Neurogenesis: Advice and Hope for Graduate Students with Children

By Laura Mariani

Originally published Spring 2013.

sulcus172Graduate school demands a lot from us – specifically, the bulk of our time during the 5+ years of our 20s and 30s that we spend working toward a PhD. This timeframe overlaps with years during which many of our peers find partners, marry, and have children (as anyone who’s looked at Facebook recently can tell you). Parenthood, like doctoral training, is not something to be entered into lightly, but some students within the Emory Neuroscience Graduate Program have opted to take on these challenges at the same time.

Parents Seeking PhDs

Teresa Madsen started her PhD in 2005 and had her son, Finn, in 2010. She had originally planned to wait until finishing her degree before having children, but decided to have a child in grad school after hearing from multiple sources that there is no “good time” in an academic’s career to start a family. “I went to these work-life balance seminars at the Society for Neuroscience meeting and they all kept saying the same thing: You’re busy in grad school, but you’re also busy as a post-doc, and even busier if you get a faculty position,” she said.  “So when my biological clock started ticking in my third year, and I realized I had just barely gotten started on my dissertation work, graduation seemed too far off to delay starting a family.”

Rachael Allen with Ansley
Rachael Allen with Ansley

Rachael Allen suggests that students who might want to have children in graduate school should start planning early in their graduate careers: “If you’re rotating, consider whether other people in the lab have children and whether the PI runs an inclusive lab that is respectful of students’ needs and lifestyles.” Rachael’s daughter Ansley turned 2 on January 29. She says that becoming a parent has changed how she approaches her research: “I plan all of my experiments much more carefully so I can make it to my daughter’s daycare on time. I’m actually a lot more efficient now.” Teresa has had a similar experience, scheduling most of her lab work to take place between 9:30 and 4:30, with a few exceptions that require special childcare arrangements. She added, “It’s also important to me to maintain good work/life balance – evenings and weekends are for my family now.”

Resources for Emory Graduate Students With Children

Institutional support is critical for the success of all students, including students with families. Emory has several policies in place to make life a little easier for graduate student parents. In 2012, the Laney Graduate School implemented a parental accommodation policy for graduate students who become birth or adoptive parents while studying at Emory. New parents are entitled to eight weeks of paid leave at their normal level of stipend funding. This important policy means that Neuroscience graduate students who are funded by individual predoctoral fellowships from the NIH can collect the full eight weeks of paid time off to which they are entitled. (Students receiving NIH predoctoral funding are allowed up to eight weeks paid time off for a new child, but only if other students at the same institution have access to the same amount of leave.) The parental accommodation period is the result of several years of lobbying by former and current students in the Laney Graduate School and can be accessed by all students, regardless of gender, marital status, or sexual orientation. For more details, see the Laney Graduate School handbook, which can be accessed at: http://www.gs.emory.edu/academics/policies/index.html.

The Emory Work-Life Resource Center currently provides up to ten days of emergency backup childcare for any student whose regular childcare plans fall through. Backup care can also be used for elderly or disabled adult dependents who require caregivers. For additional information, visit: http://www.gs.emory.edu/graduate_life/support.html.

The Laney Graduate School hosts an annual dinner for graduate students with families. This event is designed to help educate student parents about the resources available to them and allow them to meet fellow parents who are studying at Emory. This year’s event will be held on Tuesday, April 16, from 4:00 – 6:00 PM (location TBA).

Stay Informed and Get Involved

When asked what advice she had for students who were might have children in graduate school, Rachael said: “Be aware of how things work at Emory, like parental leave and health insurance – did you know births are 100% covered?” Networking with other students and their families is one of the best ways to learn about official and unofficial resources. Graduate student parents, students who are considering having children, and allies who support improved work/life balance are encouraged to join the Grad Work Life listserv. For access, contact sociology grad student (and mother of two) Natalie Deckard at natalie.delia.deckard@emory.edu and include “listserv” in the subject of the email.

Advocacy for students with families is ongoing at Emory. Natalie is currently collaborating with the Graduate Student Council to pursue childcare subsidies for graduate student parents, “to assure that no graduate student has to make a trade-off between their own education and that of their children.” Furthermore, students across the Laney Graduate School can take smaller steps to make things easier for their peers who are parents: “I can never go to seminars that start at 4:00,” commented Teresa. “I understand why that’s a convenient time for a lot of people, because it doesn’t interrupt the middle of the day, but I can’t make it work without childcare.” Whether you’re scheduling a meeting or considering a position on student government, be mindful of what you can do to make our graduate program inclusive and supportive of all students, including those with families.

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