Everyone knows that it isn’t easy to balance work and family life in the sciences, but the retention rate for parents with families felt like statistics until we saw it ourselves. First, among our older friends who had children and then when we had our own children, we finally understood: many of our older peers didn’t want to leave academia, but they didn’t have the time, mentored support or the finances to make it work. As the leading funding agency for science in the United States, the NIH has the power to impact the retention of parents from a postdoc to faculty position, with the greatest impact on women.
As our concern grew, we started talking to each other and eventually to our larger scientific network at postdoc gatherings, seminars, and conferences. We came to appreciate that there is a spectrum of experiences for postdoc families including ours. For example, Laura’s institution (Baylor College of Medicine) has no maternity leave policy, thereby defaulting to the federally mandated Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, whereas Michele and Monica were able to take paid leave for 9-weeks through the MIT parental leave policy at the time. When it came to childcare, Laura was fortunate to have fast access to quality daycare, but Monica and Michele struggled to find a spot for their children in the competitive Cambridge area and continue to struggle to support their families given the high cost of childcare and housing in the Boston area. Though we all struggle with work-life balance, we were all fortunate to have access to clean lactation rooms, supportive advisors who understood that we needed flexible working hours, and spouses that support our work. Yet our negative experiences have caused us to question our place in academic science, and have highlighted the inequity of academic training opportunities for postdoc parents, especially women.
We did not write our letter to complain about the self-evident difficulties of being a parent, but to use our struggles as a roadmap for how simple, targeted changes to policy at the NIH could set a new precedent and provide relief from the major stressors that spur postdoc parents to leave academia. We love our families, but more importantly, we love our work, and all we want is for our decision to have a family not to impact our ability to continue our academic research careers.
Monica Guo is a postdoctoral associate studying bacterial chromosomes in the Laub lab at MIT. She has a two-year old daughter.Follow @monicasguo
Michele LeRoux is a postdoc in the Laub lab at MIT studying the activation mechanism of bacterial toxin-antitoxin systems. She has a two-year old son.Follow @michele__leroux
Laura Lavery is a postdoc in the Zoghbi lab at Baylor College of Medicine studying the function and mechanism of non-canonical DNA methylation in the postnatal mammalian brain. Her daughter is almost two.Follow @LauraALavery