We need family-friendly PhDs for international students

Time constraints mean international PhD students caring for families can’t make contributions to research and their fields can’t benefit from their insights, Andrew Basden argues

April 4, 2018
Family-friendly PhD

An important cohort of humanity is largely precluded from making good research contributions during their PhDs: international students with family commitments.

The whole PhD process discriminates against them. Humanity’s bodies of knowledge are robbed of the insights that come from the unique perspectives such students might offer.

One of my PhD students is from the Middle East and is a single mother. Having two children in UK schools takes up a lot of time: cooking, cleaning, tending children when ill, taking them to the doctors, frequent liaising with schools about their progress or behaviour, caring for them during school holidays – and accompanying them home to renew visas.

While young, single PhD students can work late into the evening, read widely, write papers that build up their CVs, and also take part in the communal life of the research community, she cannot.

Single parents in the UK might be able to pay for childcare, but her scholarship does not allow this. And childcare does not cover frequent liaison with schools, nor quality time with parents. And in her culture, family is more important than it seems to be in the UK.

UK and European Union students might be able to study part time, but international students must study full-time in order to comply with visa regulations.

She is not alone: I have two other PhD students in similar situations – all of them come from cultures where family life takes a higher priority than it does in the UK.

Because of family commitments, not only is the time available for the pursuit of a PhD seriously reduced, but stress and pressure increase. Other members of the family also suffer. Increased stress hinders one’s ability to read widely and think critically and creatively, which are important for PhDs. It’s a vicious circle and preclusion from the PhD community exacerbates these problems.

All this puts such students at a disadvantage compared with most PhD students. With a thinner CV, her prospects for a career in or out of academia are reduced.

Such barriers can disincentivise those with children from undertaking PhDs, especially single mothers and international students. This can also apply to men, although in cultures where family ties are strong, women expect, and are expected, to devote a greater amount of time to their families than men.

“PhDs demand sacrifices!” is an opinion that I have heard voiced in response to this issue. Maybe, but why should a doctoral candidate’s children and spouse also suffer? Why should children be robbed of quality time with their parent, left to their own devices to go awry?

Why should the sacrifice be greater for international students with family commitments? Is this not a form of discrimination? Is it right that those with family commitments are largely precluded from becoming independent researchers and contributing to humanity’s bodies of knowledge (which is what PhD research enables)?

Will we not lose out if the perspectives that such people might offer are not adequately represented? Why should our discourses and bodies of knowledge be mainly the preserve of young, single individuals who have few commitments?

We have a problem. Googling “family-friendly PhDs” turned up zero results from universities in the UK, and only two in the US. Has any UK university actively considered the issue and taken steps to make PhDs family-friendly? With Brexit coming, is it not time for innovative institutions in the UK to develop family-friendly PhDs?

Obviously part of the solution is to provide more family-friendly infrastructure; family-friendly accommodation near the university and support groups so that students with families find it easier to be part of the research community.

But infrastructure alone does not address the root issue: that time, which most single students can devote to their research, is consumed by necessary family matters among students caring for children.

I favour instituting a four-year PhD option that is halfway between full-time and part-time study. A Tier 4 visa can be issued for whatever the institution officially defines the length of a course to be.

I hope that my own institution might take a lead in this, but if not, perhaps some of the smaller institutions, such as those in the Cathedrals Group, might see family-friendly PhDs as a pioneering opportunity.

Family-friendly PhDs is an issue that deserves discussion – and action.

Andrew Basden is a professor of human factors and philosophy in information systems at the University of Salford

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Reader's comments (11)

Thank you Andrew for this post. I am very passionate about this topic and I wish I could help others. I personally had a rough experience. I had a cesarean section with my first baby and also got infections. All I could think of was my piled up work. But I am grateful to my supervisor that worked out a suitable approach that helped me through this phase. But what about other women? I know of some female colleagues during my PhD journey that had to drop out due to this reason. Apart from the post natal depression after child birth, the mental pressure of juggling a new born, family responsibilities and demands from academic pursuits for international students especially, is a major challenge that has been overlooked by many. I had few colleagues that could not finish their doctorate degree due to lack of family friendly schemes. I feel bad for them because they went into depression, felt like failures because they couldn't pull through- why? because they were women in academics. I can relate to their pains and it is unfortunate that no institution, bodies deeply care enough for family women in academia. Most conversation seems to be tilted- you either be a family woman and forget your dreams or have your doctorate degree with great publications over children. I am a strong woman, choosing to make a difference. I stand in for my colleagues still on their doctoral journey and I respect those that had to drop out. I know none of these are fast and easy paths, but we do them anyway.
Dear dr_ope, Thank you for being so open about your experiences, and for your insights. I am working with others within my own institution trying to make a case for change, especially towards flexibility. I was at a workshop the other day where several PhD students aired their problems of juggling "good quality family life" with "good quality PhD".
Everyone with a family should be able to relate to this. I had my child close to my first PhD assessment and I was almost asked to withdraw from the programme because I could not produce the quality of work expected. It took my supervisor's intervention to get 3 months of an amendment. Even the examiners confessed that the work produced in the 3months was far better than the previous one. That work has now been peer-reviewed, presented at a conference and published. If my need for a break was acknowledged at the time I probably would not have been in the messy situation I found myself in. Rather, I was told I would have to go back to my country if I took a break as an International student, forcing me to add the PhD pressure to the pressure of being a father for the first time. I hope universities start putting these things into consideration for PhDs with family. All PhDs with family definitely have stories to tell.
Dear Dspcl1, Thank you for your comments, for being so willing to share your painful experiences. At a workshop recently, where a number of family-committed PhD students aired their experiences and suggestions, two things particularly stood out. 1. The need for breaks, for universities to show flexibility. 2. That 'interruption of studies' is not an answer, because it just makes things worse. One international student I know was asked to take Interruption for medical reasons - only to discover that when she returned, she was no longer covered by her health insurance because she was not currently a student So she could not have the medical treatment she needed.! Catch-22. If you can get your colleagues to share and air these issues, then please do. Can you orgnanise a workshop in your own institution, in which people like you can share experiences? Let us know the results. Thank you. Andrew.
In my view, it is indeed disheartening that higher education decision makers are not doing enough to checkmate the negative implications of not providing sufficient support for international students with family commitments. Such approach has left some PhD candidates that fit this category with agony, misery and broken dreams. It's almost like the wages of having family commitments for PhD students involves sacrificing their ambition of becoming independent researchers and advancing the frontiers of their field of study. I hope these academic comments on developing family-friendly PhD provide an impetus for those who wield authority in higher education institutions across the UK to address this issue. I hope the subject of family-friendly PhD continues to gain widespread currency and is afforded critical coverage in the agendas of Higher education institutions.
Dear Charles12, Thank you for your insightful comments, which significantly add to the picture I began to paint with my blog. As you say, it is not only the problems that the individual faces, nor even only their family, but it is that the world loses the very valuable perspective that family-committed people have in the various fields of study. Their fields of study suffer as a result. But the agony that you and people like you suffer is a major injustice. May I suggest that, if you can, you find a number of others who experience the same and organise a workshop where these issues are aired? Let me know of the results. I was at such a workshop in my institution a few days ago, which was organised by one of my students. All the best with your PhD, Andrew
This is a great piece and raises an incredibly important issue. I would only ask that this be expanded beyond international students to all potential doctoral students. Similarly this is not a gender issue, there are growing number of men who wish to complete a PhD around complex family arrangements between child care and spousal support. The flexible family friendly PhD is slowly becoming a reality within my institute, but we are by no means the norm.
Thank you for your comment that this is not just for international students, and not a gender issue. In a workshop recently, when a number of family-committed PhD students aired their problems , both men and women contributed. May I suggest that you get a group together to share experiences and make the results public? That would be very helpful if you can. Many thanks, Andrew
I think this is a very interesting topic and I agree more should be done to support students studying for a PhD whilst accommodating the needs of their families. However I don't think this is an issue only for international students. Many UK & EU students who secure a stipend to undertake a PhD full time do not receive funding to cover child care costs and studying part time whilst undertaking a PhD is not an option for many households due to lower income and childcare costs. So I think this is a universal problem. I think it is very presumptuous to suggest that UK students may be able to afford childcare where as international students would not and also the statement that '..in her culture, family is more important than it seems to be in the UK' I find very difficult to read. To suggest that family has great value in one culture than another is ridiculous.
Dear Lucy, Thank you for your very important comment that this issue is not just for International students, but also for UK students. I originally focused on international students because they have particular problems, but would have liked to include all PhD students right from the start. I am working in my institution on this issue and will include UK students whenever it is appropriate to do so. Your comments will be very helpful for that.. Andrew
Does any country allow International Ph.D. students to bring along one of their parents?