Life as a parent and PhD candidate by Trish Dowsett:
In May 2011 my mum handed me a column from The Weekend Australian which I pinned to the board above my desk and it is still there today. It’s called, ‘Giving birth or delivering a doctorate, they’re both labours of love’ by Emma Jane. Mum gave it to me because I had just started my PhD and my youngest child had just turned 1.
Emma Jane’s column draws two main conclusions: that studying, like parenthood, is at times, exhilarating and exhausting, and that education is ‘aerobics for the brain’ - while it hurts at the time it produces long-term benefits to intellectual and mental health. I hope so.
The same PhD challenges exist for candidates who are parents as for those who are not it is just that the balancing of time and commitments involves people who are dependant. Children and their needs are always the first priority and the combination of postgrad study and parenthood brings sacrifices which are not always pretty! My son is usually late to kindy, sometimes he hasn’t always got what he’s supposed to have (‘He had to bring his favourite toy? I thought that was next week!’), and I wear make-up a lot less often than I used to.
Time is at a premium and I have turned into one of those nerdy mature age students I resented as an undergraduate who started their assignments more than two days before they were due. But I get it now. I’m too tired to cram and can no longer pull an all-nighter if I’m behind. I also never know if I’ll find any more time to complete a task. As an example, do I watch tonight’s episode of My Kitchen Rules or do I make myself do some reading just in case a family crisis arises that will consume some of the time I had set aside for my study? You can see the dilemma.
When people ask me where I find the time to study, I usually say, ‘in the evenings when the kids are in bed’, but that’s not always true. Sometimes I am just too tired so the work just doesn’t get done, and sometimes, if do manage to grab an hour here and there, it is tricky getting into the headspace of my work as quickly as I need to, so I waste a lot of time too. I suspect this is a challenge for all PhD candidates.
I once had a conversation with two fellow PhD candidates I didn’t know very well. One was remarking on the fact that another PhD student he knew was managing a newborn baby and a research proposal – ‘that’s pretty amazing don’t you think?’ I nodded and smiled agreeing wholeheartedly but the other student snapped, ‘Not really. There are lots of postgrads who are parents.’ While I immediately thought her attitude a little abrasive it wasn’t long before I realised that this was good for me to hear. The more I think I’m doing something ‘special’, just because plenty of parents of young children are not studying, the more I’m distracted from getting on with my thesis. Plenty of parents work, and so do I. The challenge is that studying relies on a lot of self-motivation, on an obsession with one narrow area of research and with the need to be able to express yourself quickly and clearly in the limited awake time you have spare to write that chapter.
I return to Emma Jane who concludes the merits of studying for a PhD: ‘Will it leave you time to take a shower, do something fancy with your hair or interact with other actual grown-up humans? No, it will not. But, like making babies, it does make the world a far richer and more complicated place.’ Again, I hope so.