Balancing books and bubs: a challenge

This post is part of the #HDRblog15 challenge, started by Deb aka the édu flâneuse and inspired by the Thesis Whisperer’s MOOC on How to Survive Your Phd. Which explains the sudden blog activity after a period of winter hibernation. It is also a report of a workshop I ran for HDR parents at the University of Sydney.

Baby watches on as mother types on laptop
Image credit: Brandon Harvey

When I saw the information about a grant scheme for student-led activities to improve the academic experience of HDR students, I immediately thought of organising a workshop for people balancing parenting with postgraduate research degrees. For some reason I kept stumbling across parents like myself, but never seeing our experiences reflected in official literature, support services provided by the postgrad student association, or any of the narratives circulating about postgraduate study. Through my membership of the fantastically supportive PhD and ECR Parent Facebook group (and our local PhD Parents: Sydney spin-off) I knew there were many people struggling in isolation and frustration to reconcile their dual roles.

With speakers secured, including junior and senior academics who had combined PhD research with parenting, as well as current PhD parents, registrations for the workshop climbed steadily towards our limit of 50. Participants came from across the various USyd faculties and beyond. Although a diverse group in many ways, it was glaringly obvious that all but one participant (plus one speaker) were women (plus two small babies). I’ll leave you to speculate about why that might be.

The main aims of the workshop were to (a) reduce isolation among postgraduate student parents by putting them in a room together and creating support networks; (b) raise visibility and awareness of HDR parents and the challenges we face; and (c) create change to improve the experiences of current and future HDR parents.

Child sleeps in library
Image credit: Amy Bilimankhwe

On the first aim, the sense of relief at finding oneself in a room full of people in the same boat was almost palpable. At times emotions ran high as women shared their stories of the struggles and joys of PhD parenting. Childcare, finances, relationships, and academic structures and cultures that fail to take account of parenting responsibilities were all points of common ground among participants. Discovering that some seasoned and successful academics had also had rocky paths to their PhD completion, due to their parenting responsibilities, was a revelation to some, and an inspiration to most.

In terms of raising awareness, the promotion of the event certainly raised parents’ visibility among our peers and departments. Academic and administrative staff expressed support for the workshop and a desire to see them repeated and embedded in future student support activities. SUPRA, the postgraduate student association, supported the workshop and has already started to look into substantial improvements to their support for parents.

The workshop revealed (or inspired, it’s difficult to tell) a burning appetite among HDR parents for advocating for change. Along with increased visibility, participants made recommendations around childcare (particularly casual or occasional care, perhaps along the lines of this hotdesking plus creche arrangement; financial support; best practice guidelines for supervisors and event organisers; institutionally embedded support networks and more. A report on the recommendations is forthcoming (once I get some pesky deadlines for PhD work out of the way).

Postgraduate student parents talk to each other around tables
The workshop in full swing

While we’re still mulling over the outcomes of the workshop, I can heartily recommend organising something similar at your university. Simply the chance to be in the same room as other parents and share stories with people who understand was worthwhile. And it might be the start of some real change.

What is support like for postgraduate research parents at your institution? Have you ever organised a workshop like this? How do you think universities could better support HDR parents?



8 thoughts on “Balancing books and bubs: a challenge

  1. Sounds like a fantastic event – well done on organizing it!
    Love the idea for more casual care / occasional care options. It just makes sense: even for undergrads / phds / tutors alike that may only have a couple of hours on campus at a time to have some flexibility in childcare (not having to pay for a full day when really only a couple of hours is needed / wanted – ha, that’s assuming that the full day was an option anyway – like if you had your name on the waiting list before they were born!!).


    1. Yes, there was a lot of anger about the impact of the lack of childcare. Especially from international students who felt they hadn’t been informed that it would be an issue before they arrived.


  2. Great initiative, wish I’d been part of it. I’m currently doing an M Phil very part time as I work part time and have school age children and try not to put them in care too much. The thought of then doing a PhD is daunting… I’m curious to see if there was frustration expressed due to lack of part time scholarships for parents?? If so was there any sense that we might be able to get change in this area? Thanks for the post.


    1. Thanks for commenting! I wish you’d been there too. Next time maybe? Are you at Sydney Uni?

      There was quite a lot of talk about part-time study and scholarships. I think that will be an area to include in recommendations. People are on p/t scholarships but if I understand it correctly they applied f/t and then applied to reduce it to p/t. Other people were enrolled full time but did a lot of work in evenings/weekends so they still spent a lot of time with their children during the week. Partly because the implications of going p/t would have made it difficult because of the policies around p/t study.

      But there was also quite a lot of talk about the fact that p/t scholarships are treated differently, eg for tax, because they assume you are earning money with the rest of your time, rather than taking on caring responsibilities. Perhaps someone who is more au fait with the specifics will jump in, but that’s my understanding. It certainly seems like the p/t PhD policies need another look.


  3. Great initiative, wish I’d been part of it. I’m curious to know if there was any frustration expressed at the lack of part time scholarships for parents? And any discussion or feeling that it might be something that could change? I’m a Masters student studying and working part time with two school aged children. Not much time left over to have a life or even get sick!


  4. Oh oops I didn’t see my post so wrote it again. No I’m at Western Sydney University (former University of Western Sydney for those who missed the $30million rebranding). Would love to join in next time. I have heard of people going from f/t to p/t but I feel nervous about that in case it’s not approved (that’s assuming I end up with a scholarship at all). The rules seem quite strict. Then there’s the tax issue as you say so it would be good to have some progress in this area.


  5. Leah, what a shame I missed it, would have loved to be there. I’d like to run sth like this at Macquarie, would love to chat!


    1. Hi – someone from Macquarie did come. Shall I email you and maybe put you in touch? I’m still working on a report from the event (other deadlines have taken over but should be out of the way soon).


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