Part 1. Having a baby
During my PhD I ticked off three of the ‘big life events’. I got married, I bought a house, I had a baby. I was jokingly labelled as ‘a breeder’. I don’t think we talk enough about starting families as early career researchers, and over the coming weeks I want to share my experiences.
Here, I want to share my experience of having a baby as a PhD student, and then later again as a postdoc.
The start of my parenthood/PhD combination was relatively normal. Amelia was born as a healthy bundle of joy and our only woes were the usual worries around feeding and sleeping. My wife was on maternity leave, and I was able to continue my research as I had been. I worked early/late as required to get the lab work done and the papers written. I even went to sea for 7 weeks on a research cruise, travelling south to the Antarctic when my daughter was five months old. Although tough to be away, the busy schedule I made for myself made the time fly. It was certainly much harder for my wife who battled with a gruelling period of no sleep.
On my return from the Antarctic however, things were to change. My wife was returning to work and I was now responsible for getting Amelia to and from nursery four days a week. I could no longer start and finish my work when I wanted, I couldn’t beat the rush hour traffic, I was bound to the nursery.
This was a crucial time entering the third year of my PhD, getting the papers out, and as much lab work done as I could. I had to learn quickly to schedule my work more efficiently, make full use of the one long day I had each week, and how to optimise the shorter hours I had in the lab. I was lucky to have a supportive supervisor and graduate school to give me the flexibility I needed to succeed. However, I certainly felt the additional pressure of having to prove it would not affect my PhD outcomes and future career.
I didn’t allow having a baby to affect my work, and if anything, it forced me to focus on my research – it made me a better and more mature scientist and I thrived under the pressure. I enjoyed my research and family life.
Four years later, and during my postdoc, I was to have another baby. Working for a different laboratory and PI but in the same school, I felt prepared for what was coming up and planned two weeks of paternity leave following the birth. Things didn’t go to plan though. Our second child, Alexander, was born very poorly and required intensive care for his first week of life.
I took an impromptu extra week of paternity leave, and used the flexibility of the job as we faced new challenges of building up his strength when he came out of hospital. Over the next year, and into the final year of my contract, we had several hospital admissions requiring overnight stays. As a parent this is a daunting experience, and to add to the mental exhaustion, I had to manage the expectations of an ambitious PI with limited funding remaining. Nothing was ever said, but I felt immense pressure to get big results, and they just were not coming.
My lab work was just not working, the methods kept failing on me, and I felt at times it was becoming more about method development and lab support. This was the realisation I wasn’t enjoying working to satisfy someone else’s research vision, and I didn’t feel like I had ownership over the work I was trying to do. I was losing motivation, and although that sounds depressing, it was the moment of clarity regarding my own research vision, and where I wanted to go with it.
Being a postdoctoral research assistant is an important part of getting to the fellowship and PI career stage, but if you don’t enjoy the research, the smallest personal hiccup will likely be amplified in the research outcomes later. Unfortunately, in the current climate not many of us get to be fussy about the research we do at this stage of our career, but it is important to get the most from it. I didn’t feel that I was.
I see that first year of Alexanders life as a hugely influential time in my research career. I was very well supported by the university, peers, and my laboratory. I left the postdoc as a co-author on one paper, two other manuscripts in preparation, and tons of valuable experience. I have since developed fellowship proposals which I am genuinely excited by and reflect on my research interests.
Having children as an early career researcher isn’t talked about enough. Some people have good experiences, others very negative, but it should not be something which prevents career progression in either parent. Communication with your PI and peers is key, and keeping the direction of the research vital to its success. You never know whats round the corner, unexpected life events happen but research is not always forgiving for the time required at home. For me, although it has been a challenge, having children has made me a better scientist. Alexander is now a healthy happy two-year-old with an amazing big sister in Amelia. I suspect more challenges await, but hopefully I will be better prepared than ever to tackle them.
Having started a new website late last year, it has taken me some time to get together my first blog. As its January, the New Year seems like the perfect time to start, albeit with a waffle. This year is about getting back into science…well, getting paid for it anyway.
Spending the past year at home writing fellowship proposals and finishing papers has been an unusual experience. I have missed being in the laboratory, more than expected, and that’s despite maintaining my research commitments at university in the capacity of ‘visiting scientist’. I have had flurries of microscope work at home but it is not the same. My volunteering on a week long undergraduate field course topped up my enthusiasm for fieldwork when I probably needed it most. Seeing all the current exciting Antarctic research going on also gives me itchy feet. I can’t wait to get back into the field.
Being officially out of the postdoc merry-go-round for a year has been tough, and surprisingly isolating. The moment you are taken off the staff and school e-mail lists (or saved from 10’s of daily emails) you realise you are beginning to lose the foot in the door you thought you had. That is scary. Is there a maximum amount of time out of work before there is no way back in? I have worked hard to maintain my network and develop my research with new collaborations for my fellowship, and in fact I don’t think my research vision has ever been clearer. But, I do not feel that I have the same support as when I was surrounded by people who have been through it, are going through it, and are there to bounce ideas off as they come to you.
The lack of opportunities makes you think about life outside of science, and the routes many take to leave the cycle of fixed term contracts working on other people’s research vision. I know too many people that have been practically forced to leave academia to pursue more stable careers. For me, I know what I want to do, and I am still determined to do it.
What I have had in the past year is some time to spend with my family, real time without stressing about why my antibodies didn’t work with my extracted proteins, or late-night panics that I forgot to turn off the waterbath in the lab. I also had time to develop my fellowship proposals and they naturally grew into fascinating and ambitious projects. And while I would have preferred to have been working in 2017, I am glad to have had the time to focus on my science, develop my ideas, and still have the time to watch my children grow up.
2018 is going to be a good year. Happy New Year!
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