How Not to React to Your Pregnant Student

Full vitae pregnant student reaction

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By Danna M. Zeiger

"This will derail your career," my doctoral adviser and lab supervisor lamented, swiveling her chair unhappily away from me, lips pursed as she pondered my pregnancy news.

She was "happy" for me "personally." But she could not understand how or why someone so young — "How old are you, even!?" she stopped to demand, and groaned at my response ("mid-20s") — could even think about getting pregnant while pursuing a Ph.D. in biology. Perhaps she could understand pregnancy for postdocs — they were at least in their 30s. But what was I doing having a child in my 20s? And in general, why didn’t women in academe wait to give birth until after tenure — like she had, in her 40s? Was I even on birth control?

I had not expected her to be excited. But over the course of her long diatribe, while I sat anxiously holding my breath, I began to understand that the situation was far worse: Any hope I had of continuing my doctoral studies with her support was being obliterated before my eyes.

Eight years later, that unpleasant moment with my first doctoral adviser came crashing back to me as I sat in my own faculty office. This time I was the adviser. Seated before me was one of my best students — an unmarried undergraduate — who had just told me she was pregnant.

Admittedly, my first reaction was disappointment, shock, horror, despair. My star student — a strong source of pride for my department, an exemplary role model in class, a keen undergraduate researcher with so, so much potential — was pregnant. I had spent so much time carefully honing her talents. In a single conversation, her life’s trajectory shifted and my lofty dreams for her seemed to evaporate.

Then I remembered my own adviser’s frustrated reproof. All of that time and energy she’d invested in my future and she could do nothing as it shifted out of her control. As a graduate student, I had felt angry, disappointed, and betrayed by her reaction. Now, for the first time, I understood.

Fortunately, however, I didn’t say any of that aloud in my own office. Instead, I painted a smile on my possibly unconvincing face, and looked at my nervous student, who was anxiously awaiting my reaction.

I told her this was exciting news, and probed to see how she felt about it. While she felt apprehensive, she was clearly planning to continue the pregnancy, so I immediately congratulated her. And I genuinely meant it.

I also looked her straight in the eyes and told her that this would not be an easy path but that she was smart and, more than ever, she needed to finish her college journey — both for herself and her future child. I told her that I would support her in every way I could, and that I wanted to make sure that she finished her degree and fulfilled her goals. She assured me that she had every intention of graduating. She still aspired to graduate school, but understood that it would take her longer to get there.

In the months that followed, there were many meetings held and emails sent to ensure accommodations for my student regarding lab safety, absences from class for medical reasons, exam makeups when needed, and, ultimately, an incomplete when she gave birth early and needed time to complete coursework. She diligently sought medical care and used every resource available to her for various facets of her pregnancy and childbirth. Our college worked hard to accommodate her. She did finish her degree — and earned top grades on exams and various assessments. She even tearfully accepted the departmental award that she earned through all her hard work.

After the award ceremony, I held her adorable daughter — my grandstudent. As I had promised her, none of the process had been easy, but with her determination and perseverance, and some peripheral support, she did it. To this day we are still in close contact, and I remain proud of her achievements to date. (For any readers who are wondering, she read this and approved my writing about her experiences.)

While not every woman decides to have children, those who do encounter many challenges in higher education — particularly in STEM fields. Some, like my student, succeed. Unfortunately, I have seen plenty of other smart women drop out of college after becoming pregnant. There are many factors involved, and many articles have been written about resources that young mothers in academe need — especially in the sciences.

However, one relatively unexplored and easily fixable factor is the role of the adviser or mentor to a pregnant student. Academic culture is notoriously unfriendly to family planning, but individual advisers and mentors have the opportunity to drastically change that experience. Here’s how:

Follow the student’s lead. In the classroom and in our advising, we must not project our own paths, values, and goals onto students dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. We may have good intentions in hoping they will pursue a particular path, but they need to follow their own personal hopes and trajectories.

Our job here: Listen carefully, openly discuss the situation, and offer guidance based on our own experiences. But, ultimately, we must accept the plans that a student has for her own life.

Yet don’t just "accept" the student’s plans — help make them happen. It’s our responsibility to guide a student in achieving her own goals — even if those goals are divergent from the path we had molded for her.

Women have a tough time at all points along their education and training in the sciences — from undergraduate to graduate to postdoc (and even through the tenure process!) — because of faculty resistance to any deviation from the prescribed career path.

Two weeks before I disclosed my pregnancy to my first doctoral adviser, I had a positive meeting with my committee members, who happily told me I was on track and doing well. Four years into graduate school I felt I was making great progress in my research and, under the close guidance of my adviser, had been awarded a prestigious NIH predoctoral fellowship.

My pregnancy news sent my research goals and academic future into a monthlong tailspin. I had to quickly decide my next path. For personal health reasons, I could only manage to work 40 hours a week in my adviser’s lab while pregnant, instead of the 60 a week her lab required. Considering a number of factors, she suggested I think about taking a medical leave. As a trainee, I was not subject to — or protected by — employment law and was left feeling exposed, vulnerable, and wondering if I would need to leave my Ph.D. program. My other committee members, who were also my adviser’s friends, supported her recommendation that I go on leave, even though weeks earlier they had all agreed I was meeting my research targets.

Feeling embarrassed, shocked, and unhealthily stressed, I gathered immense support from my husband, emotional support from my mom not to give up, wisdom from my outraged brother who was already a professor, and aid from other cherished mentors in my department. Thanks to a collection of people rooting for me, I navigated a dizzying administrative maze and ultimately got the approval from my university to switch labs. As a consequence of changing labs, projects, and advisers, I was required (by the terms of the grant) to give up my NIH fellowship. However, my university graciously provided the money I needed until my new adviser could secure additional grant money for me as a new member of her lab.

Within two years, guided by a new family-friendly and supportive adviser, in a new subfield of biology, I was exceptionally grateful for the opportunity to finish my Ph.D. However, not all students are lucky enough to have such a support network, and they find themselves navigating these complicated crossroads largely alone.

As mentors in the sciences, we need to seriously re-evaluate ourselves and our approaches to advising. I am indebted to my mentors — including my second Ph.D. adviser who accepted me into her lab and worked tirelessly to guide me. They were willing to help me adjust my path forward, navigate unknown and scary waters, and prove to myself that I could do it.

In turn, I try to use my wisdom and experience to help my own undergraduates navigate similarly scary terrain and land with a degree in hand. When it comes to retaining women and other underrepresented students in STEM fields, while it’s important to spend institutional money on necessary resources for them, that’s not enough. As the first and most immediate step, we as faculty members must fundamentally rethink mentorship and proximal support for our students.

Danna M. Zeiger is an assistant professor of biology and program director of biology at Fisher College, in Boston.

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