Dr Dad: Life as a PhD Student and Father of Twins
By TRULS HANSSON, Early Stage Researcher, MANTEL Project 6.
I’m the proud father of 2.5-year-old twins, who I can say with 100% objectivity, are the most fantastic kids in the world! I am also an Early Stage Researcher (ESR) located in the Liebnitz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Germany, undertaking a PhD as part of the MANTEL International Training Network (ITN). I am studying the effects of extreme weather events on microbial community dynamics, and carbon cycling in lakes.
Combining parenthood with a PhD is not easy, and although exact statistics are hard to find, I expect it is not unusual. Considering that the one thing these two activities have in common is that they both require tremendous effort and time investments, one might think that doing both at the same time would be a no-go. This is at least what I used to think while doing my BSc, looking at the postgraduates, running around doing grown-up science stuff and always seeming very busy and very, very stressed out. On the contrary however, as well as myself, I have now personally become acquainted with several individuals that have done or are doing just that, either by starting a PhD while already being a parent of young children, or having their first child at some point during their PhD.
Still, multitasking parenthood and a PhD means every day is a battle to balance the two, and it leaves little to no room for free time or time to one self of any kind. So, let me describe a typical day in my current life, for simplicity’s sake excluding days of field work, and/or travel which also constitute a large part of my PhD:
Kindergarten starts at 08:00 every work day, and, after a number of wake times during the night, my son usually wakes up for real at 06:00. He then typically objects to getting dressed, being cleaned and brushing his teeth with loud tantrums, kicking, throwing things, and running naked around the house. He’s a surprisingly fast runner. In doing this he also eventually wakes his sister who becomes jealous of all the attention he’s procuring and loudly starts to demand her cut. While changing our son, it is usually a matter of distracting him and restraining him long enough to put on whatever pieces of clothing is within reach. Our daughter has some extremely strong opinions on how and what she should be dressed in, which change on a daily basis and which are impossible to predict.
When everyone is dressed, meals are packed, and the kids have finally been placed in kindergarten, I’m usually at work between 08:00 and 08:30 (depending on whether it’s me or my wife that does the kindergarten delivery). After getting to work, it’s a race to get as much of my check-list done as possible before I have to leave for the kindergarten pick-up (which closes at 16:00). My wife is also currently a postgraduate student, and on the days when she doesn’t have lectures I am relieved from the school run and I get to indulge myself with an extra hour and a half of work before having to return home to assist with general household duties.
The twins’ bed-time involves another round of screaming, running, and dragging whatever’s left on the dinner table down on the floor. At the moment the twins have just learned to throw their blankets on the floor next to their beds, and use this to dampen their falls when climbing over the bed-rails, which has extended effective bed-time duration by at least another 75 min. When both finally are properly in bed, I usually get my laptop, and start working again, or if I have practical things to take care of, for example lab-, or field-work, I go back to the institute to continue working. My final act before going to bed is to prepare breakfast and lunch for kindergarten, something I usually do while being half asleep.
While many “PhD-families” can draw on the help from close relatives during bouts of high intensity work-requirements, those of us living abroad like me and my family rarely have that advantage. Living in a non-English speaking region of a foreign country also adds a lot of extra work with regards to the administrations of living costs, kindergarten, bills, etc.
For me, this has meant a sharp change in my working strategy from what I employed during my MSc and in the first employments of my career, which often involved staying late at the university/office/lab/field until all the work I needed to do was done. I had great success with that strategy, and I perfected it throughout my studies and early career. But even I was able to see that trying to combine this strategy with a healthy family-life, after uprooting my family and dragging them to another country, would be a recipe for a rapid deterioration of even the sturdiest relationship, as well as physical and mental burn-out for myself. As such, in my new work-family life, the most important aspect is time allocation, scheduling, and making the most out of every moment I spend at or with work (and of course with my family).
Although I do still have a high frequency of late nights at work, leaving my better half with a definitively larger portion of the responsibility at home, so far, this change of pace and tactics has been working, all things considered! Hopefully I’ll be able to at least maintain it in the coming years and use it to achieve a successful completion of my PhD-project.