Nevertheless, They Persisted: Caregiving as Doctoral Students and Postdocs

By Genoa Warner posted 09-24-2020 16:23


The authors of this article are Genoa Warner, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow in Reproductive Toxicology, Department of Comparative Bioscience, University of Illinois; Andrea Hindman, PhD, Science and Technology Policy Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science; and Diane Garcia-Gonzales, PhD, Postdoctoral Researcher, Environmental Health Sciences, University of California Los Angeles.


Women are underrepresented as tenure-track and tenured professors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.1 Although women earn about half of all doctoral degrees in STEM fields, representation drops significantly at the transition to independent positions, and only one-third of tenured faculty in STEM fields are female. Research has identified the career transition from postdoctoral researcher (postdoc) to principal investigator as a major dropping off point in female representation. Despite persistent beliefs that that the dearth of female professors is due to a “leaky pipeline” problem, discrimination, or occupational preferences, research has shown that these factors are not the primary drivers of imbalance. Women apply for assistant professor positions at lower rates than men, choosing to “opt out” during this transition time. Almost one-half of new mothers leave full-time STEM employment after having their first child.

The age at which many women are postdocs coincides with the end of optimal fertility. Fertility begins to decline significantly after age 31. By 35, pregnant women are considered advanced maternal age. Waiting until after tenure to have children, which many women feel is necessary, significantly decreases the likelihood of being able to conceive. Starting a family, caring for young children, and caring for aging parents (also see here) happens squarely during the postdoc years and is the main factor driving women out of academia (for an extensive discussion of the evidence for this, see this article). And there is stark contrast between, as reported, childless men and women between the ages 30 and 34 according to the US Census Bureau (1992, 1994), compared with US fellows at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in this age group.

To be clear, this isn’t just a problem in academia; women with advanced degrees are also leaving full-time business and industry STEM careers due to the lack of supportive work environments.

Furthermore, research finds that collectively, parents are being driven out of full-time STEM employment. As reported, in addition to one-half of new mothers leaving, almost one-quarter of fathers also leave STEM after the birth of their first child.

The authors of this blog post are three female postdoctoral and early career fellows in STEM. We are all US citizens in married heterosexual partnerships with young children. We met through the Advancing Green Chemistry Science Communication Fellowship, through which we are part of a peer support group for parents and those interested in the experiences of parents as early career scientists. We acknowledge that the perspectives we are sharing herein cover only a part of the caregiving load people in this age range experience during these formative, early years in STEM careers. We also acknowledge that our shared experiences focus solely on heterosexual women, in the identified roles of mother and daughter/caregiver. We hope that by sharing our perspectives, we can create more space for voices that have gone unheard, including the voices of people of color and people identifying outside of the gender binary and other sexual orientations.2

Our experiences span the sectors of academia, policy/government, and the nonprofit world. Upon planning this article about maternity leave and caregiving as postdocs, we quickly realized that although we have collectively birthed five children and cared for one dying parent as graduate students and postdocs, we have zero experience with what the world outside of the US considers adequate caregiving3 leave: institutionally supported paid time off without risking losing our job or our health insurance.

In our experience, institutional policies and other support for postdocs (and graduate students) who are caregivers barely exist. To us, and based on what we know of our peers, the norm is that parents feel pressure to choose between an independent position and a family and feel guilty when choosing both. In this article, we describe our experiences as caregivers and provide recommendations to improve support for postdoc caregivers. As we’re 0/6 in experiencing caregiving leave, we also talked to Dr. Heather Llewellyn, currently a research scientist at Pfizer who recently used her company’s paid maternity leave policy as a postdoc.

Uncertainty and Hardship of a Leave of Absence, and Matrixed Support from Advisor and Peers: Dr. Diane Garcia-Gonzales

Diane, six months pregnant, collecting air
quality samples around hydraulic fracturing

Aware of the challenges that lay ahead of me as a PhD student and expecting mother, I insisted on spending the last few months before my due date collecting all the data needed for my dissertation. While six months pregnant, I temporarily moved to halfway across the country to collect air quality samples around upstream oil and natural gas extraction operations, colloquially referred to as “hydraulic fracturing” sites. I spent the next two months setting up air quality monitors in rural areas, maintaining equipment, and collecting data critical for my dissertation. I hired two research assistants to help me with heavy equipment, transferred prenatal care appointments to a local midwife, and maintained healthy maternal practices. Despite all these precautions, I went into labor five weeks early, delivering my son preterm.

The next few months were a whirlwind of parental and academic duties sprinkled with a mix of financial and personal stress. After much discussion with my partner, we decided it was best for me to temporarily withdraw from the program and move back to our home, located over 400 miles away. The consequences of withdrawing from a graduate program, even temporarily, can include the loss of grant funding, health insurance, and academic resources such as library privileges. However, during this time, the most stressful consequence was the termination of my student loan deferral. While simultaneously navigating hospital bills, NICU visits, and lactation consultants, I found myself rebudgeting finances to make unanticipated payments on the student loan debt that had suddenly become due.

Against all odds, I successfully re-enrolled the following semester. Two years later, when I chose to have my second child, I relied on my matrixed support to help me complete my degree while caring for two young children. While graduate school policies for parental leave improved to “protect graduate students from pregnancy discrimination,” many of the same challenges remained during the care of my second child.

Four years after having my first child, and six long years after I started my PhD program, I finally walked across the graduation stage. Where institutional support lagged, I was lucky to have the support of a select number of faculty, staff, peers, and family who transcended these deficits. My partner subsidized the cost of my academic degree and paid for nearly all child-related expenses. Peers took notes and painstakingly reviewed abstract concepts with me when I was unable to attend in-person lectures. My PhD advisor traveled with me to the field to set up equipment and collect data in the midst of the summer heat.

I often wonder if I would have been able to walk across that graduation stage, with my two children in the audience, if I hadn’t had those support systems and generous people in my life. Over the years, I have mulled over this question many times and have concluded that no, if left to institutional support alone, I wouldn’t have completed my program.

Bringing Babies to the Lab: Dr. Genoa Warner

While eight months pregnant with my first child, I defended my PhD and then moved across the country. I knew I wasn’t going to qualify for maternity leave anywhere, so I planned to start my postdoc a few months later. My partner had to start his postdoc two weeks before our daughter was born so that we would have an income and health insurance.

Genoa wearing a napping baby #2 while doing
histology in her spare bedroom at home
during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staying home with a baby all day surrounded by dishes and laundry turned out not to be an enjoyable experience for me; as much as I loved my child, I missed science. I started bringing the baby to seminars (my first interaction with my new department) strapped to my chest in a wrap. Three months later, I started my postdoc and enrolled my child in the day care we had picked months before, but the day care didn’t work out. Luckily, my mentor allowed me to bring my baby to my office every day until we got into a new day care three months later. I quickly became a babywearing expert and later completed a certification course as a babywearing educator to help others learn how freeing babywearing can be. If not for my mentor’s support, I would have had to quit my postdoc just two weeks after starting. Working in a female reproductive biology lab with mostly female colleagues definitely provided me an extra layer of privilege that women in different environments don’t have. This support is one of the main reasons that I switched fields for my postdoc, leaving chemistry for reproductive biology.

When I became pregnant with my second child a few years later, my mentor advised me not to take any official leave because my university only offers two weeks of paid parental leave followed by unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). She allows her postdocs to take as much time off as they need, while continuing to be paid and insured, without telling the university. While this was reassuring for me, it was infuriating to discover the inadequacies of official university policy. I’ve heard of many advisors who do this, but it shouldn’t be left to individual benevolence to grant unofficial leave; not every postdoc (or graduate student) has a supportive advisor or even knows there are other options or flexibility.

Based on my experience with my first child, I wanted to keep my second child with me for longer than the typical two-to-three months that mothers in the US take before starting day care. Six months felt appropriate to me developmentally and for bonding and establishing breastfeeding. However, after the birth of my second child, I didn’t plan to take six months off; I started wearing my second baby to work when she was just two weeks old. Although I had the option of taking more time off, I felt pressure to continue writing, publishing, and producing data. I worried that if my productivity dropped, I would be punished when applying for faculty jobs later that year.

Navigating Resources for Pregnancy, Caregiving, and Grief: Dr. Andrea Hindman

Andrea (left) with her mom (right) at Andrea’s
wedding, the same month as her mom’s terminal
cancer diagnosis and four months before her death.

After getting the “okay” from my PhD dissertation committee to graduate in a year, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic to the brain, lung cancer—a death sentence. The weight of my decision to move back home as my mom’s primary caregiver was magnified by several factors: (1) I had just gotten married and my partner and I were living together for the very first time; (2) I had a year left of graduate school, supported by a fellowship; (3) I was experiencing uncertainty of finances with barely any savings, and (4) I had no known eligibility for FMLA. You can’t plan for a cancer diagnosis.

Andrea (left) with Hannah Helber, MS (right), a
phenomenal undergraduate that supported
Andrea’s absence and continued research progress
during her mom’s illness.

Ultimately, moving home was possible through an extremely generous arrangement made between my graduate program and my advisor. Since I was on a paid fellowship, I would “work-from-home” writing while I cared for my dying mom. Luckily, the undergraduate researchers that I trained would be able to analyze biosamples I finished collecting, using protocols that I left behind.

I got five months with my mom. I found out I was pregnant two months later.

There were no crisis services waiting for me upon my return to graduate school. I knew to seek grief counseling on my own. It was not enough. I needed to sort my brain out to finish my graduate work, write my dissertation, and prepare for being a mom. Luckily, one of my friends told me about the potential availability of group therapy for graduate students. It turned out that this single highly selective group offered to graduate students only supported up to 20 students at a time—such limited versatility of mental health resources for graduate students at a huge, land-grant, public, R1 doctoral university. Worse was that it was not widely known that this service was available to struggling graduate students. I was lucky to hear about it through word of mouth. Candidates for this group therapy were required to interview before being provided with resources. I made the cut after an entrance interview—I must have been a worthy case.

Andrea (right) with current medical students
Nanditha Ravichandran (center), and Claire
Kovalchin (left), phenomenal undergraduates
that supported her absence and continued
research progress during her mom’s illness.

I defended my dissertation and had my son. We scraped by financially thanks to my partner’s income and the money I had saved for the hospital bills from pregnancy and childbirth. Importantly, neither of us had student loan debt. As evident from Diane’s narrative, it is not the norm to lack student loan debt, and many prospective parents are likely to be much more financially insecure.

Moving for jobs is the norm for doctoral degree holders. After graduate school, I secured a postdoc opportunity that required our small family to move to Boston, Massachusetts. My partner threw himself into a job search for those short months before we moved and was offered a position shortly before we moved. We made a misstep in his negotiation in that his company refused to pay relocation expenses since we would already be in Boston for my job. However, my “job” was a postdoc, and I was not getting relocation expenses.

In my experience, the hardship of starting a postdoc as a new mother and moving across states was amplified through (1) the low income my partner and I made as graduate students to fund the move; (2) the distance from family for childcare and social support; and (3) generally, geographic mobility—currently, we are on our third interstate move in four years. Additionally, I was still grieving the swift and devastating loss of my mom. I continued therapy through another provider, thankfully on my partner’s insurance, which bridged my benefits between graduate
school and postdoc.

Utilizing Company Policy for Maternity Leave as a Postdoc: Dr. Heather Llewellyn, Senior Scientist, Biomarkers, Drug Safety R&D, Pfizer

We interviewed Heather to get an additional perspective on caregiving leave from someone who had a positive experience with formal leave policies.

Heather did not escape the common feeling of helplessness as a graduate student or postdoc wanting to start a family. She saw her peers struggle with the same decisions expressed in this article by Diane, Genoa, and Andrea, including being far from family support. Heather was relieved to learn of the benefits provided to mothers and caregivers in industry, where postdocs are entitled to the same benefits as employees.

During 12 weeks of paid leave following childbirth, composed of six weeks of paid maternity leave after vaginal birth followed by six weeks paid parental leave, Heather’s work continued to progress thanks to her project team. Heather did not personally have to do any work during this time and was able to focus on caring for her baby. In our interview with Heather, we discussed the “brain fog” of pregnancy and caregiving that feels like it lasts up to a year. Any expectation of work immediately following childbirth places postdocs in a difficult position. During our time as new mothers, we all felt prone to mistakes that would, in the long run, extend project timelines and ultimately cause more harm to our well-being and confidence at work.

When comparing work environments and sectors, “handing off all your work” has different meanings. In industry, your success is dependent on both your individual achievement and contributions from cross-collaborations. This type of matrixed environment provides a support system to keep projects on track so that timelines aren’t delayed by a colleague on leave. Academia has an unfaltering adherence to independent achievement. The idea of handing off all work, including the “credit” you get for leading it, is an impossible construct for a tenure-track system built on these independent achievement philosophies.

Interestingly, Heather’s company had a flexible policy for returning to work: paid hour by hour, phased re-entry. In practice, this looks like a mother deciding her capability to return to work after combining maternity and parental paid leave, working two days of the week, and so getting paid for two days. While we stay open-minded to best practices for phased re-entry, this practice at least pilots alternative approaches to supporting the careers of mothers and caregivers in STEM.

Heather is now a full-time colleague and feels that the company’s value of “equity” in their culture nurtures talent, promotes professional growth, and provides benefits for talent well-being and retention.

Common Themes to Navigate Policy Changes Needed to Support Early Career Parents and Caregivers in STEM

Each of our caregiving stories as graduate students and postdocs is unique. When we set out to write our narratives, we had a hard time summarizing our experiences in a few paragraphs. Our individual experiences illustrate the diversity of caregiving experiences by touching on many different topics—from when to start a family to accessing mental health resources to how to pay for our time off—and emphasize that equally diverse resources are necessary to properly support postdoc caregivers.

Common themes our personal narratives illustrate:

  • The generosity of our mentors and our “lucky” circumstances: We have all had supportive mentors despite lack of consistent institutional support and agree that our paths would have been much harder without our individual mentors and the support systems we were able to build, including hired technicians, other research colleagues, or importantly, trained undergraduates. We all feel lucky to have made it so far.
  • Partner support, especially financial: Taking unpaid leave requires our partners to continue to work to offset our lack of income, savings, and/or health insurance. In our experience in heterosexual partnerships, this surely exacerbated pay and employment gaps between us and our partners. In fact, it’s reported that fathers experience a “fatherhood bonus,” compared with the many penalties of working motherhood.
  • Difficulty identifying resources and the gray area of being a postdoc (or graduate student): We spend precious time trying to figure out how we can take care of ourselves and our families, including what kind of leave we are entitled to or how to access mental health and other resources. Postdocs in particular fall through the cracks and are left trying to cobble together leave. For example, see the National Postdoctoral Association’s frustratingly nebulous guide to pregnancy and maternity leave, which suggests “making a maternity research plan.”
  • Geographical mobility: It is no secret that being in academia means moving to where the jobs are. We’ve all moved our families multiple times, including across the country, and find ourselves far away from grandparents and family support networks. Many academics find themselves in long-distance relationships because of the geographic constraints of academia; having dependents makes this even less feasible. Navigating the two-body problem adds an additional level of stress that disproportionately falls on women, who are more likely to have a partner also in academia than men.
  • The pressure of tenure- and career-track metrics focused solely on individual achievement and need to emphasize mentorship: Collaboration is required as our fields of study advance and become more interdisciplinary. Metrics for academic achievement must evolve to reflect this need. As evident in our personal narratives, and evident from the “matrixed work environment” Heather’s narrative described, more institutional infrastructure is needed beyond undergraduate researchers who, more often than not, are unpaid (beyond hopefully getting research credit hours), and that’s if the institution even has undergraduates. More emphasis on mentoring as junior and early career scientists could and should help provide some of this personnel support to bridge a leave of absence for a graduate student or postdoc while benefiting future generations of scientists—as could compensating undergraduates for their research contributions.

There also are many topics related to childbearing, parenting, and caregiving that our personal stories didn’t touch on but are equally important to ensure equity and access to full-time STEM careers, including infertility, assisted reproduction, adoption and other ways of forming a family, other caregiving responsibilities besides children and parents, student loan debt, other career sectors, and navigating international student visas.

Recommendations to Improve the Family Planning and Caregiving Experiences for Postdocs (and Graduate Students)

The US is the only OECD country that does not provide any paid parental leave. Because of this, one in four mothers goes back to work less than two weeks after giving birth. Two weeks is not enough recovery time to be able to even sit in a chair again after a vaginal birth, let alone recover from an emergency C-section, establish breastfeeding, or bond with your baby. Although FMLA allows up to 12 weeks off without risking job loss, it is unpaid and available only to some. Most women have to string together some combination of FMLA, disability leave, vacation days, and sick days. Having to wade through bureaucracy to figure out how not to lose your job and maybe get a partial paycheck is not supportive. The lack of parental and caregiving leave in this country is cruel and unusual punishment and needs to change. A number of different organizations have put forth proposals that we heartily support:

  • Paid Leave for the US (PL+US) is a national campaign to bring paid medical and caregiving leave to the United States. Their research has shown that the education sector is one of the least likely to offer paid leave for employees. They advocate for six months of paid family leave for flexible use.
  • The organization Postdoc Parents for Change recently published a letter to the National Institutes of Health to bring attention to the lack of support for postdocs and graduate students—particularly, lack of paid parental leave, lack of support transitioning back to work, and the high cost of childcare.
  • We need data! Mothers in Science recently launched an international research project in collaboration with several other organizations, including Parent in Science and 500 Women Scientists to measure the impact of parenthood on career progression of professionals and students in STEMM (including medicine). The Mothers in Science website calls for more data collection around the difficulties around family planning, parenthood, and caregiving that graduate students, postdocs, and early career professionals in STEM face, at a time when they need the support the most—post-graduation with little social, financial, or geographical stability and in the formative years of building their careers. Please consider taking this survey as part of an international research effort to collect this data from STEMM professionals.

Beyond better institutional policies to grant paid leave to trainees, other changes we would like to see are increased inclusivity, improved and accessible mental health support for graduate students and postdocs (including more expansive group therapy options), and more data collection on outcomes and experiences of caregivers.

Until institutional changes happen, we want all graduate students, postdocs, and early career professionals to know about the kinds of work-arounds we used as postdocs while caring for children and family. We hope sharing our personal narratives empowers other postdocs to take the lead in designing their own childbearing and caregiving experiences until institutions remove the burden of figuring this out individually.

Heather’s experience at Pfizer illustrates that supportive policies for postdocs are possible. Heather was able to hand off her work to colleagues to take truly work-free time off. Although academia operates much more individually, wider implementation of programs such as the Primary Caregiver Technical Assistance Supplements from the NIAID, which will pay for a technician to continue research for postdocs who take family leave, could be used to achieve this goal.

Our peer support networks, including the peer group through which we met, have been hugely beneficial during our postdoc and early career STEM journeys. Institutionalized peer support networks across the STEMM workforce pipeline would further cultivate an inclusive culture that retains STEMM talent.

And we need to take action now. The COVID-19 pandemic has vastly magnified the insurmountable strain on parents. We risk losing the next generation of STEM professionals and gutting any diversity in science and medicine that we had.

In conclusion, parenting and caregiving has been a choose-your-own-adventure experience for all three of us. We hope that by sharing our journeys, we can help others pave their own way as well as encourage institutional and legislative changes that will guarantee support for all graduate student, postdoc, and early career caregivers when they need it the most.


1 Available data for STEM workforce development and full-time employment typically and historically limit understanding gender imbalances to gender binary categories, male or female. For example, the National Science Foundation is in the early planning stages to modify demographic data collection on related surveys to include gender identity and sexual orientation questions. 500 Queer Scientists, modeled after 500 Women Scientists, catalyzed the push for these data collection changes and is a good resource and campaign to follow to improve gender inclusion in STEM.

2 The authors use the term caregiver throughout this article to encompass parents and caregivers more broadly, and may interchangeably use it with “parents and caregivers.”

3 The authors acknowledge that caregiving is not just about parenting and not just for cis-gendered mothers. We frequently refer to mothers herein because that is how all of the authors identify. Further, we recognize the adversity we describe is unequivocally exacerbated for people of color, people with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and more (LGBTQ+) (and see here) including barriers to STEM workforce development before even having the privilege of considering family planning and/or caregiving. We hope sharing our personal experiences empowers others and raises awareness about additional resources, strategies and proposed policies with the potential to improve retention in full-time and fulfilling STEM careers. We also hope our stories create more space for these important conversations, for policy considerations and for collecting the data necessary to understand the complexity of STEM attrition.

The authors would like to acknowledge the thoughtful feedback and edits provided by Dr. Sarah Carratt, current SOT Postdoctoral Assembly Executive Leadership Chair and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oregon Health & Science University, and by Dr. Rachel Hoopsick, PhD, MS, MPH, MCHES, NRSA Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Family Medicine, University at Buffalo, New York.

The information presented in this article represents the views of the authors. The Society of Toxicology has not vetted or reviewed the science presented herein, nor does posting this article represent any proposal or endorsement of any position by the Society.