Is a PhD really like a child?



‘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.

Admittedly, 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 post by 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.

Author Bio: Anastasija Ropa did her doctoral research at the School of English, Bangor University