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Writing a PhD as a parent


This text is based on a newsletter I wrote as a PostDoc representative at the MPI for Brain Research

Being a parent in academia often coincides with the early career phase and can feel like stopping cycling halfway up a hill. New studies highlight how important it is to take these challenges seriously: More than a quarter of new parents leave STEM employment. This disproportionally affects women’s careers: 43% of women leave vs 23% of men, and for women with kids, the gender pay gap is much wider, with huge implications for lifetime earnings. Pursing an academic career poses additional challenges.

Is there some secret for how to still make it all work? After all, it is difficult to have fun and connect with your child while near-drowning in the grind of daily responsibilities. This is where project management skills will come in handy, so I borrowed some ideas from strategic planner James Clear and applied them to parenting in science. The main idea is to approach parenting in a top-down level by first clarifying core beliefs (Why do we do what we do), then to decide the strategy (what we do), then draw up the tactical questions (how we do it).

Why — Core beliefs

Having a child will invariably lead to some tough decisions. The “Why” stage is about clarifying your priorities and what is important to you and your family. What are your goals, what are you and your family willing to sacrifice and where are your red lines?

For us, this meant discussing the core values and priorities and finding a career path that aligns with those values. Do we plan to have kids? How important is it? Do we both want to both work while the kids are still young? Where should the kids grow up? What type of career do we want? Finding answers to these questions meant we needed to know what was non-negotiable. Adjusting values with life choices became an ongoing process that we revisit regularly as a family.

What — Strategy

While there are many stories out there about apparent supermoms and dads who seem to make it all happen, the reality is that raising a child is highly vulnerable life stage, and that any family is dependent on a large support network — emotionally, logistically and financially. Strategic decisions are about being aware of this proverbial village it takes to raise a child.

After my partner and myself finishing our university educations, we were faced with a myriad of choices and opportunities. To which companies and within which countries should we apply for jobs? In the context of family decisions, we soon realized we needed to include the dependencies on the support network in our decision process. How is the childcare situation in each place, do we have support by family and friends? How would the financial situtation be?


Figure: The contemporary equivalent of the proverbial village it takes to raise a child.

How - Tactical

This level is about the day-to-day life hacks needed to make it all work. There is an abundance of books, newspaper articles and blogs that propose solutions at this level. I collected some resources below as a reference.

For us, this meant revising some of our habits. For example, we adjusted our morning routine to make sure the kids get the attention they need, and we get out of the house in time. Taking into account these tactical things might look small, but has huge implications for the day-to-day life and the emotional state of the whole family.

Parenting books

More resources