Recently, I attended a postgraduate workshop with around 200 other students, and we were asked to list the most important things in our lives. Not one person said “My PhD”.
“That’s as it should be,” commented the workshop leader. In other words, you won’t achieve satisfaction and balance in life if you put your studies ahead of everything else.
Of course, there are times when your studies take a front seat – during fieldwork, for example, when the days can be long, exciting and exhausting, and you find yourself totally engrossed in your research. Yet for many students, even these moments are fraught with conflict. Conflict between the personal and professional. Conflict between family pressures and the desire to write that paper, submit that abstract, travel to a conference, or just spend a few hours in the library or lab.
I’m talking about students with caring responsibilities, and there are a lot of us. Students with dependent children or who care for a relative or friend appear to be on the increase, although nobody knows the exact number because this information is not currently gathered on a country-wide scale. Nevertheless, the number of mature students (those entering university after the age of 21) is currently around 140,000, and by definition postgraduate students are that bit older and more likely to have dependants.
However, even the youngest freshers may well have responsibilities that involve caring for a child, partner, parent or other family member. Such roles in the home can put huge restrictions on a student’s ability to devote sufficient time and energy to their course or research project without suffering burnout or high levels of stress.
Students who are parents tend to stay close to home, often not having the luxury of choosing to spend several years at a university far from where they live. A typical day may be an exhausting round of housework, school/nursery runs, medical appointments, admin, nappy changes and broken sleep, before you even get around to opening a book or laptop. This is not to mention the financial burden that carers carry.
As a mum to one-year-old Baby L, my day begins at 5.30am. After nappy changes, washing, dressing, brushing of teeth, a breakfast that mostly ends up splattered across the walls and floor, and a quick clean of the house, we then set off for a 20-minute walk to the childminder. By the time I arrive on campus, I have already been up for four hours. I spend my whole PhD stipend on childcare, which buys me 28 hours per week. After that, I squeeze in the rest of my studies in the evenings when Baby L is asleep.
My PhD journey began when Baby L was just a few days old. That’s when I had my PhD interview, which was conducted by Skype while I sat in bed. I had barely been out of hospital for a day, and my interview presentation had been written on a noisy labour ward in a post-birth fog. Goodness knows if it made any sense, I can’t bear to read it now. Whether my supervisors were impressed by my dedication, or simply took pity on me, I was lucky enough to be awarded a full stipend and a PhD place beginning in September. Of course, I count myself lucky that I have this financial support, when many students also have to work long hours to fund their studies.
Immediately after receiving the offer, I felt horribly conflicted. Baby L would only be seven months old when my course began – how would I cope? Would I have enough hours in the day to devote to my research? Travelling to the library and departmental meetings seemed daunting enough, never mind field work and conferences. Still, the opportunity was too good to miss, so I gladly accepted the place.
Six months in, and I admit that some days are difficult. I recently had to take time off when Baby L was hospitalised with a virus, and finding reliable, affordable childcare is a constant headache. And yet, it is doable. My department and supervisors have been extremely flexible and understanding (it helps that they are all parents too), and I am currently working on a methodology for my research that involves minimal overseas travel.
The downside is that I often miss interesting lectures, talks by visiting experts, film screenings, social events and other activities because they are ad hoc and it is impossible to find childcare. (And nobody appreciates it if you take a hyperactive one-year-old along!) My university records some lectures to listen to at home, but not extra-curricular talks and seminars, and I frequently feel that I am missing out compared to students who are free to attend everything.
Of course, other areas of life can suffer too; my social life is much diminished and I rarely get chance to do things I once enjoyed like going to the theatre or cinema, or doing sport. After an intense first six months, where I thought I had to have my nose in a book or journal every waking hour, I have now relaxed into my PhD a bit, and am learning to make time for activities that recharge my batteries. Of course, it helps that Baby L is growing up, and I’m aware that many students with caring responsibilities cannot expect to have their burden eased with the passage of time.
A great philosopher once said: “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” Actually, it was Dolly Parton, but the point stands. And it’s relevant to students and researchers too. My advice for others in a similar situation is:
- Ask for help. This includes flexibility from your supervisors as well as help with childcare or other caring responsibilities, if available. Also, some universities offer carers’ bursaries and support for parents, although this varies.
- Slow down. You don’t have to achieve everything in the first year. As they say, a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to conserve your energy for that final, difficult mile.
- Take time off if you need it. Whether it’s an evening to spend with friends, an afternoon at the park with the kids, or a couple of days in bed when you’re feeling under the weather, you will bounce back with more energy.
- Find out if lectures and training sessions are recorded for absent students, and if supervisory meetings can be conducted via Skype. You don’t have to be there in person every single day.
- Tailor your project to your capacity and abilities. Don’t plan a hugely complicated piece of fieldwork if there are other ways to get your results. There are plenty of other equally valid methodologies.
- Don’t be a perfectionist. You only need to pass, not get a Nobel Prize.
- Sometimes you might feel resentful if caring responsibilities prevent you from charging ahead with your studies. But your family and friends will be there long after you hand in your thesis, and ultimately, relationships matter more than qualifications.
- Speak to others in a similar situation. You might be surprised to find out what your fellow researchers are coping with in their personal lives. Get together, have a good moan in solidarity, and then celebrate what you’ve achieved. Just getting onto a PhD programme is a huge accomplishment.
Saphia Fleury is a first-year PhD student at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute. Her research looks at the experiences of child migrants fleeing climate change. Prior to starting her PhD, Saphia spent 12 years as Middle East Editor at the human rights organisation Amnesty International.