PhD candidates may have a lot in common but are by no means a homogenous group. In today’s #PhDChat, we share the ‘behind the scenes’ stories of our successful PhD candidates and graduates. We hope that their honesty and openness will encourage and motivate you as you proceed on your journey. In today’s article, Amina, a final year PhD candidate shares her experience of combining parental responsibilities with studying full time as an international student.
The pursuit of a PhD is a huge investment in your career and yourself. I had applied for a scholarship for Nigerian based academics to finance a PhD program that I had my sights on in the United Kingdom. When I learned I was successful, I was overjoyed yet pleasantly surprised, as it was keenly competitive. After the initial euphoria wore off, the enormity of what I was embarking on became apparent. This article is meant to share my experiences and offer some advice to mature students with similar plans.
Strain on Familial and Social Ties
A PhD will test your relationships, it is important to find balance. Working towards a PhD abroad will be even more exacting. Leaving my parents and other relationships for 4 long years; adjusting to a new culture and environment; the strain on my husband, our marriage and on our 3 kids as he travelled back and forth between both countries was going to be hard. I tried to minimize these challenges by relying on modern telephony.
Settling into the Program
Do a lot of research. Carefully examine details of the campus and community you will study and live in. I consulted widely before commencing the program, weighed the pros and cons with my husband, and we tried to mitigate all challenges. However, every PhD experience is different so we couldn’t foresee the peculiarities of my own PhD, particularly the severe and persistent economic crises that would make it almost unbearable. I didn’t realise my campus was not even in the same county as the main campus of the University. This is where a little research could have made things easier. I was to be located in a beautiful rural campus a 30 minute shuttle away from the main campus which itself was 45 minutes from the inexpensive home I secured prior to arrival. Relocating closer to my campus wasn’t an option, as it was expensive (yes, rural living costs a lot in the UK) and too isolated for my children.
Ok, what have I got myself into?!
Dear PhD candidate, do not be overambitious with your proposal. I had high research aims and goals because of how much I valued the opportunity I got. I obtained my undergraduate degree a decade before the PhD, so I had limited laboratory experience, particularly compared to the standards of my new institution. I learnt to adjust my expectations as sadly, everything was Do-It-Yourself. You were basically thrown into the laboratory, taught how to not break equipment or hurt yourself, but nothing else. There was no technician or Post-doc to learn from let alone shadow. I was roaming around like a headless chicken with no results for months. It was a steep learning curve. Every time my experiments failed, I believed it proved I was unsuited for a life in scientific research and academia. I was torturing myself with thoughts of failure and feelings of unworthiness. The question “what have I gotten myself into?” was never far from my lips.
Read More – The PhD Survival Guide
Family Costs Additional Time and Money
If you anticipate financial challenges during the entire duration of the PhD, re-evaluate your options. Your lab/PhD is your life, so family time will suffer. Work out how to keep this to the minimum though as if your spouse and family don’t have your back 100%, it will be even tougher. Our local Council couldn’t place my three children in the same school which meant a doubly hectic school run. At closing time, I picked up my daughter from one school and then literally ran to another school to pick my boys, as both schools closed at the exact same time! Eventually we paid people a lot of money to do the school runs, and then stay with the kids when I was at school and my husband was away.
Time = Money
Please bear in mind that to employ a child-minder will likely cost you more monthly than you earn back home, and in many scholarships (like mine) childcare is not provided for, so you should have a significant additional pot of funds, which in our case was provided largely by my husband. In addition, the children displayed various negative reactions to their new climate and environment ranging from atopic dermatitis to respiratory allergies. Any time I didn’t spend in the lab, I spent visiting the GP’s or attending school meetings.
The Emotional Toll
The unseen challenge of balancing a PhD program and family life is the underestimated emotional and psychological toll it brings. I didn’t get concessions from my sponsors or from the university for being a mother (of three!). The system expects you to just pull it off, and you will be assessed with the same criteria as that single twenty-something year old with no kids, so be prepared. A lady I knew battled depression and dropped out of her own PhD program.
My own overwhelming emotion in the first 2 years was guilt. I couldn’t shake the feeling of inadequacy no matter how hard I tried. I felt as if the horrible school runs I had subjected my dear kids to; limited family time; the financial strain; and the poor results I was getting in the lab were all indications of my selfishness – my desire to study for a PhD. Even worse, it seemed like my country’s investment in my education would go to waste – no way! My main relief came at weekends. Weekends were precious, as I spent time with the family, did domestic chores and helped the kids with their homework.
Occasionally on Sundays we would attend our local NASFAT branch for prayers, but by 7:30 a.m. on Monday I was back to working 15-hour days in the laboratory. I kept working harder at my experiments as failure was not an option – I had given up way too much for this. There was fire in my soul, but my mind was becoming numb. I was gradually becoming a nervous wreck.
I began to panic when I had few results after a year, so I asked my supervisor to let me change my topic to fit into the general research area of most other people in the group, but he would have none of it. He appeared to like my topic too much, even though I was stuck and we didn’t know how to proceed.
The benefit of interactions cannot be overemphasised. Things turned around for me in the second year when I met and discussed with a group of Nigerian scientists and engineers at the first conference I attended. Apparently, several others all experienced bouts of the “impostor syndrome” (remember that feeling of inadequacy I mentioned? that was the name for it!). I heard candid revelations that made me realise I wasn’t alone in my travails, and even though I was obsessively focused on what wasn’t working, I wasn’t losing my mind. I realised my challenges were all part of being in a laboratory-based PhD program. Well, most of them- because I also realised that none of them could relate to the enormity of my responsibilities. So despite all the kind-hearted praise and the “role-model” comments, I admitted that I needed to be kinder to myself to make this work.
Read more – Networking
After identifying your peculiar main challenges, make adjustments to ensure you stabilise so as not to crash and burn. A friend decided to discard half of her PhD proposal and focus on a more realistic aim. For me, I decided to accept my parents’ standing offer that my mother should visit for a bit. That single act stabilised me domestically. I also took more responsibility in my research and my luck changed with the labwork, as I seized an opportunity to move to a new supervisor in the main campus. That horrible commute became shorter and I made more progress in my work. After a health scare in which I was whisked off to our University’s Teaching Hospital in an ambulance, I reduced my hours to 12 hours daily. Things were fine until the Naira “devaluation” debacle of 2015 to date which in itself I can write another thesis on. Since our earnings and my scholarship were in Naira it essentially meant life got harder, because no matter how much my husband sent to the UK it translated into little of the ever-strengthening Pound. I applied for grants, loans and got small jobs to sustain myself. My supervisor and the university were very helpful, as well my Institution in Nigeria, but things became increasingly tougher.
I have completed most of my experiments and currently writing up my thesis. We are back in Nigeria now but I occasionally go to the UK to see my supervisor or do some labwork (much cheaper, trust me). When the Aspiring Professionals Hub requested I write on my experiences combining motherhood with my PhD in Life Sciences I contemplated waiting until I actually obtained the degree, but eventually decided not to. This is because I felt anyone, male or female, who will be the primary caregiver in their family during a foreign PhD, could benefit from my experiences. I couldn’t have given more to this project honestly, so it’s not a positive outcome that will qualify me to advise on the challenges I have encountered. I couldn’t have done more than I did; worked or prayed harder; been more frugal, nor could my family have been more tolerant or supportive. I discovered my strengths and limits, learned to stop being my own greatest critic and stop undermining myself. I travelled wide, learned to network and garnered so much information that helped with my PhD and hopefully my future.
Most of the fears I mentioned to open this article turned out to be unfounded as I made new friends and my limited social life in Nigeria is intact. My husband has been my rock and so have my in-laws and my entire family. I did eventually get results, so that panic abated. God has blessed me incredibly in this period and I have been immensely lucky to have survived thus far.
If you accept that your PhD can be excellent but cannot be perfect, you are ready to succeed.
Do not procrastinate, get your priorities right: while religious, community or social media activities; sports, parties, etc are all good in moderation, these “extra-curricular” activities can be distracting, and time does fly. I am grateful to all my friends who know some of my challenges for the support; and to colleagues who “imagine how tough it is to do your kind of PhD and raise kids on limited funds”, well now you know the story behind those occasional blank smiles.
I apologise for the lengthy read, but I hope readers have learned a thing or two from my experiences. I hope they can see that a PhD will be tough (and I can’t even sugar-coat this) and if you are a mature student with domestic responsibilities then even more so. However, you can surmount these challenges with minimal hiccups if you plan well and recognise
In all, I can say I came and I saw, I gave it my best; but did I conquer the challenges of combining a PhD in Life Sciences with a family? Now, only getting the degree can determine that.
I will let you know…
About our writer – Amina obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology and a Masters’ in Industrial Microbiology from the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. She is a Lecturer at the University of Ilorin and in 2013 won a Federal Government Scholarship to undertake a PhD. She is a member of the Genetics Society (UK), American Society for Microbiology (ASM) among other professional societies. She has presented at several international conferences on Bioenergy and Biotechnology and is currently writing up her PhD thesis at the University of Nottingham (UoN). She was recently awarded the XN Foundation’s ICONS 2016 award for Courageous Humanitarian Endeavours. Amina loves to read, spend time with her family and of course sing to her fungi. She tweets @amkmusty.
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Hello readers. I have graduated. I made it.
So indeed, I came, I saw and I conquered.
Thanks for all the best wishes from readers of this blog upon my graduation.
Good luck with it all too
Thanks for you comment Ijeoma. Glad you liked it.
Indeed We have perfected the art of “working smart”; making every minute count in the lab as we don’t have the luxury of time like others might.
I finally found the name to that feeling “imposter syndrome”. Great write-up Amina and straight from the heart. For PhD students with family, time management comes with an entirely different meaning. Yes, family might keep taking you out of the lab but remember it’s smart working not hard work that produces results.