THEY reckon producing a PhD is like having a baby - painful and protracted, though nine months of pregnancy is mercifully briefer than a three-year doctorate. Doing both at the same time, though, has seemed impossible to many women, so the University of NSW has introduced a scholarship for pregnant PhD candidates.
It will cover the six months psychologist Kate Hetherington, the first recipient, plans to take off from her research on the role of rumination in depression to care for her baby Ava, now 10 weeks.
The $11,000 or so she will receive not only eases financial pressure, but ''makes me feel much more supported by the uni. I feel like having a baby during this process is not seen as a bad career move'', Ms Hetherington said.
The nation's chief scientist, Ian Chubb, has warned that productivity is at risk from a drop in the proportion of students doing physics, chemistry, biology and maths at school and university in the past two decades.
An average of only 62 per cent of students who start higher degrees by research in science-related fields complete them.
The under-representation of women in science, particularly at senior levels, was highlighted in a 2009 report by Sharon Bell for the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies.
That report likened the career paths of female scientists to a ''labyrinth'' due to obstacles such as career breaks, lack of post-doctoral appointments and teaching loads which exclude time for research.
The University of NSW's dean of science, Merlin Crossley, said that among the wide range of PhD scholarships, some lacked maternity leave provisions. ''We are simply stepping in and filling that gap so all our female PhD students can progress without having to discontinue their candidature.''
Ms Hetherington's PhD supervisor, Michelle Moulds, who will become a professor on January 1, said the maternity scholarship was a ''good first step'' towards building the number of female scientists at senior levels.