Becoming Dr Daddy: The concerns of a PhD parent

Following our #DiversityInEcology theme, this blog talks about the challenges of academic parenthood from the perspective of Andy Seaton, a PhD student at the University of St Andrews.

I am just coming to the end of my first year as a PhD candidate in ecological statistics.  I am also a father to a 3 year-old boy and partner to a recent PhD graduate (Dr Mummy) who has just started surfing the postdocosphere.  I have doubts about the extent to which my experiences and opinions are relevant to diversity issues because I am a heterosexual, white, middle-class man who attended a Russel group university and who has likely benefited from all the advantages correlated with these labels.

But I am also a parent who has ambitions to have a successful career in academia.  From what I’ve seen online on academic social media it seems I’m actively pursuing a career that is in direct contradiction with ‘normal’ family life.  So I hope there is some value in sharing my worries I have about the future and what might make things slightly easier for parents in the early stages of the an academic career.

I think everything I say is relevant to mothers as well as fathers, but I undoubtedly have an easier time as a father and 1000 words cannot give a complete picture of all the challenges faced by parents in academia.

All that said – these are some things I worry about:

Home is where the heart (and extended support network) is

I think the accepted wisdom is that it’s good to move around early in your career if you want to be a successful scientist.  If you stay in once place, that is often black mark on your CV.  But families pay a higher cost to moving, are less likely, less willing and less able to do it regularly.

We knew this going in and decided that if we can succeed in the central belt of Scotland, a place with one of the highest numbers of universities per capita of anywhere in the world, then that is literally a dream come true.  But if we can’t – we’ll do something else.  It feels a little like tying one hand behind your back from the outset but we were both raised here and have extended family and close childhood friends nearby – all things I want my son to be close to as he grows up.

I think that email, skype, video conferencing etc should make your geographical track record less relevant.  It would be nice to know that hiring panels consider factors that make it hard to move around.  This also applies to people with physical disabilities or mental health issues that mean support networks are very important to them – we shouldn’t dismiss a CV from the outset.  It is tricky though – there’s no section on my CV that outlines why I want to stay in Scotland.  Of course, hiring panels are free to think this is not a good enough reason, what I’m against is an automatic judgement of a CV.

Face to face interaction with a range of research groups is still really important and I get why it’s valued.  I wonder if we can do more to support those of us who are geographically constrained.  Almost all short-term travel funds I’ve seen are designed to fund me to travel somewhere else – something that I can rarely do.  It would be great if there were funds that support hosting visitors for a short while who may be more able to move around.  This would lessen some of disadvantages of being tied to one place.

I’m also primarily a statistician and modeller so my work can pretty much all be done on pen and paper and a computer.  I can’t imagine the logistical challenges of being an ecologist with fieldwork to factor in – I salute the field ecologist parents out there!

No Money, Mo Problems

Money is by far our biggest stress as a family with both parents earning PhD stipends.  Our son goes to nursery 3 days a week, we cover 1 day between us and are lucky to have close family nearby to cover the fifth.  Even so we pay almost as much in nursery bills as we do in rent. It’s literally like renting a second home.

When I started my PhD I arranged a meeting with the university’s student financial adviser.  We can survive without help but we have zero wiggle room so even a tiny amount makes a huge difference to our stress levels.  I was disappointed to find out that there are no special sources of support or advice for graduate student parents.  Although these do exist for undergraduate parents, for some reason they are not available once you cross an arbitrary threshold into graduate level.

The advice amounted to suggesting I find out if I can claim government benefits (the adviser didn’t know) and if things get really bad there is the general hardship fund.  I wasn’t necessarily expecting help, but it wasn’t a great start to thinking graduate parents are considered by the administration.  Do you know if your institution has any focused support for graduate and early-career parents?

Sign on the dotted spline

Precarious contracts have rightly been focused on in social media so I don’t have much more do add other than to say this is a real worry and it undoubtedly leads to parents leaving the field.  Maybe I’ll be offered a precarious 1-year contract to do something I’m passionate about.  How is that going to compare to a secure, salaried position doing something I’m less excited by?  The desire to keep family life simple, balanced and free from upheaval is incredibly tempting, even if it means giving up on a dream.  Focusing funding on longer-term postdocs might mean fewer in number, but I wonder if on the whole it would lead to better quality research.  It’s hard to do much in 1 year and then have to move again.

It’s not all bad

I don’t want to give too negative a slant on my experiences.  Mostly I love my job and it’s so much more enjoyable day-to-day compared to my old 42 hr/week, punch in, punch out office job.  My time is flexible, I can work from home when needed and I am surrounded by driven people and interesting ideas.  Life is really good.

But there are a few things that would make academia more hospitable to young families like ours.  I think my biggest worries require money to solve – if I had the purse strings I would support childcare costs and avoid short-term contracts.  As for low-cost options – if you see a bedraggled, struggling, sleep-deprived parent in the office, make them a coffee, pat them on the back and remind them it won’t be like this forever!

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