Graduate Students and Parental Leave: Seeing a Need, Providing Assistance

Part 1 of a 3 part series

Graduate students wear many hats during their studies, and adapting to the various roles and responsibilities they take on are part and parcel of the experience. Some of the challenging, demanding and rewarding roles they take on during their time as students go beyond the academic sphere. One such role is that of a new parent—and the University of Pittsburgh has found a way to help.

The story began when the University Council on Graduate Study (UCGS) identified a challenge: there were no University-wide guidelines for accommodating graduate students who had become parents. There was a need, and the Office of the Provost and the UCGS worked together to address it. 
“We wanted to develop fair guidelines that reflected the value the University places on supporting students through major life events,” said Amanda Godly, who chaired the Student Affairs Subcommittee that drafted the proposed Graduate Student Parental Accommodation guidelines. Not only would robust guidelines accomplish these goals, it would help Pitt continue to attract and graduate the best and brightest students.

Developing one set of guidelines for the entire University is more challenging than it might seem. Graduate student assistants, teaching assistants, teaching fellows, and graduate student researchers face different schedule constraints. Those with primarily teaching responsibilities are dealing with a more standardized and structured schedule. Those focused primarily on research typically have less rigid schedules but have requirements that can vary depending on the nature of the lab, project, and field. There is an array of different methods of funding, departmental needs, and stakeholder priorities to consider.

The subcommittee tackled the complex challenge in a manner fitting the academic setting in which it would be applied. The subcommittee, made up of representatives from across the University who brought their own perspectives and experiences as members of the University community with them, examined surveys of Pitt graduate students and data from 12 AAU public peer institutions. Students responded that while their interactions with faculty and administrators have been very positive when negotiating time needed for childbirth and care, University-wide guidelines would be helpful to guide students, to guarantee certain accommodations, and to change attitudes about women, pregnancy, and research. In its study of peer institutions, the subcommittee determined that the guidelines should be modeled after those of the University of Michigan, because it was among those that covered the widest range of potential situations faced by new parents and it provided academic accommodations for both funded and non-funded students.

The result of the outreach, study, and coordination was proposed guidelines that addressed mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents, allowing a six-week parental accommodation period that would provide flexibility in scheduling, deadlines, and workload for all graduate students, with additional paid leave for birth mothers who hold academic appointments. The proposed guidelines were submitted and adopted by the University in 2010, giving graduate students a valuable tool for structuring the conversation around becoming a new parent and easing communication between students and their advisors, mentors, and department. The guidelines have been carefully crafted to ensure the benefits provided to graduate students foster their learning and development, while still being adaptable to their individual needs and unique situations. Supporting graduate students as they become new parents is one example of the continual improvement that is possible through active listening and open conversation. 

The guidelines have allowed for better communication and collaboration,” said Amanda Godley. “Our hope is that students and their advisors continue to use the guidelines and all the resources offered by the University to grow as students and people.”

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