In July 2014, Megan Leitch, a civil engineering doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), met with her adviser to negotiate a leave of absence. At the time, CMU allowed graduate students time off during official university holidays, and had a policy for unpaid leave if more than a week was desired. But Megan was interested in a type of leave that was not addressed: maternity leave.
“Even though I knew he would be OK with it, I still was nervous to tell [my adviser] I was pregnant,” says Megan. “I ended up just walking into his office and blurting it out.”
While the United States remains behind the times for maternity leave, expectant graduate students find themselves on even murkier ground. Graduate students are not considered full time employees of the University, and are therefore ineligible for any University staff and faculty maternity leave or the nationally mandated FMLA. Instead, most graduate students work full time, but are paid part-time wages in the form of a living stipend. The rest of those working hours are contributed to tuition. Thus, when a graduate students request maternity leave, they have to consider not only how they will be paid during the leave period, but also who will pay their university tuition. And negotiations are at the mercy of the academic adviser, some of whom don’t appreciate a 6-8 week break in research progress.
More and more graduate students find themselves in Megan’s situation. In 2009-2010, more than 50% of students earning a doctorate degree were female.2 Graduate students range in age from their mid-twenties to their early-thirties, which corresponds to the average age that most women have their first child.3 Thus, for many, family planning must overlap with graduate school.
Fortunately for Megan, she had an understanding adviser. “Once the cat was out of the bag, the maternity leave negotiation wasn’t bad,” she says.
Megan had two options. The first option was to take a leave of absence for a full semester, in which she would receive no living stipend, but be off the hook for tuition payments. This option required sacrificing a full 3 months’ worth of income, which could have created a financial burden on the expectant family. The second option was to continue as a regular student under a gentleman’s agreement with her adviser that she could work from home for 8 weeks.
Megan opted for the second. While this seemed like a fair arrangement, Megan knew the process could be better.
“I did not like that every pregnant grad student, including me, had to negotiate maternity accommodations individually with her department, and whether she gets a fair deal is based on the benevolence of her advisor and department head,” says Megan. “I also did not like that I was still officially ‘on the clock.’ Despite [my adviser’s] assurance that he would not bother me while I was gone, I knew I would still feel guilty if I didn’t make research or writing progress during the week.”
After her initial adviser meeting, she sent an email up the chain through the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department. The issue was then pushed up through the university’s engineering school, Carnegie Institute of Technology (CIT).Megan was not the first CMU graduate student to address the lack of a maternity leave. In 2012, Rebecca Balebako, doctoral student in Engineering and Public Policy, was expecting her second child.* She started investigating the maternity leave policy that was available to graduate students. “I just assumed that I didn’t find [it] or had failed to read all the university policy correctly,” she says. “It was really a matter of going around asking people who understood the [university] policies and only gradually did it come out that there was nothing except taking unpaid leave for a semester.” That was when Rebecca set out to initiate a more accommodating maternity leave. She first started speaking to her department, then the School of Computer Science, then the Graduate Student Association, and finally Student Affairs. “I brought my matrix showing family leave at CMU versus comparison schools,” she says. “That helped convince some that CMU was behind the times.”
In Rebecca’s matrix, she demonstrated that schools of comparable status to CMU, such as Cornell, Duke, and Northwestern, all had maternity leave programs in place. Most of these schools offered at least 6 weeks of leave with continued grant support.
“I definitely got some negative feedback from faculty [who] didn’t want their grants impacted,” explains Rebecca. “But I also got a lot of positive support, including from my advisor.”
Despite Rebecca’s efforts, the administration appeared to run into roadblocks, and an official university-wide pilot program was never established during her pregnancy. Thus, when this issue came through Megan in the summer of 2014, Megan was told she would be able to participate in a CIT-student specific maternity leave pilot program, scheduled to start in the spring semester of 2015.
Perhaps push for CIT-student specific maternity leave breathed new life in the university-wide initiative. Perhaps the call for a CIT pilot program happened to occur at an opportune time. Regardless, in the late stages of Megan’s third trimester, she was asked if she would instead participate in a university-wide program, funded in part at the university level.
Suzanne (Suzie) Laurich McIntyre, CMU Assistant Vice Provost for Graduate Education, maintains that the University has been working for years on a student maternity leave protocol. So if the issue of graduate student pregnancy leave has been pushed since 2012, why announce a pilot program in the Spring, 2015?
“It’s one of those things where, because we are a decentralized institution, it has to go through all these groups of people to review it,” says Suzie. Many of CMU’s policies have historically been made on a college-by-college basis. A university-wide initiative requires more extensive cooperation amongst all the Deans and various university administrations.
Additionally, many people felt that the current process of negotiating with advisers was a valid method. “In most departments, there has been a process that supported women for maternity leave,” says Suzie. “[It was] not a policy, it was a process of understanding. I think most [advisers] were very generous. A lot of people said, ‘It’s not broke. Don’t try to fix something that’s not broke.’”
While these issues slowed discussions for university-wide student maternity leave, the official Maternity Accommodation Protocol was publically announced on July 1st, 2015. This protocol is not currently available for adoptive parents or expectant fathers, but it is available for expectant mothers who are undergraduate students, masters students, and doctoral candidates. “If you look at the policies that are in place at most of our peer institutions, they are for funded Ph. D students only,” says Suzie. “In this day and age, for us, that’s not appropriate.”For Megan, the pilot program came at the right time. Megan Leitch was named as the first participant of the 6-week maternity leave pilot, exactly 36 hours before she went into labor. When asked how she feels about being a young mother while in graduate school, Megan seems content. “A quote from my college rowing coach sums it up: ‘How you live your days is how you live your life.’ In my case that means grad school is not more important than my personal life,” she says. “When my partner and I were ready to buy a house, get married, and have a kid, we did those things, rather than waiting for some arbitrary ‘better’ time. I’d happily recommend this to anyone on the fence about putting off a personal milestone until after grad school.”
*While Rebecca was pregnant while she set out to initiate student maternity leave, she did not find out until a couple months later.