup in my “plan” came just two months into pregnancy – TWINS! Was that the sound of my career flushing away?? The thought of finding & paying for double daycare alone sent me into a panic. How would I possibly get any work done while on maternity leave? What about returning to work? The whole “I’m going to have a baby” plan was precariously balanced, and it felt like one baby was going to be hard enough to pull off. There were some pretty tough moments and it took a little while before my husband and I shifted from the “overwhelmed” camp to the “we are lucky & overjoyed” camp!

One such tough moment was realizing, as many Black Hole readers know, that in Canada there are two kinds of postdocs – grant-funded and fellowship funded. Those of us on fellowships are not allowed to pay into the EI & CPP federal social programs, thereby making us ineligible to receive them. At the time the rules were also such that because I couldn’t get EI, I couldn’t qualify for UBC’s generous parental leave salary top-up support program, and would have literally no salary support for a leave once my children were born. Both my former supervisor for my PhD and my new postdoc supervisor were equally appalled at my predicament, and they stepped up in a way that I am so grateful for. They helped arrange with the granting agency to delay the start of my fellowship until a year after the birth of my twins and they created a new position so they could both contribute to pay me from their grants until my kids were born so that I could qualify for EI & UBC benefits. The only cost to me was spending a year unfunded by fellowship, and staying in this postdoc position an additional year. This was also one of the first signs that having twins was a very positive thing, as this arrangement wouldn’t work a second time, so we may not have been able to have a second child.

Being away from the lab for a whole year was tough but not as tough as I had imagined. Coming back to work was great, but the reality is that things have changed substantially for me, so my whole approach to work has had to adapt. It took about a year before I really felt back to myself with respect to focus and productivity. And now that I’m completing my postdoc it is time to try and make plans for the future.

Erika’s story:

I spent the morning before my PhD defense with my head in a toilet. No, not from nerves (though they probably didn’t help the situation), but from morning sickness – I was 2 months pregnant. My husband and I meticulously planned having a baby. I received an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship while in the final year of my PhD in 2011 and my plan was to do a quick postdoc at UBC for six months to finish up a few side projects from my PhD research while I was pregnant and then defer my NSERC PDF for maternity leave.

Those plans went completely out the window when tragedy struck. When I was 5 months pregnant I went into preterm labor and we lost our little girl. We were devastated.

With our lives turned completely upside down, we had some decisions to make, and quick. My (very supportive) husband quit his lucrative job and we headed to the University of Sydney in Australia, surviving off my fellowship and our savings. My status while in Australia was as a “visiting scientist” and I had to pay for my own healthcare insurance. We were in Australia for seven months and then came home to Vancouver once I was pregnant again because my pregnancy was high risk and I needed excellent (i.e., cheap!) healthcare.

Unable to do field or lab work, I worked on data analysis and manuscripts while I was pregnant and put my NSERC PDF on hold once I had completed the first year. Our beautiful boy was born in April 2013. I took my four month paid maternity leave and stayed off for one full year total. Luckily, my husband quickly found a job in Vancouver and has been able to support the family with the help of our savings.

I recently resumed year two of my fellowship with a new supervisor in Canada so we could stay in Vancouver (where we have lots of family support + my husband could keep his good job). We do want another baby and I have no idea how we are going to swing it. My NSERC PDF will be up fairly soon and I have no idea where my next paycheck will come from. Hopefully I can acquire 600 hours of EI-eligible work before we have another baby so I can have a full year of paid maternity leave (see upcoming post). To be continued!

In upcoming instalments we will tell you more about the logistics of postdocs getting paid parental leave in Canada, about re-entry into work at the lab after being away for a year, and we will share some thoughts about how having a family has impacted our thoughts about our futures in this profession.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Lisa McDonnell / May 6, 2014 at 15:01

    I’m glad to see posts about some of the realities of having a family while pursuing a career (via a post-doctoral position) in an academic/research field. In particular I thank the writers for sharing their stories. I look forward to the future installments.
    Being a female post-doc with a child (which I had during my PhD) I can relate to these stories. It would also be interesting to have a few stories from male post-docs – how do these life-changing events impact their plans, careers, and perspectives?

  2. AEMcDonald / May 7, 2014 at 13:35

    I want to applaud Jenn and Erika for sharing their stories and give kudos to David for providing a forum for such an important topic. These are depressing examples of the reality of the “leaky pipeline” for women in science. I had extremely similar experiences with the catch-22 policies of NSERC scholarships and fellowships and the federal employment insurance program in 2002 during the pregnancy and birth of my first child. I had hoped that a decade later these discriminatory practices would have been corrected. The expectation that NSERC award holders “limit the number of hours of employment per 12-month period to 450 hours” and that award holders “not hold full-time employment during any period of time in which you hold the NSERC award” make it impossible for pregnant female students and post-docs to work the 600 hours required to quality for parental leave through the employment insurance program. To add insult to injury, when I went on parental leave I lost my student status and then got a call from the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and was notified that I had to start paying back my undergraduate student loans. What should have been a time of great personal happiness and financial support from a social program I had been paying into for 12 years turned into a living nightmare and almost destroyed my academic career. Bravo to these two women for having the courage to shine the light on the dark underbelly of scientific funding in Canada.

  3. Jodie / May 7, 2014 at 20:32

    Thank you Jenn and Erika for sharing your stories… both sent chills into my bones. However, your candid explanations are crucial. This is the way changes will be made… starting a dialogue, pointing out the flaws in the system, but also highlighting the positives (e.g. supervisors that stepped up when they didn’t have to, supportive partners, etc.). Do funding agencies really want their PIs spending a chunk of their grants to “emergency fund” post-docs because the system is so flawed? I’d think not. Well done ladies… thank you.

  4. Alison Mark / May 9, 2014 at 03:56

    My husband and I are both post-docs and we have two children. We did our degrees in Canada and then, for the change and the experience, we came to Europe for post-doc positions.
    On isolation
    The science research life is often seen as one of solitary endeavor, and can feel quite isolating at times. In some ways having children exacerbates that, particularly as a Canadian post-doc in Europe. Post-docs with children are the minority everywhere [1] and in Europe people tend to finish their degrees at a younger age, so are less likely to have procreated by the time they start their post-doc. Quite apart from the fact that a parent can be viewed as a quaint misfit in a lab full of young hip(?) soon-to-be-discovereds, as a parent you are frustratingly unable to physically participate in the social life of the group. Spontaneous Friday trips to the pub don’t match with the day care schedule! I like beer as much as the next person (perhaps not all the next people in England, but I like it) so I was sad not to go, and I also know that not being there left me out of the loop when it came to some projects and informal collaborations.
    BUT although the parent may not be able to fully participate in the social life of the lab she or he has the wonderful advantage of having a satisfying life ‘outside’. Not only does this mean I go home at the end of the day, I must change my focus, I have a different perspective. Work-life ‘balance’ is achieved because it must be, and the researcher-parent benefits from the different ideas this generates; these complement the ideas from the single-minded focus of the soon-to-be-d’s.
    Also, having children drags you into the outside world through contacts with teachers, carers, parents of friends, the public-health nurse, if your children are as adventurous (crazy and uncontrolled) as mine. Again, valuable perspective is gained, and you get good experience explaining your research to people with a variety of backgrounds. Heck, you get to MEET people with a variety of backgrounds- this must be good, no?
    That’s my two cents. The third cent is, don’t be too afraid to be a mobile researcher with kids. It’s a kind of hell in some ways (the helpful grandparents are several thousand km away) but definitely do-able.
    [1] I have no reference for this, but I feel it is true.