Dr Inger Mewburn dipped her toe into the postgraduate world when her son Brendan was just eight months old and by the time she had her doctorate he had celebrated his eighth birthday. He had no memory of a mother who didn't study.
The average age of Australian postgraduate students is 36. The media might be quick to emphasise the challenges of child rearing, the promotional sacrifices, and the lack of quality family time when talking about women in their mid-30s, but what happens to those who advance their career, through study, while raising small children?
Karina Quinn always dreamt of completing a PhD and is now part-way through her studies with a 23-month-old and a four-year-old. Her thesis This Body, Written explores feminist theories of the body while writing the history of her own body, taking the experience of birthing her own children and shaping an academic career around it. The role of being a mother was the catalyst for her interest but she feels, like most working mums, that she lives a life of extremes.
Quinn acknowledges that she is lucky to be paid to write, through her scholarship, and to follow a path that she is interested and engaged in. "Is it challenging? Of course! I have this life of extremes. I go from long days in my office reading and writing to wiping yoghurt handprints off my jeans and chasing my toddler around playgrounds. Right now, though, I feel like I couldn't do one without the other." Her role as mum and student are intertwined.
Mewburn agrees that parenting and PhDs are achievable; as an academic and the writer of the popular blog The Thesis Whisperer, Mewburn sees these challenges in her readers and reflected in her own academic journey. Mewburn found that her own success lay in being able to achieve her academic goals by viewing her studies as a job that would lead to a better path for her and her family.
"I tried not to be apologetic about the time that the PhD took away from my family. I felt like this would send all kinds of bad messages to both partner and child. Whenever I would have to say "no" to doing something on PhD-related grounds I would explain to my son that the PhD was important to the whole family, not just me." The requests for help on her blog also echo the need for the family to be on the same page when someone sets out to achieve their academic goals, and that the support of online communities can help those studying externally in order for them to succeed.
The support Alison Kennedy received online from her academic "family" has helped her pursue her goals. Kennedy had a daughter who was just about to begin school and an almost-three-year-old when she started her PhD at the University of New England earlier this year. The combination of a scholarship, a supervisor who had been through the same process with young children and network of passionate colleagues in the Collaborative Research Network has inspired her interest on the impact of death by external causes in Australian farming communities.
Her connection to her colleagues, usually online, is a mix of peer supervision and "tea and sympathy sessions", given she is hundreds of kilometres away from her Armadale campus in country Victoria. "People are often amazed that I am even attempting a PhD with young children. In the early months I thought I was mad too, although I never even considered giving up," she explains.
Unlike many other working mums, who have to physically be in the office, Kennedy found that her study could be flexible – especially when family life goes awry. She sets aside a certain number of work hours per week but leaves Sundays for family time to ensure that her PhD doesn't take over her life. Alison's goal is to create international collaborations and a potential for overseas work, giving her new career prospects as well as an opportunity to model to her daughters the value of education.
It may be simplistic to look at less-travelled paths and to ask with a mix of curiosity and bafflement: "I don't know how you do it" but the common thread between study and future careers in academia is that the pursuit of postgraduate qualifications is a job within itself. Inger reminds her readers, when they are struggling to persist, that academia is so much easier with a PhD under your belt and that children can develop higher expectations of themselves if you model it for them – a win for both the women and the family who support them along the way.
Sarah Wayland is a freelance writer.