Science Mom: ‘Dear PI, I’m Pregnant’

Graduate Division

In 2011, I had my son. It was an amazing and life-changing event. While not everything has changed (I’m still a grad student with all the normal school responsibilities), some things definitely have.

I’d like to share with you some of my experiences, in the hopes that it will be helpful, or at least somewhat entertaining.

Last week, I was talking to a friend who was about to break the news to her PI that she was pregnant. It was making her feel anxious — and it wasn’t just the hormones. I remember feeling extremely nervous about telling my own PI, much more than telling anyone else in my life.

I think it was partly because I was only in my third year of grad school — as opposed to being on the way out — which meant the progress on my project would certainly slow down.

I didn’t know how my PI was going to react to my asking for three months off lab after having the baby. I also felt a little awkward about saying the words, “I’m pregnant” to him.

My PI is an MD, and he knows by now where babies come from, so I felt like the words “I’m pregnant” were tantamount to saying “I menstruate and have sex.”

I felt especially awkward about this because up to that point, our conversations had been mostly about Western blots and flow cytometry.

Instead of saying “I’m pregnant,” I decided to casually work it into our conversation. I scheduled a meeting with him to discuss some recent experiments, and planned to throw in an “Oh, F.Y.I. …” as we wrapped up.

So I presented my experiments to him on my laptop, and toward the end of the meeting, I presented the last slide, which contained a recent sonogram.

He looked at it in astonishment, and then a wide smile came across his face. I felt incredibly relieved to see that smile. Since then, he has been extremely supportive of my having a good work-life balance in my life.

It was a huge relief to me to have such a supportive PI. However, that may not be the case in every lab.

Below are some tips that I gave to my pregnant friend. These may be helpful to others having this potentially uncomfortable conversation:

  • Procrastinate, as needed: If you think the news may not be received well by your PI or others, it’s completely acceptable to wait longer to spread the news. Doing this also allows you to point out that you’ve already proven you can do your work while pregnant. Also, you can announce your pregnancy after successfully completing an experiment or project.
  • Seek support, as needed: If you are having morning sickness or complications due to pregnancy, consider telling your PI and your colleagues earlier, rather than later. This may be better for your baby and your own health. It may also be a relief to have the extra sympathy and support.
  • Plan your leave: Think about how much time you think you’ll want to take off. Research how much time your program will allow you to take. It may be useful to contact your program coordinators. They can give you advice on family leave, etc.
  • Take the pulse: Talk to other women who have been pregnant in your lab, and ask how your PI reacted to the news. Was he or she supportive throughout the pregnancy and afterward? Were there any instances where he or she was not supportive?
  • PIs are people, too: Finally, it is very likely that your PI will be completely supportive of your having a child. Most PIs have had children, have nieces or nephews, or at least have close friends with children. Like most people, they will probably be happy for you. If they don’t they are jerks, and should be promptly disregarded.