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A pregnant PhD pause

Emma J Butcher30 October 2018

Authored by guest blogger Fran Harkness, a 3rd year student in the Medical Research Council Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing. Studying life course predictors of psychological control, with a sudden side interest in whether controlling parenting really is that bad.

As a female PhD student I’ve had some colleagues say to me, “Now would be a great time to have a baby” and, “Think of it as an extension”.

Really? It wasn’t something I was interested in, let alone thought was possible. I’ve got training on multiple imputation that I can’t miss, chapter 4 of the thesis to finish, and an international conference coming up. But last August, two years deep into my PhD, my husband and I were eating beans on toast one Saturday morning when all our musings crystallised: Let’s have a baby!

We felt supported by my recent discovery that I’d get maternity leave. I had assumed that lowly PhD students would get nothing. More beans on toast. But in fact, many research council funded students get six months with full stipend followed by six of statutory pay. I recalled a talk by Lisa Berkman at my first UCL conference, where she discussed her finding that women offered paid maternity leave were 16% less likely to be depressed after 30 years than women without it. Financially viable and less likely to get depression. As a public health student I do like to back up my behaviour with evidence.

I was nervous about telling my supervisory panel. My PhD friends and I had already been told, “I hope you’ll still have time to write up” and, “You won’t have much time to work on your oral presentation” when relaying life events to senior colleagues. One peer caught criticism for attending her wedding instead of a conference. I hid my pregnancy through the first three months despite blocking the office toilets with vomit once and coping with daily nausea by eating an odd amount of cream crackers.

In the end it burst out during a meeting. My friend was also present and exclaimed “No! Don’t tell them” as I opened my mouth, such was our joint anxiety about me being told off. PhD students are usually full of worry when it comes to ‘things getting in the way of handing in on time’. Luckily my supervisors were extremely supportive, from their suggestions of salt and vinegar crisps for my constant sickness, to reminders to submit my leave application so I didn’t miss any stipend payments.

In the remaining months before birth, I worked extremely hard and did most of my analyses, in case I forget how to whilst away. I also sketched out a plan for outstanding work and ensured everything was triple backed up, with my password (ahem, secretly) written down. A colleague advised me that even a takeaway coffee cup with a challenging lid could cause upset on returning to work, so I didn’t want to leave any gaps to fall through. The admin involved in planning my break was surprisingly easy. All I needed was a maternity exemption form from my midwife emailed to the unit administrator, who logged the pause in my studies and advised me on baby monitors.

New co-working space

So now my baby is six weeks old. I wouldn’t exactly term this period a PhD extension. Unless research is aided by writing up complex associations on three hours sleep with breast milk dripping onto the keyboard. Plus, I like busying myself by staring lovingly at my baby, rather than tackling the writing. I’ll be off for six months doing that, and when I return, my husband will use the remainder for shared parental leave.

I am a bit apprehensive about going back. I can’t decide whether my thesis dedication will read, ‘Darling Robin, thanks for wangling me a six month breather’, or, ‘Dear Robin, thanks for seriously setting me back’. But as I write one-handed with him sleeping on my chest and my nose buried in his gorgeous smell, I just feel very happy we were able to have him.

Finished is better than perfect!

Emma J Butcher23 August 2018

Authored by Victoria Garfield, a postdoctoral researcher in genetic epidemiology (UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science). Victoria did her PhD in the Department of Behavioural Science & Health and her current research involves using genetic and epidemiological methods to understand the relationship between diabetes and the brain. In her spare time, she likes to swim and work her way around London (and the world!) eating delicious food.  

“A PhD is a bunch of projects that you work on for a few years and then you write them up in one big document.” Truth. That’s what that quote is, the truth. It was said by a good friend of mine with a PhD. A PhD is a collection of related projects that you work on for a few years (usually three to four in the UK), then write up in what is essentially, a book. However, to get to that point, one must endure…drumroll… THE FINAL YEAR. Yikes. I remember in my first and second year, I was completely in awe of final-year PhD students, not to mention the new postdocs. How had they done it?!

Well, the final year is a wee bit different for each of us. Some of the major factors are:

  • How much analysis or data collection is left;
  • How much of your upgrade report you can use in the final thesis;
  • Availability of your supervisor(s) (who are generally extremely busy);
  • When funding ends (and thus, when you’ll need a job so you don’t starve);
  • And crucially, your personal life, including both mental and physical health.

My final year was an overall positive experience, but naturally, I felt overwhelmed at times. I know I’m not alone here, as friends with PhDs confirm having similar feelings. Some of the most important things on your final year to-do list are:

  • Knowing when you’ve done enough data collection and/or analysis to discuss starting to write with your supervisor(s);
  • Having clear timelines for sending chapters to your supervisor(s) (if they agreed to read these before a full draft);
  • Establishing with your supervisor(s) who will read which chapters;
  • Deciding when you will send a full draft to your supervisor(s) (exact date);
  • Choosing good examiners with plenty of time before the planned viva;
  • Agreeing your submission date with your supervisor(s);
  • Knowing when your supervisor(s) are away.

I turned 30 in my final year, which is obviously a big deal, so naturally, I celebrated my birthday with my family on HOLIDAY in Spain – yep, that’s right, in my final year!

 

A VERY important point that deserves its own paragraph is that you MUST plan a break for yourself (no, you do NOT have to spend 24/7 writing and obsessing). We all need breaks. I took a few holidays in my final year and…I STILL GOT MY PHD ON TIME! Given that all PhD students love research, let’s not forget that evidence shows that time away from work (I mean really taking time off, without checking emails), means we feel refreshed and are more productive when we return.

 

Me admiring the amazingness that is Northern Norway (just outside of Tromsø) – also in my final year.

 

Now, I want to briefly come back to the other most important points. Knowing when to stop analysis is often a difficult one. For me, this happened via a Skype call with my supervisor when we almost organically both said, “that’s probably enough analyses now, time to focus on writing”. At this point, I had four studies to write up into results chapters, two of which were quite substantial and two slightly smaller. I emailed my other supervisors to let them know and everyone agreed that I had plenty of work for the thesis. This was in May and my funding was until the end of December, so plenty of time to focus on writing. I had some of my thesis written up already, but did the bulk of writing between June and late September, when I sent a full draft to my supervisors. Then, as I started working full-time as a (impostor!) postdoc, it took a little longer than I wanted to make amendments before sending my supervisors another draft then preparing for submission.

My fiancée and I in Norway – on holiday (no email or thesis!) in my final year (you get the point now, right?!)

 

Another crucial point for me was choosing examiners. I did this with plenty of time before the viva – so had lots of time to complete the paperwork and wait for central UCL to confirm that they approved the examiner choice (which usually takes a few weeks). This then leads me swiftly to…another drumroll…THE VIVA. The viva is a rather surreal experience in mine and others’ opinions. My viva was incredibly positive, but also long (four hours) and I only realised about a week after how exhausted I was. So, I obviously then took two days off to be a couch potato and order pizza in the middle of the day. My examiners were very positive about my thesis and wanted to discuss it at length. It was a professional but friendly atmosphere and I was appreciative that two esteemed academics had taken the time to read my research in depth. I passed with minor corrections (you get three months to do these) and although it can feel difficult to go back to your thesis and do the corrections, you know then that you have done it. YOU HAVE PRETTY MUCH GOT YOUR PHD. Now, go and celebrate, AGAIN (you will celebrate as soon as you finish your viva, obviously). My final recommendation is to have a mock viva – I had one with one of my PhD mentors (a mid-career researcher) and the head of our group, which I found invaluable.

Viva present I got from two amazing UCL friends – although you may not get a Garfield toy that says Dr Garfield on his badge (unless your surname is also Garfield), at least one person you know will get you something that says ‘Dr’ on it, so get that #PhDone!