Thursday, December 02, 2010

In the Course of Human Events

As long as universities continue to avoid taking the lead on making policies about family leave for graduate students and postdocs, it's going to matter what individual professors (PIs) think about such things. So, if you are a graduate student or postdoc who is concerned about work-family issues, presumably you would prefer to work with a professor who has a constructive attitude about such things.

How do you find out in advance which professors have which philosophy?

If you are a graduate student or postdoc who wants to work with a professor who will be accommodating (as much as possible) for "family events", such as the birth or adoption of a child, I don't think you can predict from the gender of the professor what their philosophy about such events will be. Whether an advisor is sympathetic to "family events" that distract their students/postdocs from their Research has nothing to do with gender.

I think that both male and female advisors can be more or less accommodating depending on their personality, life experiences, career stresses, funding situation, and mysterious factors no one can predict. It is not necessarily the case that female advisors will automatically be more "humane" about these situations; similarly, I do not believe (as some do) that female advisors are less understanding, especially if they are the dreaded single, bitter, and old FSP. And ditto for older male professors who don't know what it's like to have a wife with a career and/or who don't respect young male professors who want to spend time with their kids (and spouse). Such people exist, but there is no general rule about gender or generation that will reveal to you someone's likely advising philosophy.

Whether a professor is also a parent also isn't a good indicator of their advising philosophy re. advisees who start families. For example, advisors who are also parents may or may not be sympathetic to their advisees who become parents. In fact, I know some advisor/parents who are less understanding about work/life challenges because they are afflicted with the "I suffered, so you should too" syndrome. I, for one, don't want hear for the nth time the story about an intrepid female colleague (or a male colleague's wife) who went to a conference or taught a class or was back in the lab within minutes of giving birth. (I am exaggerating, but not much.) These are not likely to be people who will understand if someone needs to rebalance their time re. when they are in the office/lab vs. at home.

And of course there are many advisors (female and male; old and young; with and without kids), who are very sympathetic to the fact that some graduate students and postdocs want to start families during their graduate/postdoctoral years.

So how do you find out in advance which professors have which philosophy? I suppose you could ask potential advisors/PIs directly, but you might harm your chances of being accepted if you started asking about future research disruptions before you even start, so you might want to be cautious about this approach. If this is your #1 issue, though, then you might as well be direct so that everyone knows where everyone stands.

If the direct approach is not for you, you might be able to figure out a professor's track record with previous advisees, or at least try to figure out what a professor's general advising philosophy is. That's important information to know anyway, whether or not you are anticipating a "family event" during your graduate or postdoctoral program. Ask around, chat with current and former advisees, look at personal webpages etc.

Or perhaps readers have other general suggestions or personal anecdotes of the constructive, illustrative sort. Have any of you used direct or indirect methods to investigate the family-friendliness of a potential advisor/mentor?

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Whether a professor is also a parent also isn't a good indicator of their advising philosophy re. advisees who start families."

This is very true. I had children in graduate school, and it was often the professors with children who frowned upon my decision. They often claimed that it was stupid to have children before tenure. I'm sure there are benefits to having children after tenure (job security, better pay, etc.). But there are benefits to having them before 30 (more energy, more years to be with them, etc.).

It is hard to predict who will be supportive when one decides to make a family.

Anonymous said...

My Ph.D. advisor was not particularly "family friendly" and definitely didn't like the idea of women scientists having babies. But, surprise, he was amazingly supportive of my pregnancy while I was his student and still is of my career. However he felt/feels about scientists having kids in general (too distracting), he has a lot of respect for me and my work and that seems to have trumped any of his generalizations.

If it helps, I had planned things well enough to have my own funding to support my maternity leave and had my daughter at the end of my graduate student days, when my thesis was almost entirely published, etc. After I told him I was pregnant, and he picked himself up off of the floor, I was able to provide him with a detailed and careful plan of how I was going to care for my child and still do science. I took 3 1/2 months of maternity leave and then worked part-time as a post-doc for him for another 6 months or so.

I guess that my point is, be careful in ruling out an otherwise awesome advisor because they don't seem family friendly. At least in my case, I would have missed out on a great experience.

Anonymous said...

I think with any PI that you are considering taking on as an advisor, speaking to the current trainees is a must. (Most PIs encourage this IMO and, for the ones that don't, or the ones that make it difficult, that would be a definite red flag for me).

Trainees will generally tell you the truth, including how the PI deals with 'family events'. This works best if you are having an in-person meeting and can speak face-to-face. If you find the group of trainees are particularly tight-lipped after speaking to a few different individuals, this would again be a bit of a red-flag, but suggesting a pub night to help get the conversation flowing also seems to be effective.

Anonymous said...

I recommend casually bringing up the subject of families with other students and postdocs - Wow! It seems like there are a lot of students with families in your department. You don't see that very often! - And then see what their response is.

I would also recommend talking to students/postdocs in other labs in the same department. If a professor has very strong views against student with families, everyone in the department is going to know about it. Plus, students in other labs are less likely to tattle to the prof you are considering.

As a PI of a small lab, I have struggled to recruit good students. I can't imagine writing off such a huge swath of the talent pool.

Anonymous said...

"As long as universities continue to avoid taking the lead on making policies about family leave for graduate students and postdocs"

haha. My university doesn't have a formal policy for maternity/paternity leave for faculty other than 'take your sick leave' and whatever your chair will negotiate with you. Yes, we get the extra year on the clock but no policy on teaching, etc during the semester the kid arrives (or if there are complications that prevent full work during the pregnancy). Most chairs seem to have progressive/supportive attitudes, but we're at the same mercy that these trainees would be at.

Brian Gilbert said...

Prospective graduate students should find out as much as possible about this when the visit. Talk with the current graduate students, and then continue to do so when they start and are presumably in the "lab rotation" stage.

Postdocs can also do some research about this by getting to know potential mentors before they start in a lab. Ultimately it will really depend on the particular PI and what is going on in her or his work/private life as you've pointed out.

Anonymous said...

I think it is a very complex question. I personally screened once, when interviewing for a postdoc. The events were:
My arrival on campus and first meeting with the 40ish, female, childless assistant professor. I had a two year old and the reason I was looking for a postdoc was that me being a mommy and leaving at 4.30pm or 5 did not go well with the previious advisor and I had to leave that lab(male advisor). So first seconds of the meeting with the potential advisor:
Me:hi, nice to meet you.
Her: hi, nice to meet you. Do you have children?
I swear it is exactly how it went.

Me Jtrying not to answer): isn't it so hard to raise children nowadays?
Her, with disgust: I don't even know how THOSE pregnant women can work on the instrument with their huge bellies!

Obviously, I instantly decided joining that group would be a very unfortunate idea. That made for a fun and relaxed interview and talk, I didn't want the job. Nevertheless, I was very traumatized by the percieved lack of support of faculty and I sent my child to leave with my parents abroad until I received my green card so if I was to be fired until he became 18 at least I could still live in the US. My Ph.D. advisor, older female with two children wasn't supportive either. I stayed home just two weeks after childbirth, that is how much vacation time. I had accrued. The second postdoc advisor didn't even know I had a child. Of course I worked overnight and weekends, and he loved me.

In any case my experiences made me swear that now, as an advisor myself, I will be supportive of a good student that needs to balance family and career. I don't want others to have it as hard as I did. But I do not think there is a sure way to find that supportive advisor. For women advisors, sometimes is personal, so they may kill you with more stabbing wounds than male. It is also kinda personal for assistant profs male or female. Stay away of the. Supercompetitive asshole. Rule of thumb:justlook for a reasonably succesful NICE person. Although I was once told that there are no nice professors. I hope that person was wrong.

Typing on my phone, pls excuse typos.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how much this might apply to the current FSP blog post, but if you search on the Chronicle forums for "pregnant adjunct", there's a few folks on there that convince me to tread lightly in this area. They make it clear they wouldn't hire an adjunct they knew to be pregnant. And there's some great posts about how that's illegal/wrong.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

It hadn't occurred to me that some students choose their adviser based on family friendliness. The main criteria here seemed always to be 1) research topic, 2) funding, and 3) willingness of adviser to take student (generally only for a small number of problematic students).

Of course, since a large fraction of our students do computational work, rather than or in addition to wet-lab work, there is a lot of flexibility in work hours and place, making adaptations for child bearing and child rearing relatively easy. In fact, I have advised some students that grad student years are an excellent time to have kids, as their work situations are most flexible then and during the postdoc time. (And the probability of chromosomal damage in the children is minimized for mothers in their 20s.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of the comments, but I want to make one caveate: When I visited my current institution, the program coordinator's office was covered in pictures of students' kids, and I was told stories about how one grad student had 4 kids while in school and that at graduation they were all invited on stage with her. I was definitely given the impression that it was a family-friendly place. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bait-and-switch. After starting in the program, I found out that graduation was the only time that the mother of 4 was actually made to feel welcome -- she had been given tremendous grief from day 1 of her first pregnancy. Most of the pictures on the coordinator's wall were of kids had AFTER students graduated, or the children of male students whose wives were able to stay home and take care of all the childcare/household duties for them. And a semester in, the dean took the pictures down because they were "unprofessional." My own experience having kids during this program has been generally lousy. I've been told to abort, threatened with failure if I missed work for pregnancy complications, and accused repeatedly of not being serious about my career. (Despite the fact that my productivity and publication record would argue against that claim.) So I would say that the best way to find out if a place is family friendly is not to ask faculty or non-parent students, because they may not know or be willing to tell -- rather, seek out other parents in the program/department and ask them specifically what it is like. If there aren't other parents there, run like hell.

Anonymous said...

I did direct communication before starting a position, but it didn't help me. I told my potential adviser when I was comminicating with him that I do have a 2 year old child and will not work extra long hours. He wanted me to join his lab (I was experienced and coming with a good track record). After joining his lab, as soon as I became pregnant with second child, I did inform him and worked extra hard during my pregnancy anticipating some break. it didn't helped me and he did complain and became insane right at the time when I was expecting my baby, so you can not predict...

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the students who work for a crazy, unsympathetic advisor are too scared or too brainwashed to tell the truth about their supervisor, even to a prospective student. When I was first looking at grad schools, all of my future advisor's students told me it was great to work for her. In reality they were terrified of her, and too young (all masters students) to realize that her expectations of them were completely off the wall (no vacations--ever--not even Christmas--and don't even think about spending time with your spouse, let alone have a child). I knew something was weird about her when we met, but I ignored those gut feelings in favor of her students' positive statements. Mistake! Also, I should have asked far more pointed questions of them, such as, "What is this professor's policy on taking time off?" and "Tell me about a time you were in conflict with this professor, and how it was resolved." Speaking to this professor directly about these issues would have gotten me nowhere--she truly believes she is a kind and generous mentor who values family.

My advice: Students, seek out your potential advisor's *former* students to get the real scoop. It may be extra work, but it's worth it. I would have saved myself two years of absolute hell had I done it!

Elizabeth said...

Another problem with the advisor screening method is that graduate school is often long and life can change a lot over a graduate career. When I was visiting potential grad schools at 21 years old, I never imagined that I would be 8 months pregnant with my second child by the time I defended. It's great to plan ahead if possible, but requiring sane and fair treatment for everyone with respect to hours and family leave is very important and should be a priority for all of us.

Ψ*Ψ said...

Grad students at my university are taking the lead--we're trying to get a family leave policy implemented! The administration has been surprisingly cooperative so far.

KaeleyAnne said...

My university's grad student employee union contract allows for 12 weeks of unpaid time off. I don't have any experience yet with how well the individual advisors work with that.

Anonymous said...

Unpaid leave is useless. I could not have used unpaid leave, since my husband was a grad student and when a baby arrives you cannot leave on 1500/month. Everyone should have a few weeks of paid leave and for grad students, as for everyone else, it should come from University funds. US is quite bad about maternity leave iin general. I wouldn't even mention unpaid leave for grad students. What kind of freaking useless "help" is that? Give paid leave and do no cost extension for grants with the student on. That I would call real support.

Anonymous said...

Give paid leave and do no cost extension for grants with the student on. That I would call real support.

Unfortunately until NSF or NIH institutes such a policy for their grants, it is impossible to do this, (unless of course the department has its own funding for such matters.)

While I am very sympathetic to the need for leave for graduate students who are starting a family, it is not a PI's duty to pay graduate students who are on childcare leave (except maybe for the first few weeks). If I recall correctly, even people who work for large companies do not get paid maternity leave beyond 4-6 weeks, and most people who work for small businesses only get unpaid leave.

Anonymous said...

Great post FSP. Sometimes there is no way to tell. Many years ago I started a post-doc and got pregnant 1 month later. It was a scary situation to tell the new advisor, but things worked out well. He was very accommodating and understanding...it probably helped that I was funded on a national grant I got myself.

Anonymous said...

Here's a question. How does one BE a family-friendly supervisor? Obviously being supportive when discussing the topic and when a student informs you of a pregnancy (or a spouses pregnancy) are key, as is being flexible about scheduling - but what about finances? In my field there is NO support for paid leave unless the student provides it themselves. There also isn't any money available for this purpose in the PI's research grants. So the PI is faced with telling the student "I support you but I cannot offer ANY financial support", or taking that money out of already ridiculously tight funds used to run the lab. Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

I went the direct route. I introduced the topic by asking if any previous advisees had had kids while doing their PhD. I concluded by saying something along the lines of "I'm 30 now. I'll be 35 when I finish (I hope). I want to have kids. So I need to start having them during my PhD time. Any advice?" The type of advice given was an excellent clue to the attitude of the prospective advisor. I also asked of the department interview committee whether the *department* was family- and baby-friendly.

In the end I am co-advised by two older men. One (who had a stay-at-home-wife and 4 kids) *loves* babies and has been more-than-I-even-expected supportive. The other (with working wife and 2 kids) had had bad experiences with previous advisees having babies and never finishing, so I make sure to regularly reassure him that I am still very into my research and making progress towards my degree. He is polite about the baby thing and we mostly just talk about research. My department has been awesome; there are a bunch of faculty with young children. The only weird thing is that it puts me at a life-stage similar to these people, but at a different work-stage. I'm their equal in the "life" world, but their junior in the "work" world...

Anonymous said...

I'm a professor with young kids of my own, and I would happily try to support my grad students if any of them were to have children (of course, they would have to get dates first, but that's beside the point).

I'd like to reiterate the earlier question:

> How does one BE a family-friendly supervisor?

I don't know how to translate my good will into financial support given the restrictions on NSF money. I suppose I could ask a student to work part time after his/her initial leave, and pay them as if they were full time, but I'd rather not bend rules. The more I think about it, the more it seems that a departmental policy of (say) one semester's support would make sense. But I doubt that I could push that through in my current department.

Supportive at State

lauren said...

Yes, putting up photos or cooing over students' babies means nothing. I'd much rather have an actual policy with paid time off and other concrete assistance!

Also--and I'm surprised that no one else has mentioned this--in the absence of an actual policy, the amount of support for parents can vary wildly within a department. Some parents get a lot of support and accommodation and support, others get none. Has no one else noticed this?

GMP said...

Anon at 09:49:00 PM asks a really important question. I think most students/postdocs (in STEM fields) expect to be paid while on family leave, whereas the PI's are working with very tight budgets that don't really account for time off.

I suppose the only way for the PI to be really supportive is to suck it up, and offer full financial support if possible or at least partial financial support while the student/postdoc is on leave. I thihk you as PI simply have to make peace with the fact that student/postdoc will not do anything for maybe a couple of months after childbirth; after that, if you have been paying them, I think you have the right to expect them to be back at least part time... I don't know. I haven't had anyone in my group become a parent yet, but I did when I was a grad student. I was simply given a few months off, during which I communicated with advisor via email and worked at a bit lower pace from home. Not sure this would work for lab folks.

I think a lot of PI's would be much more supportive if funding for science everywhere weren's so hard to come by and budgets to darn tight.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I can't believe how different my experience is from typical. I'm a Canadian PhD student on a government-funded scholarship. I'm pregnant- my baby's due in 2 weeks! I'm taking a full year off, and my scholarship program pays me, at my full stipend rate, for the first semester I'm off. In addition, my husband is able to take up to a year of paid parental leave through his work and standard government benefits.

When I chose my advisor, I decided to stay at the same institution where I'd done my masters because I'd had the chance to develop a relationship with a wonderful female advisor, despite being offered a position at a prominent US university with a Big Name advisor, and it has absolutely been the right choice for me. I'd gotten a bad feeling from the Big Name guy- brilliant, ambitious, and seemed to want to control every aspect of my research and life. Meanwhile, my smaller-school Canadian advisor encouraged me to think for myself, work at my own pace, develop collaborations with other grad students and researchers outside our institution, and valued my ideas, inputs, and priorities. I was comfortable being open with her about my intent to have a baby towards the end of my PhD, and she not only supported, but endorsed my plan. Her lab is extremely family-friendly- I am soon to be one of FOUR current students with children, and she has children herself, so she maintains an active dialogue with us about challenges, coping strategies, etc. Our research group is extremely productive (in addition to being reproductive, heh heh), to top it off- I personally think it's because we're all more willing to work together and play to our strengths, because of this culture of support, rather than competition- it's almost like the lab itself is a family unit.

Anonymous said...

From what I've heard, the US is pretty tough on parental leave in general. A lot of other countries allow for at least a few months paid parental leave.

However, despite this being the case in my country (New Zealand), PhD students are still treated on par with undergrad students and are therefore "customers". So if you should choose to take time off during your PhD, they will put your scholarship on hold for as long as you want, but there is no way you are getting paid parental leave. On the other hand, PhDs here tend to be much shorter than in the US, so most people are out by their late 20s, and most women here wait until then to have kids anyway.

Matt said...

As a grad coordinator for my department, I'm trying to push our campus toward a paid family leave policy for grad students, or at least RAs. Does anyone know of any existing programs and how they are paid for? Based on some guesstimates, it looks to me like a very small amount of overhead taken from every grant and redirected to a campus-wide pool should do it, but it would be very helpful to have some actual programs to look at.

The unofficial message I've gotten from some folks at NSF is that they consider this to be a campus HR issue, and they don't want to be involved.

Anonymous said...

My department has talked about doing a tax on overhead, at least for RAs, but in the end we just decided to have a general policy (not written down) that PIs will support grad students and postdocs for a few months of family leave. The assumption is that this won't hurt the projects and will help the student/postdoc a lot. More than 3 months would be a problem for many PIs though.