Having just completed my PhD with two interruptions for maternity leave, I read with interest the recent ‘5 ways female academics lose out’ which prompted me to reflect on my experiences and the things that assisted me in reaching the end. I was fortunate to receive ESRC funding and the PhD took me 5 years to complete altogether. I had one period of maternity leave at the end of my first year and the second interruption at the end of the second year.
Support from supervisor
One of points made in the ‘5 ways female academics lose out’ reported that pregnancy can be received negatively by supervisors. I am happy and fortunate to report that I was thoroughly supported throughout both my (very stressful) pregnancies and maternity absences. My two supervisors, who were both men, remained positive and assisted me practically by working with me to develop realistic but flexible timetables.
Having started with a cohort of students and then returned from my first and second maternity interruptions with different cohorts of students, I have seen peers progress, finish, graduate and secure jobs. It has sometimes been a struggle not to feel left behind which has underlined the importance of managing my own expectations and maintaining the motivation to achieve these goals.
Keep in contact
This is a difficult concept to square with the importance of taking an interruption but I found that it was crucial to keep in contact with my supervisor during my maternity leave, partly to maintain the presence of the research in my mind and sometimes as a welcome break from the very difficult task of looking after a newborn and toddler.
Maintain the commitment if possible
One of the best decisions I made was to begin and continue with the research full time. I wavered towards changing to part time and was dissuaded, with encouragement, by my main supervisor. With hindsight, taking into account the distractions of young children, teaching and all the other things that can foster procrastination and diversion, moving to a part time status may have caused a loss of focus which may have resulted in the end date being postponed, and postponed.
Something has to give and, on reflection, maintaining a social life, particularly developing relationships with other post-graduate students, was very difficult. I was never met with disapproval but I was aware of a difference in age, responsibility and commitment that impacted on my ability to participate in some of the additional activities available to post-graduate students.
Making the most of it
Whilst having two children during the process of a PhD would not be an experience I would recommend, having two periods away from the data and the literature enabled me to reflect on the process and to develop ideas more than I would otherwise have done. Returning to the research following these interruptions was challenging but the experience of having these two lengthy periods where I could reflect was very positive and useful.
Anecdotally, my female friends and acquaintances that I have made over the past few years have made and are making decisions about their careers on the basis of when (and whether) to have children. Career decisions are not made out of context for anyone but the responsibilities of childcare, care of other relatives and fitting around the career of a partner appear to impact on women more than men. Whilst male friends and acquaintances have shared some similar reflections, it seems that the overall trends indicated in the academic literature and media reports could continue to place pressure on female academics which will limit and shape their careers. Highlighting this issue is important in developing awareness in universities so that women can balance the demands of research and family in a supportive environment.