|A Postdoc's Guide to Pregnancy and Maternity Leave|
A Postdoc's Guide to Pregnancy and Maternity Leave
By Kathleen Flint Ehm, National Postdoctoral Association and
Developed as part of the National Postdoctoral Association's NPA ADVANCE project
This guide provides general information on pregnancy and maternity leave for postdocs, including tips for keeping your research going and talking with your supervisor. This guide is intended primarily for postdoc women who are pregnant or are planning for pregnancy; please also see our paternity guide for expectant fathers.
These are general recommendations only and may not apply to your specific situation; they do not constitute legal advice. Please consult your institution regarding its leave policies and other benefits. For legal advice, please consult a qualified attorney.
Table of Contents
The appropriate timeline for your own planning may deviate from this due to variations in institutional practice.
Day-to-day concerns. First, there are the simple considerations for a pregnant postdoc. For example, morning sickness, fatigue and other physical limitations might interfere with your daily work and could make it harder to maintain long research hours.
Research safety. Concerns may arise if your research presents safety hazards to you or your baby, such as: anesthesia, radiation, chemicals and solvents, extended exposure to extreme loud noises or vibrations, or some physical activities (like scuba diving, strenuous hiking and climbing, or extended periods of standing and typing). Outside of radiation hazards, there are few national regulations for pregnancy safety, so be your own advocate and do your homework! Consult with your doctor as soon as possible about the potential risks of your work environment since some hazards may be most acute during the first trimester. Also talk with your institution's safety officials, who may be able to consult with you confidentially before you declare your pregnancy. You may want to request an evaluation of hazards to women of child-bearing age prior to conception. If you plan to breastfeed, include a review of any future hazards for breast milk. If modifications to your research regimen are necessary, try to work out some accommodations with your postdoctoral supervisor and safety office. There are a number of resources on occupational safety for pregnant women that can provide more information; visit the NPA's Family-Friendly Resources for Postdocs.
Travel. If you must travel to meetings or remote research sites, keep in mind that typically your doctor will recommend against travel past the seventh month, and many airlines have policies prohibiting air travel after this time. Your doctor may also restrict travel to some countries.
Family Medical Leave Act. Some employees are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides for up to 12 work weeks of unpaid, job-protected maternity leave. FMLA often has eligibility limitations (such as having been employed for 12 months before it applies), and many postdocs may not qualify. Talk to your institution.
Title VII. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against sex discrimination, including pregnancy-related discrimination. Under Title VII, employers must treat pregnancy like any other temporary disability and cannot discriminate on the basis of pregnancy during hiring/firing decisions. Not all postdocs, however, will qualify as "employees" for the purposes of this law.
Title IX. Title IX is another provision of this law that protects against sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funding. It explicitly protects against pregnancy discrimination for students and employees, requiring that pregnancy be treated as any other disability and, in the case where no maternity leave program is available, provides for unpaid, job-protected leave for a "reasonable" period of time. Under Title IX all postdocs, regardless of institutional employment classification, should be entitled to job-protected, unpaid maternity leave.
Some states also have parental leave policies which can complement these laws, such as California's Paid Family Leave program.
For more information on laws pertaining to pregnancy and maternity leave, consult the NPA's Family-Friendly Resources for Postdocs.
 For legal purposes, postdocs can be classified as students for some actions and employees for others; this is independent of a postdoc's institutional title or employment classification. Since Title IX covers both students and employees, it should apply to postdocs, although this has yet to be tested in court. For additional information on postdoc legal classification, see the AAU/AAAS handbook: "Navigating a Complex Landscape to Foster Greater Faculty and Student Diversity in Higher Education."