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Juggling research and parenting: Reducing the baby-penalty

Swarna Mathre & Madhumala Sadanandappa

Becoming a parent can be an exhilarating experience for many researchers. However, it can also bring challenges, both on the professional and personal front, especially if one is in the early-career stage. In this article, Swarna and Madhumala discuss the baby-penalty” and some strategies that early-career researchers can use to better prepare for this stage in their lives. 

baby penalty

Welcoming a new member into a family creates unforgettable memories and happiness. At the same time, it demands a lot of preparation from an expectant parent, on both personal and professional fronts. In a fast-moving, competitive academic world, parenting can be challenging and career breaks can be expensive, especially for early-career women researchers. 

In this article, we offer a guide to reducing the baby-penalty”, and provide tips to early career researchers who are parents or parents-to-be on managing their academic and familial duties. We also highlight the fellowships and schemes that are offered by Indian and international funding agencies to support researchers who are parents. 

In the family way

Consider the following particulars while preparing to start a family. 

  • Planning: Choosing when to start a family is an individual decision. Whether it be after graduation or during postdoc or on securing a position, planning is necessary for successful management of pregnancy needs and a career in academia. 

  • Leave: Learn about the institutional leave policies (both maternal and paternal), review leave options, and plan the leave accordingly. Prepare the paperwork if and when needed. Individual fellowships and grant agencies often have specific guidelines for maternity leave. 

  • Benefits: Consult the institutional administration or the office of human resources or grant agency program officer for information regarding the benefits – parental leave, health insurance etc. — offered by the institution and/​or grants. Generally, group medical insurance provided through the institution covers pregnancy-related expenditures; if not, make sure to enrol in a health insurance plan that covers the maternity expenses as well as health insurance for the newborn. 

  • Research safety: Identify potential hazards to pregnant women in the workplace – biological, physical, chemical, and ergonomic – and take necessary precautions.

Most institutions that come under the Government of India offer six months of paid maternity leave to women researchers. A few funding organizations have policies to support parent-researchers and expecting parents. For example, DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance fellows can receive paid maternity/​paternity leave and fellows can avail up to a one-year cost extension to their fellowships on maternity grounds. Similarly, EMBO Young Investigator Programme offers a one-year extension to their fellows on maternity grounds. 

Preparing for maternity break

It is important to plan and organize one’s work before going on maternity leave and while adjusting to the physical changes. 

  • Discussion with the advisor: There are two key factors to consider here – (1) What are your advisor’s views on maternity leave? (2) When is the right time to bring up a conversation about the pregnancy with them? Though pregnancy is a personal decision, sometimes even a supportive supervisor may have concerns given the potential delay in research progress due to maternity leave. To better prepare for the maternity leave and to organize your work, discuss the leave with your advisor or with the department chairperson/​head of the institution sooner rather than later.

  • Organizing work: Create a realistic and achievable plan – complete the tasks that need your physical presence, collaborate with the lab members and see if/​how they can cover you during your absence, and consider working from home, e.g. writing thesis/​manuscript/​reviews/​grant proposals, analyzing data, attending virtual lab meetings/​seminars, reviewing the literature etc.

  • Dealing with daily concerns: How much work you can reasonably complete before the maternity leave is limited by bodily changes and discomforts during pregnancy. Longer working hours and travelling might be difficult due to fatigue, morning sickness, and nausea. Allow yourself the flexibility to accommodate day-to-day needs. 

  • Contingency plans: An obstetric emergency may arise at any time during pregnancy and labour. Consider making a backup plan for pregnancy complications and discussing them with your advisor and collaborators.

Returning to the workplace

For a primary caregiver who is adjusting to a new lifestyle and the needs of a newborn, returning to the workplace after the maternity break demands strategic arrangements. Some things to keep in mind are:

  • A gradual return to the work: Consider a phased return to the workplace as it allows a smoother transition for returning parents. Flexible schedules enable work productivity and allow one to adjust to dynamic changes arising due to new responsibilities. They can also help with easing the separation anxiety. 

  • Support system: A strategic return plan to work also involves the preparation of a support system including partner, parents, in-laws, nanny etc., to help with tending to the newborn. Taking your family with you on your career journey is very important. 

  • Childcare: Most research institutions and universities offer on-campus childcare facilities to students, faculties, and staff. However, due to high demand, it is recommended to apply well in advance if you plan to use the facility.

  • Breastfeeding: Review facilities such as lactation rooms, access to closed-spaces for pumping, and refrigerator for storing pumped milk available at the workplace.

  • Work-related travel: While planning for resuming work-related travel, weigh several factors such as the professional necessity to attend the meeting/​conference/​fieldwork, the availability of caregiver(s) for your kid, and the need for financial aid if your child is travelling with you.

Financial Support

Given the limited income of graduate students and postdocs, additional funds help to curb childcare expenditures. 

Moving with young children

In academia, researchers move across institutions at various stages of their careers; borders are not limiting factors. If you’re planning to move across the country or overseas with a young child, then consider the following.

  • Address moving fears: Sometimes, families with younger children worry about moving, but with a little support and help from parents, kids quickly adapt to new places. For a smooth transition, it is essential to plan, organize, and prepare oneself based on the geographical, social, and cultural requirements of the new location. 

  • Relocation allowances: Several research institutions and grant agencies have established relocation assistance to cover travelling and moving expenditures of the researchers. For instance, international early-career research fellowships such as HFSP, EMBO, The Helen Hay Whitney Foundation provide relocation costs to their fellows and their families.

Returning Mothers

Re-entering full-time work after a career break can be challenging for early-career women researchers. It’s best to be prepared and professional.

  • Positive attitude: Returning mothers encounter several obstacles, including bias, competition, and high expectations from employers. To tackle these problems and navigate through this phase, having a positive attitude, determination, and commitment to work can be helpful. Being resilient and confident, and avoiding feelings of guilt help in overcoming impostor syndrome.

  • Homework: Besides caring for the little one, a mindful commitment to work during the post-partum period and engaging in activities like learning new skills (e.g. through LinkedIn Learning, edX, Coursera etc.), enhancing one’s visibility through LinkedIn, ORCID, Google scholar, etc., networking with suitable people in the field, and seeking advice from a reliable mentor helps in planning a strategic return to the workplace. 

  • Remote work: Freelance and remote job opportunities in science, including fields like science communication, data analysis, medical writing, online teaching, science outreach etc. offer flexibility in terms of work hours and work location. Explore new avenues that add to your CV and offer career growth.

The Department of Science and Technology’s Women Scientists Scheme provides various categories of fellowships to women re-entering mainstream research. Similarly, the Department of Biotechnology’s Biotechnology Career Advancement and Re-Orientation programme (BioCARe) offers independent R&D projects to women scientists with a career break.

In academia, while efforts are in progress to normalize parenting among researchers, strategic planning for pregnancy, parental leave, and return to the workplace after the break can reduce the baby-penalty” for early-career researchers.

parental leave advice