Abstract: Infertility and Pregnancy Loss: Exploring the Impact on Women Doctoral Students (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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324P Infertility and Pregnancy Loss: Exploring the Impact on Women Doctoral Students

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Rebecca Mirick, PhD, LICSW, Assistant Professor, Salem State University, MA
Stephanie P. Wladkowski, PhD, LICSW, ACHP-SW, Associate Professor, Eastern Michigan University
Background and Purpose: Women earn half of the doctoral degrees in the United States. Many have children during this time period. Academic mothers encounter implicit biases (Cardel et al., 2020; Drago et al, 2006) and can experience decreased productivity and access to professional development opportunities (Authors, 2018). When women decide to have a family, 10-15% experience infertility (Deka & Sarma, 2010) and 25% have a pregnancy loss (Geller et al., 2010). These experiences can have a significant emotional impact on women (Deka & Sarma, 2010; Geller et al., 2010). For women who access fertility treatment, this impact includes medical interventions and frequent appointments. Academia values consistent productivity, unlimited availability for work opportunities, and the flexibility to travel for conferences (Drago et al., 2006); all factors which could be impacted by infertility, fertility treatment, and/or pregnancy loss. No research has examined the experiences of this group or how these experiences may impact their progression in their program. This research study explored how these infertility and/or pregnancy loss impact women’s progression through their program, including productivity and access to professional development opportunities such as conferences, mentorship, and scholarship, and how the type of support they need from programs.

Methods: Data were collected via a descriptive, cross-sectional, national online survey of women in doctoral education (Authors, in press). This analysis includes only participants (N=328) from that larger data set with pregnancy loss and/or infertility.

Results: Participants (n=328) experienced pregnancy loss (47.9%) and/or infertility (67.1%). For pregnancy loss and infertility respectively, participants reported decreased productivity (40.1% and 28.6%) and conference travel (21.7% and 15.0%). After a pregnancy loss, participants had access to few programmatic supports. Some desired medical leave (25.3%), class accommodations (17.0%), support from a mentor (33.6%) or faculty member (32.3%), flexibility from their program (30%), and formal policies that included pregnancy loss (35.9%). Participants with infertility wanted financial support (29.9%), healthcare (24.2%), flexibility (27.4%), and support from faculty (23.6%) and mentors (21.7%). Pregnancy loss was more likely to have a long-term impact on career for women in the social sciences than those in other fields. Additionally, themes emerged about self-care, finding support, and careful consideration about disclosing these experiences. Participants shared ways their experiences impacted opportunities for professional development. For those who felt this experience impacted their careers long-term, they identified changed priorities, goals, and professional relationships.

Conclusions and Implications: This study highlights the experiences and needs of doctoral students who experience infertility and pregnancy loss. Some women’s career trajectories are impacted by the invisible experiences of infertility and pregnancy loss, perhaps due to the impact on productivity and professional development opportunities like conference travel. Programs should consider ways in which formal policies about pregnancy can also include pregnancy loss and infertility, and encourage the provision of flexibility during these crises, providing critical support to women doctoral students, facilitating their progress in their programs and academic careers.