Alone in a crowd: doctorates no doddle for PhD mums

‘Morally supportive’ but implicitly dismissive, universities exacerbate students’ struggles with their ‘child-free’ ethos

July 6, 2023
mother with child in front of a laptop computer
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A conception of universities as “child-free” zones compounds the hardship for women who mix doctoral studies with motherhood, according to a global study.

Australian researchers have found a dearth of support for “PhD mums” in the academy as well as home, with childcare scarce and unaffordable on PhD stipends. Colleagues “implicitly or explicitly” discourage doctoral candidates from taking parental leave, where such entitlements exist, while campuses lack suitable breastfeeding spaces – forcing one study subject to express milk in her car.

Meetings scheduled at night make attendance “logistically impossible” for candidates with small children, who also forgo research opportunities and faculty parties. PhD mums are dismissed as “probably too busy” in a “your choice, your problem” milieu.

The insights, published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, come from surveys of 1,323 current or recent doctoral candidates who combined studies with child-rearing in 112 countries and regions.

Overall, respondents said motherhood had positively influenced their enthusiasm for study and their relationships with supervisors, but impeded their access to key resources – especially research and writing time.

Statistically, motherhood should not be an atypical experience for PhD candidates. Almost half of doctoral students in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries are women, often in their late twenties and early thirties.

But lead author Shannon Mason, who undertook her doctorate as a Queensland mother, had “no idea” before she graduated “that there were other PhD mums out there. Everyone seems to be on their own.”

Dr Mason, now an associate professor at Nagasaki University, said many survey participants had been told to “hide” their parental status. “A lot of people…were told not to have children, or wait until they had tenure.”

The surveys found that motherhood benefited doctoral study and vice versa. Having children infused candidates with persistence, compassion and time management skills, while study offered mothers intellectual stimulation, “ego gratification” and a healthy perspective. “My son keeps me from an academic burnout, and the academy keeps me from a parental burnout,” one participant observed.

But these “abstract” perks were counterbalanced by tangible drawbacks including sleep deprivation, social isolation, “mother guilt” and “unimaginable” inequality at home – particularly for participants married to male doctoral candidates.

While the effects were felt by mothers of all ages, those with infants or toddlers tended to find things particularly tough. PhD mums rarely felt “actively and wholly supported” by their institutions, notwithstanding the “commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion” routinely espoused across the sector.

Dr Mason, who undertook her PhD while working as a schoolteacher, said it had only been possible because of state government entitlements to parental leave and part-time work. Supervisors at university had been “morally supportive” but offered no practical assistance on things like conference attendance.

She said universities respected doctoral students’ “other” lives until the time limits for PhD programmes were exceeded. “When things go smoothly [institutions are] accepting, but once parenthood gets in the way it’s a problem.”


Print headline: ‘On their own’: doctorates no doddle for mums

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