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Perils of parenting in an academic world

Created:

24 May 2016

Postgraduate research student Katrin Augustin helped to identify the anti-seizure mechanism behind one of the ketogenic diet therapies. Here she talks about the perils of studying for a PhD while bringing up two young children (and a houseful of hens).

Doing postgraduate studies with kids, or: it is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman looking after small children must not be in want of a Ph.D.

The first time I seriously asked myself whether starting a PhD whilst raising two children was a good idea was after only two months into my postgraduate studies. I was standing in front of a few dozen researchers in our department presenting my experiments. I was also holding my daughter Emma, then three years old, on my arm because she had conjunctivitis and could not go to nursery that day. After the talk, one of the post-docs who I knew had already grown-up children, came to me and asked me rather disbelievingly whether I seriously intended to do a PhD with a small child. I did not know what to answer.

Independent feminist

Because here is the thing: I had never questioned that I could be a doctoral student and raise children. I went through puberty in the '90s in Europe, which means I am the kind of pragmatic feminist who grew up always being told that women of today can do anything they want to. I always knew I wanted to study; always wanted to have some impact on progress; said that no, I did not know whether I wanted children but, hey, if I wanted them I’d have them; sang along to Destiny’s Child’s ‘Independent women’ throwing my hands up in the air - and all the while BELIEVED all of it.

I still want to believe. But after two-and-a-half years of doing this PhD I have to admit that believing got much harder.

Parents and equality

Women in Science is a widely discussed topic. If you google it, there are hundreds of millions of hits on the internet. There are symposia, guest speakers at universities, special events and funding for women - and all of this is great and important. But I could not help wonder why it was needed. If we had equal opportunities (as I actually believed) surely none of this would be necessary. But here is the catch: There are lots of attempts on equal opportunities for women. But the real problem is equal opportunities for parents.

Homework

Academia is extremely competitive. Publishing your data is everything, and results rarely come easily, which means that PhD students and post-docs often need to work well into the late evening or on weekends. This is something I just cannot do. I have to leave on time because I have to pick up my children from the childminder. I also cannot come in early in the morning because I need to drop them off at school first. And when I get home, I help with homework, cook dinner, check spellings, read with my little one, discuss friends and bullying with my older one, bring my children to bed, read a bedtime story, then cook dinner for myself, and more often than not sit down at 9pm and work on presentations, read up on current research, or proof-read for colleagues.

Fear of failure

All of this will certainly sound familiar to most full-time working mums. The special strain on PhD students in science is the constant stress and fear of failure. What if I do not get these results in time? How will I write my thesis? What if I cannot publish my results? Will I even find a job after those four years? Every PhD student knows these fears - but parents need to be calm and composed if they have to interrupt an urgent experiment because they have to pick up a sick child from school.

This does not mean that I am saying doing a PhD with children is impossible - it just is really, really hard. Parents are still not as widely found in academic research as in industry or non-scientific professions. When I ask my female colleagues whether they want children, almost all of them hesitate - something that I have not found with friends who have office jobs.

Ok, let’s stop complaining for a minute! What about the positives? I have heard them all: mums are much more focused at work; they are so much more organised; work harder whilst they are in the office or lab; procrastinate less; etc. etc. This is all true. The mums I know who have succeeded in academia are all of them truly amazing women. But they only got to where they are today because they were ready to work so much harder, always be so much more tired, and drag themselves to work even when they were sick. They were more organised because they had to be. And even if this is such a good skill, it is also extremely exhausting to keep up.

Academic advice

So what would I tell a smart, motivated undergraduate who asked me if she could do a PhD even though she just had a baby? I would have to ask her how involved and flexible her partner was. Having someone who can help pick up the children would give a lot of ease of mind. But no matter what I was brought up to believe, it is still generally accepted that women take over the bulk of childcare and there are still employers who will frown at dads going home early to pick up their children.

I would also tell her to look for a group leader who has children herself and can understand her situation - which is important if she has just had to take off three days because of a stomach bug and needs to take off another five days because of chicken pox. Finally, considering the low wages PhD students get paid (typically well below GBP 20,000 a year), I would ask her if she has access to affordable childcare - something that is hard to come by here in the UK.

But whilst I would do this, I would feel terrible. Because I did not believe that I would still have to ask these questions. And because I know how frustrating it is if you really love science, and believe that scientific progress can improve the quality of life for a lot of people - but always get reminded that your output cannot match that of your childless colleagues.

Small steps to progress

Having said that, there is one thing I would not tell my undergraduate: I would not suggest that she should not attempt a PhD. Because academic research whilst raising children can only get easier if it also becomes more normal. Who knows? My undergraduate might become a group leader herself - one who would be more understanding and supportive than many are today. And maybe soon young mothers will no longer need to answer the question whether they seriously want to attempt a PhD whilst having small children.

Find out more

Watch our video with Katrin talking about the ketogenic diet.
Read how Katrin helped to discover the anti-seizure mechanism involved in one of the ketogenic dietary therapies, in the spring/summer 2016 edition of Epilepsy Review.