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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898


Graduate School Doubles Paid Time Off for Student Parents


Beginning this fall, graduate students welcoming a new child will have access to 12 paid weeks away from teaching or research, double the current six-week benefit, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) announced last week.

“I’m very happy that we’ve been able to do this,” said GSAS dean for student affairs Garth McCavana, Ph.D. ’90. “I was a student parent myself when I did my Ph.D. here, and it was certainly a struggle. We have come a long way and we’re going to continue to support student parents as much as we can.” He said GSAS made the change in light of conversations with students about their needs.    

To date, the University has paid 51 grad students more than $150,000 in all through the program in 2015-16, McCavana said. The stipend will double from $3,100 to about $6,200, or 12 weeks’ pay at a regular teaching load. Students have the option of accepting the stipend in lieu of their teaching pay, or receiving it on top of their regular pay, if they choose not to take time away from teaching. 

GSAS first introduced the program in the fall of 2013, following discussions with Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (HGWISE), which had asked for a parental benefit. About 60 to 65 of GSAS’s 4,000 students are eligible for the program each year, McCavana estimated. 

The announcement comes amid a movement to form a graduate student labor union, which the University opposes. Last month, GSAS announced that it would increase its bus and subway pass subsidy for students to 50 percent, up from 11 percent now. 

“I think [the change] indicated a willingness of the graduate school to listen to and respond to the need of students,” said David Romney, co-chair of the GSAS Student-Parents Organization. Romney received the stipend after the birth of his daughter in 2014.   

Other areas of need for grad-student parents, he said, include the costs for childcare, housing, and health-insurance coverage for dependents. Because student parents typically live in family units rather than with multiple roommates, he said, housing costs can pose a significant burden—a difficulty that could be addressed if the University offered family housing below market rate, as other universities do. Another problem noted is that grad students’ health insurance does not cover dependent spouses or children. Students may optionally insure a spouse or child through University Health Services for an annual premium payment of $5,472 or $2,868, respectively. (Graduate students’ living stipends typically amount to $32,000 annually in the humanities and social sciences, and $35,000 in the sciences.)

Kirsten Wesselhoeft, a doctoral candidate within the Committee on the Study of Religion, received the stipend after the birth of her daughter last March, but took only one week away from teaching. “I think realistically, the way most grad students in the humanities and social sciences are employed, as teaching fellows, does not allow you to take a substantive amount of time off and still be supported,” she said. Students can take time off of teaching if they find a replacement to teach their sections, but, she said, “in practice, that’s extremely difficult to arrange.” Wesselhoeft typically teaches the equivalent of three to four weekly sections per semester to support her family, though GSAS’s parent stipend covers pay for two sections, which is considered a regular teaching load.

Like other students, Wesselhoeft stressed that the cost of childcare, which is not subsidized for grad students, can be prohibitive. Still, she said, “Although I think the University could and should do a lot more, I’ve had a really great experience as a graduate-student parent...It’s clear the University recognizes the needs of working parents in faculty and staff roles, and I hope that recognition is more fully extended to graduate student workers as well.”

Romney, who is also involved in the campaign to unionize graduate students, stressed the importance of organizing in improving students’ working conditions. “I believe the administration is doing a good job, but you can’t know all the needs of students without having some means of organizing those needs,” he said. “The Student-Parents Organization, as well as a union, can play an important role there.” 

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