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August 15, 2017

College announces family leave policy for graduate students

Written By: Renee Meiller

A new College of Engineering parental leave policy will provide continued financial support with no research or teaching expectations for women and their partners who choose to have children during their graduate studies in engineering.

The policy, which is modeled closely on an established policy within the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry, is the first such policy at the school or college level at UW-Madison. It took effect July 1, 2017.

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and the Wisconsin Family and Medical Leave Act, eligible UW-Madison faculty and staff can take job-protected leave—for example, to care for a seriously ill family member, or to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, among other situations.

However, says Susan Hagness, these policies don’t help graduate students who are on research, project or teaching assistantships. “We felt grad students were the most vulnerable,” says Hagness, the Philip Dunham Reed Professor in electrical and computer engineering who recently completed a term as College of Engineering associate dean for research and graduate affairs. “Now we have a policy that provides the support foundation that students need to reduce the academic and financial hardships that they might be fearful of as they contemplate becoming parents as graduate students.”

The new policy enables all College of Engineering graduate students with current research, teaching or project assistantships to request a parental leave—ideally, notifying their research advisor or teaching assistant coordinator and requesting leave through their department administrator or chair six months prior to the expected birth. Expectant mothers can receive up to 12 weeks paid accommodation time for childbirth, while other new parents (father, adoptive mother, adoptive father) will receive up to six weeks of paid accommodation time. Academic requirement deadlines—for example, qualifying exams—will be extended for the student requesting the leave, consistent with department academic timelines.

One challenge the policy addresses is that faculty research advisors are required to certify the efforts of graduate students supported as research assistants on federal grants. The new leave policy enables departments to transfer the graduate students’ funding—during their leave—to a discretionary account. “As a result, the student experiences no disruption in support, and the faculty advisor has a practical means for juggling the student’s needs and the expectations of the federal grant or contract,” says Hagness.

In implementing the policy, the college aimed to address some of the logistical issues research groups face when students need time away from the lab, as well as to contribute to the positive College of Engineering climate. “The fact that we were able to make this happen speaks volumes about the priority we place on supporting our graduate students,” says Hagness. “We really want to foster a supportive, welcoming environment for students at whatever life stage they are in during their graduate studies.”