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My poolside PhD: Into the life of a PhD mom

My poolside PhD: Into the life of a PhD mom
Feb 07, 2019 2.1k views

I work as Public Health Principal in Doncaster Council where I lead work on addressing health inequalities. I’m a parent too, to 2 children: Thomas, aged 12 and Emily, aged 10. So, I’m passed the really tiring, draining early stages and I’m in the midst of the really tiring, draining pre-teen stage!

If I were studying full time, I’d be about to enter my final year… so I’m pretty far on PhD-wise - the end is in sight. At this point, I wanted to write about my experience of being a PhD student and a parent and amongst these ramblings there may be some useful advice/ideas/tips/things that have worked for me… or not, you decide. Before, I launch into my ramblings though, I think it is important to acknowledge that PhD life is hard work (in a way that is only really understandable to those in it). But for me, it is also a real privilege and I am grateful to have the opportunity to indulge my curiosity, to puzzle, think and seek answers.

I’ve blogged throughout my PhD journey and I’ve found it really useful. It has made me stop and reflect; see how far I have come and, to a certain extent, hold myself to account. I’ve also adopted the Hope Jahren view that you need to ‘blog like no-one is reading.’  Actually, my first bit of advice for anyone doing a PhD is to read Hope’s book, Lab Girl. It is brutally honest but also inspiring.

To parent and PhD together requires juggling and sacrifice, and this is a tricky balancing act. I have been fortunate to have truly brilliant PhD supervisors who recognise my experience (and the tacit knowledge therein), and also recognise the ebbs and flows of my commitments, and so have been tolerant, yet still assured that I have made progress. Come to think of it, PhD supervision and the journey to PhD defense is very similar to coaxing teens through to adulthood.

Developing a trusting relationship has been essential and some of this is about delivering what you promise you will (the cycle of supervision meetings, paperwork and objectives have aided this) and hitting deadlines, despite the multitude of priorities. I have learned to embrace the precept that “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in day out” – Robert Collier. The doctoral development provision at Sheffield helped me with this – particularly with respect to writing retreats. And so another piece of advice for those balancing study and home life is access all the resources and help that is out there.

I said earlier that there are sacrifices, and there are: my children and partner see a little less of me (I negotiate this in advance – another tip) but I am conscious that I am sometimes absent even when present as my thoughts wander away to an issue I’m struggling with in my PhD. This is tricky as I’ve made breakthroughs when my thoughts wander and so I value this, but also know my parenting is not active in these moments. I reassure myself that it is good for my children to witness study beyond school and the importance of hard work, but I know they would rather I paid a little more attention.

I’ve become adept at finding moments here and there to study in – hence the title of this blog. I take my daughter to her swimming lesson every Saturday afternoon and this gives me 90 precious minutes to let my mind get back to the PhD. Until I started this journey I had no idea how much could be achieved in 90-minutes of focused hard work, which brings me to my final and currently favourite quote: “Opportunity is missed by many people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – Thomas Edison

Both the precepts I’ve used in this blog are in my son’s math classroom, though I think I find them a little more motivating than he does.


This is a guest post by Susan Hampshaw, a parent and a part time PhD student in ScHARR looking at how NICE Public Health guidance is received and used by Local Government. This story was published on June 7, 2018, on the Think Ahead Blog (available here) and has been republished here with their permission.

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Your Research. Your Life. Your Story.

A magnetic community of researchers bound by their stories