Advice for PhD parents: #7 be kind to yourself

Sometimes, you just need to breathe (and getting some Headspace may help with this)! Remember, nobody is perfect and whatever happens, you are doing the best you can, and that is really all that matters. You are doing what works for you, your family, and your PhD. With the PhD, opportunities will come and go, and whilst you can make the most out of what you are offered – don’t stress about them if they are simply too difficult. Bigger and better opportunities will likely come along as you progress through your career, so be kind to yourself. With your children, on the other hand, you simply cannot go back in time. Enjoy them whilst they are little, and try not to stress. Don’t guilt trip yourself – you are doing amazing!

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To all the PhD parents, to all the academic parents, to all the parents that juggle both studying and being a “full-time mummy / daddy”… and to those that are there to support them along the way… this is for you. Be kind to yourself, and enjoy the ride! You are doing an awesome job! What is greater than having accomplished both a PhD, and a happy family life (however long it may take!)?

Advice for PhD parents: #6 be proud that are you are both a parent and studying

You can never ultimately completely separate being a parent, and studying. “We are all full-time mummies (or daddies!)” – and this is what makes it hard. Whether we are unemployed, work from home, or go out to work for 40 hours or more per week… we are all full-time parents. We never have a break from being a parent, as Harriet (from Toby & Roo) points out. There is never a moment that Stanley or Nora are out of my mind. When Stanley first came along, I thought that going into the office would give me the space and freedom to focus purely on the PhD, but I soon realised that it wasn’t quite this simple. You can’t shut off from being a mum. Whether it’s worrying about how Stanley is doing at childcare, feeling guilty for leaving him, or just subconsciously thinking of him – there is never a moment that he is not with me.

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What you can do, is be proud. Be proud that you are doing a PhD. Be proud that you are a parent. I feel that I am incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do both of these. I hope that by studying, whilst being a parent, I can instil some kind of good message in my children. I like to talk to Stanley about what I do, and get him involved (as much as I possibly can). I want my children to see how proud I am of what I am doing, and how much I enjoy what I do. I try to do little things, like taking him into the office for an hour or two (Stanley has had many trips to the labs!), or set him up with his own little computer (he likes to pretend to do his “work” too!), and I try to make him feel as though he is helping out when I can! Start them young and show them the enjoyment of learning.

There is also a fab book “My Mum Studies – Just Like Me”, that follows a child’s experience of having a mum who studies (written by Dr Bailey Bosch, and stemming from her own PhD research). It is fantastically written, and although it is most likely aimed at school-aged children, I still enjoy reading this with Stanley! Definitely worth a purchase if you are both a parent, and studying.

Advice for PhD parents: #5 schedule

Schedule time tor writing, or reading. Schedule a specific “writing day”, so that everyone knows “Thursday’s are for writing”. Schedule a specific time slot for checking your emails each day – and then turn them off! Going somewhere new could help with this. Find a coffee shop to go to and check your emails, and then go to the place you find most productive to write. Different locations for different activities can work. Whilst I know these things are much easier said than done (and I am really not good at sticking with them) – what I do know is that when I do them, I find myself being so much more productive. I just don’t know how to make myself stick with it (… any tips are welcome!)

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When it works, your schedule can be your best friend! And if it doesn’t go to plan (as I know too well), don’t worry – you can always start afresh tomorrow. But, as much as it is important to have a schedule, you need to learn to be flexible, too… in both doing a PhD, and being a parent! I have had so many things thrown at me along both of these journeys, that I have come to accept that nothing ever goes to plan! Expect the unexpected. All you can do is what works for you, and there is always possibility for change. Sometimes, you just have to throw the deadline out of your mind and focus on the here and now, what works for you, and what you can achieve, in that particular time.

A couple of specific scheduling techniques that have worked for me, are the Pomodoro technique, and attending “Shut Up and Write” sessions. If you are not familiar with thie Pomodoro technique, the idea is that you write (work) for 25 minutes without any interruptions, and set yourself a timer for this – this is known as a “Pomodoro”.  When the 25 minutes are up, have a short break (e.g., 5 minutes), and then do another 25 minutes of writing. After you have completed 4 Pomodoros, you then give yourself a longer break (e.g., 30 minutes). When I get in the flow of doing this, I can get so much more writing done! Similarly, “Shut Up and Write” sessions are good for getting focused if you want to add a more social aspect to it, and motivate one another! Your University might hold sessions, you could set one up yourself, or find others online and have a virtual Shut Up and Write session (such as on the the “PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents” Facebook Group that I previously mentioned)!

I guess what I am saying in this post is that I find it works if you clearly divide your time. When you’re being mummy, it’s simply mummy time, with no attempts at trying to squeeze in some PhD work. When you’re working on your PhD, it’s work time. When you set time aside to write, you write. If it’s your scheduled time to check emails – check them only during this time!

Advice for PhD parents: #4 make the most of support around you

Speaking to other parents really helped me out, knowing that I wasn’t the only one that was going through this is reassuring! Being surrounded by PhD students that don’t have the same commitments can be tough, as you can’t help but compare yourself sometimes, but this really does you no favours. You simply cannot compare your situation to anyone else, but speaking to other parents can certainly be useful! If you don’t know of any PhD parents near you, I would seriously consider joining this closed group on Facebook: PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents (of which I am an avid stalker!)

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Childcare is another important factor to get right, which isn’t always easy – particularly due to finances. My little boy is of pre-school age (and I had him four months into the start of my PhD), so I can only talk of my experiences of needing childcare! It’s really important to find someone that you completely trust – leaving them is hard enough as it is, without the added stress of worrying about who you are leaving them with. If you’re lucky to have family / friends around that can help out, they can be a real lifesaver, even if you only call on them to help get you through the final stages, or when times get really tough.

I have never been one of those people that can work in the night when the little one is sleeping, or spend the weekend working whilst I see him and his Daddy having fun. At night, I’m too tired to work, and at the weekends, I don’t want to miss out on family fun – I don’t want to miss out on seeing the most important years of his life. I never work well when the little man is around me either, if he knows I am around – he simply won’t leave me alone, and at the same time I get too distracted by all of the cute things that he does! So, doing the PhD and being a parent at the same time simply doesn’t work for me. I have to keep these two separate, for all our sakes!

But, support isn’t just about childcare. Ask your supervisor for support, it’s what they are there for! I feel incredibly lucky to have such a supportive supervisor, particularly when it has come to the needs of my little man. There have been times when he has joined us for meetings, or we’ve had supervision via Skype rather than in person. There are so many little things that have been accommodated along the way to make life that little bit easier.

Advice for PhD parents: #3 take time off, but don’t give up!

From time to time, take time out for yourself. Go sit in a coffee shop. Go get your hair done. Go to the gym. Watch your favourite shows. Listen to your favourite music. Take up an old hobby. Do absolutely nothing! Whatever it is that makes you happy – go do it! Sometimes, as a parent (or a super-busy PhD Student!), we forget to do things for us, so now and again go treat yourself.

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Sometimes, there may be no other option but to simply “give up” for a while. This could be through illness, or unexpected events in life’s journey. Things creep up on us when we least expect them, and at these times, we need to look after ourselves. If our little ones are unwell, and need to be snuggled up all day watching their favourite shows – let them. There is no point trying to carry on with work when you won’t be able to concentrate, it is sometimes better to simply accept it – accept the fact that you will get no work done. You will only end up even more stressed if you try to work, but can’t possibly cram everything in. Take time off when you need to. Rest when you need to. Look after yourself. Look at life’s unexpected hiccups as opportunities to refresh yourself – to recharge your batteries.

Perhaps nothing significant has happened in your life, but you have simply lost your mojo along the way. Sometimes I just can’t write. I can’t focus. I can’t work. Treat these times in the same way – give yourself some time off from writing – to rest. If needs be, an intentional break from the PhD could prove really useful (if finances allow). You can always come back to the PhD. Come back when you are feeling refreshed and recharged! Parenting can be a rollercoaster. Doing a PhD can be a rollercoaster. Parenting and doing a PhD will no doubt be one hell of a rollercoaster, but you will always get back up.

When times get tough, remember why you started doing the PhD. Little by little, you will get there. Keep going. Don’t give up. You can do this!

Advice for PhD parents: #2 have fun; remember the work-life balance!

Enjoy your research! There is no doubt that at the beginning of the PhD, it is exciting! But, as the years go by, there is a possibility that you lose sight of the love you once had for the research. If this happens, think back to why you started the PhD – why are you doing this? I sometimes have to remind myself that I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity to be doing something that I am passionate about. And, whilst my research is of a serious and difficult nature, I can still enjoy what I am doing. I enjoy trying to answer difficult questions, and I enjoy all of the wonderful things that come with doing the PhD – attending workshops or conferences around the world (bonus: choosing family holidays dependent on where conferences are being held has always been a win-win situation for me!) Take time for holidays. Take time for days out. Make time for family. Have fun whilst you study!

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It is so so important to find the right work-life balance, but it has to be one that works for you. My supervisor always reminds me not to compare myself to other PhD students, especially if those around you don’t have the same family commitments. I sometimes look at those PhD students that were around at the start of my journey and realise that most of them have now graduated – and where am I? Why haven’t I got as far? When I’m feeling behind, I have to remind myself of the other things I have achieved since starting my PhD (namely, 2 PhD-babies!).

The PhD is no doubt important, not only for the research itself, but to (hopefully) provide for my family. In the past, when I started to feel behind in terms of my work, I remember being told “don’t stress… family is more important”, and I now know they are right. When we have children, at least for me, our priorities change. My work is unquestionably important to me, and always will be, but my outlook on life has completely altered. Stanley comes first (as will the little lady when she arrives!), and especially whilst he is young. Precious moments when your children are small simply cannot be replaced. Do not miss out on those big moments in their lives because they whizz by so quickly. The PhD will get done, when it gets done!

It can be difficult finding the right balance between work and family, but I think one of the most helpful tips I received was to treat the PhD as much like a 9-5 job as you can. This is what I have always strived to do, whenever possible. For me, evenings and weekends are purely family time. Of course, I occasionally have deadlines I need to meet where things spill over, and there are times when I feel terribly guilty for not working into the early hours of the morning and getting as much work done as my colleagues. But, for me, sticking to this motto has so far worked out well. Have fun whilst you can, and remind yourself to enjoy the PhD journey!

Advice for PhD parents: #1 learn to say “no”!

For parents that are juggling a PhD, or for those that are about to embark on the journey of parenthood whilst studying. Whether you are considering a PhD, or are an early career researcher with a family, over the next few weeks I am going to be posting 7 tips that I have gathered along the way. I am by no means an expert – I am currently awaiting the imminent arrival of PhD baby number 2, whilst being in the 3rd year of my PhD. Safe to say, I am most probably in “The Valley of Shit” right now! But, I will be sharing a collection of tips, and words of encouragement, that I have received along my journey so far. Somehow, and no doubt with thanks to some of these, I am still managing to muddle through…

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#1: Learn to say “no”!  

School meetings. Attending a workshop. Writing an article. Taking on additional research. Going to a conference. Research seminars. Writing a chapter. Working with different organisations. Research groups. Teaching. Volunteering on a committee. Giving a talk. School events. Reviewing an article. Marking (*shudder*). The list could go on.

As a PhD student, you can be faced with many new and exciting opportunities that are difficult to say no to, particularly if you are at the start of your PhD, or if you are feeling the pressure to build your CV because you are constantly reminded that simply having the PhD in itself is not enough anymore. It can be hard to say no – they’re exciting opportunities, and you don’t want to let people down.

Then there’s the worry – what will happen if I say no? Will people think I can’t cope with academic life? Should I be able to easily manage all of these things? Will people think I am not capable? Am I not working hard enough? What if they never approach me again? What if I never have another opportunity like this?

Saying “no”, and not feeling guilty for saying no, is something that my supervisor has most definitely taught me. And, I must admit, it is only something that I am learning to do as the final stretch of my PhD approaches. I still feel terribly guilty about saying no (I find it so difficult!), but I know now – that it is for the better. If we say yes to too many things, we will eventually become overwhelmed. People will respect you more if you say “no”, instead of over-promising (committing to too many things) and then under-delivering, because you simply cannot perform so well when faced with too many tasks. Surely, it is better to do one thing well, to put your heart and soul into something that you can really focus on, than to end up losing track and doing many things half-heartedly.

Start practicing now – if you cannot commit to something – say no!