‘My PhD won’t be perfect, but it will be good enough’

Accepting that your doctoral studies will sometimes take second place to family commitments is part of the journey of a PhD student mother, says Annabelle Workman

February 6, 2018

My daughter turned two years old the month that I commenced my PhD.

I was excited to be quitting my nine-to-five job to embark on a new adventure exploring an interdisciplinary project about which I was passionate and enthusiastic. I imagined the flexibility that returning to full-time study would afford me.

Three years seemed like a reasonable amount of time to prepare a 100,000-word dissertation. I had friends who had successfully juggled a PhD and parenting responsibilities, so I was quietly hopeful that I would manage, no, excel at this new experience. How hard could it be?! I was a parent, after all…

Another daughter and two years later, naturally my perspective on parenting while completing a PhD full-time has changed significantly. I was correct on the flexibility front. Undertaking a PhD while parenting has been ideal in terms of the flexibility it offers. I love being able to attend mid-afternoon activities at day care and to collect the girls early without the need to justify to a manager my untimely departure from the office.

But I have had to completely reassess my unrealistic expectations and to learn to manage the associated guilt and anxiety that results when I don’t.

In my first year, I spent (too) much time feeling anxious and – in all honesty – resentful that I wasn’t able to dedicate as much time as I wanted or felt I needed to commit to the PhD and associated activities. By the end of my first year, I was a stress mess; I enrolled in a mindfulness course to help manage my anxiety.

While mindfulness was initially helpful in assisting me to keep in check the angry ball of stress that unapologetically sits in my stomach at certain times, the most important change I have made has been around expectation management. To do so required a long, hard think about what I was humanly capable of achieving in a day, a week, a month, and giving myself permission to accept that reality.

In retrospect, transitioning to life as a PhD student was a similar experience to transitioning to life as a parent. When people ask me how I manage doing a PhD and being a parent, I often answer, “not well, and with a lot of support”. While this response is a poor attempt at humorous self-deprecation, it holds important threads of truth.

I have had to make peace with shorter office hours than my colleagues. I have had to learn to accept that there are times when attending seminars, conferences and other professional and social networking opportunities is not possible without unreasonable sacrifices at home. I have had to acknowledge that, whether I like it or not, I need a decent amount of sleep, regular exercise and downtime to function.

Most importantly, I have had to become much better at asking for, and accepting, help from family, friends and peers.

A number of parent peers and mentors have generously shared resources and words of wisdom along the way. One friend introduced me to Bailey Bosch’s site, Mums Who Study, which provides useful resources and relatable perspectives. Another friend who successfully completed a PhD while parenting kindly shared some profound advice: be kind to yourself; expect stops and starts during the PhD “marathon”; and try as much as practical to compartmentalise the different roles of PhD student and parent to avoid guilt overdrive. Another dear friend thoughtfully gifted me a candle and shared her strategy of success: she lit a candle every time she sat down to write her PhD and it became a ritualistic source of strength and productivity.

As I begin the third and (theoretically) final year of my PhD, I realise that the home stretch will likely teach me more about myself, achieving work-life balance and managing expectations.

I let go of excelling at a PhD long ago; I will complete a PhD that is not perfect but will be good enough.

I also have a lot to be incredibly thankful for. As a parent and senior female academic articulated: “Children are a beautiful blessing, but you’re clearly passionate about your research, too. There will be lots of days when you despair about stretching yourself too thin and are dissatisfied with results on all fronts. But try not to judge yourself too harshly. The girls won’t be giving up anything if they gain the opportunity to see you working towards and accomplishing your professional goals.”

Annabelle Workman is in her final year of a PhD on climate change and health at the University of Melbourne. She is married, has two young daughters and is based at the university’s Australian-German Climate and Energy College. This post originally appear on PhD Life, a blog run by the University of Warwick about the PhD student experience.

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