Dr Kate Maxwell works as a postdoctoral researcher in multimodality and cultural change for the University of Agder, Norway. Her project investigates the multimodal aspects of medieval manuscripts, particularly those of the fourteenth-century poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut. She was awarded her PhD in 2009 from the University of Glasgow.
Continuing our conversation on post-PhD life, Kate gives her perspective on balancing new parenthood with working, researching, and securing a post-doc. Sounds like a challenge? – Patience and perseverance are the key, as well as some formidable multi-tasking skills.
There’s one thing I regret about my PhD: handing in the day after my first baby’s due date. (Baby was conveniently late.) The fact that things worked out that way due to circumstances beyond my control – together with my determination to get one baby out of the way before the other one arrived – does not help. It was stupid to risk my (and potentially the baby’s) physical and mental health in such a way, and I suffered as a result.
This is not intended to sound negative. There is a happy ending. The baby was fine, the PhD was fine, and I recovered. But I view it now as a harsh introduction to, and as a symbol of, the struggle faced by so many academic parents, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, partnership situation, background, disability status, and all of the other factors that make up a person. How on earth is it possible to combine the demands of a life with children with the demands of an academic life, particularly in the delicate post-PhD stages?
Obviously, there is no simple answer. Every situation is different, and I am sure that a great deal depends on the age of the child(ren) at the time of hand-in (though they do say that the grass is always greener…). Yet one thing I do know: becoming a parent changes your view of life.
The ‘baby’ metaphor was no joke. I really did think of my PhD – and my dog, for that matter – as my ‘baby’. Then I became a parent, and realised that such metaphors are comical not just because they are amusing, but because they are so woefully inaccurate. I do not wish to wax lyrical about the joys and tribulations of parenthood, for there are plenty of other blogs for that I’m sure. No, what struck me was this: having become a parent, my family became more than the most important thing in my life. They became my life. The PhD, the research, the professional life that had mattered so much to me became just a job. A job I loved, that’s true, but nevertheless just a job. It was a radical shift of perspective, and one that didn’t happen immediately. After the arrival of my first child (though for many parents they don’t come one by one), the first weeks (months, even) were consumed first by the needs of the child, and then of the parents. Basic needs: health, nourishment, sleep, fresh air, and, where possible, sanity. At some point during that time I had my viva. It took place the morning after a night of very little sleep (babies have an instinct for these things), and I remember frantically re-reading bits of my thesis on the train as I made my way to the university. What on earth had I written about? Two hours of intellectual discourse later, I realised that it was not only perfectly possible to switch mental gears, but that I really did know my stuff. Later, lunching and chatting with colleagues while breastfeeding, I felt everything was possible.
Indeed, most things are possible, though they might take longer than they would for non-parents post-PhD. My PhD corrections only took a week, but that week had to be booked in advance in order to ensure childcare with breastfeeding breaks. After weaning (and graduation) I took up a part-time teaching fellowship. While switching the brain back into ‘work mode’ was easy enough, it took me much longer to learn to quickly return to ‘parenting mode’, to move from intellectual debates back to spending a day with someone whose only word was ‘buh’ (and enjoy it too). Then baby no. 2 came along, and we did several conferences together: baby in the sling, grinning, sleeping, feeding (even while I gave a paper). I kept up the part-time work, researched alongside, and made ends meet.
There are, however, only so many hours in a day. I did not have the time (or, truth be told, the inclination) to bombard the job market as a working parent to two young children. Any jobseeker will tell you that job hunting is in itself (virtually) a full-time job; any parent will say the same. So I took my time, and I became extremely picky about what I applied for. After all, being part of my children’s early years seemed far more important than jumping straight onto the academic job ladder and all it entails, despite the hopes, ambitions, and expectations I’d harboured as a student. Whereas I once would have taken virtually anything and made it work, I took an honest look at myself so that I didn’t waste my efforts on jobs that were either above or below my skills and needs. I only applied for those for which I had a reasonable chance of success and were close enough to perfect to justify the effort and potential upheaval. My patience paid off: when my children were four and two I began my dream post-doc, returning to full-time research with eyes very much open both to life outside the academy and within a family. The fact that it is a two-year contract is actually an advantage: it gives everyone involved a chance to assess how things are and work out what will happen next.
Throughout those years ‘on the sidelines’ I continued reading, got some publications, attended carefully selected conferences, and kept an eye on job listings. I also spoke to other academics who were parents, particularly those who had been parents for longer than me. Their advice was unanimous: take your time, things will work out in the end. They were right. The journey of parenthood is long, and learning to balance everyone’s needs takes time. So I shall finish by repeating and reiterating the advice I heard: let the rat race rush by you for a while, put aside the anxiety, and try to embrace any uncertainty as life’s way of telling you to enjoy your kids.
And perhaps many of you would like this blogpost from Scientific American too: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/07/21/the-awesomest-7-year-postdoc-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-tenure-track-faculty-life/ I also have a ‘feel good’ email folder.