#MYPHDSTORY: The extraordinary cocktail of pregnancy, postpartum depression, sleepless nights and studying for a PhD.

I am writing this article in hindsight few years after the successful completion of my doctorate studies in Microbiology and I am currently a public health microbiologist in California, USA.

I got married a year into my two-year Master’s program in Massachusetts, my husband at that time was living and working in Nigeria. That same year, I applied for doctorate studies in Alabama, and I was offered a place. Not too long after getting married, I became pregnant. Being pregnant wasn’t a profile as I felt fine however, I experienced some challenges. I experienced a number 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! perhaps due to loneliness and possibly 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 there was no publishable data; 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, but I just kept 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 MoreNever 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:

1) 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.

Read More – So you want to do a PhD? – Your survival guide…Part 1

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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#AcademicWriting – Aims & Objectives Revisited

 

You have a writing task where you have been asked to state the aims and objectives. Can both words be used interchangeably? When is it appropriate to use them? In this article, Nadia Anwar revisits the debate around aims and objectives and sheds more clarity as to their appropriate use.

‘Aim’ and ‘objective’, the two ever confused words, terms, lexical items, research markers, or whatever you may prefer to call them, are as ambiguous conceptually as their tagging is. Being a novice in research (which I believe I will always be because of my aversion to being called an ‘expert’), I happen to have a very inquisitive nature about how words become a norm and attain an established status, especially in the alleyways of the academic world. This, rather annoying, and somewhat debilitating curiosity, as it constantly diverts my attention to academically most ignored or termed as worthless pursuits, led me to make a distinction between the overused and overly done words frequently employed in research thesis, proposals, dissertations, and projects etc.

#CareerChat – 7 Steps for preparing your first lecture

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This was the statement made by a friend of mine who was invited to deliver her first lecture on an important but sensitive lecture topic. This feeling is not uncommon amongst early career academics. Unlike professionals developing their careers in primary and secondary school teaching who tend to be more prepared having gone through teacher training, for those going into lecturing in academia, your training comes on the job, usually after you have started teaching!  In many cases, after completing a Masters degree or a PhD/postdoc,  you could land your first lecture invitation. So what should you keep in mind if you find yourself in this situation? The handy tips below will give you a good starting point.

STEP ONE – Find the guidebook: The first bit of research you’ll need to do if you are about to teach at University, college or school is the curriculum. At University, this will the course/module specification. Here it will  be important for you to know what the anticipated learning outcomes are for the students within the year group. What type of assessment(s) have been designed for the course? How does the topic you are about to lecture on connect with the learning outcomes and assessment? Do you have the skills to deliver this material?

#MyPhDStory – ‘It takes resilience.’

StrengthWhy do we love stories so much? Could it be because of that powerful space it creates where our personal experiences  connects with someone else? We love stories in The Hub and in today’s article, Dr Yewande Pearse shares her triumps and challenges enroute to the qualification called a PhD! Amara got to learn about Yewande through her campaign and was (and remains) inspired by her journey. Enjoy!

APH: Please can you share your academic and professional background?

YP: I completed my BSc in Human Sciences at King’s College London in 2006. I then returned to King’s in 2009 to complete a Masters in Neuroscience with a Distinction. After my Masters, I worked as a Research Assistant for two years before taking up a PhD studentship at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. I have just completed my PhD in Neuroscience, which aimed to explore the potential for gene therapy in multiple forms of Batten Disease, a childhood brain disorder.

In layman’s terms, can you share what your research study/area is about?

Batten Disease is a group of inherited disorders that cause profound neurodegeneration and predominantly affect children. The symptoms are progressively debilitating and include blindness, seizures, intellectual decline and disability, dementia, loss of speech and motor impairment, with many children eventually becoming wheelchair-bound. Currently, there are no effective treatments available for any form of Batten Disease. My research is about finding innovative ways to treat this group of diseases with a focus on gene therapy.

So what is your PhD story? When did you realise that you wanted to undertake a PhD and how did you get into one? Why did you choose your topic?

#PhDChat – PhD and Parenting: How to make it work!

PhD-DegreePhD 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?!

Blogging Q and A – A Writing workshop for Early Career Scientists

EDI.jpgLast week, Amara and I had the pleasure of sharing a platform with other blogging “experts” at the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM) summer conference at Edinburgh to chat all things blogging with a group of early career scientists… Edinburgh itself is a really good welcoming city, with great sights to see and lots to do and if you are a big fan of shopping, well, you might quite like it..oh and the scottish shortbread biscuits..enough said there!!..

The conversation about blogging was varied and went from the simple to quite complex. I’d like to share some of the questions which were asked and responses from the session and for the benefit of our readers, some extra useful information Enjoy reading!

Starting from the basics, what is a blog?

There are different definitions of what a blog is – according to the Oxford dictionaries, a blog is “A regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group that is written in an informal or conversational style.” Blogging can be formal or informal –  blogging can be as simple as having an online diary where you share your thoughts or experiences on a regular or irregular basis (whatever is convenient for you) or it could be something much bigger e.g. blogs run by University departments, biopharma companies sharing information with shareholders and consumers or simple trivia blogs with lots of fun things. In effect, a blog could be whatever you want it to be and that is what makes blogging an exciting and often rewarding activity.

I have a personal blog, is there a space for it out there and how do I grow it?

#PhDAdvice – Developing an effective PhD-Supervisor relationship!

Image - PhD Comics
Image – PhD Comics

I have observed a few cases where PhD candidates either not completing or failing at viva stage. A common theme was a major breakdown in the relationship between the candidate and their supervisor(s). In this article, I share four ideas, from my experiences as a former PhD candidate who’s now learning the ropes of PhD supervision  that I hope can help prospective and current PhD candidates manage this very important relationship.

 Choose wisely – In the  PhD survival guide, I shared why it is important to spend quality time while making this decision. You’ll have a smoother journey if you have a good working relationship with your supervisor. I decided to join my PhD supervisor’s group after I had spent a year working on my undergraduate project with him. Some people call this luck but I call it choice. I decided to work with him and he decided to work with me.

If your PhD is funded, your PI is usually your de-facto Director of Studies and you may not have much choice in the matter. However just like when you attend an interview, the choice to work with an organisation is still yours. Two or three member supervisory teams are now more common so it is worth asking if there will be some leeway in choosing your other supervisor(s). For self-funded PhD candidates, you have a choice in where you spend your tuition fees, so do not be scared to ask for who you need. A PhD is an apprenticeship not indentured slavery (at least it should be).  Invest time in getting information about your supervisor, research group etc. Speak to postdocs. You can find them at conferences and early career researcher networking events. Ask questions;

How many PhD candidates have you supervised?

Who will be on the supervisory team?

How many successful completions?

How many didn’t complete and why?

Do your students publish during their PhD?

Do not be so ‘hungry’ for a PhD position that you dismiss the information your research pulls up. I know a PhD candidate who left after six months because she could not get on with her supervisor. Successful completion is Win/Win for all parties involved so choose wisely.

Be proactive –  After a skill training session I recently conducted, a 2nd year PhD candidate walked up to me and spent about 15 minutes sharing all the issues he was having with his supervisor. Poor communication, poor supervision, dismissive attitude…the works. I let him speak because I could tell he was very distressed and then I told him ‘Be proactive.’ I could tell he was puzzled by my response but I told him that the only part of the equation required for his successful completion that could be modified was his attitude and how he responded to the issues he was having with his supervisor.