The path from PhD to research fellow as a young dad

This is a repost of an article I was invited to write for the Academic Life Histories Blog, a great collection of articles about navigating academia. See it here.

I always knew in the back of my mind I wanted to have children. However, I never really thought about when that would be. About halfway through my PhD that started to change. Work was progressing well and I was really enjoying the freedom of being able to dive deep into my own research interests. I was fortunate to have my own scholarship and a great supervisor who gave me all the freedom I wanted but was also there for me for long chats about science and academia. I was making my own plans and working according to my own schedule, which wasn’t exactly always nine to five. After some time, I suddenly started to realise that these conditions were actually pretty ideal for having a child and that, as I wanted to have children anyway at some point, why wait?

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).

  1. Keep a work journal. I start each day writing down my plans for the day and at the end briefly reflect on what I did and did not manage to do, the same for each week. I can say that when I started this habit I was really over-expectant and wrote down way more than I was able to achieve. Over time, I became better and better at knowing how much time different tasks take and incorporating extra time needed for those unforeseen activities that can crop-up. I find that keeping a work journal makes one more realistic about what is achievable and more selective in what to focus on, which ultimately results in more enjoyment due to that feeling of being in control.
  2. Plan your work time in blocks. Already as PhD students and postdocs, our work consists of many different tasks, such as reading articles, running experiments, meeting people, coding and analysing data, and writing papers and grant applications. I have found that I am able to be most efficient by dividing the week in blocks and allocate planned tasks for the week to specific time frames. This helps me maintain focus on the different tasks and increase my efficiency by switching less between tasks.
  3. Do not email first thing in the morning. The first hours after waking up from a refreshing sleep is actually one of the best times to mentally task your brain. While it is very common for people to start their working day checking their phone and sending emails, it is actually much better to delay such tasks until energy levels and creativity are low, such as at the end of the morning and the middle of the afternoon. I find that inspiration is especially high in the first two hours after waking, so I try to be selective with my tasks and focus mostly on planning new experiments or writing during that time.
  4. Use a project manager. I tried many ways to keep to-do lists and organise my many projects but found that actually few worked effectively for me. After some trial and error, I have however found a way that works. This entails an organised, chronological project system in which I organise my files and notes in combination with a hierarchical project manager called Things. This management software makes it very easy to keep a good overview of the many different projects by creating tasks, sub tasks, and to-do lists, complete with tags, deadlines, and attachments. It may take some time to set-up and start using such software, but it greatly helped me with setting priorities, working more efficiently, and planning ahead.
  5. Organise the week but be flexible with your time. For me it is important to get enough time with my children. Before I tried to organise my work time and family time dynamically. Unfortunately, this almost never worked. I now make a general plan for the week and discuss with my partner at what times I will definitely be with the children, and plan my work time around that. My son goes to bed each day around 19:30. Therefore leaving the office at 17:30 means I would barely have any time to do something together, especially since I would also have to commute and often cook dinner. Instead, I leave work a couple hours early, or start a couple hours later, and get work done in the evening when they are asleep. The good thing is that as an academic we generally have a lot of flexibility to make a work schedule that works!
  6. When procrastinating, try finishing some simpler work tasks. We all have those occasional drops in focus where we are lured away from work by easy distractions. Procrastinating can be especially frustrating when you are a parent since your work time is even more restricted. It is much harder to fit in some extra hours or stay longer at work to finish that task you procrastinated on. What I found works when my focus is waning is to briefly shift to a simpler job. Think about emailing, organising your administration and work folders, or cleaning your lab. Of course, sometimes I also realise I just need a break, but occasionally simply shifting your focus really helps. Stephen gives some great further insights about procrastination (here).
  7. Work from home a day (or more) a week. This does not work for everyone, but it really helps me increase my productivity. To make it work, I have created a nice working environment at home where I feel comfortable and relaxed, but not distracted. I often listen to music that helps me stay focused, such as minimalistic and ambient music, and make sure my partner and children know I am not available. I love it to start the day with a coffee, some yoga or a dog walk, and then go straight to my home office. For me, working from home without any distractions means I can work solidly for many hours and combine that with a nice lunch break and afternoon tea with my family.