The Training Page: New Family Leave Policy


New Policy Extends Paid Family Leave Benefits for NIH Trainees

A recent shift in policy extends paid family leave from eight to 12 weeks for NIH trainees. The new policy, which started in March 2020, provides any trainee—appointed under the Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA), the Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA), visiting fellow (VF) award, or Title 42 clinical or research fellow mechanisms—a 12-week paid excused-absence related to the birth, adoption, foster-care placement of a child, or other family medical needs (such as serious illness or an illness of a close family member). If both parents are NIH trainees, each of them are entitled to take paid leave.

Charles Dearolf, director of Program Development and Support at the Office of Intramural Research, advises fellows to communicate their intent to take leave in a memo to their PI. “If the trainee does not agree with the response, s/he could appeal to [their institute’s] scientific director,” said Dearolf in an email.

This change was enacted to align with new paid family-leave policies for federal civilian employees under the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes appropriations for defense, security, and civilian personnel spending. However, the application of this law for full-time NIH employees won’t take effect until October 2020, and the implementation is still being finalized.

Although federal laws have guaranteed 12 weeks of job-protected family and medical leave to employees since 1993, only eight states and Washington, D.C. have implemented legislation to ensure employees are paid during this time. In other states, paid-leave policies are largely determined by employers, resulting in tremendous variability in the amount of paid leave employees receive.

In science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, barriers to paid family leave can lead to attrition and augment the male-female imbalance in leadership positions. A recent study examining career trajectories of STEM professionals found that 43% of women and 23% of men leave full-time STEM positions after their first child, opting for part-time STEM work or full-time careers outside of STEM (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 116:4182–4187, 2019). 

Meanwhile, there is ample evidence to suggest that paid family leave boosts employee morale and retention, thereby helping institutions retain top talent and reduce costs associated with staff turnover (2012 Report of the Center for Women and Work, Rutgers the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick). Therefore, science stands to benefit from fair paid-leave policies by minimizing the male-female imbalance, improving job satisfaction, and attracting and retaining competitive candidates (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 116:4182–4187, 2019). 

The increase in the length of paid leave is one of several policies the NIH has implemented to alleviate setbacks that fellows face as new parents. For example, trainees applying for career-development awards (such as the K99/R00 mechanism) can extend their eligibility window if they’ve experienced a lapse in productivity due to family and/or medical leave. The Keep the Thread Program allows IRTAs and CRTAs the flexibility to modify work schedules and temporarily reduce hours in times of family need. Together, these policies signal the NIH’s commitment to supporting and retaining scientists as they start families.

Despite these progressive initiatives, financial hurdles remain a challenge for many intramural fellows. Although Title 42 clinical and research fellows are eligible for the NIH Child Care Subsidy Program, trainees appointed under the IRTA, CRTA, and VF mechanisms are not. Child care costs in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area are among the most expensive in the country, ranging from $17,000 to $24,000 annually, according to a January 9, 2020, report from the local NPR station, WAMU. That accounts for a substantial percentage of a fellow’s take-home stipend.

Therefore, although the NIH leads in the quality of health and paid-leave benefits it provides for trainees, bolstering other benefits such as child care subsidies would create a more holistic and competitive package.

As the NIH continues to expand family-friendly benefits for trainees, the impact of these policies must be monitored to determine how they influence measures of success including research productivity and equal gender representation among grant submissions, independent investigator hires, tenure approval, and leadership positions.


Source Book: (look under “Personnel” and then “Policies and Recruitment Processes” for guidelines)

Keep the Thread Program 

NIH Trainee Handbook 

Comparative Chart of Paid Family and Medical Leave 

2017 National Postdoctoral Association Institutional Policy Report

Sofiya Hupalo

Sofiya Hupalo is a fellow in the Postdoctoral Research Associate Training (PRAT) program at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. She works in Joshua Gordon’s lab at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, where she studies the neurophysiological bases of cognition in animal models of genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia. In her free time, Sofiya enjoys camping, hiking, and boating with her friends and family.