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Caroline - embarking on a PhD when you have a young family
Name: Caroline
PhD discipline: English Literature
Area(s) of work: University teaching; media; business (property management)
Year of graduation: 2001
Date of Interview: 24/06/2008

Now Playing: Caroline - embarking on a PhD when you have a young family
Caroline recalls the physical, emotional and financial challenges of raising a family whilst studying for a PhD.

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Can you talk to me about some of the challenges of embarking on a PhD when you have a young family?

You have to do a lot of juggling and sometimes you get very tired and if your children are like mine in that they want to talk to you when they're free not when you're free that can add to the fatigue so the way we dealt with two very different children at opposite ends of the ability spectrum was to try to make time available for them as far as we could but recognising that if the children didn't want to use that time but then wanted to talk to us at three o'clock in the morning we could say well I need to sleep now, I can talk to you at whatever, four o'clock tomorrow. Unless it was a life and death emergency. So we had to develop some tough mindedness I suppose. Not being cold or unavailable to the children but I think the children had to learn that the parents also had certain needs and we had to establish some boundaries so I think we were probably a little bit more structured and less lenient than some parents these days whose children are just allowed to make whatever demands at whatever time. This would not have worked during my PhD as when my husband was starting his business. Finance was also difficult and I think looking back that was a major reason why I took this full-time position when I was offered it.

During the PhD

During the PhD and looking back now I realise that that was a decision out of fear. I know now that there are sources of funding which you just have to look for a little bit harder but they are there and it depends very largely on confidence and about thinking about what resources you have and following your passion, following your heart and you will find solutions but I didn't know this at about the age of 41, 42, 43 when I was quite early in my PhD and trying to find ways to keep afloat as a family. So that was quite a challenge. Another challenge I think, this is related to the actual writing required, the research and writing for the PhD, because I only had one day a week that my employer allowed me – a) it meant that from one research day to the next, with a gap of six days in between, I had to do a lot of backtracking because I couldn't remember what I had done last time and b) I had to be extremely assertive with my employer who would quite often call me in for so called emergencies which in fact were not emergencies. 'Oh we must have you on campus, this meeting is convening' and this might have been a meeting that people knew about two weeks ago and as far as I was concerned this was not an emergency so we had quite a bit of conflict which I found extremely difficult because by nature I'm a peace loving person and so I had to make tough decisions all the way through while I was lecturing full time and researching one day a week about how to balance not only the family's needs including a child with disabilities and another child who was very gifted but not really exerting himself at school and so there were those needs, the needs of a young business, my own needs for sleep and thinking space, my students' needs, my employer's needs. Those were a lot of needs to try to balance and that was actually quite difficult. At one point when I had been in the full time position for about three years I became quite unwell and I remember doing lots of reading about stress management and reaching what some textbooks describe as 'brown out' so you're getting dangerously close to burn out. You're not quite there yet but you can see the signals and round about that time my sister and I went to visit an old friend of ours who was in fact recovering from burn out so this was quite instructive to me and my family and I put our heads together and decided that in fact the job was not doing any good to me and my supervisor meanwhile was saying you must get into your full time research as soon as you can. So round about the time we came up with a contingency plan that enabled me to slowly move towards resigning from my full time teaching position. We didn't know how we would support ourselves financially but in fact we did. It worked out and basically as soon as we reached a point in the children's education where we felt we could move to another county without disrupting their exams. I gave plenty of notice to my employer, more time than was necessary so they were able to interview and find somebody suitable to step into my shoes and I then had about a year and a half in which to write chapters full time and it was wonderful because by that stage of course the children were older and less grumpy I suppose and my husband's business was much better established so there was less anxiety there and just the sheer luxury of having a tiny little study of my own cos we'd moved now into a rented house which did have an extra bedroom where I could leave all my books out overnight cos this wasn't a multi-purpose room and my job now, my full time job was to read and write and it just felt like such a luxury and I was able to make much better progress. I was able to be much more efficient because I didn't have these gaps of six days between research days.
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