Editor’s note – A big part of a PhD candidate’s identity is often centred around the PhD. One of the first things (sometimes the only thing) we discuss with them is their research. It can sometimes be easy to forget that just like everyone, a PhD is only one aspect of any candidate’s identity. PhD candidates are people first. Friends, partners, siblings, employees, business owners, spouses, parents etc. All stakeholders – PhD candidates, supervisors, institutions etc. need to have this at the centre when we engage, supervise and provide support. Our #MyPhDStory articles provide a platform for postgraduate researchers to share their authentic lived experiences with our readers. In this article, Frances shares her experience of having not one but two children during her PhD and other expected and unexpected events during her PhD journey.
I am writing this article few years after the successful completion of my doctorate studies in Microbiology. I currently work as a public health microbiologist in California, USA. I got married in the first year of my two-year Master’s program in Massachusetts. At the time, my husband was living and working on another continent. That same year, I applied for doctorate studies in Alabama, and I was offered a place. A few months after getting married, I became pregnant. Being pregnant in itself wasn’t a problem as I felt fine, however I experienced some challenges. I experienced a spectrum of emotions; embarrassment, the appearance of being unserious, stigma and later on, the occasional forgetfulness, tiredness and of course, heaviness. At this point, living away from my husband became very challenging and towards the end of the pregnancy, depression struck! a cocktail of loneliness and hormonal changes.
Following the birth of our baby girl, I stayed home for only 2 weeks because I felt my laboratory work was lagging behind and I did not have any data to publish. This was the second year in the PhD program and time was running out; the first mistake!!! Mind you, I had not been away from the lab for long, as I had worked until the day of the birth (Yes, I was in the lab, the morning of the day I had her). As a hardworking person, I plunged myself back into the hustle and bustle of lab work and research experiments.
My mother-in-law came in from Nigeria to help with the baby for six months, this was our first time in close proximity for such a long period, and as you might expect, this came with its challenges. At times, this added more stress to my situation, because I had to manage both my academic and home affairs. Following her stay, I was left alone with a 6-month-old, and my day would start with taking her to the day care, followed by attending my classes and later in the afternoon continue with my laboratory work, until I pick her up at the end of my day.
At home, I would bath and feed her, rock her to sleep before studying for my classes, doing my assignments, reading manuscript for research ideas and possibly coming up with experimental designs. Going to sleep between 2 and 3 am for 4 or 5 hours was the norm for my best night, this was aside the nights she would wake up for feeding or colic which could go on for hours. I started experiencing anxiety, fear and postpartum depression. My mental health deteriorated, and my appearance suffered as a result as often times I looked dishevelled and unkempt.
Read More – PhD and Parenting: How to make it work!
At this point, I needed help and my mother-in-law returned, with her sister (this was after three very long, trying months). They both helped while I went back to the laboratory. Once again in the laboratory, I was not making any progress in my research and I had to switch projects and labs. I started a new project and I was now making progress. When my husband would come around, he would help in the laboratory staying with me until early hours of the morning. I had to put him to work :-).
When my daughter was a year old, I got pregnant again (I know what you are thinking, she must be crazy!). This time it was a little bit easier because I had someone watch over my daughter. On the work front, my supervisor had been fine with my first pregnancy but freaked out at the second. It happened to be a more difficult pregnancy with two emergency room visits, excruciating chest pain, sleepless nights, and finally our baby boy came.
Again, I was back in the lab after 2 weeks for the same reason as the first (my second mistake!!!). I went through severe postpartum depression and anxiety for the second time. I was able to keep on going, mainly because I prayed often, I had trusted help and in addition, my supervisor and a new postdoctoral researcher were very supportive. I began working twice as hard as the average PhD student, night and day, always in the lab. I was working at two projects being mindful that I had lost a lot of time, plus some of my experiments required that I travelled 50 miles and over for data analysis.
This was an unusual situation for me and I was probably unprepared for some of the things I experienced. As a result, I did not discuss it or seek help from anyone at the University at the time. Looking back, some level of help or support would have been great, perhaps I didn’t believe I needed it or maybe I thought I would be put on medication. I would like to mention that this does not disregard medical intervention when necessary and advised by a professional. If you find yourself going through similar, I would advise you seek help or support as early as possible.
I am glad to say, it all paid off. I felt I had gone too far to give up. I came out of postpartum depression and anxiety by praying, listening and confessing the word of God’s daily. I also remember repeating words like “my mind is sound” over and over again and I believed it, regardless of my circumstances. I became one of the best graduating students. I was able to produce quality data and now a published author in some of the top journals in my field. Despite all the challenges I went through, I acquired tremendous research experience where no one thought I was going to make it. And I was also able to attend several conferences and received an award for my work.
As I reflect on my experience, I am not writing this to scare or discourage anyone reading this, however, I believe there are women out there who have or might be going through similar experiences.
Read More – Never too late or too old to learn something new
I would also like to share a few pointers to other women embarking on or already carrying out doctorate studies and want to have babies while studying:
Don’t! 😊 – On a serious note, if you can avoid having a baby, or you can wait, perhaps plan having a baby towards the latter part of your PhD…
2) if you and your partner decide to, ensure you have trusted help; your mum, aunt, friend, in-law or someone you trust to take care of you/your baby. You need that supportive network at the home front and at the University.
3) Discuss your plans with your principal investigator or supervisor, so you both can be on the same page.
4) Before you apply for your PhD, find out what type of support is available at the University for PhD students or researchers e.g. mental health, maternity leave, time out during the PhD etc.
5) Plan, plan and plan. Utilize your time wisely. Take time off after the birth of your child, rest for a minimum of 6 weeks. Don’t throw yourself into heavy work load immediately. Take it really slow. You might have to graduate a year later than the average, but don’t worry, the race is not to the swift.
6) Don’t overestimate your mental capacity
7) Most importantly, be PRAYERFUL. Guard your ears and heart by listening to God’s word daily.
About the Writer: Dr Frances Dosunmu is a Senior Public Health Microbiologist in California, USA. Her PhD research was focused on investigating the antimicrobial properties of nanoparticles with findings from her research published in several high-profile microbiology journals. She can be reached here
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