ECRAG member · Work-life balance

PhD and Children – Can you have it all?

A PhD is a wonderful yet challenging experience, but what happens when on top of that you throw babies into the mix?! Sabrina Grant tells an inspirational story about her experience of having babies during her PhD…

sabrina babiesAs an early career young ‘ish’ researcher at 27, I was in my mind doing fairly well.  I had just moved to Worcestershire to be closer to my partner, was recently employed on a training research associate post here in primary care at the University of Birmingham, gained a nice little start up grant to undertake some pilot work to ultimately secure my, so people say, ‘prestigious’ award from the MRC/ESRC, to undertake a PhD in the coming October of 2008.  Now, where one would normally be marvelled at the opportunities ahead, opportunities that I had just set up for myself, I somehow found myself at cognitive dissonance, both excited about such amazing future prospects but also anxious as I knew that I was also approaching the infamous age of ‘30’, that ripe old age where for some ladies, and definitely for me, that biological clock just tick tock ticking….in fact I could positively describe it as literally feeling tugs at the womb!  I was filled with concern that I knew that the next three years was to be PhD fulfilled but also the years I wanted to breed !!!

So, where colleagues in my office may have thought I was intensely engaged in my recent academic accolades, engrossed in my PC, I was actually spending copious amounts of time surfing the net and ‘immersing myself in data’ relating to maternity rights, contractual obligations and benefits entitlements, …questions whirling… what would this mean financially?, can you study and have children, CAN YOU HAVE IT ALL? What would my boss think? How does this work with the funders….It exhausts me to think about that time, fortunately after much deliberation I came to my senses, shelved the thoughts and for the next few months ahead, enjoyed  getting  on with the task in hand of starting an exciting PhD.

January 2009 ……oh jeez….3 tests later, yep I am definitely pregnant. ….in amongst a nauseas, and blurred baby making brain a flurry of those thoughts came rushing back…and this time it was how am I going to tell my supervisors?… how much time do I take off? Can I take time off? Can I even afford this? I confess….even what have I done?….don’t get me wrong, there was a whole load of excitement and wonder too about a baby growing inside me but I can’t deny that these were overlying worries….as the months progressed, life continued as normal, supervisors were informed…and I realised that all the worry and concern was just created in my head…in fact I was fortunate that one of my supervisors was female where I revelled that she too had her brood, during her PhD…phew, pearls of wisdom I have to say were greatly received.  Conducting research whilst pregnant was interesting, it was definitely a topic people happily discussed at interviews…I remember presenting at a conference 8 months pregnant worrying whether baby brain would kick in just at the wrong moment….

After the birth of my daughter Isla, the clock stopped PhD wise and I had a wonderful nine months off with my new baby.  The experience of mixing family life and studies must have been a good one because I came back for more.   In May 2012, I gave birth to my son Oscar.  Coming back this time came with fresh new challenges with two children and a part time job mixed into the blend ,writing up was now in my spare time, of which was null for obvious reasons.  Long evenings in the office after work thus ensued (I had a fantastically helpful husband to help with child care) but a small sacrifice to pay to get the thesis finished….

Am I glad I had my children as planned? – you bet I am…I wouldn’t have had it any other way…I  technically still completed within three years, I never gave up weekends, or evenings other then the obligatory darker days at the end…to spend on my thesis.  Knowing the obsessive worrier I can be this was definitely a blessing in disguise.   Having children gave me no choice but to be more disciplined with my time, leaving studies to the day, and only the day whilst my kids enjoyed the wonders of nursery.  You realise that funders are kind to those wanting children, and even supervisors realise that you are probably likely to have at least two major life events during your PhD.  My children inspired me in more ways than one, about the direction the thesis should take, and about what is truly important during those darker days!  I am about to attend my graduation ceremony next week and it’s a no brainer which of the achievements I am most proud of! Can you have it all? Well I think I managed to, and with these two cherubs, I would never have it any other way…..

Sabrina Grant


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