A PHD … with teenagers


At many times during my PhD years (2013-2018) I wished for a ‘pause button’ which would freeze the lives of those around me. Mainly, I wanted to put on pause the lives of my sons who were aged 13 and 10 when I embarked on my PhD but had become teenagers before I submitted my thesis. Whilst others posted pictures of babies napping as they revised chapters, or shared stories of sleeplessness after a tough night with teething children, my experience of being a parent whilst undertaking a PhD was a little different. As I worked on my PhD, the boys sat entrance exams, moved to secondary schools, started writing essays, took GCSEs, began shaving and discovered partying (the latter with its own specific type of parental sleeplessness).

Early on in my PhD years, in response to a low point in PhD work, my youngest looked at me and said quite calmly “what did you expect Mum? It’s a PhD; it’s meant to be tough,” delivering this statement with a direct frankness that many supervisors might shy away from. He was right, I was finding it very tough, tougher than I had expected, but somehow realizing he recognized this helped.

Around this time on a Sunday I was driving my other son to referee a football match before I went on to work in the university library. During this journey we calculated that as a referee he would exceed my hourly rate for university teaching. It was a sobering conversation even when we both tried to lighten the mood by talking about zero hours contracts. I introduced him to the concept of ‘precarious work’. It was around this time that I decided to try to use my experiences as a basis for some ‘conversations’ to contrast with their very edited and presented digital worlds. My thinking was that perhaps, seeing the ‘mess’ involved in completing a PhD, as well as the difficulties involved in constructing a new career, the boys might gain some appreciation for how qualifications are gained. I was hoping to make something out of my ‘blood, sweat and tears’ which were defining this part of family life.

Through the teaching I was undertaking to fund my PhD, the boys saw what happened when a student submitted an exam script was illegible. They found out that no marks can be awarded for an answer which simply “didn’t answer the question”, as well as the perils of not submitting work on time online (a side to digital life they were less than pleased to hear about). I also showed my youngest how to reference his sources and we had the ‘Wikipedia chat’. Subsequently he was pleased when his history teacher noted his effort to reference some of the sources he had incorporated into a piece of homework. As efforts to restructure and improve PhD chapters at times literally spilled out over the all-important kitchen table, the boys saw that editing sometimes involved scissors and sellotape. At times both were amazed to see me handle over 3,000 words, and I think they were both slightly intimidated. I think they were also just a little excited, to think that they might be able to get so immersed in a subject one day.

Being a PhD student and a parent of teenagers has also given useful insight into the transition we often expect our undergraduate students to make over just one summer – useful when teaching. On his request, I took my eldest along with me one weekend to the very well stocked university library, watched as he was completely overwhelmed, and then observed as he resorted to the safety of his laptop and Google. He ignored what was literally right in front of his nose, although he assured me he did find the atmosphere helpful for working. On reflection, I realized that this was probably the same for many 17/18-year-olds who we might expect to let go of a course textbook and then move seamlessly from school into university and enter a new world of multiple sources as they start on our modules.

In my completion year, as pressure mounted from the numerous deadlines on outstanding thesis chapters, I decided that the only way to survive and quieten my inner parental guilt machine would be by identifying the ‘non-negotiable’ for each child. For my eldest, in the midst of his first big external exams (GCSEs), this seemed to be about being in the house, which was easily achieved as I was stuck in my study, but more importantly, having a fully stocked fridge. In the end we supported each other in that May and June achieving a certain degree of solidarity through the snack breaks which we took together. For my youngest son, what seemed vital was to lose his space-themed bedroom in which he had been sleeping since he was 2 and acquire the décor of a teenager. A painstaking transition which involved him choosing every last light bulb, but one during which the ensuing shopping trips became very therapeutic and a welcome distraction for me. So, whilst I may have attended every sports fixture and been at every pick up with a laptop or a book for 4 years of their lives, it helped to work out, in those last frantic months, what mattered to the boys, and we all came out the other side of my completion year intact.

Post PhD submission, in early 2018, my eldest and I were scouring university websites for different reasons. I was job-hunting as he was looking at courses and university open days. Just after my viva we had a ‘road trip’ which coincided with a time at which I would have been pleased to never have had to set foot on a university campus again. Seeing universities through his eyes turned out to be a very positive experience, and I challenge anyone not to become infected by the positivity of a group of 17-year-olds as they sit together and reflect on their first campus tour or taster lecture, and discuss their plans for what they want to study and where. Seeing Higher Education through their eyes, I was reminded what all the tough times had been about, and we are both about to embark on the next stage of our lives at universities.

Different ones of course.

Author Bio: Fran Hyde, who has always embraced the idea of lifelong learning.