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Graduate students juggle parenthood with academic politics

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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010

University of Maryland graduate student Anupama Kothari went into labor on a Friday afternoon two years ago. After a Caesarean section, she was a first-time mother, with a baby girl with huge brown eyes.

But there wasn't much time to settle into motherhood, bond with her daughter or follow her doctor's orders to rest. Seven days later, Kothari was back at work on her doctorate in business and helping marketing professors with their research. Her body ached in protest.

Such rapid returns from even difficult births are common at many universities, as the nation's 2.6 million graduate students often have fewer legal protections than most workers. Kothari's husband, an aerospace engineering doctoral student at U-Md., took even fewer days off. The couple's daughter spent most of her first three months with her grandmother, who flew in from India to care for her.

"I just wanted to be with my child. I just wanted to spend time with my family. But I had been working on my degree for five years. I worried that it would all go away," said Kothari, 30, president of the U-Md. Graduate Student Government. "If you get pregnant in grad school, if you decide to have a child, you have to show that you are a super-human being."

At colleges and universities across the country, many graduate students who have babies work until their due dates and return soon after giving birth. If they don't, they risk getting kicked off projects, falling out of favor with powerful faculty members and losing their student status, which is often required for visas, health insurance plans and student loan grace periods.

"Workplace balance is an issue in any workplace, but it can play a huge role in academics," said Lisa Maatz of the American Association of University Women. "They judge your research, but they also judge your collegiality."

At U-Md. in College Park, students can request a leave of absence for one or two semesters to give birth, adopt a child or deal with family issues. If the absence is approved, the students' "time-to-degree clock" is stopped for up to one academic year, but they lose their stipend pay and all student privileges. About two-thirds of the text in the university's policy handbook details the half-dozen potential risks in taking a leave.

Maryland's Graduate Student Government passed a resolution this year asking the university to establish a "childbirth or adoptions accommodation fund" that would allow graduate students to take paid leave for a few weeks and retain their full-time student status. Many members of the student group said they would support a small tuition increase to raise money for the fund, said Michael Scholten, 28, a physics doctoral student who wrote the resolution.

Scholten's wife had a baby last year, and he arranged with his adviser to get a week and a half off. "My adviser was generous; not all are," he said. "If the university cares about staying competitive, they should not put you in a position where you don't get paid or you go without health insurance."

Charles Caramello, dean of the graduate school, said in an e-mail that he had discussed the resolution with graduate student leaders and that school officials will continue researching what Maryland's peer institutions do.

"The resolution raises a complex issue that warrants research, analysis and careful deliberation. The issue has academic as well as resource implications," Caramello wrote.

Graduate student pregnancies also create challenges for universities. Professors must find fill-in assistants to help teach their classes, keep research projects on track and meet workload goals set by funding organizations.


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