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PhD journeys at Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health

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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.