Postdoc parents face biases, study finds

The study found that postdoctoral workers faced limited parental leave and pressured to return to work early.

by Max Chao

A new study shows postdoctoral researchers have trouble accessing parental accommodations.

The study, published June 21, found that postdocs were often hesitant to request pregnancy accommodations, had limited access to parental leave and were pressured to return to work early.

It was conducted at the University of California, Hastings by the National Postdoctoral Association and the Pregnant Scholar project, a group that advises institutions on how to support student parents.

“We’d been hearing stories about postdocs having a really tough time when they had children during their appointment,” said Jessica Lee, lead author of the study and lead fellow at the Pregnant Scholar project. “You can hear horrible stories all day, but we wanted to make sure that the numbers really backed that up.”

The treatment of postdocs is a known issue in the scientific research community, but there had not been a formal study done on the topic yet, said Kate Sleeth, Chair of the Board of Directors for the NPA.

The University of Minnesota currently allows for up to six weeks of paid maternity leave and two weeks of paid paternity leave for postdocs, the same amount as faculty.

The study utilized a combination of testimonials from 741 postdocs from NPA-member institutions as well as raw institutional data from the NPA.

The major findings of the study found that while pregnancy accommodations such as exemptions from handling dangerous chemicals and limited exposure to radiation are widely available, they are not always used.

Only 40 percent of postdoc mothers requested accommodations, 53 percent of research institutions provided no paid maternal leave and 61 percent of employees had no access to paternal leave.

Parents of color faced intensified scrutiny when compared to their Caucasian counterparts, with 25 percent reporting increased hostility after becoming a parent compared to 14 percent for Caucasians.

The study found similar trends among immigrants and international students, who make up 70 percent of postdoc researchers.

The study included testimonials from new parents still in pain when having to return to work and a boss showing up to a hospital expecting the postdoc to return soon.

“Some of the stories are pretty horrific, that shouldn’t happen,” Sleeth said.

The main indicator of support, or lack of, for parents is whether there was policy in place, Lee said.

The study found in many cases that institutions did not offer paid leave, and in some cases institutions did not have unpaid sick leave available either.

The study also found that some universities had no pregnancy policy in place for any employees.

There have been issues, however, of postdocs not being aware of the benefits that they are entitled to, said Geoffrey Rojas, president of the University’s Postdoctoral Association.

Although postdoctoral associates are classified under University policy as employees they are often not eligible for the same benefits as other faculty, Rojas said.

Rojas said under University policy postdocs need to apply for a federal non-paid leave for additional recovery time for birthing complications.

The NPA hopes to build on this research by delving into the biases against immigrants as well as collecting data on sexual assaults among postdocs.

The Parental Scholar project hopes to make this a regular study in order to better track trends, and hopes to release a second report in 2018.