Juggling home and academic life causes angst

Students with dual roles struggle to achieve a sustainable work-life balance, writes Cat Davies

September 2, 2010

The classic image of a graduate student is an overstretched and underfunded 25-year-old working in the lab until 3am, not a multitasking fortysomething with a baby on her hip, a stack of essays to mark and elderly parents to care for.

Yet such student profiles are not uncommon in university departments around the world, and the ups and downs of female postgraduate life are detailed in a new qualitative study published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education.

"Understanding the experiences of female doctoral students", by Lorraine Brown and Pamela Watson from the School of Services Management at Bournemouth University, underscores the challenges of studying for a PhD while looking after a family, and suggests that it may be the dual nature of parent/student status - rather than gender or parenthood per se - that has profound implications for doctoral-level study.

The eight participants in the study, all part-time students as well as mothers and lecturers, said that balancing home and academic life was a source of stress.

Attending academic conferences was frequently problematic, and for some impossible. Single parents in particular struggled on this front - one interviewee said she was not able to attend until her son reached 16 while another relied on "stealth and favours" to get by.

Since female faculty remain a minority, the paper says there is a lack of a "critical mass" of women in a similar situation, which can create feelings of isolation and inadequacy.

The experiences highlighted may also chime with part-time students in general, who often do not benefit from the support structures provided for their full-time peers.

Tristram Hooley, head of the International Centre for Guidance Studies at Derby University, said student support came from three main sources: supervisors, peers and via general course provision.

"As part-time students are often also distance learners, they often face problems accessing support from peers. Ultimately, that can be a detrimental part of the student experience," he said.

He argued that universities need to reassess how they use technology to support marginalised groups.

"On-campus skills courses at least let you meet other people in the same position as you," he said. "Are there any ways that we could get our on-campus students to get in touch with part-time students off campus?"

Alongside family commitments and part-time status, undertaking paid work can also contribute to students' difficulties with dual identities.

Dr Brown emphasised the importance of empathy in the supervisor-student relationship, and called for increased awareness of the various demands on students' time.

She recalled attending a 10-day training course when she began supervising PhDs, and said that the programme did not include a single session on gender or family life.

More positively, the study also highlights the pleasures associated with doctoral study for mothers, including career progression, respite from stressful domestic situations and a sense of purpose and identity.

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