Having a baby is probably not on the to-do list of most PhD students.
In an ideal world, young scholars would have already submitted their thesis, secured a permanent job and possibly have a few publications in the pipeline before thinking about children.
But life seldom follows such plans. With nearly half of PhD students now women – mostly in their mid to late twenties – babies can often become part of the PhD journey. So how do those new mothers (and fathers) juggle a new baby and doctoral study? And can life be made easier for them?
Maria Hägglund, now a researcher in health informatics at the Karolinska Institute, in Stockholm, was single when she began her PhD aged 28, but she met her now-husband halfway through her studies.
They moved in together and soon found out that they were expecting a baby, Dr Hägglund told Times Higher Education.
“Not really planned but very welcome,” she explained.
As a funded PhD student, Dr Hägglund was able to benefit from Sweden’s generous system of paid parental leave (18 months at 80 per cent pay is standard for mothers), but instead took just four months off before returning to her studies part time.
“I remember submitting a journal paper just a few months after my daughter was born while she was asleep,” said Dr Hägglund, who has written about her experiences of “PhD parenting” on her personal blog.
Like other PhD students, the pressure to push on with her thesis remained acute for Dr Hägglund, who was aware that she may be falling behind her peers by spending time with her baby.
“I had a colleague who started her PhD at the same time who was able to submit a whole year before me,” she said.
Having a supportive husband, who took time off work, and living in a child-friendly society made things easier, but Dr Hägglund still felt uneasy leaving early to pick up her child from nursery, adding that there is a “culture that if you’re not working eight, 10 or 12 hours a day, you’re not doing enough”.
Having a young child also made it impossible to apply for postdoc positions abroad – an experience that subsequently has helped scholars to gain domestic research funding, Dr Hägglund said.
“It’s never a requirement to have done a postdoc abroad, but no one tends to get grants if they don’t have one."
So what can be done to help PhD student-mothers? One of the key difficulties faced by PhD students is the “grey area” of what benefits doctoral candidates should receive in the UK.
Although often teaching in universities, they are generally not employees, so cannot receive even statutory maternity pay of £138.18 a week, nor can they pick up unemployment benefits given their student status.
However, those funded by UK research councils should receive six months’ maternity leave on a full stipend and another six months unpaid, with students able to go part time, latest guidelines by Research Councils UK state.
Some universities are now following these guidelines for those funded by institutional studentships.
“I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for the time and money I’ll be getting during the turbulent period of new babyhood,” said Ellen Kythor, who is doing a PhD in Scandinavian translation studies at University College London, whose PhD, Baby and Me! blog details life juggling motherhood and doctoral study.
But this support from her UCL-funded studentship arrived only after her supervisor had grappled with “some typically opaque university bureaucracy” to find out the exact entitlements available, said Ms Kythor, who is now on maternity leave with her second child.
“I can’t imagine living and studying in a country like the US where this wouldn’t be an option,” said Ms Kythor.
“It’s stressful enough anticipating the lack of sleep, getting to grips with feeding, and all the other tough stuff of the first time round, but with the added element of a growing preschool-age child in the family too.”