About 6 weeks after submitting my PhD thesis, I found out I was pregnant. The below is a somewhat higgledy-piggledy account of some of my thoughts and feelings related to a future academic career during the months that followed (and some that were already there). It is in no way meant to be a criticism, not of academia, or working mums, or nannies, and certainly not of my left ovary.
I finally pull up in the institute car park. It’s later than I’d like, having spent a good part of the morning sat on the bathroom floor disagreeing with my attempted breakfast. As I walk through the campus an acquaintance greets me.
“What are you still doing here?”, she asks in a well-meaning sort of way. She probably imagined that, having handed in my thesis a few months ago, I’d have left to start some fabulous postdoc by now.
“Just tying up a few loose ends” I reply vaguely. “Writing up papers, last few experiments, getting some sci comm experience, that sort of thing.”
Truth be told, I’d also imagined that I’d be off to some new fabulous post by now. Maybe a postdoc, maybe something in Knowledge Exchange. If I’d intended to stay here I would have started applying for jobs at the institute months ago, but that wasn’t my intention.
In theory I had no qualms about job hunting while pregnant, and indeed I tried for the first month or so, but I struggled in practice. I was exhausted, sick and completely overwhelmed by my new situation and it was all I could do to prepare for my viva, get my teeth into my new part time comms role, and get a review paper written, without adding job interviews to the mix. I also struggled with the prospect of uprooting myself and my husband to another part of the country (or another country) where we didn’t know anyone, all for the sake of a job I might only do for 6 months before taking a year or so off. We also both wanted our next move to take us closer to our families rather than further away from them.
I tried searching for similar ‘case studies’ on student and postdoc forums, but became increasingly dismayed by the assumption of all these women that they’d be back at the bench once the baby was a few months old, and the way they planned their careers accordingly. Great if this is what you want, and perhaps I’d feel the same after 2 months at home with a squalling infant, but in my heart I didn’t feel this was for me, and in no way wanted to commit to returning to work in any rush. And that being the case, a little voice inside me whispered, why compete for a postdoc against people far more dedicated than you? Think how much more they will achieve with that short few years of funding than you will, when your heart is full of cloth nappies and slings?
Likewise, Ottoline Leyser’s ‘Mothers in Science, 64 Ways to Have it All’ – a collection of women’s journeys in science and motherhood – contained less diversity in life pathways than one might expect (I say this with the utmost admiration and respect for Ottoline; you can only collect what is there). The majority of these women had secured fellowships or lectureships before the birth of their first child, and statements such as ‘nanny moves in’ and ‘back to work after 4 months’ jumped out at me in stark contrast to how I want to experience parenthood (although like I said, I reserve the right to change my mind about that once I’m living it!!). Those women who had started families before postdocs or taken career breaks seemed very much in the minority. While my pregnancy can’t take sole blame for my feelings that I might not be cut out for academia – I’d had those for some time – it certainly wasn’t doing much to allay them.
In addition, shortly before I submitted my thesis I had an interview for a really exciting postdoc in a fantastic plant science department at a University close to many friends and family members. When asked where I wanted to be in 5 years’ time, I mentioned that if the project was successful I’d be interested in applying for a fellowship there, because I loved the city and the research area. The response? A derisive “Sounds like you want to settle down”. I felt like, despite my best efforts to convey my passion for the research project during the interview, ultimately I just came out with ‘wants to have a baby’ stamped across my forehead. While I was afterwards assured that this attitude wasn’t typical of many PIs, I couldn’t shake it off as further evidence that I didn’t fit the academic mould.
At 8 weeks pregnant I had my viva. I’ve never been so ill, or so worried about throwing up on someone’s shoes. However, determined to get through it on my own merit without making excuses, I didn’t mention anything to my examiners. Not only did I get through it; I loved it, and I nailed it. Two and a half hours later my examiner told me my going into Knowledge Exchange would be a waste of my research potential (but then duly admitted that critical thinkers were needed there too). The written feedback that came later would include the phrases ‘particularly impressive’, ‘very high quality’ and ‘highly informed’. I think this might have been the first time that anyone other than my supervisor displayed confidence that I could be a successful research scientist. I was understandably buoyed with renewed confidence and pride, but at the same time couldn’t help wondering what they’d think about the new direction my life was heading in if they knew.
A few months on, while no longer sick, I’m still immensely fatigued and very grateful for my part time job with the institute communications group – I just can’t imagine embarking on a full-time research position and being able to give it the required energy and focus. And I’m reliably assured by those around me that the fatigue of pregnancy has nothing on that of parenthood itself. However, with the elasticated waistband of my maternity jeans rapidly expanding, I no longer have to give acquaintances vague responses about ‘what I’m doing with my life’. We’re buying a house nearer to family, having a baby, and perhaps a few months after that I will start pursuing other things that I want from life, if I can work out what they are. The success of my viva, some reflection and time spent writing a review has helped me to realise that yes, maybe I will be able to come back to academic research in the future.
But will I want to?
A word on family planning
Reading this, you might think my pregnancy was unplanned. This isn’t the case. However, I have PCOS; only one of my ovaries releases eggs and it’s rather lackadaisical about it, and I have been told repeatedly for the last decade that it could be very difficult to conceive. Parenthood is one of very few things that I am absolutely certain I want in life. Therefore to keep postponing trying for the sake of chasing career paths that I was uncertain about, especially when there was no way to guarantee I would conceive quickly at a ‘convenient’ time, seemed increasingly like madness. Even more like madness than getting pregnant while unemployed, a month after submitting your PhD thesis.