Don’t get pregnant. If you can help it…

This post is by Walter Reinhardt, a PhD student at ANU’s Fenner school where he is investigating demand management policy for residential water and electricity use. Walter is now at the pointy end of his degree, but he took time out to play with the stats and tell you what the likelihood is of you encountering a major life event during your PhD.

A few weeks ago I had a meeting with my PhD supervisors. Gave them draft chapters, chapter outlines and results enough for a couple more. I asked them, in their experience, if they thought it could be submitted by mid next year and what advice they’d give me if I went for it. Straight off the bat, one of them remarked: “Don’t get pregnant.”

We laughed.

It’s kind of hard for me to do that. I’m a dude with an unappealing mo’ for a start. But it did get me thinking about why they’d say that. I don’t have the numbers on what starting a family does to PhD progress but a brilliant friend of mine could probably tell you. He’s just had his first child, with some complications and he’s temporarily suspended his PhD. His suspension is not the only one within our school due to marriages, babies, cancer or other major life or family events. I started having a poke around some of the stats out there for probability of life events and came across the latest HILDA survey.

Thesis Whisperer Jnr, aged 6 months - and grumpy :-)

Thesis Whisperer Jnr, aged 6 months – and grumpy 🙂

I’m no statistician but I’ve tried to pull out some meaningful numbers that might be used with caution. On the matter of caution, caveats.

The HILDA survey is nationally representative for Australia and is intended to describe the average Austray-yan. The HILDA survey is not intended to be representative of Australian PhDs nor of residents of major cities, where universities are generally located. There are many international students among us, we’re mobile and at the high end of the education spectrum, so our rates of life event experience may differ to population average.

Second caveat, where described as ‘in any given year’ I’ve used the most recent year from the HILDA survey (2009-2010), which was a bit of a shakedown year, due to the GFC, in which many people made major life adjustments (me included). Third caveat, many probabilities are quoted on an annual basis and caution should be taken extrapolating to estimates of cumulative probability over a longer time period.

Considering caveats let us agree the numbers are rubbery and incomplete, based on observation of a broader population in a time and place we no longer inhabit. The statistical quibblers may cheerily point out that this data set is not perfect. But then again, quibblers gonna quibble. No dataset is perfect.  These numbers are available and we may use them as general indicators with a certain degree of caution.

Selected statistics on marriage, income and ‘getting pregnant’ in Australia:

I’ve kept the focus on a few select events and not included a lot of other major life events such as death, serious injury, moving country or discovering Eddie Izzard clips on youtube.Here’s a brief selection of probabilities for major life events:

Initial state | subsequent state Age group 1 year rate, % (male/female) 5 year rate, % (male/female)
Unmarried | Married 25-34 8.3/8.8
Unmarried | Married 35-44 4.4/4.7
Unmarried | Married All 3.2/3.3
Married |Divorce 25-34 6.0/5.5
De facto |De facto All 80 52
De facto  | Loner All 7 12
De facto | Married All 9 30.5
Couple no kid | couple with kids All 5.7 15.4
Loner | parent (solo or couple) All 4.5 12.4

Source: Eighth statistical report from HILDA

The arrival of children affects household income. Couples with children already will generally find their family income reduces in the short term (one year) but increases in the long term (four or five years). Couples without children will find their income drastically reduces when they start to have children, which is seen as a long term effect.

APA Scholarships for PhDs are approximately $22,500 per year tax free. The ABS recognises relative poverty as income less than 50% of the median for the household-equivalent individual income, which was about $19,990 in 2010. Without additional sources of income or a supporting partner, your average PhD is slightly above what the ABS calls relative poverty.

We know a little bit about happiness and can make estimates for the effect of major life events.

One of the biggest effects seems to be a major worsening of financial situation, which is comparable in its effect on happiness to being a victim of violent crime or separating from a spouse with whom you have young children. A major worsening of the financial situation gives us around about a seven percentage point reduction in probability of becoming a home owner, all other things considered. That’s pretty big reduction when we consider the base rate for buying a home is 10 percentage points over the long term (eight year study period, 2002-2010). We note that the arrival of children, getting a bachelor degree or the being the victim of property crime gives us a greater propensity to become a home owner.

What does this mean for an average PhD student?

The average first year PhD in Australia is about 34 years old at the moment. Let’s say Jill is 34, currently single and has come from a well paying job prior to starting the PhD. If she doesn’t have alternative sources of income while studying then six months into her PhD she is decidedly unhappy. It’s an unhappiness effect that measures somewhere between separating from a partner with whom you have young children and the death of a spouse or child. So she’s pretty down about her life.

In her first year of the PhD she will have an 8.8% probability of getting married, but after she turns 35 it reduces to a 4.7% annual probability of marriage in any given year.  Over the three year PhD this cumulative probability of marriage might be somewhere between 10 and 20%. If she stays single, she’ll have up to a cumulative probability of having a child somewhere between 5 and 13%. If she gets married then the probability increases a few percentage points. Having a child and being in a couple will offset the effect on home ownership propensity, but the mere act of taking the pay cut to do a PhD is going to significantly reduce her probability of buying a house in the next eight years.

What about a bloke, Jack, who’s married without kids at the start of his PhD and it takes him five years? In that time he’s got a 6% probability of getting a divorce and a 15.4% probability of having kids. If his partner doesn’t have maternity leave, then they’ll be in relative poverty.

What does this mean for universities?

Supervisors are always surprised when non-university issues confound the progress of students. Students are dumfounded when supervisors are unavailable while they deal with their own life and family events. Yet the baseline probabilities indicate that these events are highly prevalent. Over the course of a PhD they are likely to affect a good proportion of PhDs and their supervisors.

The numbers are rubbery but if we consider marriages and births alone, for every five married PhDs we might expect at least one to have a child or get a divorce at some point during the four years it takes to complete a PhD (about the Australian average for a full time PhD). The numbers for unmarried PhDs getting hitched and having babies might be closer one in four PhDs.  These tend to be serious events that can cause deferment or exit from the PhD program, not to mention the potential to give PhDs the real sads (not all events to be sure, I hear marriages and births are fun). We note the different impacts between men and women of marriages and births.

Some of these life events can be planned, but many are surprises. Looking at baseline probabilities, your average PhD runs a good risk of getting pregnant, married, divorced or just plain sad while they’re working away. The probabilities are heightened by age group and life choices that mark the demographic. Most PhD scholarships contain a variety of leave and temporary support mechanisms but they’re not always clear or consistent between scholarship types.

I expect the leading universities and colleges have their programs, policies and counselling services at ready for dealing with these issues too. However, I’ve not seen much of these responses formalised or resourced and I’m not sure if they’re commensurate with the occurrence of these events within a large student body. I’ve heard senior academics describe the resources available for these events as ‘what we can find down the down the back of the couch.’ With 100 PhDs enrolled in my school and 2,400 in the university, there is might be a student every fortnight in my school and ten students a week across the university who go rummaging down the back of the metaphorical couch.

A university policy of “Don’t get pregnant” is laughable in this sense.

Other posts by Walter:

Wanted: a gong for my PhD office

90 thoughts on “Don’t get pregnant. If you can help it…

  1. Anon says:

    I read this while weakly laughing – I am currently getting my head around an accidental baby arriving in my third year of PhD, due three months before I planned to submit. University policies are vague. Maternity (or any family-related) leave are not acknowledged in scholarship contracts. I don’t qualify for government parental leave as I am not working – my scholarship is a tax-free stipend. There is little transparency about how to apply for leave, how to come back from leave, transitioning between home and study. Part time PhD while on a scholarship is not officially allowed. I am lucky to have a very supportive supervisor who knows the system and allows me to flex how I work depending on everything else happening in life (I have two other young children as well as the normal life all students have). Interesting seeing the stats like that – highlights the glaring gap in policy, process and student support.

    • Anonymous says:

      Hey Anon- Are you based in Australia? The APA at my uni has a provision for maternity leave (~12 weeks) and you are allowed to have the scholarship part-time IF its due to carer’s responsibilities.

  2. Mel Nunn says:

    I am one of the PhD dropouts due to pregnancy. I left my studies in environmental science because all the field work was not possible with a young child. By the time my daughter was old enough (and I was ready enough) for daycare, a bushfire had gone through the National Park where my study sites were and it basically undid what I had already done. Those events made the decision for me. Daughter is now 11 and I am hoping for a nice scholarship so I can try again (at PhD!! no babies please!!)

    • robyn74 says:

      Do it! My kids are 7 and 10, it’s great, you can work school hours and if organized do shorter days in school hols!

  3. Sarah Thorneycroft says:

    Had a wry chuckle at this post, I have “fond” memories of doing my confirmation of candidature presentation at 34 weeks pregnant. I was very lucky in that I had a permanent FT position doing my study part time so got paid maternity leave, and my husband is able to stay home to look after our daughter. I know that most people aren’t nearly so lucky, even under these fortunate circumstances I don’t find it easy to get time to work on my thesis, so it’s amazing that any PhDs get completed at all, frankly.

  4. Brian says:

    HI, I find this interesting. I have worked (mostly) full time since I started studying in 2004. I did my undergrad, masters working full time, and now doc ed. mostly part-time. ( I say mostly as I am full time until Nov 2014 due to some project work). And all through distance-ed.

    I am much older than 34, and was older than that when I started my academic journey. While not going through any births, I have changed employment 3 times – been with my current employer since 2007 – am dealing with ongoing health issues with myself (incluidng a broken arm last year) and past problems with my children, but managed to struggle on as my studes was the only constant in my life.

    So, I cannot relate to some of the things you have written. But, I do relate to the lack of understanding/empathy by previous supervisors/lecturers. I often thought they would think I was using the issues as an excuse for not getting work in on time. My new supervisors are great, but I am not sure they fully understand.

    Being distance-ed, I do not have the access to services you mention, mostly because they are not available when I am. So, my journey has had its trials and tribulations – but no pregnancies.

  5. Anon_2 says:

    This one stuck a chord.

    1 year into thesis, 3 months into fatherhood. Unlike the first commenter, my PhD scholarship provided for parental leave, but only 5 days (!) and not within the first 12 months of candidature, so I got none at all. Luckily it all happened over the Christmas period, so not much was going on at the faculty, otherwise I don’t know how I would’ve managed. Suspending the scholarship isn’t really an option when it’s the main source of income.

    Teaching tutorials helps a bit, but most of the undergrad subjects in my faculty only offer tutes for 6 weeks per semester, so basically there’s only RA work for most of the year to supplement the stipend. I’m thankful for my wife’s generous leave from the public service, otherwise we’d be in deep schtuck.

    Oh and I forgot to mention – writing decent chapters is REALLY HARD when you haven’t slept much!

    Maybe we PhD parents should form a support group 😉

    • Nicole Jones says:

      From what I’ve heard about maternity and paternity for PhD students, it works in the same was as paid employment. You wouldn’t have got paternity pay if you’d changed jobs either at that time, sadly.
      It definitely sounds like a challenge! I hope you manage to get some rest now and again!

  6. notmensa says:

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about this. Again, it shows just how out of touch academia (or at least the grad student part of academia) is with “the real world”. In any other workplace, this kind of “advice” would be evidence of blatant discrimination. The Sex Discrimination Commissioner would be all over it. People would be up in arms about gender stereotyping, losing talented people (of all genders) by not being flexible, and basically showing themselves as completely out-of-touch with reality.

    Having said that, it still seems less bad than the tenure-driven madness in North American universities. See “Mama PhD” ( for more on that.

  7. Just Like Jill says:

    Thanks Walter, I’m just like your hypothetical Jill and so the prospect of having marriage/children in the remaining 18 months of my PhD is something that weighs heavily on my mind. It’s great to have these important issues spelled out so neatly and substantiated with stats.

    What I’m particularly pleased about is that you don’t assume the whole having babies thing is solely a problem for women – why is it that men never get asked how they juggle work and family commitments? Like you say, it’s a major life event that will in one way or another disrupt the PhD process irrespective of gender.

    On the other hand, your supervisors’ comments about not getting pregnant do highlight that the half of the population who are capable of pregnancy are the ones most likely to be disadvantaged by it in pursuits such as a PhD. I wonder if there’s any mothers out there who could comment on what it’s like taking maternity leave during a PhD?

  8. currentlypregnant says:

    @notmensa, that was my initial reaction to! Sure it may be easier to do a PhD without pesky things like relationships, weddings, babies and so on, but to state it outright!
    A rather timely post for me, as I sit at my computer typing towards a full draft of my thesis at 39 weeks pregnant, hoping that I’ll get the rest of the week to complete, and I can convince myself to be productive (this is the first time I’ve managed to open the document in a fortnight…)
    From all that I’ve read, a PhD is much more likely to be successful (ie, submitted) generally if it’s planned well, and that plan has enough structure and flexibility in it to allow the candidate to adapt their progress to fit their intellectual development and any possible problems or interruptions. Getting married and having a baby were both part of my PhD Plan from the start (in part to take advantage of rather fantastic leave possibilities) and my supervisors have worked with me to ensure that this works. That said, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone! I have probably made the PhD process harder on myself than I needed to, but if the end result is a complete PhD and a baby in the same year, then I think that the extra hassle was worth it!
    (*disclaimer, I have a partner who supported both decisions, and bugs me to write far more often than he should have to; a principle supervisor who is amazing, experienced, and incredibly generous with his time; a topic that doesn’t require time away from the home; and scholarship which has leave and mat leave built into it. Without any one of these things, I probably wouldn’t have coped!)

  9. notmensa says:

    I’d like to see this analysis broadened so it’s not just about pregnancy, but includes *all* caring responsibilities. An older PhD population is also more likely to be caring for ageing parents and/or relatives.

    • criminaljusticestudent says:

      That is my situation, while I am not a doctorate student at this time, I am still finishing up a lower degree, I am trying to balance my time between my two kids (one with disabilities) and caring for my father 24/7 and my studies. I find it all to leave me less time for studying then I thought it would and so it can be a bit of a struggle. I never knew that being a caregiver could take up so much time.

  10. Anonymous says:

    As a much older student I can say it doesn’t stop with babies. I have had to suspend for a semester while we sort out the issues with my mother’s worsening dementia and uncooperative and often strange behavior. I am DE student and have found the powers that be understanding but it is still complicated.

    • M-H says:

      I was going to say this! I am an older student who graduated with my PhD last year. I have been lucky enough to have full-time employment throughout my candidature, but of course that means that the PhD work gets shoved into pockets of spare time, so a major life event has an even greater effect. I had three surgeries – one urgent and two necessary but planned – during this time. I never took leave or suspended, but there were periods when I couldn’t work for weeks on end. I think assertiveness and honesty with supervisors goes a long way. I’ve known students having major life crises who wouldn’t tell their supervisors, having some idea that it might count against them somehow. I can’t believe that supervisors don’t know that students have lives outside their PhD – they are human after all. When my supervisor had unexpected surgery when I was at a tricky stage near the end I of course had to cut him some slack too. Supervision is a relationship, and it is unrealistic to expect that nothing will happen to any of the partners in 3-5 years.

  11. 26 Years and Counting says:

    There are many factors that put me off of doing a RHD these days. Sadly, the inability of universities to work outside of the small sphere of their reality is one of the factors.
    My husband is unable to work due to health reasons, yet isn’t considered disabled. I am unable to be recognised as a carer for him either. And that’s fine, you know, we make things work for ourselves. But I do demand flexibility from places I work – thankfully most places are too ‘scared’ (a guess, but I would wager this is a valid guess) to argue for fear of discrimination claims, but they’re also confused by someone in their late 20s needing to care for someone of the same age. You’re not “supposed” to have anything that impacts on work at my age, or if you do, it’s supposed to fit into a neat little box of some maternity leave & school/daycare pick up.
    I experienced a semi-serious illness in my last semester of undergrad, and despite the university having student support services, I got zero useful help. I muddled through it on my own.
    To a slight degree, my life isn’t stable. So I can’t commit to an inflexible system to do a RHD.

  12. Peter says:

    Measuring the impact of parenthood on PhD progress is tricky because it is not a random probability but a choice for most, and those who choose to have children will be different from others in a range of attributes (e.g. having a partner, prioritizing non-work activities). Having a child influences how one approaches a PhD, and for fathers I think it can have some positive effects.

    I became a father in the months prior to enrolling in a PhD and the new responsibility meant that I approached my PhD in a more transactional and focused way. I needed to do it quickly on a topic that was feasible, that would lead to publications and would be relevant enough to ultimately lead to more secure and better paid employment. Taking 5+ years on a topic entirely of personal interest was not an option financially. Instead, I built upon my previous research, avoided primary data collection, collaborated with others, and completed closely supervised social science research.

    A friend of mine became a father in the middle of his PhD and worked intensively during the pregnancy period in order to get as much done as possible before the inevitable lack of time and energy afterwards.

    Having children in no way helps research or research careers, but it can give more perspective to what you can/want to achieve and force oneself to be focused in the 8 months or so during the pregnancy. However, I should note that my partner was terribly sick throughout the pregnancy, so expectant mothers doing a PhD will often not have the chance to focus their efforts before the baby arrives.

    • notmensa says:

      ” I approached my PhD in a more transactional and focused way. I needed to do it quickly on a topic that was feasible, that would lead to publications and would be relevant enough to ultimately lead to more secure and better paid employment. Taking 5+ years on a topic entirely of personal interest was not an option financially. Instead, I built upon my previous research, avoided primary data collection, collaborated with others, and completed closely supervised …social science research. ”

      Brilliant – and sound advice for any prospective PhD student!! Thank you for describing it so succinctly.

  13. notmensa says:

    For those of who love numbers, it’s interesting to look at this using the Holmes & Rahe stress scale:

    Quite a few changes associated with doing a PhD (full time) are in the 20-40 point range (e.g. Change in financial state = 38,
    Change to a different line of work = 36, etc).

    Add a divorce, marriage, child, etc to the mix and you’re likely at a moderate risk of illness on this scale.

  14. Katica says:

    Actually- the advice given during your PhD should be ‘DO get pregnant’! Or- do get married/care for your parents/take a long holiday/take time out to spend with your child or children. Why? Before I had my first child- my PhD loomed as this crucial, monumentous thing- an achievement central to who I was and wanted to be- the pivot upon which my career would turn. Rearing a child, being part of a relationship- has shown me that undertaking a PhD is just one element of life. Nay- even just a job. People come first. People. Staying up all night with a sick child is what’s most important in life- not obsessing over a chapter, presentation or meeting with your supervisor. These things need to still be done to the best of your ability- but allowing ‘life’ to intervene in your PhD allows it to not take the form of some massive, drawn out, stressful bogey in your life but just a job you’re undertaking at this point in time.

    • Mellifluity says:

      Katica, I really liked this perspective as it is how I am currently feeling. I’ve had nearly a year off for maternity leave (unpaid) and was due to start back this morning. However I have just extended my leave due to a tragic loss in our family. I’ve felt so worried and unsure about this decision but have ultimately come to the idea that my PhD requires me to be mentally, emotionally and intellectually ready, motivated, and dedicated. But you are right, the people in our lives are so much more important.

      I’ve also struggled with the idea of wanting to have another baby soon but worrying about how this will affect my leave allowances for the PhD. I keep coming back to the thoughts that ultimately, in 20 years time I will probably be happier that I had another baby when we wanted one, and didn’t leave such a big age gap because I prioritised the PhD – I think I would resent that decision. I guess I am trying to look at it all from a long-term perspective!

      • A says:

        Your comments give me courage to stick to my plan of starting a family while doing a PhD. The PhD has to fit in, not the other way around. I also believe it will prevent me from getting obsessed with the PhD, getting absorbed and lost in it. My PhD is not my life, it’s my work, and yes I enjoy the intellectual labour, but it is people, family and friends, that I truly care about. I hear some people have twins! Maybe this is how having a baby and doing a PhD is like, like having two babies at the same time. So wish me luck!
        Besides, it seems to me that getting/being pregnant in academia is never convenient. Having a baby right after your PhD may be even more detrimental to your career. As some say, there is never a perfect time. In a way, I find my PhD may even be the best time to have a baby as it is relatively flexible in regards to study time and place.
        Having said this, it’s a very personal decision. I can think of a myriad reasons why people say “it’s just too hard” and choose to wait, and I don’t judge them.

        An interesting read: How many papers is a baby worth?

    • redbirdheather says:

      As others have mentioned, thanks for the alternative perspective! I’m a first-year master’s student in the social sciences. At 26 years old, and with a partner in his late 30s, (part-way through his own PhD studies) trying to pin down the ever-elusive “right time” to start our family is very discouraging.

      I feel the same way about my research as you’ve described, and as a new student with still plenty to prove (and a typical dose of “imposter syndrome” to boot) the thought of not being taken seriously as an academic, or not being able to perform at my utmost best, is rather daunting. So your comments and the rest of this thread are a welcome reality-check. There is no “perfect” time, people matter most, and many other hard-working folks have pulled it off before. 😉 Best of luck to you all!

      As a last thought, if anyone does know of any other good resources on baby-making/raising in grad school, or online support groups that are particularly active – please do share!

    • horsesfordiscourses says:

      Along with everyone else who commented, thanks for this shifted perspective. I am turning 36 this year, and towards the end of my first year of a PhD. If I’m going to become a mother at all, it will likely happen during the PhD process, and despite the fact that I have no job and no scholarship! Sure it’s not convenient, but by all accounts it never is! Thanks again – I didn’t realise I was holding my breath while reading all the comments until I got to yours and breathed a sigh of relief!

    • rouba says:

      Great insights katica. It isnt easy but I agree with u that it teaches that other things matter just as much if not more and gives u a good idea what life will be essentially all about namely to juggle different responsibilities roles and interests in life to the best of your abilities. But as you said people you love are the most important thing.

  15. Rosie Mead says:

    I found your post really interesting as I am a first year PhD student with my first child due in September. I am currently studying part time and this works very well for us, particularly in the financial sense, (it allows me to work 3 days per week). I will of course take some time off once the baby is born but will then continue studying part time, I can see this being the best way to undertake a PhD with a child. Would be interesting to hear of other people’s experiences.

  16. Anon says:

    Someone please tell me WHEN I can have a baby. Not PhD, not Post-doc, not for the first few years into a job…. then WHEN?

    • notmensa says:

      And of course it assumes that when it is that mythical ‘right time’, your body will cooperate. Throw infertility into the mix and it’s all kinds of difficult….

    • PhD Fem says:


      We PhD students, especially us women, have got to stop being pushed around like we’re idiots that can’t manage normal life events. Yes, a PhD is hard. Yes, having a baby is hard. But when in the hell is it EASY?

      We’re adults. We have proper jobs (yes, a PhD is a proper job- I speak from comparative experience). We’re doing a PhD for chissake- we’re smart people! We can make our own dam decisions. Can we break this cycle of babies being seen as PhD-career breakers? The attitude of supervisors, colleagues and fellow students can turn it into a self fulfilling prophecy. And if you ask me its misogynistic- you do not get the same response to a male student with baby or pregnant partner than you do to a mother or mother to be.

      Obviously a baby is not going to easy during a PhD. Or your first post-doc. Or your second. Or with tenure. Or as part of a ‘normal’ job. (Yes, yes, if you are doing an away-from home field based PhD, a baby will be a pretty major obstacle- but that’s stating the bleeding obvious- no one that decides on having a baby in such a time needs that pointed out to them. We’re not idiots.).

      Let’s stop asking for permission for what we do with our own bodies. Just do it. Lead by example. And starting calling people out for their discrimination.

  17. Vicky says:

    I started my doctorate when I was single, then after a few months met my husband, got married, moved house, gained two lovely step daughters, then had a son… And then a daughter… And got a cat! All was working full time and doing my doctorate part time. It was really hard and a very long road. I finally did my viva (UK) last year having written up during a very serious illness for a family member. I continue to reflect on how I managed to keep going despite numerous times feeling it was too hard, once I had made the initial investment of brain power and time it just seemed a waste to not keep going. I teach full time on undergrad and masters programmes too and see a whole array of life events get in the way of study.

  18. Mellifluity says:

    RE: Paid Parental Leave while undertaking a PhD.

    I put in an application last year and eventually had it approved, but it took a lot of hard work and patience to convince them that a PhD qualified as work. I will share the view that I put forward to them in the hopes that some of you may be able to have it approved also.

    Keep in mind that there is an Income Test and a Work Test. The scholarship should only apply to the Income Test. If you are receiving a tax-free scholarship your taxable income is $0, and even so, it should be low enough to mean that the Income Test is a tick.

    I was originally told by Centrelink that the PhD would meet the work test because it is a ‘gainful activity undertaken for financial or other reward’. Subsequently, I was once again informed by Centrelink that a PhD qualified if it was not based on grades, but treated like work in terms of performance-based indicators. It seemed that every person I spoke to had a different answer. After this point I had trouble and my application was denied. I was told that a PhD wasn’t eligible because I receive a scholarship and study doesn’t count as work. I disagreed with them pushed for my application to be sent through to their policy department.

    When it came to the ‘work test’, the question was whether the PhD counted as ‘paid work’ (of which the ‘payment’ you receive does not need to be financial). I explained that a PhD is not ‘study’ in the traditional sense of the word and made comparisons with traditional employer-employee relationships. By also making references to the Paid Parental Leave policy (particularly Section and Section 1.1.P.20: I demonstrated that undertaking a PhD qualifies as an employment activity and therefore is ‘paid work’.

    Thankfully the policy department agreed and my application was approved! They deemed the tasks undertaken as a PhD candidate do count as paid work in terms of meeting the requirements of the ‘work test’ for eligibility.

    I’m happy to answer any questions or provide more information if needed 🙂

    • Brisbane Cell Biologist says:

      Thank you, thank you!! I had been investigating the PPL scheme and trying to work out if my PhD work would pass the work test. (I was investigating the options to plan a pregnancy to coincide with the end of my PhD work, take maternity leave and then start my already funded postdoc, or wait another year and have a baby after I have done “paid work” – there are pros and cons for both. Never has the statement ‘there is never a right time’ been more true to me). It is good to know some common sense does prevail in the PPL Department. The advice I was given by Centrelink was that I should put the claim in with as much detail as possible describing my personal situation and how the PhD is/and has been my full time employment (“paid” in the financial sense or not). Of course the work entailed in a PhD is work. It is bloody hard work. Thank you for sharing your experience.

      • Mellifluity says:

        You’re welcome! There really never is a right time. Having said that, try not to plan too much for after you have a baby – I was only going to take 6 months of leave and I’ve taken about a year off. A PhD requires a lot of intellectual attention that I just can’t offer at the moment – it is so different to a typical 9-5 job. We timed our pregnancy for while I was doing my PhD as it gave me more flexibility in terms of working and care arrangements, but I do realise now that it is going to be so much harder than I expected it would be when I go back in a month – purely from a time and concentration ability point of view. But that is also because of our personal situation and I don’t have lots of family around to help out. I hope that it all works out for you though 🙂 Let me know if you need help with your application further down the track.

    • Pinkerton says:

      Thanks so much for posting about this. I am pregnant and doing a PhD – due in about 3 months. I had just assumed a PhD would not count for the work test, so wasn’t going to bother applying for the government scheme. But after reading that at least one person has had a claim approved, I’m going to give it a go too. I just spoke to my uni graduate centre. They have never heard of anyone applying or getting an approval, but are going to ask around for me anyway. They said they would be very interested to see how it goes. A couple of questions:
      1) Did you need to get approval from your university? Were they happy to support your application and administer the payments?
      2) Where do you provide detailed information to Centrelink about your work situation? I had a look at the form and it seems there is little room to provide a long explanation of what you do and how it counts as work.

      • Mellifluity says:

        Hi Pinkerton,

        Sorry for the delayed reply. Congratulations! To answer your questions:

        1) They were definitely supportive. I just contacted the Payroll department and my email sort of got sent around a bit to different people – they too hadn’t encountered this before. Ultimately all the Uni is doing is acting as the issuer of the payment, if that makes sense, so it really shouldn’t be a problem for them. By the time my application eventually got approved I was past the 18 weeks and was paid the PPL in a lump sum. This being the case I paid a lot of tax on it (which I expect I will get back at the end of the financial year), so do try to get your application in ASAP.

        2) There wasn’t anywhere on the form to include this information, but I can’t see why you couldn’t attach a document to a hard copy version and submit it to a Centrelink office yourself. What happened in my situation was that when I started asking questions and referring to the policy guidelines, the lady said that she could send my application off to the policy department to see what they said and asked me to list the points I wanted to make. I basically read her a letter I had already drafted and she typed it into her notes. So that being the case, it may be the way you have to go about it. I did have to put up a bit of a fight though, but it is worth it. Let me know if you need any further help 🙂

  19. @follysantidote says:

    To throw an alternative view into the mix: might not grad school be the best time to have a baby? When else will you have the time and flexibility – yes you have commitments but rarely are you working 9 to 5 or 8 to 6 or more. You have no money but also often no major financial commitments like mortgages.

    This is not to minimise the difficulties of having a child while doing a PhD but to suggest that no time is a perfect time to have kids and that it can be seen as a good choice.

    It is always hard to generalise from the specific (although we all do it) 🙂 but I should add that I don’t regret in any way having my oldest while both my partner and I were doing our PhDs. It took a lot of flexibility and creativity but so does all parenting.

    • arwenevenstar says:

      that is definitely not true for all PhDs. maybe in the humanities or if your work is home-based. But otherwise- I’m in STEM and I’m often at the lab longer hours than ‘just’ 9 to 5. Not to mention the stuff that I work with at the lab that would not be healthy during pregnancy. Adding other factors, like stress and mental illness, relatively low income, no social benefits -I would have maternity leave, but once I’m finished I can only rely on my savings until I get a new job, there’s no social security, unemployment subsidies after your scholarship because “you were not working” (not in Australia, I’m in Europe)…well if the rest of my years that I can have a child are going to be worse than this, then I might even choose not to have them at all!

  20. AnonyMum says:

    Thanks for this post. I have been waiting for this discussion since I started my PhD.

    I am lucky enough to have one child but I have been holding back on giving him a sibling while I do this PhD. I’m now in my 3rd year and we’re about to start IVF after trying unsuccessfully for ages (apologies if that is TMI). The complicating factor is that I have an industry sponsored scholarship and they are waiting for my thesis so they can publish it. I am risking seriously screwing everything up for myself but I want to complete both my family and my PhD and I am not getting any younger.

    Am I nuts?

    • tcumming2013 says:

      AnonyMum, I really feel for you, time waits for no woman and IVF is no picnic either… but you’ll be surprised at the resilience and reserves you’ve built up in getting so far along in your PhD while trying (and being disappointed in your efforts) to have your second baby. Good luck and take care of yourself!

    • rouba says:

      Dear anony mom. I am exactly in your shoes. I have one child who is turning two end of this month. I am in my 4th year of phd not counting the two trimesters of maternity and also am not turning 38. I would love to have a second child sooner than later but with a phd it feels daunting since I already feel that my phd is my second child that is not getting the same level of my biological child

  21. Ali says:

    I came to study in Australia fifteen years ago with my family when my daughter was two. Over this period, I have completed a number of degrees and my partner finished her undergraduate and some chartered professional courses.

    I had my second child – baby boy last year while completing my masters degree part time while working full time. I am starting my PhD distance this month, part time while working full time. Though our children have a seventeen year gap and our little son came when we are in our forties, we are glad he is here and the PhD is just another addition to our family.

  22. Ailbhe says:

    Yes. And all this suggests a fundamental obstacle to improving conditions for PhD candidates, which is that their needs and identities change so radically in the time it takes to complete a PhD. I had a baby in the fifth year of my PhD (at an American university). It was not an unplanned pregnancy as such. BUT it was certainly unplanned when I entered the program five years earlier, at the age of 25!

    At 25 I had no idea I would marry, and believed strongly that I would never want children. Therefore I did not ask important questions about the institution I was entering, such as “what kind of maternity leave do you provide?” and “is there subsidized childcare for infants on campus?” and “is there subsidized health insurance available to the children of grad students?” and “what other forms of support do you provide for new parents?”

    As it turned out, the institutional support I received as a new parent was inadequate. (Disclaimer: I’m from Europe, so I have pretty high standards and expectations when it comes to workplace support of parents relative to Americans (apparently) but I’m sure as hell not apologizing for that.) My physical and psychological health and financial status have all been affected, and my time-to-graduation has been unnecessarily lengthened.

    BUT as long as students entering PhD programs do not ask these kinds of questions about support for new parents, there is unlikely to be any change, right? And yet, how can we convince a 25-year-old with no interest in marriage or children that this set of questions is relevant to her?

    (Well, I suppose this blog post is a start!)

  23. tcumming2013 says:

    Walter, I think your analysis is spot-on (caveats or no). So many of the factors you mentioned have happened to me, or those around me, during my candidature. I have: had a baby (what was I thinking when I already had one…oh yes, I was 38 and needed to ‘get on with it’), my husband was made redundant twice, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and my scholarship has run out. No wonder some days feel hard!! Thanks for your post – it brought me much relief to know I’m not alone…

  24. Mandalay says:

    An interesting post, and all the comments too. A colleague from Norway was saying that, over there, it is considered ‘the norm’ for women to fall pregnant during their PhD candidature (almost an expectation) although (unlike many other countries) there is significant parental support from both government, institutions and colleagues. However, the expectation was for women, and she noted that there was now a lot of focus and pressure on men to take their parental leave entitlements.

  25. Raelc70448 says:

    My wife had a baby 2 days before I was due to start the PhD so the sleepless nights really helped me find my feet in those early months. Then at the tail end of year 3….. Twins!!

    No parentel leave for men, although my wife gets it from her job. Grabbing teaching hours from everywhere to keep on top of things and stipend rapidly drawing to a close.

    The kids are great, the work not so much!

  26. Angelique Gatsinzi says:

    Reblogged this on Simply Angélique and commented:
    Last night in a room filled with young undergraduates I dared to ask them, ‘how old do I look?’. And they all responded, ‘between 23 and 25’. Well I am in fact 28. Looked utterly puzzled, one of them, an African Economics student said, ‘what I don’t get is how your parents have allowed you to escape marriage at your age’. Perfectly valid question if you have African parents, so I was not offended. Most parents in our cultures tend to start pressurising you into marriage when you hit the age of 25. At this age you should have managed an undergraduate degree and have at least a couple of years of work experience and thus savings. The obvious next step for a female of that age is to find herself a nice man (or get recommendations from Mommy’s long list of potential candidates). I don’t particularly think I actively avoided this route, for me it just never happened around that age and for the most part I would say that my immaturity and zest for discovering the world didn’t allow my mind to focus on marriage and settling down. Now that I am six months into my PhD and in a committed relationship, I have often wondered at which point of my PhD an engagement ring will surface, and how if this happens in the next three years I will cope with doing field work (in Ghana) and plan a dream wedding. How will I afford it? How will I juggle the process of planning my perfect wedding and savouring each moment of my research? They are both events that I have always wanted and as much stress and tears both will bring they are two things that I will always look back and thank God I experienced, but do I want to do them at the same time? I am not particularly concerned about my age as I am concerned about achieving what I want to achieve while I am on this Earth but I can’t help but think that society (especially my family), although they have remained tight-lipped about my choices so far; I can see that they have expectations and any time soon somebody will say something that will finally confirm the pressure I felt this time three years ago. My biological clock is ticking, and the sight and smell of babies sends me into disarray, but as I keep saying to my partner, ‘not until this PhD is over’, but am I correct in saying this. Could this possible be the best time?

    Anyway read this article for some insights, and especially the comments from academics and aspiring academics to get their thoughts!!! Real eye-opener and I am glad someone is struggling with the same dilemmas that constantly grip my mind.

    • Ali Godana says:

      Totally agree Angelique,
      Family pressure and expectations are things you will contend with from time to time. I also came from Africa to study in Australia and my last child was born seventeen years after his elder sister. Before our little son came along, one constant question from our extended family was “when are you getting another child”.

      Recently I mentioned to a Korean friend the age gap of our children, the fact that I work full time and will start my PhD in a few days, her response was….she didn’t know Africans are that egalitarian!!

      • Angelique Gatsinzi says:

        It is changing gradually for African women especially but extended families are being extremely generous if they remain tight-lipped post-30!!! I have 2 more years before family meetings to handle my ‘situation’ start to pop up in all corners of the globe!

  27. Kate says:

    Oh dear. This is a timely post! We female Italy-based PhD students have just clarified our status here and while we are due maternity leave and pay (since they take 50% of our salary away as tax!) we’ve just discovered that the net amount would be around 100€ per month!

    Long story short, even though in long-term committed relationships (and some of us are even married) none of us are pregnant and with rent being ten times the amount of maternity leave pay… it’s likely that none of us will be anytime soon. 100€ a month is simply ludicrous.

  28. Hilary Byrne says:

    This is a big issue. I’m surprised the average starting age for PhD is 34 as I thought it would be rather younger than that. (It happens most other PhD students in my group are rather younger than I am.) This is of course an age when many people are considering having children if they do not already have them, and for most people, postponing that decision until after PhD will not help as they will be in an unsecure string of Post-doc short contracts for years… until their chance to have children has passed them by.

    I have to say that a supportive supervisor goes a long way, and this was a big part of my choice of PhD. My husband has a full time job, so it has been possible for us to have two children over the course of my PhD, with my APA allowing maternity leave for one and a suspension for the other and part-time candidacy. My supervisor has been very supportive and understanding and we have tailored my work to be possible part-time. This means less experimentation and more theory than I would probably have otherwise done.

    There may be some advantages to having my children now, in that I do not have an established publishing record to keep up yet. It does make the PhD last a long time though – with two full years maternity and going part time after the end of my first year, it will take me about 8 years to complete!

    I agree with comments above that people starting PhDs should be able to ask about mat leave etc, but think that realistically this is difficult as a lot of PhD spaces are competitive and this may be seen as a point against you?

  29. robyn74 says:

    I could say: It’s worse to be an early career academic with a 6 month year old and a 2 year old. I could say: just go with the flow. Yep you’ll be poor but you never have heard of anyone say, “I regret having my kids”. But you do hear people say “I regret not having kids”. I started my PhD when my youngest started kindy (aged 4) and my oldest was 7. it’s been the best 3 years of my life. I haven’t missed anything at school, I haven’t travelled every month. I have freedom to “work at home” during school holidays. Having kids is difficult. It’s hard for everyone. But, guess what, your not the only person in the world to ever have a baby. Some people live on $22000 pa for the rest of their lives. You’re smart, you have potential to earn heaps. But you can’t buy time. …and no I don’t have a rich husband (he’s a chef, they get $25 an hour). We just live simply.

  30. FrancesB says:

    🙂 Well I haven’t gained any human children so far during my candidacy, but have had several unexpected life events which have eaten up time and energy resources – adopted several horses then became their sole carer, worked though significant behavioural issues with one, nursed other much loved pets through serious illness and in three cases thier eventual deaths, coped with a major new project at work, etc. As far as I can tell from talking wiht other people, these sorts of major life events during PhD are pretty much par for the course.

  31. Julien says:

    Such a reality check, it should on the application for the PhD!

    We don’t think about it when we plan for applying for the PhD program but life happens.
    I was 32 when I started with a one year old. Last year we had our second one but delivery went wrong. My wife went through several surgeries in the following 6 months and my daughter has now cerebral palsy. When life events start piling up there is a dangerous compounding effect: wife can’t work, scholarship is not enough for 4 people, teaching eats up on the rare writing time… Of course I forgot to mention that as a special need student it takes me longer to get into the writing mindset.

    There is no point to complain, life happens! I am so happy to see the progress of my kids and of my thesis. The latter doesn’t go as fast as my supervisors would like but believe it or not I am on par with some of my younger & single colleagues in my lab!

  32. Sarah says:

    My supervisor actually asked me if I planned to get pregnant before I started, as she has had so many PhD students get pregnant during their candidature (and some had multiple pregnancies!). I admire the determination of people who can go on to complete in the face of major life events, so bravo to all the people above who mentioned major life changes during their candidature. Being in the last year of my PhD, I can’t imagine how i would cope with a significant life change (and certainly not a pregnancy, where the hormonal shifts alone would probably send me over the edge!).

    I don’t know about other universities, but at Murdoch our formal policies say that extensions are not allowed due to personal reasons. Although informal ‘policy’ allows much more latitude, technically they do have the power to deny someone who fell pregnant an extension if they needed it.

    • PhD Fem says:

      Your supervisor should not have asked you that. That would not have been acceptable in any other professional context. Presumably your supervisor would not have take you on if you’d given him/her the ‘wrong’ answer- that’s pure discrimination. I wish I was surprised to, but its not the first time I’ve heard that.

      Of course you can’t get extensions based on personal reasons. But most Oz unis have maternity leave (and sick leave) as part of PhD scholarships, and the provision for part-time candidature (with scholarship). As it should be.

  33. Nicole Jones says:

    This issue is something I think of every day. I am a 29 year old PhD student and have just entered my 2nd year. I have been married for 6 years, all of which my husband has been desperate for a baby.

    I put off having a baby so I could save up the fees to go back to university for my Master’s degree. I then put off having a child so that I could do my PhD. I was worried that perhaps I wouldn’t get another funded PhD in the subject I wanted to study so felt I needed to accept it. My husband felt this was the right thing to do at the time, but now he has changed his mind.

    Last year I told him that a baby during PhD years would be too much and I’d most probably have to drop out of my course. He said to me I needed to decide what I really wanted, a child with the man I loved or a PhD alone. He won’t wait and I don’t want to either. I’d be 31-32 at the youngest attempting to have my first child, and that is if I finish on time. Worse than that, I’d not have a job at the end of my PhD and therefore no money to support a child (we can’t live on my husband’s salary alone). If I got a job straight away I’d still have to wait to be eligible for maternity leave to support us financially. By the time it’s convenient, I’ll have reduced my chances of having a child at all and certainly reduced my chances of having the two my husband and I really wish for.

    I’m secretly desperate for a child now as well. I feel like you are expected to be ok with your career choice deciding what you sacrifice in your private and family life. I’ve worked so hard for this PhD opportunity, but it’d mean nothing if I didn’t have children. I find myself surrounded by women who have chosen to not have children themselves in pursuit of their career. For a while I thought perhaps that is what I wanted too. But these women changed my mind. I can’t live like that, I am not like them. Nothing is worth that sacrafice to me.

    I’ve cried so many tears over this and I feel, if I can get pregnant, my pregnancy will be plagued by my supervisors distain for children (a male supervisor who expresses a strong dislike for children and a female in her early 50’s who chose not to have children).

    • PhD Fem says:

      Good luck with your decision NJ. Make the decision for yourself. Pleasing everyone else is impossible (and pointless). Don’t worry about what your supervisors think. Its none of their business. If you’re a good student, you’re a good student- nothing will change that. A baby may delay things a little, but its not going to make you dumb. Supervisors can be so loose lipped on things they shouldn’t be expressing an opinion about (like children!), but at the end of the day, most of them care little to nothing about our personal life, and all about our academic achievements. Be confident in yourself and prove to them what you’re capable of. It’ll work out for the best. The lack of role models (female academics with children), is not because of a lack of smart, capable women, but because of people’s attitude towards them- either putting them off having kids at all or because they were pushed out. Be brave and change that. The generation of bigoted old-men academics is on its way out anyway.

  34. h jane says:

    I’m about to return to my PhD after taking 18 months off for the birth of my first child. It was a very hard decision to try for a child when I had only just started (I’ve done one year p/t) but at 33 I felt like I couldn’t put it off any longer.
    I’m really happy with our decision however I’m now ‘unofficially’ starting back prior to my official return on 30 June. To be quite honest, I am very nervous about how it will all go. I have a lovely supervisor who was very supportive when I told him that I was pregnant but I’m not sure how to manage the transition back in and how to achieve a work/life/family balance. Prior to having our child I was working full-time and spent a good portion of my non-working/studying time THINKING about studying so am anxious for this not to happen again.

    Any advice on how to reintegrate back into university life, stay motivated and maintain balance and boundaries would be very gratefully received!

    • Anonymous says:

      First of all, congrats on becoming a mum 🙂
      I’d say having a supportive supervisor is a big plus at this point. I don’t know how it will work for you, but I did my PhD two days a week and found I loved the time to let my brain work again – it made me a better mother the other days too. It was hard to get the grey cells working again, be prepared for everything to take longer to do for a little while, but do persevere, it will come back. Interestingly I found it easier coming back after the second one.
      Best of luck!

  35. Anonymous says:

    I have been pregnant 4 times throughout my PhD – one baby, two miscarriages and currently in 4th pregnancy. Clearly, its been difficult. However, the most difficult aspect has been the lack of institutional support and services for returning from maternity leave.

    My child was 2.5 years old before we offered a any childcare spot. The university has no occasional care (despite local councils being able to provide this easily and affordably), so coming to workshops, a visit to the library, to participate in postgrad events has been either impossible or with child in tow. The cost of childcare is expensive (think ~$100 / day mark) and even though we get the government rebate, this is most of my current PT scholarship payment (taxed).

    It has been impossible to attend conferences out of my home city, let alone internationally.The feelings of isolation in the PhD have been compounded- isolating socially and academically.

    Whilst my university has a policy for assisting ECR with caring responsibilities, this is not yet extended to PhD researchers.

    Whilst I believe that I will finish the PhD – I feel strongly that I will be at a disadvantage from students who have not had caring responsibilities.

    However, I believe its our responsibility to advocate for the university to change its policy – not to put life on hold just to get a PhD.

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