Finding your people online – PhD and ECR parents

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The solitary aspects of a PhD can certainly be amongst the most challenging to manage. Whether you work on campus among an active community of fellow researchers or as a distance student, the process of researching and writing a PhD inevitably involves lots of time alone in your head. It’s no surprise that many of us turn to social media as a way of connecting with the world ‘out there’.

But the relationship between social media and writing a thesis is a fraught one. On the one hand, it’s the perfect storm of diversion – you don’t have to get up, you don’t even have to look out the window. Just one click and you can be instantly transported to a world without word counts or deadlines, where everyone is either having fun or being outraged. On the other hand, Facebook and Twitter are so ubiquitous that many research centres use these platforms to point to new work, and so it becomes counter-productive to avoid them completely.

Many would recognize the old adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. So too a thesis. A ‘village’ of supportive supervisors, colleagues, mentors, friends both inside and outside academia, partners and family makes for a happier, more balanced candidate. But our PhD journeys have been immeasurably improved by another kind of village. The PhD and ECR Parents Facebook group is an online space for people who are going through or recently finished a PhD while – rather obviously – parenting children.

If the work of doing a PhD (and by this we mean both the emotional work as well as the actual work) is testing, doing it while parenting brings an additional set of challenges. Whether it is a ‘solid’ work day squeezed into school hours, an important paragraph stopped in its tracks by the needs of a small person, or carefully laid fieldwork or lab plans scuppered by an unexpected dash to the doctor with a sick child, interruptions to schedules are the norm, not the exception. The flexibility of PhD time can be both a blessing as well a curse. Most parents would do anything to avoid having to drag a small child along to a medical appointment or grocery shopping. For a PhD parent fitting these things into your day becomes a breeze. A breeze that is, until you realize that school pick-up is only 45 minutes away and you haven’t written a sentence since 10am.

Many PhD parents have turned to academia after professional careers, so are already experienced at juggling competing (and often clashing) demands on their time. But when it all becomes too much, being able to share the overwhelm and absurdity of everyday life with others who are juggling similar issues is comforting. With just over 900 members located all over the world, and often working at strange hours of the day and night, there is always an empathetic ear available, whether you’re keeping vigil over a sick child’s bed, hopelessly crafting a last-minute Easter bonnet for tomorrow’s parade, or wrangling with your epistemology (or indeed, attempting all three simultaneously).

Alongside these quotidian challenges, are the crises that seem to arrive more frequently as lives become more complex. Finances and relationships are often tested by the double whammy of a PhD and children. The group is a safe space where bereavements, mental and physical illness are all shared openly. Entering academia a bit later in life means many members of the group hold down full or part-time professional jobs while doing a PhD. Some are already working as established lecturers, both with and without PhDs, depending on the discipline. The diversity of experience is important and somewhat unique. It brings together a range of different perspectives on problems that arise with both PhD and parenting. ECRs offer advice on negotiating supervisory issues as they begin to supervise students of their own. Experienced educators help with unusual issues in teaching and assessments. Psychologists and early childhood experts allay fears around child development. Health professionals offer alternative perspectives that prompt more fruitful conversations with practitioners at the next appointment. It’s like having a pocketful of very clever friends on call, day and night.

As the group has grown rapidly over the last year, it has led to the establishment of a number of other niche ‘villages’ including a very active virtual SUAW group, a ‘keeping healthy’ group, a motivational “Mission Possible” group for those hoping to finish this year and the ‘Full Draft Club’ for those pushing towards the first full draft. Local groups in Sydney, London, North-East England, North-West England and elsewhere enable people to meet for a casual coffee, advocate for better support for parents at their local university and, on occasion, provide a real life shoulder to cry on. There’s a group for people parenting children with additional needs during their PhD and one for those who have left, or are thinking of leaving, academia.

From a PhD perspective, exposure to other disciplines, epistemologies and methods is another benefit of an online discussion group organized around interests outside of your own subject area. Those with quantitative skills help with questions on statistics or modeling that the rest of us mere mortals sometimes struggle with. Rather than wondering what an anthropologist or a linguist would make of our findings – we ask them. This is exactly the kind of interdisciplinary networking that many universities are becoming very interested in. Sometimes different ontological perspectives can lead to vigorous debate, but those finely honed parenting skills – patience, tolerance, calmness – come in handy here, and debates are largely conducted with respect and an open mind for what other disciplines and perspectives bring to the table.

And this is a key part of what makes this particular group so successful, and so well loved by its members. An environment of respect and tolerance has been carefully crafted by the committed moderators, who work hard to ensure that new members fit the criteria as both PhD students and parents. This work is largely invisible, and done for free. It is important to recognize the work that moderating such a large group involves, and acknowledge that the group moderators do this work on top of their already hefty workloads as employees, PhD candidates and parents. The result is a safe and supportive space for members to share concerns, vent frustrations, ask for advice and celebrate key milestones. And those celebrations are particularly sweet! Every event – a publication, a presentation, a thesis submission – is a cause for celebration, not least because we all know that it has been achieved amidst the unfolding of a complex life.

Many people, not just parents, are managing complex lives alongside their PhD. Yet university policies, faculty schedules, expected milestones and departmental cultures often seem to be modelled on a young, unencumbered person with no responsibility to anyone but themselves and their research. Before they find the PhD/ECR Parents group, many members have never spoken to anyone who shares the same concerns, who is trying to keep all the plates spinning and excel at them all. Finding out you’re not alone, that people before you have managed it, can provide the inspiration to keep going.  Alternatively, a group of empathetic ‘strangers’ who understand the struggles, can be the people who persuade you to seek the extra support you need, or to take a break.

There are a whole bunch of reasons why we stop talking to people in our everyday lives, particularly in the crucial phases of writing up. But if you can find your community online, and manage the way you engage with social media, it can become an invaluable part of the PhD journey.

Author Bios: Chantel Carr and Leah Williams Veazey. Chantel is a PhD candidate in the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities at the University of Wollongong. Her research explores industrial work, postcapitalist economies and sustainability. Leah is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research explores migration, motherhood and online communities. 

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