Is a PhD really like a child?

This post is by Anastasija Ropa, who did her doctoral research at the School of English, Bangor University, UK. Her doctoral research was in the Arthurian and Grail quest studies, involving the study of such issues as death, female authority as well as family and global history in medieval and modern versions of the Grail quest. 

Anastasija is currently affiliated to the University of Latvia, where she has done her undergraduate and MA degrees, and works as lecturer of English and translator at the Latvian Academy of Sports Education. She is actively presenting at conferences and publishing on medieval and modern literature and history. 

‘A PhD is like a child’ my supervisor told me once. There and then, I had to agree. However, as good as this analogy may sound, there are ways in which PhD is not a child.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 8.37.43 amAdmittedly, a PhD grows like on. From a helpless loud little baby in its first year to a mischievous unruly yet not entirely independent toddler in its second year, and, finally, to an almost adult but not quite so piece of research, by the time of submission.

An almost adult, I say, because a PhD thesis is neither a journal article nor a book, as anybody who tried to revise their thesis for publication can tell you. And, at whatever stage it is, you love your research with all the motherly (or fatherly) passion you can master, even though it you feel exasperated, frustrated or exhausted by its demands. Y

et a PhD is unlike a child is that you can take a break from it, suspending your studies for anything from a month to a year, in case other things arise. But how do you suspend caring for your own child?

A PhD is a long journey – in theory, a full-time PhD in Britain takes three years and one writing up year, and six years for part-time students, but in reality the journey may take longer much longer. Some travellers never make it – not all of these are busy mummies and daddies, either (I am thinking of an earlier Thesis Whisperer post, Inger Mewburn, ‘Why do people quit the PhD?’.

A lot of things can happen in these years, like falling in love, getting married, losing a close person, moving houses, finding an alternative job – or having a child. You may also acquire an exciting hobby or a demanding pet. In other words, let us admit that study is not the only thing around which a student’s life revolves, and it would be unfair to demand that doctoral research should constitute the single focus of a student’s life.

During the Effective Researcher course I attended early on during my doctoral studies, I was told it is vital to have a good work-life balance. When I enthusiastically communicated this information to my husband, he wryly observed that they have the priorities wrong, it should be life and work.

There is no shame in admitting that there are times when life, the student’s personal life, comes first, and studies second. On the other hand, in the vastly competitive field of medieval studies, too much personal life may be detrimental for your studies and, in the long term, for your academic career.

As always, the question is how to set the priorities and how willing you are to take risks. Having a child is a huge responsibility, albeit a joyous one. It is an event that, like PhD studies, changes all your life, and it can give you an inspiration for continuing your research – or for opting out.

Every situation is different, because children are not the same, and so are their parents; the circumstances in which families find themselves also vary enormously. A doctoral student whose research is funded as part of a project may be under more pressure to submit on time than the one whose study is self-funded. Meanwhile, a bigger family certainly entails more expenses, and family accommodation on campus is neither easy to get nor cheap.

Leaving aside these material concerns, what worried me most, and what worries many parents (or prospective parents) is that, with a small child, you have neither time nor energy to write the thesis.

This is not true. Having a child transforms a way you do the research and write, but it may not be a bad thing, for at least three reasons:

A child teaches you to see everything from a new angle. Try to look at the familiar sources the way a baby looks at a bright, attractive object. How does it feel in your hands (and mouth)? How does it smell? To what uses can you put it? Handling your material like a child who receives a new toy (or something that is not a toy) leads to innovative, transdisciplinary, groundbreaking discoveries.

A child, paradoxically, can make you better organised. If you want anything to be done at all, you have to do it, and no excuses. Your abstracts, chapters and proposals have to be written while the little one is asleep or away, no more exploration of side issues, browsing Facebook, checking email or making a cup of tea. All this can wait till you finish what you really need to do, if you want your work done before you hear this desperate cry ‘mummy’!

I learned to write conference abstract and introductory paragraphs in my mind, then edit them in my mind, and type them up whenever I could get five or ten minutes. Like Celtic bards, who are reputed to have composed lengthy poems without writing them down, I composed sentences and chapter plans in my mind, then wrote them in my head before I ever put it on paper or laptop.

Finally, having a child makes you realise that you need to take care of yourself, plan ahead and be realistic about what you can and cannot do if you want to survive – no all-night sitters to complete your submission within hours before the deadline. My little boy taught me in the very first month that no work should be done by night; apparently he disliked my working at night hours, because he would always wake up whenever I tried to do anything after midnight. I was not a very good learner, but he finally trained me to do everything by day and to set realistic goals.

How about you – do you ever think of your thesis as a child? Does it make unreasonable demands on you, or help you see things from a different angle?

Related posts

Single parenting through a PhD

Don’t get pregnant, if you can help it…

18 thoughts on “Is a PhD really like a child?

  1. Ruth says:

    Nothing like a child at all. A child is a legal responsibility.

    I can’t help thinking though, that people do choose whether to have a child in the first place, and there is no point meaning if you got pregnant during your PhD, or your partner did: everyone knows how not to.

    I had a ten year old when I started my PhD and as tough as it is, no power on earth would make me have another child during a course of study- those who are funded have a moral obligation NOT to make completing so much more difficult- nobody would condone someone spending their bursary on cocaine, or designer clothes, or extreme sports, the taking longer to complete because the consequences had made their studies sonics harder! Having a child during a PhD is the ultimate self-indulgence, and those who do so should never ever complain: it was their own choice and complaining merely depressed other people.

    My child has hit her teens and totally detailed my PhD, and I just suck it up: and remind myself that I’m doing it the hard way, by my own inexplicable choice.

    • Ruth says:

      Some typos: ‘meaning’ should be ‘moaning’; ‘the taking’ should be ‘then taking’; ‘sonics’ should be ‘so much’; ‘depressed’ should be ‘depresses’… I will definitely have thesis corrections!

      • S says:

        While I am glad for you that you managed to plan and time your study/young children so effectively, not everyone has the same life choices. A few years ago, as a 32-year-old embarking on a phd, but also with mother who had gone through early menopause, I chose to do both at the same time. I am a highly organised person, and have worked in a range of corporate professions that have required extremely good time management.
        If we are on a scholarship, the idea that we have no moral obligation not to have children is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Just like well-paid employees have a fundamental right (and allowances in contracts) for children, so do most scholarships (though obviously not well paid). Similarly, scholarships holders have every right to spend their stipend on whatever they like – of course within legal bounds.
        Plenty of people can cope fine with kids plus phd, and many cant (and can’t even without kids). Projecting your views here don’t make them universally true (and of course, neither are mine)..
        (And you say ‘we’ who choose kids in phd should ‘never complain’… And yet, you are allowed to – In a passive, sucking it up way – But you chose to have a phd knowing you would have a teenager… So… Why do you have more right to complain??? My point is that you do – just as ANYone who breathes has a right to… Even for self inflicted pains! Empathy, indeed.)

    • raccontando says:

      When I started my PhD I had been trying to have a child for many years with no luck. A year in, I fell pregnant with twins! Should I have stopped trying for four years, just in case? Yes, it is hard and I chose the situation I was in but not everything in life can be planned and to describe my choice as self-indulgent and equate it to spending money on cocaine is quite frankly ridiculous and rather offensive.

    • Louca-Mai Brady says:

      Like others I am shocked and by your comments. Having a child during a PhD is NOT the ultimate self-indulgence, and can in no way be compared to spending a bursary on cocaine, designer clothes, or extreme sports. People come to a PhD at many different stages of life and for many different reasons. I am not going to explain or justify my life choices to you, and I am not complaining about the circumstances which led to me doing a PhD while I have small children. But sometimes life works out in ways we did not anticipate, something this post addresses really well. Many of us are, like you, ‘doing it the hard way’. But as someone who has their own experience of doing a PhD as a parent I find your apparently lack of compassion and empathy suprising and quite offensive.

      • Sarah says:

        Here here. I do suspect that whoever posted that might benefit from getting help from friends, colleagues or university support. It’s quite worrying that someone would lash out so much in an anonymous online domain and it suggests to me that they are unhappy and could do with getting some support to get through it.

    • Sarah says:

      I can’t tell if this post is real or a joke? Students, be they funded or not, have the right to maternity/paternity leave: a fact with which your own views on gender (in)equality in academia do not chime.

      Anybody has the right to moan, just as you are moaning about people moaning. I’m now moaning at you for moaning. Moaning to friends face to face is therapeutic!

      Ps. I’m funded and had a child during my PhD (and finished as a single parent having left an abusive marriage). I’ve done really well to submit on time and don’t actually know how I managed it given that the childcare took up all of my studentship after rent. I deserve a medal! But I’ll just take my PhD as a consolation prize. Peace out!

    • Suzy says:

      How dare you? I sincerely hope your research is broader than your judgement here. Fully funded, PhD student, parent to a toddler, exhausted, worried (yes! And every right to sometimes let off steam), academically supported, part-time, feel both my work and my family are worth it. Ready to support any other parent or carer postgrads both now and in the future when I hope to be teaching. Thank god my supervisory team are not like you. With such a judgemental, hard attitude to others I hope you are never put in a pastoral role. What I and other PhD parents do is very, very hard at times and this is to be applauded, and treated with kindness. There is a good Facebook group for PhD and postdoctoral parents if anyone’s interested. A good place if you want to grumble or get advice!

    • Natalia says:

      Hi Ruth, this is a late comment so possibly won’t be read. If this is a genuine post, my empathy for you. You don’t elaborate on the circumstances for the decision to start a PhD, but it can be a huge challenge if you have a child, or are a carer for someone else, or have a disability. People may start this journey for any number of reasons – for many, it is the hope of an academic career and to continue their research aspirations, with some (vague, now) idea that this would provide a stable income. If that is ‘total detail’ (derailing?) there are many of us who have been/are there.
      If your child is a teenager and causing angst, then your decision to do a PhD may/may not have any influence upon their age and current disposition. (I had four teenagers during my PhD years, and there were some very very low, difficult, times). Thinking of the child as interfering with our aspirations is confronting, and I suspect many others have had to grapple with that idea. Me, too. One of my children developed a chronic illness during their teen years that will ultimately (and nearly has) shortened their lifespan.
      I finished my PhD but the academic career won’t work for me when my (now adult) child is extremely dependent. So, it’s been one of those alternative academic pathways, which has been very windy and not entirely satisfying, but I have met some lovely people along the way and learned a lot of different skills. For you, I don’t know where you are with the PhD but all the best for the decisions you make. And please don’t judge those who do have children, as sometimes they also are struggling, but just don’t show it or complain.

  2. the édu flâneuse says:

    Thanks for this post, Anastasija. I’ve heard others refer to their PhD like a pregnancy, but not like a child. I prefer other non-person metaphors like stone sculpture – – or cake – .

    I agree that having young children transforms your relationship with your PhD in good ways. Mine were 6 months and 2 years old when I began and I found that my level of focus and organisation during my stolen moments of POhD work was sharpened. I saw my research and writing as a privilege, a luxury and an escape into my own intellectual paradise. Hard, yes, but rewarding, too. In my PhD work it could be all about me! Now that I have completed I will miss this intellectual ‘me time’.

    I also connect with your experience of writing in your head. I would often mindfully plant research problems for myself and then allow my brain to work through that across the day or night. I would do lots of my ‘working out’ this way so that I had done plenty of thinking by the time I sat down to write. There’s nothing like the combination of small children, work and PhD study to inspire efficiencies!


  3. Connie Z (@conniexplore) says:

    Regarding my research project as a child makes me feel guilty or hesitate when I come to the thought of abandon it for better chance at work (as I am a part-time student), or even faster career advancement. I always come to the basic question of which I want the most: work or research. At least for now, my answer would always be I love my research more and I want “this child” to grow more than anything else.

  4. Chanakya Research says:

    Very nicely compared to a Child!
    Yes I even I also feel so. Being a novice when we enter a PhD and start working on thesis, we gradually become a mature adult to turn our thesis in to a veteran.

  5. niekyvanveggel says:

    I will let you know as soon as I start my new doctoral program later this year. My son is now 7 weeks old, so the doctorate and the child will roughly be the same age, and I am sure both will have toddler tantrums etc… Watch this space!

  6. thegrailquest says:

    Oh dear, never thought my post would generate so many comments… Having a child is not spending my money on cocaine, because children are natural! who would be going to universities in 20 years if we stop having kids just because it is self-indulgent. By the way, I have been trying for a child for quite a while before I started my PhD, without much hope because my doctor said the chances are low… well, from some replies it looks like doing PhD is increases fertility rates :). Has any research on this topic been carried out yet ? 🙂

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