Which should I choose: my postdoc or my child?

Elena Tobolkina got the job opportunity of a lifetime at Oxford, but the cost of childcare and housing took it away

June 9, 2016
Signs pointing in different directions
Source: iStock

The offer of a postdoctoral position in a chemistry laboratory at the University of Oxford came at a rather awkward time for me. My daughter was only four months old and I was living in Switzerland. But chemistry has been my passion since childhood and creating a successful academic career has been the purpose of my life.

The principal investigator who offered me the position was a famous and talented professor and the project was something new for me, requiring collaboration with a well-known international company. I knew this was the sort of opportunity you might get only once in a lifetime, so I accepted the position straight away. However, if I had known what was to come, I would never have done so.

My daughter is now 18 months old, but, to this day, she has never been able to live with me. Instead, her whole life so far has been spent with my parents in Russia. One reason is the enormous difficulty of finding affordable childcare – or, indeed, any childcare at all – in Oxford. I was on the waiting list of the university nursery for around seven months before being offered a place. But my problems did not end there, since I could not afford the fee of £1,000 a month in a city with some of the highest housing costs in the UK.

I did not even consider other options since the average nanny’s salary in Oxford is about £2,000 per month. On my income of around £1,900 I did not have enough money even for food for myself: all my income was swallowed up by accommodation and bills – not helped by the fact that I had little choice over where to live, because 95 per cent of letting agencies refused to offer me anything, regarding having a child as like having a pet. So I had to take what I was given.

With the full support of my supervisor, I tried a couple of times to contact senior people at the university, but no one replied to my letters. Being alone in a foreign country without your child with absolutely no support from anyone around you is intensely demoralising. Single, junior female academics in Oxford seem to have three choices: remain childless, abandon their careers or move elsewhere. Surely this is intolerable in the 21st century?

In my case, I have concluded that my least bad option is to leave my position before the end of my contract and move back to Russia. It was a very difficult and heartbreaking decision to make, but I simply have no other choice: I can no longer live without my child.

That the cost of accommodation and childcare in Oxford is a huge problem will not come as a surprise to anyone, yet no one does anything about it. There seems to be no will to address the issue. Doing so would obviously require a lot of investment, but Oxford is not short of money.

The university could see to it that more nurseries are built in the city, that students and staff are fully aware of the available tax breaks to help reduce the cost of childcare and that the cost of places is subsidised for female academics on a low salary. The university should also forge an agreement with local letting agencies so that women with children are offered apartments at lower prices.

Perhaps there could even be a national solution, given that this problem is far from unique to Oxford: female academics in other expensive cities, such as Cambridge and London, face many of the same issues.

Funders and senior academic figures regularly wring their hands about the high drop-out rate of female academics in their thirties and forties, and initiatives have been launched to encourage them to stay. But the harsh reality remains that the cost of living in the UK leaves many women with little choice.

Elena Tobolkina was a postdoctoral research associate in the department of chemistry at the University of Oxford.

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