Dr Daddy and the Double Act

We’ve written about parenting through a PhD quite a lot on the Whisperer. Last time we heard from Jonathan Downie he was parenting a toddler. This time Jonathan reflects on being a PhD Dad. You can read more about Jonathan and his work on his blog Rock Your Talk.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 8.42.35 pmIt’s 4.30pm and the new student welcome event is in full swing. There’s even the odd bottle of wine doing the rounds. Practically no one shows any real desire to leave. No one, that is, except me. Just as everyone else is piling into the cupcakes (again!) or grabbing some more nibbles, I throw on my coat, shoulder my bag and head for the door.

“Where are you going?” asks one of my friends.

“Off home to my wife and son,” came the response.

“Don’t you see them often enough?” she prods cheekily.

“They are the people I most want to spend time with in the world,” I said, making the rest of the room smile and coo at the ‘cuteness’.

It was a small exchange and one that inadvertently brought me some kudos but it said more than meets the eye. In a world where guest lectures often end at toddler bed times and career-building involves three day conferences hundreds of miles away from home, tough decisions have to be made. And not just by mums.

I really appreciate the growing recognition of the fact that being a mum and a researcher places particular demands on women. It is now wonderfully fashionable to see Doctor mummy blogs, support groups, and campaigns. All this is great. Sadly, daddy pressures rarely appear on the radar.

There are several reasons. Men, traditionally, have attempted to reconcile the potential conflicts between work and family by preferring the former.

The stereotypical image of a “dad” is still one of someone who works late and then treats home as a place to put his feet up and read the newspaper before having his dinner, watching TV and going to sleep.

Of course, we all know that this looks nothing like reality but it still says something that we need the term “career woman” but not “career man”. We tend to assume that men will put their careers above everything else.

What if they don’t? What if they choose to skip most guest lectures in favour of messy dinner tables, dropped chips, and nappy changes? What if they decide that they want to integrate career and family, childcare and work, rather than treating their children like distractions?

To be fair, I have to say that my own department gets this absolutely right. It is chock-full of young families and there is a real understanding of the need to integrate parenting and work. After the birth of both of my kids, my part-time status allowed me, with the support of my supervisors, to get back to research on a suitable schedule. I just wished sleep had been as easy to sort out!

What has been challenging, however, has been dealing with conferences and data collection. As far as conferences are concerned, I have made the most of the few great ones taking place at my own university.

Choosing when and where to go on top of that has been anything but easy. For the first year after my son was born, I simply chose to stay at home. My reasoning was that there would always be more conferences but children don’t stay babies for long.

Nowadays, when it comes to conferences, I make decisions in partnership with my wife and within strict limits. After having one crazy week, where I had a board meeting in England, an interpreting job a few miles away and a conference at my uni back-to-back, I knew that I needed guidelines.

We now have limits as to how much I will be away in any week and any month. On this, resources such as Bill Hybels’s book Simplify have been a godsend. Once I knew my time priorities, I felt far more confident to say no, or at least, not this time.

Data collection was even more fun. Traditionally, academics go into the field alone. I took my wife and children to everything except my pilot study. We found out my wife was expecting our son shortly after she had come with me to a conference I was studying in England. She was very clearly expecting our daughter while she was with me in Germany for another data collection trip. We are planning to take both of our toddlers with us to a seminar I am leading in Southern Europe later this year.

All this adds up to some amazing memories. I don’t think I will ever forget doing a research interview on a three-seater outdoor swing, while my year-and-a-bit-old son sat inside “serenading” his mummy on the glockenspiel. Transcription is much more fun when it makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.

But now we have two children (and a third due Christmas 2015), I know that life will only get more crowded. I still plan to integrate family and research as much as possible. Yet every researching parent will tell you that the System still needs tweaking to take the needs of dads (and mums) into account.

Could conferences offer family activity programs? Might the packs we get at training events include colouring pencils and join-the-dot pictures? Could guest lectures be streamed or recorded for watching later, or, here’s a shocker, might they take place earlier in the day?

My children have already taught me a whole lot about research. But mostly what they have taught me is that research will still be there after one more story, one more nappy change, and after my daughter is finished “singing” her unique version of “Horsey, Horsey, Don’t You Stop.” And anyway, we all know you work better with a smile on your face (and yoghurt on your sweater).

Related Posts

Parenting your way to a PhD

The positives of PhD parenting

The perils of PhD parenting

39 thoughts on “Dr Daddy and the Double Act

  1. Carroll says:

    Jonathan, thanks for sharing your insights. Parenting and academia do not make for an easy mix – there is always something more waiting to be done for both. I’d love to say that I agree with your choices, but it’s hard to find words that don’t sound patronising – but I’ll risk it anyway. It sounds like you’re definitely managing to balance family live and loves with your academic work.
    Unfortunately, the tension between the two doesn’t stop when you gain your doctorate. Fortunately, the Athena SWAN program is spreading, and while this program started as a STEMM gender equity program, it seems that the benefits that flow from the program extend much wider than the original aims. It’s time to change expectations of how we work in academia.

  2. Dr No says:

    I find it incredibly tedious listening to parents moan about how tough life is, like those who don’t have children, somehow have it easier. It’s rubbish. We all lead busy lives. I chose not to have children, as they hold no interest for me whatsoever and I grafted just like everyone else who’s got a PhD. Life isn’t easier without kids, and likewise it’s not tougher, it’s just different.

    Maybe I can draft a thread specifically about the challenges of doing a PhD when you’re single, have a dog and/or have no kids.

    • Evan says:

      “…like those who don’t have children, somehow have it easier.”
      No, of course, every single PhD candidate in the world has exactly the same challenges. /s

      There are special challenges to doing a PhD with kids, and these need to be shared and discussed. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. I’m sure there are also special challenges to doing one without kids/with a dog. Writing about challenges of parenting during a PhD doesn’t devalue your experience unless you take offence to it.

      “Maybe I can draft a thread specifically about the challenges of doing a PhD when you’re single, have a dog and/or have no kids.”
      I’m sure that would be absolutely fine. Maybe you’d get snarky comments about, “people moaning about academia, like those who work regular jobs somehow have it easier.”

      • Thesis Whisperer says:

        Dr No, I very nearly deleted your comment in line with my moderation policy, clause one: http://thesiswhisperer.com/moderation-policy/

        Luckily Evan replied in a sensitive and constructive way (thank you Evan), so I’ll leave it here so that we all remember to keep it nice.

        Everyone’s experience is valid. I’d welcome a post which talks about the pressure that people without kids experience. If you feel moved to write one, please do.

    • Sarah B says:

      I has my child during my 2nd year so I know what it’s like to do a Phd with and without children. Let me tell you that the two situations are worlds apart. While I was expecting, I would arrogantly and naively promise myself that my ability to meet deadlines would not falter on my return from maternity leave and looking back I see how foolish I was. I completely underestimated how difficult it would be to write a PhD on 2 hours sleep a night and with limited childcare. I didn’t know what I was talking about. Nor, it seems, do you.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Jonathan. Great post. It’s always nice to be reminded you are not alone in an experience. I am employed full-time and working on my PhD. A new born and toddler at home. 4 hours of travel each day as we live outside of the city. I also do my fair share of cooking, feeding, changing and cleaning. If it wasn’t for the long train trips I would have very limited time to write. These are life choices that we make and my wife and I help each other where-ever we can.

    As for ‘unique’ or ‘different’ experiences, once you have other people depending on you, your outlook, priorities and focus all change. I don’t know the measuring stick used for ‘easier’ but for me there is no doubt in my mind that life (and study) was easier as a single, no kids, person. But I would never give up what I have just for the easy life. If we wanted easy lives we wouldn’t be doing PhDs.

  4. JNTan says:

    Good on you Jonathan for sharing this. I’ve heard snide remarks that moms shouldn’t be allowed to do PhDs as they are not committed. And this was coming for the Director of HDR of a reputable university! If any, I think PhD moms and dads (who want to be there for their kids and partners) are the best people to work with because they have no time to waste and are usually quite good at juggling all their many commitments.

  5. Larisa Barnes says:

    I like your suggestions about making conferences more friendly for those of us with families – my husband has been a ‘conference widower’ a couple of times but enjoyed exploring the city we were in with our kids. On the other hand, last year I went to Liquid Gold, a national breastfeeding conference with national and international speakers put on by the Australian Breastfeeding Association. It was a very professional conference designed for health care professionals working in maternity, infant and child health, and also for volunteers of the ABA. BUT in consideration of the needs of mums and babies to be able to attend it was breastfeeding and child friendly. A team of volunteers helped with on-site childcare, you could book catering for your partner/helper, presentations were live-streamed to a separate room where people with young kids or unsettled babies could watch and participate from, without fear that the littlies would disturb others, and presentations were also recorded for later watching. There were also facilities for those attendees needing to pump and store breastmilk if they were separate from their breastfeeding baby.
    It was a fantastic way to include parents in a very professional environment!

  6. Sarah B says:

    I like this contribution- I have been requesting more pieces about PhDs and parenting on the Thesis Whisperer.

    My experience as a single PhD Mum, however, is completely different to Jonathan’s.

    Firstly, (unless I’ve missed something), Jonathan doesn’t make any mention of childcare costs. I’m going to outline how this problem affected my PhD not for a whinge but because I know that thousands of others are in the same position.

    During the final year of my PhD, after my funding had expired, my childcare bill exceeded my income. Prior to that, my entire studentship went on childcare and rent on a 2 bedroom house. I was in such poverty that I qualified to use a food bank. Myself and my pre-school child were forced to live in a damp, mouldy house beside an airport because no tenancy agency would accept my income for a better rented property. The cost of childcare is so prohibiting for ECRs that it merits proper discussion. I’m surprised the problem has been omitted here.

    Secondly, Jonathan mentions that he must ‘choose’ whether to attend or stay at academic events. As a single parent, I simply end up deleting all email notifications of events taking place after 3pm because there’s no way I can go, let alone have the choice.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like a whinge but many single parents (be they Moms or Dads) are virtually excluded from academic networking. It is also hard for PhD parents with partners, and I recognise that Jonathan is asking the right kinds of questions towards the end of his piece. I only hope that ECR parents actually ask these questions in a more assertive, practical way by speaking to department/research group bosses and conference committees to ask ‘Can’t these events be held earlier in the day?’ or ‘I know a company that provides softplay entertainment for conference events, would you like their website link?’. If everyone asked for change directly then academia would be pushed to move into the 21st Century.

    • Jonathan Downie says:

      That is a far bigger issue. We are homeschoolers so childcare comea as standard, although that produces problems of its own. Maybe my wife should write a post on homeschooling through the PhD one day…

      But yes, childcare is going to be massive for single parents and there seems to be no awareness of how big an issue it would be. I do know some universities that have nurseries/playgroups but nothing more. It will be necessary for them to think more clearly about that in future as the profile of the student population is no longer that of the 23 year old who has never been outside of education.

      I vote with you on holding conferences/guest talks earlier in the day. We do have lives!

      • Sarah B says:

        If your wife is also doing a PhD as well as being a stay at home Mum I think that’d be really interesting to read. How does she make conferences?

        My own University (a Russell Group institution in the UK) refuses to consider in investing in childcare facilities, based on the fact that the academic registrar doesn’t think there is a staff or student butdemand for one. Meanwhile, the other (new) university in my city has expanded its existing childcare in a multimillion pound project and very quickly after expanding it was full to capacity with a 6 month waiting list. Obviously, there are some hidden reasons as to why prestigious research-intensive institutions do not want to support staff and students with children. Universities which do offer childcare are notoriously expensive. My child went to the newly expanded neighbouring university nursery because it was the only way I could work between 10am and 5pm for a few days a week. However, freeing up my time this way meant living in poverty and relying on benefits/hardship fund grants.

        When I was with my husband, fieldwork in the rural Andes was difficult to negotiate as the LO was a baby but there was no way I could have completed my fieldwork had he not given up his work to join me for 6 months of it. I simply couldn’t have done my fieldwork as a single parent and I’m indebted to my ex husband for his contribution. But what about those parents without spouses/partners? Or spouses who can’t travel? How are they supposed to do it? Academia is really tough, especially if ethnography is involved!

    • Anonymous says:

      I am in the same situation. I am about to start my PhD (having just finished a Master’s) with a two year old. I still sleep in the same room as my child because I can’t afford more than one room. I’m lucky enough to live with a great roommate and hope grandparents will be able to help with “babysitter” to offset the cost of childcare in the near future.

  7. Em says:

    I find this really interesting and lost my first reply. My first thought was, who was doing the child care? And was his partner working full time or part time? I as a woman doing a PhD have a husband who works long hours full time. I mange study and primary responsibility of children along with utilising childcare, kinder and school hours! I think it is a great idea to take your family with you but not one most people can manage. I think a father who is very involved in his kids life and involves them in his is really pretty manageable unless he’s also doing the childcare/home duties. Some of the examples mentioned I do as well, for example, I take the kids on a library run on the weekend. This is a quick errand, not really work, but they get to run around campus at a quiet time and have a milkshake and I don’t get demerit points from the library. That is quite different to the OhMyGod I have a deadline and a sick child and I’ll be working to 2am again day.

      • Anonymous says:

        I am doing a PhD, and had been a homeschooling mum to our four kids until half-way through the PhD. It’s a hard balance. Good luck. I’ve had to put them in school because I couldn’t do both!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for another great post. I think you’re absolutely right to be asking questions about why academic life couldn’t be more family-friendly, but at the same time I wonder whether it’s worth looking at WHY there appears to be so little interest in reforming the structure of universities so that a broader range of people fit in, whether as academics or as students.

    I come from a fairly conservative field in the Humanities, so it’s possible that my experience is an atypical one, but it does at least cross three continents and five departments. My observation is that no one is interested in instituting family-friendly policies because they have no interest in being family-friendly. The vast majority of postgrad students and academics in my field are not only child-free, they are relationship-free. Being single and having literally no one to consider but yourself seems to be virtually a requirement for surviving in some academic environments, where lots of people job around from place to place, and where the workload can (sometimes) be suited only to workaholics.

    In my field, I have observed that there is a definite tendency — amongst the young academics, not just the fusty old-timers — to refuse to take people seriously who aren’t single and prepared to spend their entire waking lives either teaching, researching, networking or publishing. Personally, I find this deeply unhealthy and rather insular, but it does seem to go very deep. In Classics, at least, there is a powerful but unspoken code that it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that the field is not encouraging to people who don’t fit the old-school model of the bachelor/spinster academic — this includes people with dependent family members, people with spouses whose jobs are just as important as theirs, people who want (as opposed to need) to work outside of the field as well as teaching/studying…the list goes on.

    I’m not trying to rain on your parade, just observing that it is likely to be a tough project getting universities to take parental issues seriously, at least until there is a critical mass of students/academics shouting about it. And getting that critical mass is in itself going to be a problem, when the environment is as discouraging as some of the places I’ve seen. I wish you all the best of luck, though!

    • Jonathan Downie says:

      As with everything, it is most definitely field dependent. In my own field, we have such a high number of academics also working outside of academia that the need to balance life is a given. I am also in a fairly young department where we actually discourage overwork: sustainability is the key.

      Thanks for the warning about Classics. I would love to hear stories of people breaking through those barriers. As an interesting paralle, what is the gender balance like among senior academics in your field?

      • Anonymous says:

        Hi Jonathan,

        Apologies for the slow reply. The gender balance in my field is (I’m told) pretty similar to the rest of the Humanities. At grad student level, there are probably more women than men, but very few female senior academics. A relatively high number of junior women academics, but none of them seem to survive to the higher levels. I know the feeling — it’s just too draining to be doing all the work (especially the stuff that the older men think is ‘pointless’, like high-school extra curricular engagement and cross-disciplinary stuff) as well as trying to have a life.

        Perhaps it’ll change over time as the ‘old guard’ retire, but personally I think it’s unlikely. After all, we’re all being measured these days on how much we teach, publish, administer etc. etc. and women often perform worse on these matrices by virtue of (quite often) bearing a greater burden of familial duties. I guess all I’m saying is that in my field I see a strong desire to actively inculcate in the younger academics the same attitudes/behaviours that I consider non-family-friendly, and which other fields consider to be ridiculously out-dated.

  9. Michele says:

    Hi everyone. I wonder if I could outline a different perspective, ie. that of a parent with older children.

    I have 3 children but only the youngest, a teenage boy, is still at school and at home. My husband works very long hours and home/domestic duties have long fallen on my shoulders. I work part-time outside the home but am doing my PhD full-time. I have just started on the PhD so at this point am only thinking about things such as conferences away and workshops to fill in gaps in technical skills. But the field I am working in will require research trips overseas as well.

    My dilemma is how I am going to go away for the longish periods of time needed for various reasons and ensure things still run smoothly. I hear those parents who take their family along and incorporate them into research trips and conferences. I’d like to be able to do that but my teenager has a full school and extra-curricular life and doesn’t enjoy travel in the bargain. He’s extremely unwilling to go. So, I’ve been priming him and my husband to oversee themselves and run the house inc look after pets, laundry, meals for the times when I will have to go in the future.

    No doubt many will say this situation is my own fault. My answer is that I am not looking for sympathy, merely keen to present the viewpoint of a parent with older kids and hear what others in similar situations have to say.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I attended a seminar recently on parenting your way through a PhD – at the university it was held at, the waiting list for childcare is 2 years. I agree everyone has their own set of challenges undertaking a PhD, however for me, working FT and completing my Masters before children was a walk in the park compared to studying a PhD with 3 young children and working PT.

  11. Lachlan Fetterplace says:

    Really great post and the comments are really interesting to read as well, I really don’t know how some people manage to get a PhD or work in academia in some of the circumstances mentioned. The comment on childcare was particularly relevant for me.

    If anyone is interested this post on dynamic ecology was really useful in helping me make up my mind about spending more time at home https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/you-do-not-need-to-work-80-hours-a-week-to-succeed-in-academia/

  12. Sharonnz says:

    Like Michele, I’m PhDing with older children (16, 13, 10) so childcare costs have thankfully not been an issue. We also home educate. I performed this role until this year when we’ve accessed online tutoring for them. I would love, love, love to take my family on fieldwork but an unfunded PhD does not offer that option. I am extremely grateful for a fully supportive husband who runs the show while I sit on the Thai-Burma border for weeks at a time. Thanks for your post, Jonathan – I’ve forwarded to my husband to read as it reflects his experience trying to obtain work/life balance in his career.

  13. Laura says:

    Slightly galling to hear moaning from phd students with children who HAVE A PARTNER. Sort of can’t bear it. Find myself strangely sympathetic to the child-free commenter here even though I am a single parent of two children. Many of the dilemmas presented here are things I can only dream of even having an option about. But then no-one made me do it and many things in life turn out to be quite different from our expectations. It’s going to be messy, and the process probably involves coming to terms with giving it all up on more than one occasion. I have recently finished – something I was only able to achieve because I didn’t ever finally give up and I was lucky enough to have a supervisory team that kept right behind me through the best and the worst.

    • Sarah B says:

      Yup! Here here. I used to moan when I was married and when we separated I got a reality check! See my earlier comment!

      • Bill says:

        Laura you know what? Its not a competition. I have it pretty good myself so maybe I don’t understand but I’m not about to tell anyone else they aren’t doing it tough or even that their ‘doing it tough’ isn’t as tough as someone else (because how does anyone really know? Especially online right)? The truth is that there is always someone doing it tougher than you no matter where on the gradient you sit. Are you saying people shouldn’t write about their own experiences? That seems kinda weird to me.

  14. NQ says:

    Just to preface this comment, I’m not getting at the author AT ALL. Just making a comment, which you may take in the context that I’m female and very happily child-free.

    In my department (science, USA) there seems to be a bias towards men with children and away from women with children. This is backed up, I’ve heard, by a study I haven’t read… Women with children are doing what women are traditionally ‘meant’ to do (I hope you can hear the venom in my comment). They are not committed workers because they have children; they will take time away from work to look after the kids, as their maternal instincts tell them to. However, men with kids? What a hero! Not only is he a talented scientist, he’s also bringing up children, teaching them soccer, being a good dad? Where I work, men (only if they’re higher than PhD level, I’ll grant you) bring in their kids on the weekends and show them off to anybody who will listen. Women don’t dare.

    • Sarita says:

      This is exactly what I thought. If I , as a woman, bring my child to a conference, (as I once tried) people stand up, whisper and move seats to avoid my child.

      I don’t even get to the point where I can leave an evening conference mid-way as I’m a single parent. But if I send group emails to request if events might be held earlier, I get no ‘here, here!’ or back up from others in a similar position. If a man made these suggestions he’d be a hero and just a fab, spiffing person in general. Aaaargh!

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