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The Physics Department has agreed to fund a third month of paid maternity leave for female physics graduate students, an extension of the two months of childbirth accommodation provided for female graduate students Institute-wide.

This is the first time at MIT that a department has agreed to fund childbirth accommodation. Institute-wide support is offered through the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education.

“Two months of leave is not enough time for many new mothers, especially those in demanding positions like graduate research or teaching,” Physics Department Head Ed Bertschinger said in an e-mail. “Three months is common in many professions.”

The driving force behind the change was female physics graduate students led by Andrea E. Schmidt G, a former chair of the Graduate Student Council Housing and Community Affairs Family subcommittee. Schmidt said that she realized two months of maternity leave was “unrealistically short” after she gave birth to her son about a year ago. “If anybody did come back at two months, they would be completely unproductive,” she said.

According to Schmidt, the primary reason MIT had not considered lengthening the Institute-wide policy was a matter of funding, which comes from a higher level than departments. Each of the five MIT Schools contributes to a fund in the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education based on the number of graduate students in each school and the history of their respective students’ use of the funding.

Adding a third month of childbirth accommodation would mean a 50 percent increase in funding, Schmidt said. Funding a month of maternity leave for one student is approximately $6,000.

“But what if individual departments that could afford it could make a commitment?” Schmidt said, especially if departments are trying to recruit women or don’t have very many women.

“By making it a little easier for women to balance their career and family life beginning in graduate school, I hope that we will attract more women to the profession,” Bertschinger said. “This is an important goal of the Physics Department.”

According to Bertschinger, childbirth accommodation typically helps one or two physics graduate students each year. Bertschinger said that he expects the cost to be managed using unrestricted gifts from donors. (“I hope that the numbers of women will grow so much that we have to work harder to raise the money!” he added.)

Dean for Graduate Education Steven R. Lerman ’72 said the Physics Department’s extension of childbirth accommodation “strikes a reasonable balance” between having a central, uniform policy and allowing departments to provide additional support for their students.

Departments “should have some flexibility to respond to the competitive pressures they face from other universities, as well as the variations in resources they have,” Lerman said in an e-mail.

Associate Dean of Science Hazel L. Sive said that she was very supportive of giving young women who have given birth “every assistance to continue doing great research.”

“It is my hope that in the near future, this extension is something that will be widespread across the Institute,” Sive said. “But we have to be really pragmatic right now with the financial issues surrounding us. It is easier for some departments to pick up this kind of extension than others.”

The Office of the Dean for Graduate Education receives and grants an average of 15 requests for childbirth accommodation each year, according to Lerman. Each request involves funding for two months of tuition and two months of a standard RA or TA stipend, which corresponds, this academic year, to a monthly cost of about $6,293.

“This academic year, we reached an agreement to continue the current policy beyond the original four years that the school deans agreed to,” Lerman said in an e-mail. Lerman said that no system-wide changes are being planned, but he is collecting feedback and “wouldn’t preclude future changes.”

The current Institute-wide childbirth accommodation policy was adopted by MIT in 2004, replacing a previous policy that encouraged female students who gave birth to petition for a medical leave of absence. A medical leave would retroactively cancel the term and end stipend payments and access to on-campus housing and medical facilities.

The current policy (see: http://web.mit.edu/odge/gpp/registration/changes.html#4) states that, with approval from the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education, students anticipating childbirth can request up to two months of childbirth accommodation. During that time, they can retain on-campus residence and access to on-campus medical facilities, and students supported by an RA or TA appointment would receive a salary.

The policy does not apply to adoptive parents or fathers.

When MIT first adopted its childbirth accommodation policy, it was one of the first schools to provide paid maternity leave to graduate students. Since then, other schools have adopted their own policies, some of which provide support to fathers and adoptive parents. Schmidt pointed to Princeton University as an example of a school that is doing more than MIT. At Princeton, new mothers or fathers can take three months of paid leave, though if both parents are Princeton graduate students, only one can take the three-month leave.

The GSC HCA Family subcommittee is working on encouraging more departments to fund an additional month of maternity leave, according to subcommittee chair Kevin D. Krsulich G.

Krsulich said that the HCA Family subcommittee is also investigating the possibility of extending the policy to fathers and adoptive parents, but that doing so “presents considerably more challenges than in the maternal case.” The main problem is one of scale. According to Krsulich, there are approximately seven times more graduate fathers than mothers.