A (Graduate) Family Affair

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

The rigors of graduate education are daunting enough, and adding a new child into the mix can raise the stress level into the stratosphere.

Now the Graduate School at Michigan Technological University has helped ease the burden for Lihui Hu, a PhD student in computer science who has just given birth to her first baby, a boy named Alex.  The Michigan Tech Graduate School recently adopted policies to help graduate students transition to parenthood, by offering excused absences and continued support for new mothers or fathers of biological or adopted children, providing they are already supported full-time by the University.

Hu is the first beneficiary of the new policy.  “I’m very grateful to my department and all the people who helped, she says. “I was able to come home one week before my delivery. It has really helped. At the end of the leave, I’ll be ready to return to campus to work and do my research.”

The timing was perfect too. Hu’s husband, Zhonghai Wang, had a job offer that just fell through, and the couple would have been without any income. 

“We are among only 13 percent of universities nationally who offer six weeks guaranteed, continued stipend support,” says Kristi Isaacson, assistant director of marketing for the Graduate School.

The support system within academic departments and administrative offices also includes extension time for the degree programs, subsidies for campus childcare and local resources to help new parents, Isaacson adds.

Central to the new benefit is the Graduate Student Parental Accommodation Policy, which applies to the mother or father.  Under the policy, the graduate student-parent is excused from courses, research, teaching assignments or other responsibilities at Tech for up to six weeks.

“For many women and men, the best time to begin to raise a family is when you are in graduate school,” says Jackie Huntoon, Graduate School dean. “This policy makes it easier for our students and faculty to manage a birth or adoption in a positive way.”

“The excused absence can actually begin three weeks prior to the birth or placement,” Isaacson adds.

The policy also provides a one-semester extension to the time-to-degree limit, as well as extensions to deadlines for completing the qualifying exam or proposal defense.

The academic departments receive funding from the Graduate School to hire temporary replacements for the students on parental leave.

“It’s great that we are able to support her and still cover her duties,” says Steve Carr, chair and professor of computer science, who sits on Hu’s dissertation committee. “With tight budgets, we can still afford a TA. We don’t want to discourage graduate students from starting families, but this type of support is necessary,” Carr adds.

Isaacson agrees. “We don’t want the program to be a burden on the academic department, and we want the grad students to know that we are family supportive,” she says. 

Programs like Michigan Tech’s could help stop the “female brain drain in science,” where women are more likely to abandon their academic careers in favor of raising their families, according to research by the Council of Graduate Schools.

“I am proud that our policy is among the best in the nation,” Huntoon says. “This certainly will help us attract and retain more female students, which is one of the University’s strategic goals.”

Isaacson says that help for graduate student-parents new and old extends beyond campus resources, such as Little Huskies Child Development Center and the Michigan Tech Preschool

“The Keweenaw Family Resource Center has the new tree house indoor play area, maternity closet of “gently used clothing” and other programs, and Community Coordinated Child Care (4Cs) also has many ways to help parents.”

“Everyone benefits, and students are not burdened with any additional stress from their academic lives,” Huntoon adds. “They truly can take the time to enjoy the new addition to their family.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.