Maggie Jacoby nearly decided against pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Colorado.
The 31-year-old, who is a graduate student and research assistant in the architectural engineering department, enrolled first as a master’s student before she was faced with a difficult decision: pursue her PhD and postpone having children or scrap plans to pursue the degree in favor of starting a family.
Jacoby and her longtime partner, Kurt Hill, a 30-year-old graduate student and research assistant in the physics department, want to have children but have decided wait, in part because CU does not offer paid parental leave for graduate students who work in teaching and research positions on campus.
Jacoby is among a group of CU graduate students raising awareness about the issue of paid parental leave and highlighting that CU’s policy is among the least generous of its Pac-12 counterparts. They contend that CU is the only Pac-12 school that provides no paid parental leave in any form. Jacoby shared her story during the public comment period of the CU Board of Regents meeting late last month.
“I struggled a long time with the choice,” she told the regents, who assembled on the Boulder campus June 21 and 22. “I didn’t want to forgo a PhD or my dream career just because I wanted to have a family in the future. At the same time, it felt dangerous to embark on this path knowing I could be giving up the chance to start a family at all.”
A group of graduate students stood and clapped after her comment. They are members and leaders of the Committee on Rights and Compensation, a Boulder graduate student advocacy group and labor organization seeking a collective bargaining agreement with the university. They’ve identified paid parental leave as one of the issues important to their members.
″(The goal is) getting exposure and understanding that not all students are 25 or supported by their parents,” Jacoby said. Both she and Hill said they were among the oldest students in their respective programs, and they hope to counter the misconception that all graduate students are fresh from undergraduate degrees. “This really is a barrier to women and other people getting higher degrees.”
The amount of parental leave provided after graduate students give birth to or adopt children varies among Pac-12 schools — some schools allow students to use a week or two of accumulated sick leave, some offer six weeks of paid leave, and the University of Southern California, for example, provides for a full, paid semester for PhD students.
CU provides the option of taking a leave of absence without pay, with the option to maintain enrollment in the university’s health insurance for one semester.
University officials said they would continue to examine compensation issues for graduate students, including parental leave, but did not indicate whether they are considering paid parental leave.
University addressing graduate student needs
Graduate school dean Ann Schmiesing said in a written statement provided to the Daily Camera that school leadership would work with graduate student leadership on stipends and benefits.
“We continue to collaborate with United Government of Graduate Students (UGGS) leaders to prioritize and address graduate students’ needs pertaining to stipends and benefits,” Schmiesing wrote. “In the last two years, these collaborations have resulted in substantial increases in graduate stipends, a revised pay schedule, the fall 2018 elimination of the athletics fee paid by graduate students, and summer RTD passes for graduate students on summer student faculty appointments.
“As Dean of the Graduate School, I look forward to working with UGGS and senior campus leadership to continue to develop solutions to graduate student priorities, including parental leave.”
In fall 2016, graduate students saw a 6.5 percent increase to base stipend rates. In 2017, the increase was 5.9 percent. Another 6 percent increase is planned for the coming fall.
Gregor Robinson, an applied mathematics graduate student and rights committee board member, said he was grateful to Schmiesing for her push for “rapid change” to stipends, but he also said CU still does not pay self-sufficiency wages for its graduate student workers. The committee continues to advocate for higher wages.
University officials noted that they now provide six weeks of paid parental leave to staff , a change in policy effective July 1 that is two weeks more generous than the four weeks provided to system-wide staff. It doesn’t include graduate student workers. It also doesn’t include classified staff, whose benefits are under the purview of the state.
Officials also noted that the graduate school hosted a “GradTalk” last spring and collected feedback from graduate students who are expecting or who are parents, and instituted a Graduate Student Emergency Aid Fund last year.
They are working to improve graduate students’ access to housing, too, they said.
Balancing family and school
Some students — like Mike MacFerrin, who completed his PhD in geography in December — balance raising a family with continuing school. He’s 39 now, and he and his wife did not have the option to wait indefinitely to have children, he said.
“There are biological reasons why that becomes more dangerous the older you get,” MacFerrin said. ”... ‘Just put it off until later’ doesn’t really work.”
His first child, Thomas, now 12, was born while he was a schoolteacher and before he enrolled at the university. He enrolled in a CU master’s program in 2008 and continued to earn his PhD. During that time, his daughters, Leslie, 10, and Adella, 4, were born. After Adella was born, MacFerrin’s wife, Barbara, enrolled as a master’s student at CU, too.
He did not take time off after his daughters’ births. Instead, he continued with his program so he could continue receiving the stipends he was paid for conducting research, teaching courses and completing fellowships on campus. He credited supervisors with being flexible with his schedule in the time right after their births, though.
Now that he is a postdoctoral research associate in the geology department, MacFerrin can put his children on his health insurance through the university. Before, when he was a student, he was not allowed to put dependents on his student health plan, and the family qualified for Medicaid.
The issues of health insurance, compensation and parental leave are intertwined, he said.
“I always had a paycheck, but I’m still graduating with $93,000 in student loan debt from my PhD,” he said.
Paid parental leave would have allowed him, at least for a few weeks, to be at home and focus on his newborns, he added. He’d like to see graduate students appropriately recognized for their efforts on campus, he said.
“Given the substantial amount of the overall university’s work — the teaching load and the research load — that grad students do, there’s a lot more investment that needs to be put into grad student’s well being and ability to live,” MacFerrin said.
‘It’s an egregious leak in the pipeline’
Mary Ann Mason, a professor in the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, and the former graduate dean, has worked extensively on the issue, including advocating for a California law that allows graduate students who are birth parents to take a 12-month leave of absence from which they can return in good academic standing.
In a 2014 column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, she shared the results of her research at Berkeley — in which she and other researchers found that woman in the sciences who are married and have children were 35 percent less likely to enter tenure-track positions after receipt of their PhDs than men in the same position. Women in non-STEM fields were 28 percent less likely, they found.
She said it’s important that universities provide a safety net for their students to stem the “leak in the pipeline.”
“When you’re a graduate student, it takes a long time to get a graduate degree,” Mason said in an interview with the Daily Camera. “You’re going to be in your 30s before anything happens, and often it coincides very much with the childbearing years. It’s an egregious leak in the pipeline, and it’s a serious leak.”
Jacoby, who ultimately decided to continue in her studies, said she was torn. Her mother died when she was 20 years old, and she always told herself she’d have children earlier in life than her mother did. At the same time, she didn’t want to sacrifice her academic career. Both she and Hill said they like the work they are doing, respect their supervisors and understand the choices they’ve made.
“I know that we both want to have kids, and I hope that we aren’t putting it off indefinitely and this doesn’t become one of those missed opportunities,” Jacoby said. “It’s important to me, important to both of us.”
Hill agreed. He, too, wants children but can’t imagine how they’d afford to raise a family as students.
“I think it’s hard to plan to do that right now,” Hill said.
So, for now, they’ll wait.
Cassa Niedringhaus: 303-473-1106, email@example.com