University expands family-friendly policies for graduate students

Princeton University has expanded its innovative package of family-focused initiatives to improve support for graduate students while also aiming to increase the number of women pursuing careers in higher education.

Many colleges and universities offer programs to make it easier for faculty to balance work and family. However, according to administrators at Princeton, the primary source of gender imbalances among faculty nationwide is the challenges that graduate students and postdoctoral researchers face before they apply for their first faculty position. This is particularly the case in the sciences and engineering.

Princeton has established a "continuum" of support that the University believes is the first in academia to address the full range of obstacles such as maternity leave, child care, research travel, home ownership and other stumbling blocks that often discourage graduate students — and particularly female students — from persisting along the path toward an academic career. Among the most notable initiatives is a childbirth policy adopted by the Graduate School that provides a three-month suspension of academic work for birth mothers, and financial support plus extension of academic deadlines for birth mothers or primary caregivers.

"We are working systematically to confront head-on the challenges facing women and families in higher education by approaching graduate school as the beginning of a continuum for academic life that moves to postdoctoral research and then to faculty positions," said Joan Girgus, professor of psychology and special assistant to the dean of the faculty on matters relating to gender equity. "This is something we hope every graduate school in the country will embrace."

When administrators look at the applicant pools for assistant professor positions at Princeton, they find significantly fewer women than one would expect given the national pool of doctorates, Girgus said, and the picture seems to be similar at other research universities. A set of six initiatives will address the problems that reduce the pool of women applying to assistant professor positions.

Princeton's six initiatives provide: the three months of maternity leave, along with the extension of academic deadlines and financial support to give doctoral students an additional term to complete their studies; need-based grants for child care; heavily subsidized backup care when a student's regular caregiving arrangements are disrupted; a mortgage program to help graduate students buy homes at reduced costs; Carebridge work-life counseling; and a travel fund to allow graduate students to provide care for their dependent children while they attend academic conferences important for their careers.

The launch of the programs has been phased in, beginning with the mortgage program in December 2006 and culminating with the travel program this month. Dean of the Graduate School William Russel said these initiatives should support efforts to increase the representation of women, particularly in the sciences and engineering.

"Helping students with aspirations for academic or other extremely demanding careers start their families earlier is important given the length of time it takes to achieve a Ph.D., the need in many fields for a postdoctoral fellowship and the pressures of the pre-tenure years," Russel said. "Other institutions are moving in the same direction, although we understand that many are not blessed with our resources. Even so, we hope the steps taken by Princeton will set the standard in some ways."

Princeton in 2005 became the first university in the country to grant automatic tenure extensions for both male and female faculty when they adopt or give birth to a child during tenure pursuit. By automatically granting an addition of one year to the tenure review period for each new child, the move — popularly dubbed "stopping the tenure clock" — removed the stigma from requesting tenure extensions.

Soon after launching the tenure initiative, officials in the offices of the dean of the faculty, the Graduate School, financial aid and human resources began to explore why so many assistant professors were confronting the work-life challenge at this critical time in their careers.

"The reason was that many assistant professors come to this point because of what I call the converging of clocks: the ticking tenure clock and the ticking biological clock," Girgus said. "So what we've done in looking at benefits for University employees is to include graduate students in each step before they have to confront this convergence."

Students praise programs

Graduate students across the University welcome the package of family-friendly initiatives, said Karin Sigloch, a graduate student representative on the Council of the Princeton University Community, a body that advises on policy issues important to members of the University community.

"While graduate students with children are a minority among the total graduate student population, they are a growing minority as preparation for academic careers becomes longer, the student population becomes more diversified and distribution of gender roles becomes more negotiable," said Sigloch, who is pursuing a degree in geosciences. "Students feel that these efforts are badly needed to attract women and minorities and to prevent their leakage out of the academic pipeline later on."

Particularly in the sciences, women often choose jobs in industry because they think the hours will be easier to balance with a family than at a research university where the requirements for tenure can be steep, students said.

Jamie Sherman, who is pursuing a doctorate in anthropology, was grateful that she could use the backup care program when her oldest daughter broke her leg in a sledding accident and was housebound for three weeks. Backup care allows graduate students to hire child care at a reduced cost when problems arise with their regular arrangements for care.

"I have used backup care in a number of situations where I would otherwise have had to miss precious work time or teaching obligations," Sherman said. "Graduate school is a large undertaking under the best of circumstances. Combined with the demands of family life, it can be daunting, to say the least. The backup care benefits help ease the burden."

Graduate students listed the cost of child care and the deadlines for completing coursework after having a child among their biggest concerns, with some saying students have felt it was unrealistic to start a family while hoping also to be successful in graduate school.

"We hope to gain a competitive edge in attracting outstanding students who are worrying about these concerns," Russel said. "We would hope that students of both genders would see this as encouragement to strive for balance with respect to career and family."

The 'continuum' of support

These initiatives, which mirror some programs also offered to Princeton faculty, are intended to provide a continuum of support for graduate students during their time at Princeton:

Childbirth Accommodation and Adoption Policy:

This policy has two parts, as it seeks to acknowledge the demands on and accommodate the needs of graduate students who give birth. It also provides relief to graduate students faced with the additional time demands of being the primary caregiver for an infant during that critical first year of life. For graduate students who give birth, 12 weeks of maternity leave are provided during which the birth mother continues to receive financial support, and teaching and other academic obligations are suspended. While applications are required, the benefit is automatic. Also, birth mothers or primary caregivers who are pursuing doctorates will be eligible for an extension of academic deadlines that provides for one additional term of financial support to complete their studies for each child they give birth to or adopt. Parents who give birth to twins, for example, are eligible to apply to receive an additional year to complete their doctoral studies.

Student Child Care Assistance Program:

Based on income, this program allows eligible undergraduate and graduate students to receive up to $5,000 per child to pay for child care, with up to $10,000 for two or more pre-kindergarten children. The scholarship grants are portable and can be used by single, full-time students — or full-time students with an employed or full-time student spouse — for a wide range of care options that include in-home care and licensed day care.

Work Options Backup Care:

When a disruption in normal caregiving arrangements interferes with their work or study obligations, graduate students responsible for the care of a child, adult or elder can pay $4 per hour for in-home care or $2 per hour for center-based care for up to three dependents in any state.

Dependent Care Travel Fund for Graduate Students:

Initiated with a $10,000 grant from the Elsevier Foundation to help graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the sciences and engineering, the Graduate School will fund this program also for the humanities and social sciences. Graduate students pursuing research at Princeton can apply for funds to pay for dependent care on site or at home while they attend academic conferences or similar events. This pilot program meets the needs of students and postdocs to present research that is crucial for the development of their careers.

Mortgage Program:

Through a partnership with Countrywide Home Loans, graduate students can buy homes in any state for reduced costs. Students are able to choose from many different programs at competitive interest rates based on their income, credit and funds available for down payment.


Work-life counselors offer assistance addressing personal issues related to stress, depression, drugs, alcohol, abuse, personal finances, relationships, marriage and parenting. They also help graduate students find child care arrangements that meet their needs.

Princeton's Office of Human Resources is helping to administer the Carebridge, backup care and mortgage programs, said Alison Nelson, director of benefits.

"If these support systems are in place, the graduate students who are interested in a career in academia might recognize that they can achieve a balance between work and family and, therefore, more graduate students might pursue a career in academia," Nelson said.