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?