Wednesday, August 12, 2009


An anonymous commenter expressed interest in my work-life balance advocacy group, so I'm going to try to tell you more about it. As I mentioned in that post, I don't really know what I'm doing...I've never led any kind of student group before, and the only advocacy I ever do is sending pre-written form letters to my senators and representatives about research-related issues. Luckily I'm working with a couple of ladies who have more experience with such things, so if we can just maintain our enthusiasm for longer than a month, I'm sure we'll make some progress.

So, here's the history, current status, and future plans and goals of the work-life balance advocacy group at Excellent U:

First, there was a women's support group composed of graduate students in the Psychology program (not my field), led by Leader. They talked about a lot of issues faced by women in academia, and wanted to do something about the lack of maternity leave and affordable childcare
for graduate students at Excellent U. Since they didn't want to lose the tight-knit support group they had come to love, Leader formed a spinoff group that would be focused on advocacy and opened to the whole graduate school.

When I heard about this through a graduate school email, I immediately contacted the leader and enthusiastically offered my help. At the time, all I did was post fliers on my side of campus, and help set up chairs at the meeting. There, I learned that these Psych grads had been working on putting together a survey to be sent out to all grad students and assess interest in and need for family-friendly policies. This was to be used as a data collection tool to bring to the administration and say "See how many people this affects? See how many people care?" In addition, we planned to collect policies from other universities (particularly the ones Excellent U considers its top-tier peer institutions), so we could appeal to their competitive nature.

We also identified a need for more networking, contact with, and advice from female professors with children. A couple months later, we convened two panels of such women faculty (one more science oriented, and one for humanities and administration) to discuss their work-life balance and invited grad students and post-docs from across the university (I even created a Facebook event page for this one!). For this, we made lots of faculty and administrative contacts who were supportive of our cause, and we got a little funding for refreshments from the campus women's center. They went really well and got people talking for a bit, but I'm not sure we made adequate use of the momentum we had built, as both the leader and I were getting a bit distracted with other realities of life and research.

Back in the first half of May, before I realized I couldn't afford to have a kid in grad school, I was trying to get a better feel for how maternity leave was actually implemented for Excellent U grad students, in practice, since there is no official policy. I sort of used the work-life balance group as a front for this inquiry to avoid anyone realizing this was a personal concern of mine and forwarding my inquiry to my DGS and advisor, since it's all worked out on a case-by-case basis. But I did get some useful info out of it (most students in my division get 6 weeks off, 4 of which are unpaid, the other 2 being considered sick leave, and no, even NRSA supported students can't get the 2 months paid leave NIH allows), and the person I contacted asked me to come speak about the issue at a student advisory council meeting in the fall.

Meanwhile, the nearly completed survey fell to the wayside because there were some problems getting IRB approval, which they wanted so they could publish the results. And the collection of other universities' policies also didn't get very far for quite some time. Nothing new happened for a couple months.

Finally, enter YoungFeminist, a 2nd year student in my program who joined our near-forgotten advocacy group, bringing loads of enthusiasm and energy back into it. She did more work researching other schools policies in a day than the rest of us had in several months! We decided it was time to hold another large group meeting and try to get back our momentum, but first, we would have a smaller meeting of a core group of organizers: myself, Leader, YoungFeminist, another psych grad student, and a humanities rep. Meanwhile, I created a Facebook page to get people interested and talking in advance of the big meeting.

So that's where we are now: about to have a planning meeting to figure out how to get ourselves organized in such a way that things keep moving and momentum keeps building regardless of the waxing and waning of individual energy levels. Any advice is welcome!

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