How and when to tell your advisor you’re pregnant (or your partner is)

I have had the experience of telling three advisors I’m having a kid — two as a grad student and one as a postdoc. And probably because I’m a bit noisy, I’ve had others ask me for advice on how to tell their advisors that they’re about to become parents. Below is my suggested game plan. You may naively expect that academic workplaces are family-friendly, as I did the first time around. While the culture is moving in that direction, there is a lot of variation among institutions and fields, and frequently no written policies for graduate students and mixed ones for postdocs. You’re likely going to have to make a lot up as you go, so the more legwork you do before birth, the less blind-sided you will be as you go through the process. Telling your advisor is a key step. Here’s how to do it:

1. Know your advisor

Will your advisor be supportive? This is the most important question to figure out an answer to before you tell. Attitudes surrounding becoming a parent – and especially becoming a mother – in academia can range from quite supportive to very negative. And you can’t assume from your advisor’s gender, age, or parent status what his or her attitude will be.

You can probably classify your advisor’s attitude as:

  • Unilaterally supportive. Your advisor recognizes his job as a mentor, and will help you any way he can to make sure you can be both an involved parent and a successful scholar.
  • Tepidly supportive. Your advisor knows she should be supportive and maybe wants to be supportive, but has reservations. These reservation may be because your scholarship reflects directly on her own or she has never mentored a grad student parent or postdoc parent before and is uncertain of how she can help.
  • Not enthusiastic. Your advisor wishes you were not going to be a parent, and may say so. She may have had a disappointing experience with a previous student or postdoc who became a parent, and may be worried about having another similar experience.
  • Hostile. Your advisor does not believe that parenthood and scholarship are compatible. He likely feels that you are “uncommitted” to your work now that you will be a parent. He may cut off funding for you, stop mentoring you, or try to hand your project to someone else.

How do you find out your advisor’s attitudes? Ask around. If you’re relatively new to the lab, ask senior grad students in your lab if they have a sense of your advisor’s attitudes. You could ask other faculty if your advisor has ever had a student or postdoc with kids and how they have reacted.

Or, if none of these strategies work, bring up the topic with your advisor yourself. You can do this long before you start the kid-begetting process. Here’s one way: if your advisor has kids, there are likely pictures on her desk. Start a conversation about them: “oh, hey, how’s Ashley doing? She’s gotta be a junior this year. Oh, gosh, are you all starting to look at colleges? Blah, blah, blah.” And then transition: “hey, have you ever had a student (or postdoc) who has had kids?” Or, if there’s a student or postdoc in the department who has kids, you can use him or her as a start-up topic of conversation: “Hey, I was just talking to Maria. Did you know she has a toddler? I wonder what that’s like, having a kid while in grad school (or as a postdoc). Have you ever had a student (or postdoc) who has had kids?” Or, if your department has a dearth of obvious parents, you can even use that as a topic starter: “I noticed that there aren’t any students (or postdocs) in the department with kids. Has this always been the case? Why do you think there aren’t any?”

2. Know your rights

In the United States, [1] If you’re not in the US, you probably have some sort of national and possibly regional laws governing your rights with regard to work and parenthood. You’ll want to look them up. your family status and your pregnancy status cannot be used to discriminate against you as an employee (i.e. teaching assistant, research assistant, postdoc employee) or as a student or as a trainee. [2] It’s far from settled law, but recent conversations I’ve had with Title IX experts lead me to believe that many postdocs are legally covered under Title IX as “trainees,” even if they aren’t technically students. That means that as a parent or parent-to-be, you shouldn’t be losing funding, getting worse assignments, or being otherwise marginalized due to your parenthood status. It also means that if you need accommodation to do your courses and/or research because you are pregnant, you are entitled to those accommodations as much as anyone with a disability is. Even if you don’t qualify for FMLA (and you likely don’t as a grad student or postdoc), if you need time to recover from birth, you can’t be kicked out of your program or fired for taking the leave you need (as established by your doctor). If you feel you’re being treated unfairly, seek out the Title IX officer at your school. (There is required to be one, but many universities haven’t come into compliance yet. So if you can’t find one, try the ombudsman’s office and see if they can help you find the right person to talk to.)

3. Know your institution and/or department’s policies

Your department or institution may have formal policies in place for grad student and/or postdoc parents. Of course, they might not. Do a web search and see what you can find. [3] Here are the written policies for parental leave for postdoc parents at a number of top ecology universities. Ask other grad student parents or postdoc parents if they know of any policies. Know that policies for grad students and postdocs are likely to be different, if they’re written down anywhere at all. Know that if you’re supported on an NSF fellowship, NSF defers to the university for parenthood policies. [4] I’m not sure how other funding agencies handle parenthood. You can always call and ask if you’re funded by NIH or EPA or another agency. Know that any policies you find on the web may not, in fact, be the true policies; make sure you get them verified by the appropriate administrative staff (for university policies) or department head (for department policies). If your university or department doesn’t have any formal written policies, then your advisor and/or department get to make up policies for you. This is why it’s important to know your rights.

4. Assess your situation

Combine what you know about your advisor, your rights, and the policies that cover you. Do you have a supportive advisor, but few rights or written policies? You may need your advisor to advocate on your behalf. Do you have a likely hostile advisor, but protective rights and policies? You may need to rely heavily on those rights and policies. Hopefully you have a reasonably supportive advisor and reasonably clear rights and policies. Whatever the case, this is the position you’re working from. Your position will affect your plan and your approach to telling your advisor.

UPDATE: Roxanne has a great comment below. If you’re a biological mom, your situation may also largely depend on the type of research you do. If you work in a lab or in the field, you may need to avoid toxic chemicals, certain types of physical activity, or you may be forbidden from accessing certain resources (e.g. ocean vessels). Roxanne highly recommends consulting with your institution’s Environmental Health and Safety department to determine what precautions will be necessary. You can do this confidentially before you meet with your advisor.

5. Have a plan, any plan

Next, you want to have a plan. The plan communicates to your advisor that you have done your homework and you have a concept of how impending parenthood is going to affect your work. For advisors who haven’t advised parent scholars before, the plan helps them get comfortable with the idea and helps them understand their role in the process. What goes in a plan? This is your best guess as to what you’re going to do in terms of your research and other work obligations as you progress through pregnancy (if you’re a biological mother) and then at birth and the first months after birth. Here are some examples of the sorts of things you might want to include:

  • I will apply for funds for an assistant to help me with field work as my pregnancy progresses
  • I will contact disability services when I am 7 months pregnant for parking and shuttle accommodations so I can get to my office in the last two months of pregnancy
  • I will take a month off after the birth of my child, as allowed by our university’s paternal leave policy
  • I am going to move up my preliminary exam two months from April to February, so that I remain on track in my grad program
  • I will arrange to set up Skype on my own computer and on a computer in our lab, so I can Skype in to lab meetings when I can’t be there in person
  • I am rearranging the order in which I do analyses on existing data and new lab work to accommodate necessary precautions on chemical exposure while pregnant
  • I will work with you to find funding so the lab work I’m doing can continue while I am on maternity leave
  • I plan to be completely offline while I am on maternity leave, so I will delegate ongoing responsibilities during this time to these named lab members

The main goal is to communicate to your advisor that you’ve thought about how your research will continue, though there may need to be changes and accommodations. You should stress to your advisor that this is a preliminary plan and that you and your advisor will necessarily need to be flexible. You may not know exactly what you will need ahead of time. Additionally, having a child is a series of lotteries and you will likely encounter unexpected events. Planning for flexibility is key.

6. Time your tell, and make your Ask(s)

Finally, it’s time to tell your advisor. You’ve got a sense of what his reaction will be. You’ve done your homework and know your rights and resources. You’ve got a plan to present. When and how do you actually tell?

How far ahead of birth to tell your advisor is a personal decision. The earlier you tell, the more time you’ll have to develop plans and contingency plans – either in collaboration with your advisor or through other resources. But I don’t know of too many people who tell their advisors before their immediate family and closest friends. In general, it’s better to tell your advisor directly, rather than having her hear through the grapevine. So plan to tell him before you tell all your peers. (Obviously if you have some close peer friends who can refrain from spreading the info, feel free to tell them first.) If you’re going to be a biological mother, you don’t have as much flexibility as biological fathers or adoptive parents; your body will likely tell by about 5 or 6 months of pregnancy, whether or not you decide to tell in words.

For targeting an actual date to tell, figure out where your advisor is in terms of her own business. If you can, try to avoid a particularly stressful time in your advisor’s life, whether that is the first weeks of a semester, the weeks before submitting a major grant proposal, or pinch time for field work. If you’ve got a good rapport with your advisor and he is likely to have a non-negative reaction, I suggest you simply schedule a meeting and tell him in person. Present your plan. Ask for advice; maybe he knows of some resources that you haven’t encountered.  If you are worried about your advisor’s reaction, it’s okay to tell her by email. In fact, it may be a good idea. An advisor who is lukewarm or hostile to the idea of advising a parent scholar will likely have a very negative initial reaction, but may come around with enough time. Present your plan in the email. Make it clear that you intend to be both a parent and a researcher. Give your advisor time to process the news before having a more extended conversation about it.

You might need to make one or more Asks, whether that’s in person or by email. What I mean by this is that you may need to ask your advisor for time, money, material resources, permission, or advocacy that will enable you to succeed as a scholar while also becoming a new parent. Your Asks should be framed in a win-win sort of way:

  • The semester I give birth, I won’t be able to be a teaching assistant. Can you help me find another source of funding so that I can continue to make progress on my graduate studies during this time? We both want me to meet the goals of the graduate program.
  • I will be on parental leave for a month, so I won’t be able to feed the lab critters every day. Can you designate someone else to take over this task during this time? We both need live critters to do our research.
  • In the first year after my child is born, I would like to have permission to work from home and attend meetings by Skype as much as feasible. This flexibility will allow me to maximize my time to make the most progress on my analysis and manuscript writing. We both want to see these manuscripts published as soon as possible.

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Advisors, by definition, have a vested interest in seeing you succeed. They may not be able to give you exactly what you ask for, but all but the most hostile should be able to help you think through possible options.

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