Now that I have submitted my thesis I have been reflecting on the journey. During my studies I have greedily read through every type of blog post and guide which outlines others experiences of PhD parenting and made me feel it was all possible. So I thought now is a good time to contibute and share my own tips for managing the complex juggle.
I applied for a PhD when my daughter was 6 months old, writing the application with her sleeping in a sling on my chest. I started the programme when she was 1 year-old and then had twins at the beginning of my second year. Needless to say, twins were the last thing I expected! I had even announced my pregnancy to some people saying, ‘I’ll be fine as long as it’s not twins’… but hey, it was, and it also was fine in the end- albeit challenging to say the least.
Anyway, here are some things that have helped me make it work:
- Find a support network
This can be hard, especially when you don’t get to go to as many events or out in the evenings with small children. Going to parent/baby groups can also be tricky when other mums don’t understand what your doing, or why. Personally I found it really important to use online support groups throughout the PhD. I especially love #DoctoralMomLife which is a North American PhD facebook support group where people share the highs and lows, and lots of supportive memes. A UK version is PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents. I also love twitter for a feeling of peer support remotely.
I have also loved books that share other success stories of PhD mums- here are two of my favourites.
- Run a tight schedule
I knew that I couldn’t afford either in financial terms, nor in family stress levels, to allow the PhD to run over time. So I planned right back from the final funding month to the beginning to see the progress I needed to make to finish on time. I started drafting early- which meant I actually ended up writing versions of my thesis five times or more, but the continuous writing helped accelerate the thinking and analysis process.
- Try writing retreats
Going away to write not only gives peace and quiet, but also takes away all the housekeeping aspects of life which become so obvious when you work from home a lot. I have heard of some parents booking hotels alone for the weekend. I had a particularly wonderful stay at The Gladstone Library, where you can work in the beautiful surroundings and they cook your meals for you- bliss! https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/ I managed to use some of my PhD funding for this- so worth making a case with your university if you’re a parent/carer and need a break.
- Save travel time (or bring the family along)
I started doing a lot of meetings by phone and skype. Even though as a people-person this felt a bit lacking at times, it saved me a lot of time. In the final year time became very precious- so saving any travel made a big difference.
Conferences and events though can be demanding on your time as well as being away from home longer than you may like. I have always found the balance hard, not wanting to miss out on the networking/presenting opportunities but not wanting to be away for long. I managed to bring my family along with me to a couple of conferences, and my whole tribe even came on an erasmus+ trip to Kosovo last year! As my university budgeted for a hotel double room anyway, I found a cheaper Airbnb apartment for the same price which they funded. I then paid for everyone’s flights (bear in mind that babies under 2 years old are generally free to fly as they sit on your lap- so make the most of it). It can be a challenge to be on a family holiday whilst also working- but it has certainly taken us to unusual places.
- The childcare conundrum
This is a tricky one, especially for those on a PhD stipend. A stipend barely covers the childcare cost of one child in full time care, so when you have multiples then it is a real challenge.
In the UK you don’t get your 30 hours free government funding unless you are employed, but being a funded PhD student doesn’t count! So I ended up having to take on extra work in order to get the funding, so that I could have some childcare for my research. I reached out to my supervisors with this issue, who then managed to find me bits and pieces of work for them so I could meet the threshold- so ask your uni if your stuck as they may have some small tasks you can do. You have to earn £131 a week to qualify when your child is 3 years old: https://www.gov.uk/30-hours-free-childcare
In the end I cobbled together some nursery hours, some family help, and had to become a night owl…
- Get used to working backwards from everyone
With all the childcare cost issues mentioned above, I have found it has worked best to do a lot of my hours in the evenings and weekends. This can be hard and can result in feeling you are missing out, but it is a trade off as I have also been able to have some week days to go to baby groups and feel like I am wearing my mum hat too. The only cost of this is family time, as for my PhD me and my husband didn’t spend that much time together as we just passed the kids between us. There is no doubt this puts pressure on, but we have just held on tight and thought that it is not forever! (and don’t google PhD divorce rates…)
- If you need a side-hustle for money, ask your supervisors for work
Linking back to point 5, the other lesson here is that when I put the feelers out that I needed some work there were bits and bobs coming up ad hoc all the time- to do some interviews here and there, or transcribing, or other admin tasks. Having children is expensive! So ask around before thinking you need to do a more conventional work on the side. The pay was better from my university than it would have been in bar work etc. and I could do it from home to fit around the children.
- Make links with your local university
When you already have small children, and a PhD, then lots may think it is crazy to take on extra work. However, I did partly because of childcare funding as well as gaining experience. As my family are settled into one area I knew I wasn’t up for moving around for work (which is a very common experience in academia), so getting a foot in the door at my local universities was really important. I worked as an adjunct in two of them, which to be honest was a childcare nightmare- as the teaching timetables are often not announced until a week before the term starts (and they wonder why there is a leaky pipeline for female staff!!!). But I managed to work it out, as well as being a real nag to my employers about fixing the hours. This ended up in me getting an opening at my local university. I realise I am very very lucky on this, but I also know it wouldn’t have been likely if I hadn’t made relationships locally first.
*On my PhD programme we were able to work 6 hours a week, and at the start I took on seminars to deliver as an adjunct which are booked 1 hour at a time, so you can gain experience and still not spend too much time on it. Drop an email to your local university department heads.
- Buy in help if you can/ embrace the mess
This point is not easy on a student stipend as money is tight- overall I have tried to find the little switches that make a big difference. I did online grocery shopping when the children were small, then found I struggle to find time to do the online order, so am now trying a mixed veg/fruit box delivery, which takes away the choosing time! I am trying Riverford https://www.riverford.co.uk/win/shop/veg-fruit-and-meat-boxes . Get a slow-cooker to save time. I have a milkman deliver the milk, and a cleaner to help once a fortnight. These take a small load off my mind, and since I don’t get much chance to go out anymore the cost seems to work out.
Regarding housekeeping I have thought often about this quote below- remember academia is founded on the experience of male academics throughout history who would not have had to spread their time keeping the house and childen as well as writing papers! At the end of the day a messy house is not the end of the world, so let your standards drop a bit…
- Try and let go of being the perfect parent and perfect PhD
This is probably the most important tip of them all. The guilt is real- and in fact I think it is the same for all parents, particularly working mums. Also present is the PhD guilt that lingers every time you do something other than thesis write for a second. All I can say on this, is that trying to be good enough at both, instead of the best, is important. One of my supervisors told me that PhD thesis’ are never completed, just abandoned. This spoke to me- and I just aimed for a ‘good enough’ version.
I hope you have found these tips helpful. Just know that it is possible to PhD/parent, albeit a real challenge. Writing the dedication to my daughters in my thesis gave me such a feeling of pride- we are modelling for them that they can do anything they put their minds to, which is what will endure beyond the stresses and strains at the time.