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PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: The Challenges of Parenting and Academia

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

“As a serious academic, you should spend all your waking hours working on your research and you should not have a life or family,” some seem to argue, or that seems to be the undercurrent of some of the “I’ve had 4 hours of sleep over the last 6 days to finish the proposal” kind of stories you may hear some academics tell each other at conferences. Such a work rhythm is not sustainable – not for single academics, and not for academics with families.

With that said, being an academic parent can pose some challenges. As I’m learning more each day about what it means to be mom and an academic, and I’m interviewing fellow academic parents (which children in all age categories) about how they work as academic parents. While my conclusions about parenting is that every person does what works best for his/her family, I wanted to list a few challenges that are typical for academic parents and some ideas on how to overcome them.

1. Geographical isolation

If you moved away from “home” for an academic position, you may be geographically isolated from your family and friends – and not have anybody to rely on when you need an extra hand. Not being able to drop off your child for a few hours with the grandparents can be quite an inconvenience.

But wherever you are, you need a support network – it takes a village to raise a child, so you will need to build your village. If you don’t have any family nor friends around, try to pair up with other parents who may be in the same situation (find them at your kid’s or kids’ activities). You can help each other out, and find moral support along the way. If you are having a hard time making friends with other parents, see if you can bring a grandparent to help you out for a few months (for example, when you return to work after parental leave). If none of these options are available for you, see if you can hire more help.

2. Low income

If you are/become a parent during your PhD years, you may be on a low budget. If your spouse traveled with your for your PhD and is not allowed to work because of visa restrictions, you may suddenly need to feed and house an entire family on a student stipend. While this is not impossible, and many students do so every year, you may find it challenging.

If you are on a low budget, see what your childcare options are for your budget, and if you possibly can get financial support for childcare from the government or your institution. If your spouse is not allowed to work, at least you save on childcare. To make ends meet, you may need to have a good look at your current expenses, and drastically cut down on certain categories. I’ve written about controlling your budget and ways to save money in the past – I personally think it’s better to learn to live frugally for a few years, rather than to return home after graduate school with the burden of depth. Remember, this too shall pass.

3. Travel demands

If you need to travel to conferences or to a field site for research, parenting can become challenging. Travel is demanding for parents at many levels. When you are the mom of a nursing baby, traveling will mean that you need to accommodate pumping and perhaps send milk home. When you are a single parent, traveling overnight will require your child to stay with a trusted person overnight – which you may not have when you are geographically isolated. When your children are older, you will need someone to take care of all logistics at home when you travel.

There’s no single solution to this challenge. Options include traveling with your child(ren) and a family member to see your him/her/them during the day, hiring more help for short periods of time, as well as cutting down on travel. I’ve significantly reduced travel over the last two years, and nothing bad has happened to me.

4. Irregular lab hours

If you need to run experiment on a certain time schedule, which may involve irregular hours, you will find that childcare can be difficult to arrange. Your partner may be able to jump in, but that’s not always the case.

The key here is planning. If you know that a period of intense experimentation in the lab is coming up, start to look for your options in advance. Can you get extra hours in daycare? Do you have friends or family that can chip in? Can your partner trade hours at his/her job? Should you hire extra help? Should you delegate part of the experimental work to a student?

5. Inflexible tenure clock

Depending on the conditions of your tenure track, you may find that the tenure clock does not stop when you become a parent. If you work with chemical substances in the lab, it may be impossible to continue experiments during pregnancy. You may fall behind the tenure clock during maternity leave, and then you may decide to work part-time instead of full-time, but the tenure clock won-t adjust to your new schedule.

If you are faced with an inflexible tenure clock, speak up about it. It’s not a fair system, and it should be changed so that parents don’t get cast to the side because of the tenure clock. Ask for your options. Insist where you can – this battle is worth a fight, as it will improve the conditions for the generations that come after us.

6. Working environment

If you are constantly hearing other people brag about all the hours they put in to their academic work, you may feel out of place. If you are the only parent in a research group, you may feel that your colleagues don’t understand your struggles.

To make academia more sustainable, we need the working environment to change and to be able to accommodate people with different backgrounds and with different situations at home. To solve the world’s pressing problems, it’s all hands on deck – we can’t afford to lose good researchers simply because the working environment is hostile towards parents. If you feel that your colleagues don’t understand your struggles, build your own network of academic parents to help each other out and to share your best advice.

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