PhD parents: first to leave the pipeline?

A New York Times article posted yesterday presents a pretty convincing case for the financial reasons (and some other weighty reasons) not to have children. I learned about this article from the reaction posts by  and rxnm, which are also worth checking out. I had a pretty strong visceral reaction to these posts–probably because I’ve already been thinking about these issues a lot lately, especially about how parenting and biomedical academic science seem to mix like oil and water.

Few of my friends from high school, college, and graduate school have children, and few have described a desire to have them. Most of these people have advanced degrees (I really, really live in a bubble). When my husband and I decided to have a child, I began to feel like a teenage mother in my cohort. Even though we had many rational reasons for this decision, I still think it may be the craziest thing we’ve ever done. So I completely understand why many of my friends are forgoing the parenting adventure for other adventures (filled with less spit up and fewer toddler tantrums).

But what makes me sad is the feeling that I get that academic science is becoming less and less friendly to those of us who decide to become parents (especially without a stay-at-home parent in the mix). The group of biomedical PhDs that I know who have decided early on that a research career isn’t for them is largely made up of parents or people planning to become parents soon. And my anecdotal observations are supported by statistics–at least for women. According to the National Postdoctoral Association:

“Postdoc women who have had children since becoming postdocs are twice as likely as men who also have had children to change their career goal away from professor with a research emphasis. These women are also twice as likely to change their career goal from the professoriate as women who have not had children and have no future plans to have children (Goulden et al. 2009)”

I think this is because these mothers feel like they cannot compete. Dads with working spouses also feel the pressure. And realistically, when there is a glut of PhDs, the ones who can spend more time in lab are probably going to get more publications and have a higher chance of making it to the tenure track (TT) stage.  “Work harder, not smarter” can only take you so far.

This is not to say that children and academic science are incompatible. Many of the faculty in my department have kids and seem to balance things pretty well. But I think timing is important. My guess is that scientists who have their first child in graduate school or early in the postdoc stage are most at risk of leaking out of the pipeline early on. Here are some reasons why:

1) Academic nomads are often separated from extended families who could make childrearing less difficult and time consuming by helping with childcare.

2) Postdoctoral salaries often aren’t adjusted for cost of living. I know a postdoc in the Boston area who paid $1500/a month for three days of childcare a week. A divorced PhD dad with two kids told me he really wanted to do a postdoc after defending his PhD but just didn’t think he could support his kids on that pay. Perhaps this is one reason why many scientists want more children than they have.

3) PhD parents don’t think they have a shot at the golden (tenure track job) ticket. It’s publish or perish, baby. When you have 600 neuroscience PhDs competing for one TT spot, the odds are against those who can’t (or won’t) spend weekends in lab. As Eve Marder describes in this article, with longer and longer training periods looming ahead of them, many PhDs choose other paths. 

No one is forcing these people to have kids, and the choice to become a parent, like any choice, comes with consequences (consequences the New York Times article I mentioned at the beginning clearly point out). But I think it is sad that there are so many PhD parents who would be excellent professors and scientists who are leaving the pipeline early because they just don’t think they can cut it.

And simply due to the very biology that we all so love, women are more likely than men to be affected by this as they have a more limited fertility window. Indeed, the recent article “Top Recommendations from Top Women in Science” about policy changes to keep women in the pipeline does include many parent-friendly policies (although we now know we need to add addressing gender bias to that list). But I think the real answer comes in dealing with the jobs issue.

Perhaps it’s time to tighten the pipeline to begin with. Part-time postdoc positions won’t help women if these positions make them even less competitive for the few jobs that are out there. This is something no one (the NIH, graduate programs, PhD advisors, even students) seems to want to address. The other option is to create more staff scientist positions or to make more concrete training programs for hybrid or non-academic careers. If we want a happy, sustainable, gender-balanced workforce in the biomedical sciences there simply have to be jobs at the end for trainees (parents or not). So, in my mind, the answer is either fewer people in or more jobs out.



  1. I think it has to be fewer people in. We are no longer a nation (or economy) that is going to produce a major expansion in government-funded basic research. Parenthood is one issue among many that is being ignored by institutions and funders. We have enough years of these problems persisting and worsening to come to the conclusion that trainee problems and issues just aren’t very important. Right now, institutions, funders, and PIs have a glut of cheap, eager labor, and who wouldn’t want that?

    Parenthood is doubly unfair because it functions primarily against women. This is partly a cultural problem… most couples I know felt like they were going into careers and parenthood as equal partners and come out the other side with the woman making the career sacrifices, because “it just seemed to make the most sense in our case.” Yes, and in just about everyone else’s case as well. There reasons for this built into the academic system as well as cultural reasons in our individual choices that are not fair.

    What the pipeline problem highlights is where the real privilege is when times are tight and there is a historically narrow bottleneck.

    1. I think you really hit the nail on the head here: “What the pipeline problem highlights is where the real privilege is when times are tight and there is a historically narrow bottleneck.” I’m guessing minority PhDs, PhDs with aging parents, PhDs with disabilities, and other groups are struggling too. Unfortunately, as you point out, there really isn’t an incentive for funders or institutes to narrow the pipeline.

      The culture problem RE: parenting may be an even tougher cookie to crack. Although I will say that among my friends and colleagues I’ve been really happy to see mostly couples who are splitting childcare pretty equally (and some cases where dads are doing the majority of the childcare). Perhaps change is afoot or I am just a victim of convenient sampling. It does seem like many of those dads and moms are no longer thinking about academic research careers (but then again most of my non-parent friends are also reading the writing on the wall and making plans to jump ship).

  2. Wonderful! I think you have done a fantastic job here on a most important topic. And I think you should write a book about it…. I really do.

    But (says the dinosaur born and bred in Minnesota) can you change “kid” to “child?” And in number 3 change the “the” into “they.”

  3. I don’t think having a child means that you’re not competitive in science anymore. You have to be efficient and sacrifice (many) other things (like hanging on the couch and drinking beers with friends every evening), but it’s totally possible. My husband and I are both post-docs and have a 1,5 yr old son who was born when I just started my 2nd year as a post-doc. Of course I can only say in 10 years whether it was possible or not, but I don’t think you should start out by saying that it’s impossible!

    1. I think you’re so right. For individual people in the pipeline, the best thing to do is to stay focused and look at role models who are making it. Just today a postdoc from my department is starting a TT job and he has three kids and pediatrician wife. But I do think there are larger forces at work here that need to be addressed at a policy level.

  4. Hi Summer! I am so glad you are writing about this topic. I had my first child while I was in my PhD program, and my second child during the second year of my tenure-track position. I think the compatibility of tenure track and being a mom are quite dependent on the field of science you are in, and it probably varies quite a bit from institution to institution. My field (Nursing) is made up of largely women, and I have found my colleagues and supervisors to be incredibly supportive of my family. I received a 3-month, paid maternity leave! My job is flexible– I can work from home, I make my own schedule, and I can afford to hire in-home care so that my kids aren’t in daycare. As far as being a working mom, I feel like I have a pretty ideal situation. I wish other PhD-prepared women had the same opportunities as me.

    One of the things that I think helps is for your colleagues and administrators to keep it in perspective. Yes, I may have to take maternity leave here and there, and I can’t work a gazillion hours per week. But I have 50-60 year old colleagues who are having to take FMLA to take care of their aging parents. Most people have family responsibilities at some point or another. I am grateful that my employers recognize that I can still be both a productive faculty member and a mom, and that both roles are important.

    1. Rebecca, thank you so much for your perspective! It is really interesting to learn how different fields work. Three months of paid parental leave is fantastic! Our of curiosity, did you do a postdoc? Are those common in your field? What is the competition like for TT jobs?

      I think it may be easier for parents in fields where you can do a significant chunk of your work at home (like computational biology). Your point about other family responsibilities is a good one. I think most departments are getting better at realizing that people have these personal responsibilities once they are part of the department. My larger concern is in hiring–when there is a large number of applicants for a position, I fear those who have had to spend significant time caring for others may be squeezed out (although as inbabyattachmode points out, parents can be just as productive as non-parents). When I was talking to a faculty candidate during one of our searches, she was shocked that people in our department had dogs because they take so much time (no one in her department had time for one).

      BTW: I love your blog! I wish I had discovered it when I was pregnant.

  5. I think we need both parts of your solution are necessary. I don’t know where the limiting point should be, but we have too many PhD’s for too many jobs. Even in the private sector, there just aren’t enough jobs. The whole ‘not enough STEM PhD’s ‘ thing is a bait and switch to keep PhD’s desperate for jobs.

    On the other side, I’ve spent time at the NIH and do not understand why the rest of academia doesn’t have more staff scientists. Staff scientists enhance the productivity of a lab to an unbelievable degree. Students have someone other than their PI to go to with questions, which makes it easier for them to move past the obvious sticking points that trip up every student. Staff scientists provide continuity and a wealth of institutional knowledge in spite of student turnover. Also, no offense to grad students or post docs, having at least one person around the group who knows what they are doing is very useful.

    1. Thanks for your comment Arseny. I found your recent post interesting. I often worry about offending people too–and I grew up in the US! I suppose that’s just the price we pay for blogging (lots of benefits too of course).

  6. Nope, didn’t do a post-doc. They are available, but not necessary. Nursing is kind of unusual because there is a huge shortage of doctorally prepared nurses. The average age of professors is mid 50s. There are job openings all over the country (just check out, and nobody to fill them. Universities will advertise openings for years and years, and you hardly get anybody to apply. So yeah, it gives the PhD parent a lot more negotiating power when the job market is in your favor.

    I really like your blog, too! I love seeing people write about these issues, it’s so important.

    1. I will definitely pass that info on to students looking at science career paths! The CNM who delivered my daughter is finishing her PhD. She has a very evidence-based practice and I would love to see more of her (and you) around.

  7. True story: my institution held a vote on whether they should build a day-care or a new gym. Only the medical students were allowed to vote so, yeh, you all know the outcome of that vote. The new gym was built and still there is no day-care. I think that tells you all you need to know about where the priorities are in academia (i.e. money, money, money).

    1. Wow, that’s quite the story. We had the unfortunate experience this summer of Brown closing down our daycare center.The parents and some student groups on campus circulated a petition that got almost 1500 signatures, but the center was still closed without any plans to open another one. Brown did form a childcare committee, and I hope this committee can push the issue forward (previous committees weren’t very successful). (Brown also opened a $50 million gym in May. I think the gym is a great resource, but the timing did make it a little hard to swallow). Actions speak louder than words as far as “work-life balance” and “family-friendly” go and trainees do pay attention (actually a few faculty candidates from other institutions had heard of our petition and asked about it during their interviews).

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