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Q&A: PhD and pregnancy

Recently, I received the following question from a reader (edited for anonomity):

Dear Eva, I recently came across your Book and blog. I am finishing my master Somewhere and starting to apply to PhD positions in NL for directly after my graduation. My ambition is to become a Senior researcher in My Field.
However, there is a big dilemma of combining career and family. I have a wonderful Partner and want to build a family with him. I am 24 y.o. for now and I want to have my first child maximum by 26 yo (as I am afraid my health isn’t so perfect to try when I’m older). Here comes my question: Can I be pregnant while doing a PhD? Can an employer fire me for that? Can I ask for 3 month vacation (July, August, September) for delivering a child? If I quit the program after first appointment (of 18 month), will I be able to continue later, and start from where I stopped but in another project?
Your advice would be very valuable for planning my life.

I replied her as follows:

Dear Reader,

Thank you for reaching out to me through my blog, and for sending me your question with regard to pregnancy and motherhood during your PhD. I’m glad to read that you have a good relationship with your partner, and that you are planning your future together.

Considering your situation, you should pay attention to the type of contract that your future promotor offers you together with a PhD position. In the Netherlands, there are two types of contracts. The first type is a contract with university, where you become an employee of the university. With this contract, you are protected by the “CAO Nederlands Universiteiten” (collective labor agreement of the Dutch universities), you pay taxes, you save for your retirement, and you have social security. The second type of contract would be based on a scholarship. This type of contract is more common for students who come from abroad with funding of their home university. Their funding includes a stipend for living expenses, but it is not consider a regular employment, so no social security and saving for retirement. In your case, make sure you inform with HR about the type of contract they would be offering you.

If you have an employee contract with a university, you will have 16 weeks of pregnancy and maternity leave to deliver your baby – whenever your baby is coming (not necessarily over the summer months). It’s absolutely illegal for an employer to fire you because you are pregnant. It is your choice and right to become a mother when the time is right for you. For many women, the right time is during their PhD. A former colleague of mine had both children during her PhD, and my best friend had her first child during her PhD.

Of course, it all depends on your personal situation to say when is the right time to have a child. For many women, having a child during the PhD years is a good option, and in all cases I know, the months of pregnancy and maternity leave where added to the length of the PhD contract, so you don’t lose time. For the tenure track years, things are a little less well-organized, I understood. That means that the second best option would be to wait until you have tenure – but say you start your PhD at 23, graduate at 27 (earliest possible), two years of post-doc (29), and four years of tenure track (33), then you see that you end up in your mid-thirties. For some women this is the right time, for others, it is not.

I’m not sure what you mean with your question about quitting after 18 months. You could always do this, and try to publish a journal article on the work you did during that time, but if you have to restart later in a different project, perhaps with a different supervisor, you will need to start from zero again. This situation happens when funding for a project does not come through, or when student and supervisor don’t get along, and the student decides to go elsewhere. I don’t see motherhood as a reason for having to start over new somewhere else.

Additionally, for some advice on combining a PhD with motherhood, you can check out this post

Wishing you all the best in finding a PhD position and with your personal life,

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