I was relaxing at home with my son; we had just made it through the dreaded fourth trimester – the first 12 weeks of getting to know each other earth-side – and I was browsing the internet as he slept away in his bouncer. Somehow I ended up on a website about a PhD scholarship opportunity related to diabetes and pregnancy. As a woman with Type 1 Diabetes who had just been through a challenging pregnancy journey, and as a woman/new-mother considering where I wanted my career to go, being able to help other women with diabetes have successful pregnancies and children seemed tailor-made for me!.
I reached out to the supervisory team, who were absolutely thrilled that a person with diabetes was 1. interested in the project and 2. wanted to undertake the research from a consumer representation perspective; they strongly encouraged me to apply. I did, although after applying and going through the interview process, I doubted I would be considered given I was a new mum with minimal research experience, no academic medical background and a marketing and communications background. I was completely floored then when I got a call saying I was the successful recipient! This was exciting…and stressful! I would be starting my PhD with a 9 month old in tow, a full-time administrative role to return to at the end of maternity leave, and unbeknown to anyone then, during a pandemic.
Thankfully I am a reasonably organised person! Here, I am sharing some of the resources that have helped me navigate my first year of a PhD while working full-time and being a new parent. I want others to know that just like becoming a parent, a PhD is challenging, and working smarter rather than harder can help keep things on track – most of the time!
Seek out chances/spaces to write that suit your schedule
For me, I do the majority of my writing once my son is asleep, but I also thrive off having company when writing for motivation (because I know I would feel guilty jumping on Facebook or online shopping during my writing session if others were there!) Luckily, my university offers writing sessions for research students via Zoom, and thanks to the pandemic, we have a 24/7 Writing Room. The sessions are run in the “Shut Up and Write” style associated with the Pomodoro Technique (write for a short period of time, then break for 5 – 10 min and chat, rinse and repeat). Regular sessions are facilitated by the academic writing advisor from the research school and there is an evening option that fits my schedule! I am grateful to be able to write alongside fellow peers once a week and feel part of the HDR community. Our sessions may have impromptu guests – be it human or fur-babies – but we all “get it” and are compassionate and supportive. It is in these sessions that I get the most work done every week! Search #ShutUpAndWrite on Twitter or via your university’s Twitter to see if a similar offering is available for you.
Find hacks to stay organised!
For me, I struggled to keep my references and notes organised until I came across this Excel spreadsheet reference tracker. This was an absolute game changer for me! Not only do I now have my references organised (which only took 30 min after watching the 15 min instructional video), I also have my own summary and key points of every reference I input that is categorised so it is easily searchable when I am writing and need sources quickly! I also follow this tweet thread by @thoughtsofaphd and now label each article I download so I am aware of where it came from (i.e. if it was recommended by my supervisor etc). This has helped me to prioritise my reading (especially when time-poor and only having time to read a few articles a week around my baby’s unpredictable sleeping schedules).
They say exercise is good, but for me I find it’s actually a great way to end my day and de-clutter my thoughts. During my walks I let my research plans, writing – whatever I am working/thinking on – simmer in my mind. Without the pressure of being behind a keyboard and feeling the need to write I’m able to articulate my research plans and writing better. As I spend a lot of time behind a computer, letting myself walk with mindfulness is a good way to step back and reflect on my writing.
Seeking out peers and networking with academics who are also parents
They say as a new parent, the key is to “find your tribe” or that “it takes a village”. This is even more important when also doing a PhD – seeking out like-minded parents who also understand the challenges of “wearing all the hats”! Finding others who are able to provide support based on experience is so vital. For me, I have found and joined a Facebook group for mothers in academia, signed up to a very active and encouraging student parent union at my university, and also discovered the wholesome messages of support and advice through the #phdparent, #phdchat, #academicchatter and #academicmama hashtags on Twitter. In fact, one day when I was really struggling with impostor syndrome and balancing all my parent/PhD responsibilities, I reached out on Twitter for support. I had a Twitter post that went a bit viral about how hard it is managing expectations of self and others as a parent doing a PhD. 417 likes, 30 retweets and many comments later, a stream of solidarity from fellow parents in academia was created to tangibly remind me that balancing “wearing all the hats” and doing a PhD while being a new parent was/is possible! . It was just the motivation I needed, and even now if I am having a rough day, I go back to that tweet to know that I’m not alone. I also found an extremely supportive post from a fellow PhD part-timer and parent, Ben Hodges, which I have bookmarked for tough days – once you find evidence of fellow peers who understand the struggle to balance it all, you treasure it!
Don’t be afraid to ask for help and put your hand up for things that will help!
As parents, we are constantly putting our needs last, and our children/family first. However, as PhD students it really is up to us to find our way; however, this doesn’t mean struggling blindly. I joined Franklin Women as I was eager to become a member of an Australian professional society for women researchers in STEM, especially as someone new to STEM (I have a social science/marketing and comms background). Every year, Franklin Women offers their members opportunities – from mentoring programs, to their 2020 Covid-Carer’s Scholarship, of which I was a lucky recipient. Through this scholarship, I was able to participate in mentoring sessions to help plan out my PhD and incorporate effective time management methods from an expert. It really was a game changer in helping me navigate through the first year of my PhD!
Prioritise self-care and be realistic about time for writing
In a digital age where we are expected to be available 24/7, it is difficult to prioritise self-care and be realistic about time for writing . Setting firm boundaries for when I am available, and also setting aside time that was strictly for family helps me achieve some balance and self-care. This is why for me, weekends are non-negotiable family time. Every weekend, we visit and catch up with family, have a movie night at home, and then I spend Sunday evenings volunteer co-hosting MamaBetes – giving back to the peer support communities that encouraged me to go after my PhD in the first place. I find that keeping my weekends free of PhD commitments means that on Monday, I come back to my work more refreshed, and more often than not, with new ideas about my writing due to having time away from it to reflect.
Be a “present parent” when with your children
I will admit, this is one I am forever working on. I’m so guilty of being on my ‘phone/computer a lot , especially when emails come through asking for help for a grant application, or following up something urgent on a non-PhD Day. But I’m already noticing that my son notices when I’m not engaging with him. In fact, the other day he has started bringing over books to me and climbing on to my lap while I was talking on the ‘phone – a sign even he is trying to intervene and get me to pay attention! Thankfully, my son has gradually become a ‘pro’ at napping in his cot during the day. This means I can set up my laptop next door and have at least an hour of uninterrupted time during the day to do those “urgent PhD tasks”, and then some more time once my son goes to bed. I’m very grateful to have a supportive supervisory team who are also parents – they are more than happy to receive my emails and work at sporadic times!
Whilst even now I still feel like I never have time to write, these resources help to keep me on track, quieten the voice of parent guilt, and continue to inspire and motivate me on my PhD journey.
If you have any other resources you’d like to recommend, please share them in the comments below ?