Towards the end of my third year as a PhD student my son was born. As I was doing my doctorate in the UK, that unfortunately also meant that I only had a few months of funding left. I took a couple weeks of paternity leave and, when my son was about five weeks old, flew with my family to Southern Germany for a job interview. I was lucky to get offered a postdoc position. I still had my PhD to finish though...
I applied to various types of funding to extend my PhD for a couple months. Although on paper my application was strong (I had several papers plus a family), it still took considerable effort to secure funding. One decision was how to make the most of this funding. As my wife received a statutory maternity pay as a small animal vet we decided to move to the Netherlands as we could stay for little money in a house belonging to my family. I was lucky my supervisor was very understanding of the situation and fully supported this decision.
Living in the middle of the Dutch Countryside was ideal for me, both for enjoying the outdoors and being able to work fully focussed. After a couple months I succeeded in finishing and defending my thesis in time. I can say that having a child while still being a PhD student didn't have too much impact on my thesis itself, other than that it took a bit longer to finish. However, I spent less time with my son and wife than I would have liked, despite even working from home. Becoming a parent is such a life-changing event that many habits and day-to-day actions can change completely, and I was definitely still struggling a bit to strike that ideal work-life balance.
We immediately loved the surroundings of where we moved to in southern Germany. Luckily, the institute runs a guesthouse, meaning that our move did not entail having to house-hunt in a foreign country. However, three months living out of a backpack with a baby in a small guesthouse apartment wasn’t exactly ideal, especially for my wife who didn’t speak the language yet and was at home all day with my son. With hindsight, we hadn’t really thought enough about the potential challenges that come with moving to a new country and raising a child. In the end, we were lucky to find an amazing house in a small village, as well as to get a spot with the village Tagesmutter* for our son a couple days a week. This change enabled my wife to attend an intense German course, and a couple months later she managed to find a nice job as well. For me being part of a thriving new department meant there were many exciting opportunities ahead, and I was enthusiastic about planning new projects and investing considerable time in setting-up experimental facilities. However, I also had a backlog of papers from my PhD to publish and already postdoctoral fellowships to apply for. Here I really felt the challenge of being a parent. Not only did I now have less time to finish my work, I also couldn’t be as flexible with my time as I was used to, and in particular often missed out on spontaneous socialising with colleagues after work.
Over the past two and a half years, I have come to realise that a strong inner drive for science unfortunately quite easily conflicts with my ideals of having a family. Being excited about working hard on that next paper can for example easily shift to feeling guilty when not being able to play with your children. I have to be careful not to let feelings of being unable to do either turn into stress and unhappiness in the long run. Luckily I can say that, with time, it is possible to find a work-life balance that lets you combine an exciting academic career with a happy family life. However, one has to be open for that challenge and embrace the fact that those first years as a parent will come with many life changes and lessons to learn, both personally and as a family.
Time hasn’t stopped, and recently my second child was born. This time around, I am able to better manage my time, allowing me to get more work done and spend more time with my son. That feeling of being able to combine both successfully is incredibly rewarding.
Here are some thoughts on what I have learned the last couple years which have specifically helped me be more efficient with my time. See also Neeltje’s relevant post “Reproductive strategies in science” and great general points (here).
Jolle Jolles (@Mudfooted) is a von Humboldt and Zukunftskolleg research fellow in the Max Planck Department of Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz.
* Germany has an amazing parental support system. One great benefit is that they provide day care for young children in almost every village.