What universities can do to help pregnant PhD students

Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, Selina Sutton explains what universities are doing wrong (and right) when supporting PhD candidates during pregnancy and beyond

March 6, 2019

As soon as I had my letter of confirmation of PhD funding in my hand, I came off the contraceptive pill.

I knew I wanted to be both an academic and a mother, but I would be at least 30 by the time I had finished my doctorate, and then how many years of precarious postdoc positions before I found something with decent maternity leave?

If I waited until then, would getting pregnant be very difficult or even possible? I felt like I couldn’t risk it and had to act sooner rather than later.  

Fourteen months into my PhD I was elated to find out I was pregnant. However, it was only then that I really began to do my research into what pregnancy and motherhood while doing a PhD, and in academia in general, might be like.

The realisation of what my future could entail terrified me. Coupled with impostor syndrome, there were moments where I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do both. I was desperate to find someone publicly saying “I did it. It was hard but fine, and you can do it too”. Hence why I have written this piece.  

I hope that others who are expecting can find some reassurance that a positive pregnancy while studying for a PhD is possible. But most importantly, I hope that supervisors, colleagues, and senior university staff will think carefully about what they can do to improve the experience of pregnant PhD students.

Before we start, I need to state that my partner and I possess too many privileges to list. With three weeks to go until the birth of my first child, my pregnancy has been framed by an ideal set of socio-economic factors. Under different circumstances, I could have easily encountered more barriers, more biases, and had a more difficult experience.

Therefore, my suggestions really are the very minimum that should be provided to pregnant PhD students at this vulnerable point in their personal and professional lives.

Trust my judgement and follow my lead

My primary supervisor, Shaun Lawson, was surprised when I told him that I was pregnant.

But, like in all our supervision meetings, he asked me what I was going to do, and after I explained my plans he smiled and said “Great. Go do it. And let me know if you need me”.

During my pregnancy I taught; I marked assessments; I submitted a first-author paper; I continued to organise the talks and social media for my research group; and I was on the organisation committees of a national and an international conference.

His attitude was “you wouldn’t be asking to do these things if you didn’t feel able to, so why should I stand in your way”. But most importantly, he made it clear that I could go and talk to him about anything any time, without making me feel like he viewed me as vulnerable.

Obviously, every supervisory team and PhD student is different. But a good starting point is for supervisors to explicitly communicate to their student that they trust them, that they are open to supporting them in whatever ways the student believes best, and that they still believe in their student’s academic abilities.

Offer to be a role model

A lot of the online discussion around motherhood in academia is disheartening but I have found a few women in my real-world network who have had positive experiences and who I can use as role models. One of them is Julie Walters, my associate head of department and mother of three. Her empathy is unending, and her positive attitude lifts me whenever I start to worry.

But these women became my role models through luck and chance meetings, and through them approaching me. Prior to each of them offering their story, their knowledge and experience was invisible.

If you are a woman who had a baby during your PhD why not state on Twitter, LinkedIn, or even your university profile, that you are open to having conversations with current pregnant PhD students? Many universities have mentoring schemes in place for their academics.

Why not consider this sort of approach for all those transitioning into motherhood (not just PhD students)?

Let me be in a space where I feel safe and reasonable adjustments can be made quickly

I am very lucky to have a designated desk in an office that I share with patient, understanding people.

I have felt safe enough to regularly nap in the middle of the work day and sit on a yoga ball at my desk (both with my head of department’s permission of course). This has allowed me to be physically comfortable and be in the office 9am til 5pm every day even at 37 weeks pregnant. Not only has this benefitted my work, but more importantly it has allowed me to stay connected with my colleagues.

Many PhD students at my institution and others are in a hot-desking situation. While I am sure that a pregnant PhD student could ask for a designated desk on occupational health grounds, I wonder how many would realise this, or feel able to ask, and how long it would take to implement it.

I suspect that hot-desking students would retreat to working at home during their pregnancies, which could feel isolating.

Have information more readily available

The most important factor in terms of my pregnancy experience at university? My staff IT account (that I have as a result of teaching/admin duties). I realised that if I want to find any information, that’s the account I needed to use. With one search I was able to find my university’s postgraduate research maternity, paternity, and adoption policy.

In comparison, after about 30 minutes and the use of several search terms, I could find minimal relevant information via my student account, and all the information that I could find seemed to lead back to contacting student support services.

Making relevant policies and other kinds of information, such as where the breastfeeding/pumping room is on campus, easier to access is a small change from the university’s perspective but could have a significant impact upon the student.

Let me keep my email while on maternity leave

My university, understandably, classifies my maternity leave as an official break in study, and so, unfortunately, access to all facilities ceases. I will not be able to access my student email, library resources, the system that holds my PhD records, and many campus buildings. Everyone who I have told about this initially didn’t believe me. Even my head of department reacted with “no, that can’t be right. I’m sure you’ve got that wrong”. I promise you, I haven’t.

Now, as I have described above, I am lucky enough to have a staff account that will stay open while I am on maternity leave. But most students don’t have this luxury. It baffles me that the main mode of communication with a significant source of social, emotional, and professional support (email) is removed during a life transition in which a woman feels most vulnerable. I think that I would feel abandoned.

I am sure that after reading this, some will say “she has had it easy”, and I wholeheartedly agree.

I am not denying that there are very serious issues in academia that affect PhD students and academics during pregnancy and motherhood. Actually, my point is that even in a case where all the stars aligned, at times I still felt frustrated and unfairly treated.

Change is needed at all levels of the campus community to create a supportive environment for pregnant PhD students, and some of these changes are fairly minor adjustments that can be made quickly, and easily.

Actually, we need such changes for the benefit of all mothers, fathers, and those with childcare duties in academia. I hope to start campaigning for these changes at my own institution, once I return from maternity leave. But for now, wish me luck in my transition into motherhood.

Selina Sutton is a third-year PhD student at Northumbria University.

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