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Starting a Family in Grad School...?

Hi everyone,

My name is Nissa, I'm currently waiting for my acceptance letters to my grad schools of choice (I will be starting in August). I have applied to the Masters program in Chemistry. I eventually want to get my Ph.D. but I have settled for Master's initially because my husband and I want to start a family. I was wondering if anyone has had any experience in having a baby while doing research in a lab. That is my major concern (course work will be a breeze (this certainty comes from prior stressful situations during undergrad)); I'm worried about my ability to be in the lab around toxic chemicals while I'm pregnant or breast feeding. I also want to somehow be able to finish "on-time" meaning I don't want an extension lasting for more than a year. We still have ample time before I start grad school to make a decision.

I'm having so many thoughts. Should I be inquiring at the schools I have applied to as to their policies regarding maternity leave? Should I wait until I have been accepted (which I plan on doing)? Or should I just wait until my husband and I decide that we're ready to start a family and then once I'm pregnant figure it out.

As you all can probably tell I'm a control freak. I need to have some sort of control on my life, which I don't at the moment.

Advice and experiences are greatly appreciated.

Nissa

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
beccastareyes
Jan. 31st, 2013 01:04 am (UTC)
I'm not pregnant myself, but I remember when I was a young grad student, one of the older students in astronomy was pregnant, and the school/department had no policy*. Luckily she had a good advisor who got on the relevant people's case about 'you need a policy because we have an inflexible deadline here', and they were able to put something together (and then get a permanent policy in place). So my gut instinct is to find out before you make your final decision and before you plan on conceiving since this strikes me as an important part of decision making.

* This is back in the late '00s.
bananainpyjamas
Jan. 31st, 2013 02:05 am (UTC)
I would definitely ask before making a final decision but not before receiving an offer. Grad students can also be a great source of information regarding whether policies are actually upheld or not (e.g. if you need an extra year will you be funded, etc).
wm_james
Feb. 2nd, 2013 11:43 pm (UTC)
All of this is exactly what I was going to say. Grad students can also be a great source of information regarding whether anyone in the program has had a kid recently and how that went.

I'm ABD and just had my first child. It's worked out well. It helps a lot if your partner's income is much higher than a grad student stipend.
kahlan_amnell
Jan. 31st, 2013 02:29 am (UTC)
Wait to see which schools you get into and talk to current students about leave policies if you can't find anything about them on the website (or to find out how they actually work). I've heard that many people who start a family during grad school find that the ABD stage is a good time to consider that, and I think that during an MA with lab work would be difficult and would be pretty likley to delay your finishing the program significantly.
choice_of_tyche
Jan. 31st, 2013 05:14 am (UTC)

There's no good time to have babies, but grad school can be one of those "least worst" times. These are my answers to some of your concerns.



1) Timing. Have baby during the first year when you have mostly classes and less lab work OR 3rd year+. Do not have a baby during your 2nd year when you're trying to get your thesis project off the ground and trying to get qualified. During the 3rd year+, you've got nothing else better to do than graduate and you're in control of your project enough to know when it's a good time to stick a baby in there.

2) Policies. Do ask about policies, health insurance, state laws on family/medical leave, and "employee status" of graduate students. Thanks to that jackass Rick Perry (yeah, that guy), grad students were only credited as half-employees and health insurance terminates on maternity leave. Made my life difficult. Also, the more you know, the better you can protect yourself.

3) The 1st talk. Before you join somebody's lab, have the "I want to have a baby during grad school" talk. I've heard of some PI's freaking out and some PI's being supportive. You'll want to know this reaction before you hitch your wagon to them.

4) The 2nd talk. When you are pregnant, tell your PI as soon as you know. Once they know, they'll ask you what you want to do. HAVE A PLAN. Tell them how much time you want off (I took off an entire fall semester for #1 and 11 weeks for #2).

5) Organization of Teratology Information Specialists. Go to their website, call them or find your local TIS hotline. If your state doesn't have one, I very highly recommend the one in TX. The sole purpose of OTIS and state TIS's is to be a resource for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers regarding the risks of exposure (Rx meds, chemicals, infections, etc.). They do have information on occupational hazards and chemicals.

6) Lactation Room. I hope that whichever university you choose to go to is enlightened enough to have nursing or pumping rooms. Find those rooms or put a gun to somebody's head to make it happen.

477150n
Jan. 31st, 2013 03:30 pm (UTC)
You've gotten good advice so far. I'm a biophysicist, just finishing my PhD now in my 7th year (in my program this is about average), and I have a son about to turn 2. I went into grad school with the vague idea that I wanted to have a baby before I finished, but we weren't certain. I did not tell anyone about this plan (or sort-of plan) until I was actually pregnant; then I told my advisor right away. I was discreet about finding out about policies (the Ombuds office is one place where you can get info without anyone finding out.) As far as chemicals go, I was able to trade duties with my labmates some- I'll write some code for you if you do this sample prep, or whatever. It might also drive your choice of lab somewhat. I steered clear of a lab whose members were in the habit of washing entire optical tables by pouring 10s of mL of dichloromethane on them.

As a fellow control freak, I feel ya. Unfortunately, both grad school and babies are processes over which we have only a certain amount of control.

Anyway, feel free to ask me anything, friend me, private message me, whatever. Although sometimes I'm frustrated and wish I'd chosen an easier course, overall I've enjoyed both grad school and parenting, and I wouldn't go back and change things.
coendou
Jan. 31st, 2013 04:31 pm (UTC)
Almost everyone in my PhD program has a baby by the end (seriously), but our research isn't in a lab, it's mostly out in school and museums. Some people have a kid and finish on time (whatever that means), some people need an extra year - for me, it involved moving away from my school and losing my funding, which means I can't afford full-time daycare, which means it's adding at least two years. But those are very extenuating circumstances.

Definitely find out about maternity leave policies at the schools - at mine, it's on The Graduate School web page, but individual departments may be more generous/helpful. Talk to current students about the department's attitude - do pregnant students suddenly find themselves dropped (either literally or just no attention) by their advisor? Does the department look down on students who take an extra year? Or are they happy to work with you on your schedule? Do people (students and faculty) bring their kids in to the office sometimes? Etc. Just get a feel for the environment.

I wouldn't worry about the exact lab environment until you know what that will actually be, or at least have options you're considering.
erikalindsay
Jan. 31st, 2013 07:41 pm (UTC)
Hi Nissa, you should join the PhD Mamas group on the babycenter.com boards. It's very helpful and women who have been there (including myself, but I am not in a lab science) will have a lot of input for you.
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