A few years into my PhD I read a post by a researcher whose blog I enjoy. He was finishing his own doctorate, and in the post suggested that during a PhD a healthy work-life balance and successful relationships are nearly impossible. This bore little resemblance to my own experience, which involved undertaking a PhD while having a young child.
Fast-forward a few years: while my osteopath fixed my back – wrecked from the final weeks of writing up – he offered me his opinion that ‘PhD’, when undertaken by a married woman, stands for ‘Pretty hasty Divorce’. I was affronted by his misogyny, but it also got me wondering if these two opinions were somehow related.
I certainly wouldn’t accuse the researcher of being sexist, but if we promote the idea that healthy relationships are incompatible with undertaking research, this discourages any primary carer of a child from even applying. Mothers being fulfilled by full time work, whose children are happy and whose needs are met is not exactly news, so why did so many say to me ‘I don’t know how you do it…’?
My daughter was two when I started my ‘Theseus’, as she sweetly calls it. She’d never remembered anything else, and apart from the final crazy months, always took my work for granted. For several weeks after completion she told anyone who would listen about ‘doctor mummy’. I was fortunate enough to have a studentship, which covered childcare costs while I researched full time. My partner works abroad most of the year and although the sole parenting I did during those periods was challenging, when he was home he did lots of chores and childcare. He also read my thesis several times over, acting as my editor throughout. From the beginning I committed to treating the PhD as a full time job: no less, and no more. This meant 40-hour workweeks, regular family holidays in line with university staff allowances, and no working in evenings or weekends (until the final push at the end).
I did my best. Among other things throughout the doctorate I published, taught, spoke at multiple international conferences, travelled abroad several times for data collection, and ran an experimental programme collaborating with colleagues from multiple universities. I’m not pretending it was easy, especially as I had no family nearby to help, but I enjoyed it. I want to encourage others so here are some personal suggestions based on my experience that may be helpful.
- Think carefully about your supervisors. Will they be supportive of your life? Both of mine have children, and I knew them well enough to be sure they’d be understanding and would trust me. The same went for lecturers I was teaching for. I was always up front about scheduling limitations and they went out of their way to accommodate me.
- Work efficiently. I’m fortunate that during my training as a professional musician (my first career) I had my entire childhood to learn how to commit regularly to deeply focused and structured work. I firmly believe that just putting in more hours doesn’t result in better work, but making a consistent commitment to uninterrupted work has positive results. If you begin work and can’t concentrate try the timed method, maybe with shorter periods. Consider setting timers with regular breaks (I like 50 minutes work, 10 minutes break for a series of 3 to 4 hours, then a longer rest). Try a self-control app if you gravitate towards online distractions. Or, get outside and work in motion: I often used walks to hash out an idea or practice a presentation. If you’re still not doing good work, shift your goals for that day to easy tasks – the focus will return another time (and indeed save these jobs where possible for such times). I’ve almost finished reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and was intrigued to find some of my own good habits in there (though I normally hate self-help and rules-based books, and agree with those who think social media is an important feature of science communication and academia). I also totally agreed with Kelly Dombroski’s point of view on how Newport’s book should better reflect women who are carers.
- Connection is still important. Because a commute to the university involved hours on Southern Fail, I was not as present in the department as most research students and worked a lot from home. On the one hand the total quiet this afforded (as opposed to noisy research rooms) meant days free of distraction, with the isolation a pragmatic sacrifice. But feeling connected to others helps when you derail. I cultivated a small but reliable base of colleagues for advice, feedback, and (very) occasionally going out. In my PhD cohort was a brilliant researcher who had a baby younger than mine and who paused to have another in the middle, and this helped me remember I wasn’t the only one.
- Be discerning. In general I didn’t do as many ‘extras’ as I could have without family commitments (and of course I worry that this means I haven’t done ‘enough’ to secure work in the next stage). Things sometimes felt important because other research students were doing them, but I tried to remember they were a draw on my time, energy and focus. Prioritise with a hard, cold eye and say no to time-suckers, but yes to things that may lead to important connections or work.
- Don’t let the workaholics get you down. Be the tortoise: win your own personal race, and filter out competitive noise. They don’t award you a ‘PhD, with a special distinction for working the most hours’. Most people grossly overestimate how many hours they work anyway.
- Share your vulnerabilities. I wasn’t sleeping for the first year because we still had interrupted nights so the exhaustion was tricky. I also had periods of self-doubt. One of the worst came towards the end of my doctorate before a trip abroad for last minute data collection. I burst into tears in front of colleagues and my supervisor at a conference reception, and their response was amazing. I have no regrets sharing my anxieties along the way with anyone who would listen. The best colleagues are human and want to help.
- Take shortcuts. Whatever makes your life easier and calmer, just do it and don’t feel guilty.
- Celebrate leading a balanced life (live the life you want now). A work-life balance involving healthy relationships is not only possible, I believe it is beneficial to mental health and therefore to your work. Spending time with family, relaxing, being physically active, and having fun all contribute to our ability to make important connections, have ideas, and focus. Holidays provide the mind with much-needed long breaks – some of my ‘Eureka!’ moments came when I was on holiday and not sitting at the computer. Doing a PhD is an ultramarathon: pace yourself and stay energised.
The above are only my ideas and experiences – I’m sure others vary, and I’d love to hear them. Like most researchers, I am highly motivated and struggle with perfectionism, so having a child to love and care for kept the PhD in perspective. I’m not suggesting that my situation is the same as others or that my ideas will work for everyone. But if you hear someone (or that little voice in your head) telling you that you can’t – or that they can’t – undertake and finish a doctorate while being a parent, I hope this offers a different framework.