On being a PhD student and a new parent.

by Maria Kirk
Many people, including my midwife, raised an eyebrow when I told them I was going to have a baby in the middle of my PhD studies. I think, however, that the final year of a PhD actually is quite a good time to have a baby. I should qualify this by saying that I haven’t completed my PhD yet, so time will tell if I’m right, but so far it seems to be working out.

When weighing up the pros and cons it seemed to me like a sensible move to have a baby at a time in my career where I could easily take maternity leave, rather than trying to fit in a pregnancy and a newborn between the casual work and short term contracts that so often come in the wake of a PhD. Taking time out now seemed like a better idea than at that critical job hunting stage, or when I’m settling into my first permanent job (should I be lucky enough to ever reach such a point in my career). I also secretly wondered whether the physical experience of giving birth might make me fear my viva less. Being quizzed on your thesis by a panel of experts might be scary, but would it be as scary as trying to get a small human out of your body?
Despite all this mental preparation and reasoning, the minute the pregnancy test turned positive last November I immediately began to worry about how having a baby would affect my studies. I was in the final year of my PhD and by the time the baby was born I would only have 3 months of my funded period left. In between the bouts of morning sickness I worked frantically to get as much of my thesis as possible written before I went on maternity leave. 
My research is funded by the AHRC, and they offer a relatively generous maternity package – 6 months paid with an optional further 6 months unpaid. There was initially some uncertainty around what exactly I could take but thankfully it was all sorted by Karen Terry, the Research Student Administration Officer. Thanks Karen! I arranged for my maternity leave to begin a month before my due date. My plans to get some work done in these last few weeks were somewhat hindered by the extremely hot weather we had in July – being heavily pregnant in a heatwave was extremely uncomfortable and I couldn’t do much except lie around eating ice pops with fans pointed at me. Even sitting up to type at a computer had me breaking into a sweat. 
Although I had convinced myself that she would be late (“First babies are always late!” said everyone), Robyn was born on the 1stof August, one day before her due date. I can confirm that yes, labour really is horrible. I have yet to see how it compares to a viva, but right now I can’t imagine that the viva will be quite as painful. The first few weeks passed in a blur of broken sleep, numerous midwife visits and frantic Googling. 
Parents will tell you that nothing can prepare you for having a baby. Well, if you’re anything like me (which you probably are if you’re a postgraduate researcher reading this blog) then there is something you can do to prepare: read a lot. Since research is literally my job, my natural instinct was to read all the books and all the websites I could find. What I learned was that there is a huge range of experiences are there – some babies are barely awake in their first months, others have colic and cry all the time. Some like to be held, others hate it. You can make any number of plans, but you won’t know if they’re feasible until your baby arrives. But, and this is the important bit, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for things. Have a plan A, and plans B, C and even D too. 
One of the plans I made was to try to get some PhD work done while on maternity leave. This did cause some eye rolling from other parents, but in reality my plan was fairly realistic. I didn’t set any ambitious targets, I would just try to do a few hours a week as soon as I was ready. Soon, we started to settle into a pattern. Robyn, it turned out, liked to sleep a lot, and would always sleep in her pram. So, for a few weeks I would take her out to a café, sometimes on campus, and do a bit of work until she woke up. I stuck to editing old material, a little bit of reading, going through the revisions on a journal article I’d submitted, chapter planning – nothing too taxing, essentially. This phase didn’t last too long though, and there were a few weeks where I wasn’t able to work at all as she became quite grumpy and I was constantly trying to sooth her. She was awake more but frustrated at the fact she couldn’t really do anything. A few weeks ago we entered a new phase. Now Robyn sleeps well at night and during the day is either alert and fairly happy or napping. I try to get practical things done while she’s awake and lying on her playmat, cooing away to me, and then when she’s asleep I can sometimes do a little burst of work. Soon I expect she will start napping less during the day, but perhaps going to bed earlier so I can work in the evenings. She’s also spacing out her feeds now and is no longer permanently attached to me, which means that her dad can take over sometimes while I get some work done in another room. As I said, it remains to be seen how this will all pan out, but I’m feeling fairly confident that I’ll be able to finish. If anything, having a baby has made me more determined to finish, find a job and, if I’m lucky, make a career out of this. After all, if I’m happy, then Robyn’s happy.
Here’s my top five pieces of advice for having a baby and/or finishing a PhD:
1. Read a lot – this may seem obvious for a PhD, but I’m not just talking about researching your subject. It can really help to research the actual process of study, before you start but as you go along as well. Blogs like The Thesis Whisperer are invaluable. I’m not even going to start listing parenting blogs!
2. Listen to the experiences of others, but take it with a pinch of salt if they haven’t been in the same situation very recently. Ask someone with a 5 year old what they did when their baby was newborn, and the chances are they won’t remember. This is true to some extent in PhD work as well – academics who are not actively involved in PhD supervision, or in the area that you’re working in, might have outdated or somewhat irrelevant advice. 
3. If you feel strongly about doing something a certain way, give it a go.  Before Robyn was born we decided to use cloth nappies. Many parents looked at me very sceptically, as if I was some kind of idealistic hippy who had no idea about the realities of having a baby. We tried them anyway though and it’s turned out fine (and so much cheaper!). Different things work for different people, and anyone who tells you that you MUST do something a certain way is probably wrong – I get told a lot that I should “treat a PhD like a 9-5 job”. Well, that has never worked for me. I find it better to split my work into small manageable chunks over the whole week – evenings and weekends included. 
4. Plan ahead, but be prepared to be flexible and adapt to circumstances. This follows on from the last point. Make your plans depending on what appeals to you, but do accept that things might change. I’m currently rewriting my first chapter, which has now become my last chapter. I wrote it at the beginning, and now my research has taken me in a slightly different direction. It happens, and it’s OK – roll with the punches!
5. Enjoy the experience! I once saw a simple but great piece of advice about PhD study – don’t do one unless you want to. Don’t do it purely for the end result, if you don’t enjoy the experience you won’t do well. Likewise, people are always telling me to enjoy my baby “because they grow up so fast”. Apparently before I know it Robyn will be all grown up and heading out the door to live her own life. Tempting as it may be (and we all do it sometimes) try not to wish it all away – whether it’s a baby or a PhD you’re dealing with.
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