How To Support Grad Students Who Become Parents

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

Creating Space for Academic Babies

In my first essay, I reflected on the barriers I faced as a black mother in graduate school. Given the biases I had to confront, I attempted to hide my status as a mother when I went on the academic job market. I created a professional presence on social media that disclosed little about my personal life. I explicitly asked my letter writers not to mention that I was a mother. On campus visits, I asked vague questions about schools near the university.

I already carried job-market anxiety and impostor syndrome feelings as a student of color. On top of that, I worried that if word got out I was a parent, I might have worse chances of landing a job.

I did, however, keep an ear to the ground for how, or if, potential departments talked about work-life balance. When I arrived at my current institution, the University of California, Merced, I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed that work and life (including life with children) were not separate entities but rather two sides of the same coin. It was a place that valued the whole person, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Support for Faculty With Children

My initial impressions were not misleading. Most of our faculty events are family friendly or scheduled at a time that is consistent with our child care schedules. Colleagues often ask about one another’s kids, and it is not rare to see children on campus. This family-friendly climate made my decision to have a second baby while on the tenure track seem feasible. Indeed, I have had a positive experience so far.

For instance, shortly into my maternity leave, two colleagues invited my infant son and me to a nearby town for a morning writing session and walk by the creek. That was actually the first day since I had my son that I took out my laptop to work on an unfinished writing project.

More recently, I participated in a family-friendly overnight retreat for our faculty working group in Yosemite National Park. We worked during the day while the older children and nonacademic spouses were able to watch the younger children. Then we came together for family activities in the afternoon and evenings.

When the inclusion and support of parents and their children is purposeful, it increases both productivity and cohesion among faculty members. Ample research provides evidence that paid leave is good for everyone — the children, parents and organizations. For instance, a report by President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers revealed that more than 90 percent of the employers surveyed that had implemented California’s paid family-leave initiative reported either positive or null effects on profitability, turnover and morale.

It is important to note that the family-friendly climate on my campus is conditioned by relatively generous institutional parental-leave policies — mothers and fathers on the faculty are able to receive relief from teaching and other modified duties after the birth or adoption of a child.

Limited Support for Grad Students With Children

Unfortunately, however, support of our graduate students is currently less institutionalized. My university has put in place a few policies that aid grad student parents, including designing buildings with lactation rooms and charging students at reduced rate for the on-campus day care.

But graduate student who are new parents are not released from their duties as teaching or research assistants, leaving faculty to make accommodations in the classroom or research teams on a (nonideal) case-by-case basis. In those scenarios I encourage faculty to be creative and empathetic.

I was put to the test in that regard at the start of my first semester of teaching. Shortly before classes began, I received an email from a student informing me that she would miss the first few sessions of my graduate statistics class because she was scheduled to give birth in a nearby city. I took this opportunity to share my own experience as a mother and to work with her to jointly craft expectations and modifications for the class. Although I told her it would be beneficial to attend class as soon as she was able, I did not want to require her to “work” for at least six weeks. Therefore, I told her I would excuse her absences for those six weeks, give extended deadlines and accept email submissions of assignments, and forward her all my lecture slides.

In reality, she showed up to class by the third week and turned in assignments at a steady pace, but she appreciated the safety net I made available. As most mothers do, she showed strength and determination to pull through that semester. In the end, I still held her to the set standards but gave her a bit more flexibility in how and when she mastered the skills.

Making Universities Family Friendly for Everyone

Colleges and universities, as spaces known for shaping the future and creating change, should be at the forefront of implementing leave policies for faculty members, grad students and staff members. Change is needed not only at the structural level but also the ideological level. Academics must rid themselves of outdated gendered and racialized perceptions of working parents. Only then will there be more equity in graduate and faculty outcomes.

If you are wondering what you can do about creating space for academic babies, I encourage you first to look into Do Babies Matter as an important text that offers astounding statistics of the setbacks that parents face and also provides innovative solutions for institutions. Here are some additional tips for making one’s department family friendly.

  • Institute student leave policies that are applied consistently and equally to all students.
  • Do not assume a student has chosen an alternative career or that they will drop out of grad school because they have children.
  • Allow students to articulate their chosen career path and give them the tools to achieve success in whatever route they choose.
  • When mentoring students, ask about their whole lives, children and family included.
  • Discuss strategies for work-life balance.
  • Ask students which positions work within their child care schedule.
  • Include student parents on research jobs and publications; do not assume they do not have time.
  • Plan departmentwide events that are family friendly. A noisy bar is not an ideal place for a child.
  • Respect when a student declines an opportunity, but do not take that no as indefinite.
  • Work with your institution to put in place affordable child care, lactation rooms, family health care subsidies and the like.

And for the grad student, if you have a child while in grad school, here are some tips for navigating your training as a parent.

  • Decide the career path you want to take and make it clear to all parties involved.
  • Ask for what you need. Need time to pump in between classes? Ask. Need to take time off from classes? Ask. Need additional research positions? Ask. Need to decrease research? Ask.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. Your time is no longer only yours. Choose commitments wisely.
  • Find an academic mother (or father) mentor. No one mentor can do it all for you. I sought out a woman who was a mother as a mentor at another university. Her advice was pertinent to my success and well-being.
  • Schedule your time wisely; share your schedule with your family and your advisers so everyone can be on the same page.
  • Reject the idea of being a supermom or superdad. Protect your sanity. Take breaks if needed.

Do you have other recommendations? Suggest them in the comments section below.

Birthing Both A Baby And Ph.D. As A Woman Of Color

whitney-pirtleNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle (@thePhDandMe) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Her research is on race, identity and health. She often shares other stories and advice on her blog, The Sociology Ph.D. and Me.

I freaked out when I learned that I was pregnant during my second year of graduate school. My reaction was not abnormal; neurologists link the flood of hormones to a women’s brain as the reason for increased anxiety among expectant mothers. And while I was indeed overwhelmed by the typical things pregnant moms worry about — Would I be a good mother? Was I eating the right foods? Could my body endure childbirth? — the majority of my concerns centered around graduate school.

How was I going to tell my adviser? When do I have to tell the department? What will they think of me? How was I going to finish my master’s thesis at the same time that my baby was due? Was my graduate stipend enough to support a family?

I did not really have any one to turn to in my program. No current students had children (though one black mother had recently left), and the only two mothers on the department’s faculty had waited until they earned tenure to have their children. No one discussed parenthood, so I wasn’t sure how to do it or even if it could be done.

In desperation, I reached out to my undergrad mentor, who did not have children but always had sound advice. Her words almost became a mantra to me: women are fully capable of birthing babies and Ph.D.s — you got this.

I cut down on my coffee intake, became the queen of catnaps, asked for a few extensions on assignments when needed and raided my partner’s closet for loose sweatshirts. Aside from my adviser and one confidant, I did not announce the pregnancy until I almost five months pregnant. I thought I was on the right track.

What I naïvely did not expect, however, were the additional layers of burden that I faced as a woman of color. You see, I was only 23 and unmarried to my partner at the time I gave birth to my first son. That meant I was young, black, unwed, relatively broke and a new mother. And I found that shaped some people’s perception of me in my graduate school program.

It did not seem to matter much that I had a loving partner with a good job. Or that my mother relocated just to help me out. Many people seemed to ignore or were unaware of my background — of being raised by a young single mother myself — and that I was used to jumping through hoops to find academic success. Despite my persistence, I began to feel left out.

For instance, that year after my son was born, I was not asked to rejoin research projects that I had previously been involved with. I did not receive additional incentives to travel to conferences as I had before. I could not attend department happy hours as often and began to be left out of the grad student social scene, as well. By the end of my third year, I felt more alienated, stressed and unsure of my path than I did in my first year of the program.

The neglect could have been the result of positive intentions: to give me fewer responsibilities and allow for more time to give to my son. But, it seemed that many people assumed that my choosing motherhood meant I was not as serious about my profession. Not unlike Trump’s comments that motherhood is an inconvenience to businesses, if felt as though motherhood was an inconvenience to the Ph.D.

Research shows this is something that mothers have to deal with more than fathers. For instance, Mary Ann Mason and colleagues investigated whether babies matter for academic success. They found that mothers with young children are 21 percent less likely to land a tenure-track job than women without children, as well as that mothers are 16 percent less likely to end up on the tenure track than fathers. Women scholars’ online discussions further illustrate their findings.

Not only did I face preconceptions about parenthood as a woman, but I also believe implicit biases about black mothers created additional burdens. In itself, graduate school can be a source of trauma for students of color. And Patricia Hill Collins has written about the damaging Eurocentric views of black motherhood that moms inside and outside of academe have to combat. My position as a black mother and student intersected to pattern my experiences.

My differential treatment became even more obvious when two other students had children after me. One white woman opted to defer her dissertation fellowship for a year so that she could focus on raising her child. Rather than pushing her out (when she had asked to be temporarily “out”), she was actually offered a part-time administrative position during that time. Another white man student became the primary childcare provider after his wife returned to work. Despite his constant working from home, he was suggested to me as a model for being serious about publishing. I do not fault either of those white students for making the right choices for their family, but I did find it troubling that I was treated as less serious, despite my decision to remain embedded in the department and my work.

After one honest conversation that I initiated, a professor actually admitted to me: “I thought you would have dropped out and had more babies by now.” I was shocked. What about me suggested that? I had never mentioned a desire to drop out or to have more children. I had not taken any time off from academe. I had met appropriate deadlines. I showed up on the campus nearly every day. Really, nothing I did suggested that; rather, I believe their perceptions of black women incorrectly painted their assumptions about me.

This was bias, implicit or not, and it was wrong. I attempted to correct their perceptions by delving into my work and confronting misconceptions head-on when I could muster up the courage. I would be remiss not to share my gratitude for the supportive peers and faculty who encouraged my success and bravery — like the grad students who stepped in as babysitters or the professors who invited me over their houses for dinner. I would not have made it through that sometimes toxic space without allies that served as positive antidotes. But even so, it was a struggle to get out of grad school with my Ph.D. and my baby.

Mothers of color should not have to battle in the trenches just to save their babies and degrees. More work needs to be done, and at a larger scale, to create safe space for babies and parents in academe. I share my experiences to shed light on the mistreatment I experienced so students can recognize they are not alone and so that faculty members might reflect on their roles. To this end, I will offer advice and policy solutions in my next post.