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The Doc Mom

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Chandrima is a recent graduate from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and Manipal Academy of Higher Education. In this new post in our PhD café series, she writes about her experience of doing a PhD in field-based ecology at the same time as raising a toddler as a single mom. 

The Doc Mom
The Doc Mom  

Are you a Doctor now, Amma?” my 6-year-old asked after sitting through my 50-minute-long thesis defense. The twinkle in her eyes made me feel that this achievement was as much hers as it was mine. 

A PhD journey is not always a smooth ride and often encompasses a motley mix of experiences. Crests of enthusiasm alternate with the troughs of emotional turmoil. But what if the PhD involves carrying out field-based research at the same time as raising a toddler? Then you are definitely in for the most challenging yet the most memorable journey of your life. 

I had just started working on my new PhD research project after moving on from an earlier one when I came to know that I was expecting. While I oscillated for some time as to whether I should call it quits, my decision to take a year off helped me contemplate my next step. I decided to get back on track when my daughter was five and a half months old. 

But this decision meant a drastic change not only in terms of my research objectives but also in its implementation. My initial research objectives soon had to be modified to something that would be more achievable while managing a one-year-old. I also realized that fieldwork required a lot more planning than before. For e.g., my field visits needed to be broken into shorter stints to keep up with my daughter’s vaccination deadlines. 

Since my research required me to stay in the Trans-Himalayas at an altitude of 4200m, getting the logistics in place when I landed was extremely important. This included finding someone to look after my daughter in my absence along with ensuring her safety in every possible way and arranging for medical help in case of emergencies. Once these were sorted, months of fieldwork required careful planning given all the anticipated days or weeks of minimal to no work due to a plethora of reasons (any health-related adversities, weather, field logistics, village festivities, agricultural harvest etc.). 

Back in Bangalore and post my fieldwork, unlike many other PhD students, I worked on a 9 – 5 schedule with an additional at home work-slot post-dinner once my daughter slept. While Saturdays would be work days for me (especially during data analysis and thesis writing), I would devote the whole of Sunday to spending time with my daughter. Needless to say, throughout my PhD, I had great support from my advisor and co-advisor who facilitated a timely finish in spite of initial delays.

In retrospect, this phase of my life, though extremely challenging, was exhilarating. Several insights made me emerge more resilient and confident. Through my own experience, I realized how important it is to have a good support system when doing your research as a new parent and this starts essentially with having a supportive advisor. 

As I was a single mom doing a PhD, my advisor ensured that I had a lot of flexibility. I was not required to physically be in the office or lab as long as I was making progress in my research. When in Bangalore, I had to resort to a 9 – 5 crèche facility for my daughter and was incredibly lucky to have a caregiver who helped me focus without having to be constantly worried about my child. In the field, I had someone who took over the responsibility of looking after my daughter. Many a time, people in the village and my field colleagues took a fair share of babysitting in my absence during data collection. Friends in Bangalore also supported me in more ways than one when I was in my analysis and thesis writing phase.

One thing which I truly learnt is that it is important to seek help when you need it and one should not feel guilty about it. While figuring things out on one’s own is an integral part of a PhD, finding out time to troubleshoot every small step, especially during analysis can be difficult in such situations, and therefore one should actively seek help. 

Time management and planning work carefully is extremely crucial for juggling both worlds. I maintained a set routine to which my daughter adapted, making it easier for both of us. A strict bedtime of 8 pm gave me a working slot at night. I would utilize this time to read a paper or do things which did not require too much concentration or thought. However, in spite of all this planning ahead, I had to keep in mind that there would be no escaping days of no work, especially during illness and crèche holidays. 

I also realized how resilient kids can be, when exposed to field situations at a very young age. As mothers, sometimes we tend to mollycoddle kids because of our own fears. My parents had a lot of apprehensions when I decided to take my daughter to an altitude of 4200m. While I took a week to get adjusted to a low oxygen condition, my daughter took only four days. As long as kids do not have major health issues, they are able to survive and adapt to new conditions much better than us. Let your intuitions be your strongest aide no matter how much free advice may come your way!

Last but not least, make sure you take care of yourself. Remember that you are essentially doing two PhDs and there are times when you will feel completely exhausted being in both worlds. Your sanity is important not just for you but also for your kid, so do take breaks from work. Going through a PhD is not easy and doing it with a child is surely a feat. So celebrate this feat and do give yourself a pat on the back whenever possible.


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Chandrima is a PhD survivor and a full time mom. She is trying to bridge the science and communication divide by being a more communicative scientist