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Ciara Dangerfield

Ciara Dangerfield, Research Associate in Epidemiology group

Dangerfield,Ciara.jpgWhen I discovered I was pregnant I was very nervous about how this would impact my future research career. As a postdoc I was on a fixed-term contract, which was due to end 1 year after my baby was due. I wasn’t sure how my maternity leave would work with the fact that I was on a fixed-term contract. Would my contract be extended by the same amount of leave that I took off as maternity, or would my contract end date remain the same? The second possibility concerned me, as if I took the full amount of leave I was eligible for (12 months) I had the uncertainty of whether or not I would have a job to return to.

I work in a very male-dominated group. There was only one other female at the time and no one had taken maternity leave for a long time in the group, and not during my time (or indeed during any of my colleagues’ time). From looking at the University policy, as far as I was aware what would happen was related to my grant. I was working on a project funded by BBSRC. According to BBSRC rules, the Principal Investigator of the project (the head of group) can either request a no cost extension extending my contract by the amount of time I took off, or employ another postdoc to continue working on the project while I was away. The second option concerned me as I was worried that if another postdoc was employed to take over my role I could potentially lose first authorship papers which are very important for my future career progression as a researcher. Since I did not know any females in the Department who had recently been on maternity leave I did not know what the status quo was. Was it common to get an extension on your contract or was it commonplace for a postdoc to be employed while you are away, and so your original contract date would remain. Due to the lack of protection surrounding the extension of my contract (and lack of knowledge over who I could confidentially talk to about this) I decided to only request 6 months maternity leave, although I would have liked to take the full 12 months.

When I discussed my concerns with my PI about coming back to work after 6 months, he was very supportive in allowing me to work part-time initially so that my return was more graduated. He also allowed me to work flexible hours, and to work from home. This was particularly helpful as I was still breastfeeding my daughter so this enabled me to organise my working day around my daughter’s feeds, as it was difficult for me to express milk in the Department. I was also awarded funds under the Returning Carers scheme which was amazingly helpful. These funds allowed me to bring my daughter with me to important meetings and conferences related to my project. Had it not been for these funds I would not have been able to attend and present my work, as I was unable to stay away from my daughter overnight due to my choice to breastfeed.

My PI has also been very supportive about me moving to working part-time permanently and letting me work flexible hours, which has been very helpful now that my daughter is in childcare. The supportive experience throughout my maternity leave, return to work and my continued childcare responsibilities, has actually resulted in me choosing to continue working in the Department as a postdoc. Had it not been for the support of my PI and the Department in general I would have left academia at the end of my contract.

Catherine Butler, Department Administrator:

After reading Ciara's case study, I thought it would be helpful to add some information which may assist other staff in a similar situation.

Sponsor rules regarding maternity leave vary. As mentioned above, RCUK policy is to grant a no cost extension of the same length as the maternity leave, or to permit employment of another researcher. The usual option is an extension: I do not know of any examples in Plant Sciences in the past 10 years where another researcher has been employed. Other sponsors have different policies: ERC grants for example, do not permit an extension, but are generally 5 years in length, allowing greater flexibility for changing circumstances or unexpected absences.

Myself and Del Hawtin, Deputy Department Administrator, are available to discuss funding policies and contractual options with the member of staff going on maternity leave and their PI.

The Department's Equality and Diversity Committee suggested asking staff who have been on maternity leave to act as 'maternity champions' for others to discuss leave-related issues with. I am actioning this, and we are also putting more case studies on the website illustrating the career paths of researchers who have taken a break and then returned to work.