Interview with Sivee Chawla on Parenting and PhDs

By: Laura Thompson

Sivee Chawla is an international PhD student in Australia. She contacted aKIDemic Life to ask about support for graduate students trying to balance work with parenting responsibilities. In response to her enquiry, we will be publishing a series of resources over the next month that address some of her questions. But to kick start, here is a short interview with Sivee where she talks about the challenges she faces:

Q1. Tell us a bit about your career, PhD and family.

I have a daughter who is 5 years old. Both me and my husband are working in academia and we are originally from India. We moved to Belgium for my husband’s Ph.D. My daughter was born when my husband was in the middle of his Ph.D. And when our daughter was about 2 and half years old we moved to Australia so I could pursue my own Ph.D. at the ARC COE for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. I am now in my third year and my husband is working in the same department as me.

Q2. What are the major challenges of being a graduate student and a parent?

The challenges can be broadly categorised into social, financial, and personal issues. Also, I have the challenge of not just being a parent but being a parent in a foreign land with no family around for help.

I find it very hard to go out and socialize with other mothers and organise play dates around work. And then after work, I need some quiet time to get over a busy day and spend time with my family.

Finances are a real pressure. I think PhDs are already under paid and, being away from family support, we have to put our kids in day care which is very expensive because we don’t get any rebate from the government – it is literally draining our finances. On the other hand, state schools here in Queensland are free for the kids whose parents are pursuing a Ph.D., which has been very helpful since my daughter started attending school. Another worry is running out of time on my PhD scholarship – this is a threat that looms over us because at this point it is not just me but the family that needs support.

I have to stick to a strict schedule. This can be a bit challenging sometimes but is necessary to provide a work-life balance. I always have to keep in mind that I have a fixed amount of time to work, this reduces my flexibility to get things done and emotionally can be very hard when work and family life are busy. Thankfully, I have a supportive partner who tries to stop me worrying too much.

Q3. What support have you found most helpful in balancing these responsibilities?

At home, I have tremendous support from my husband, who himself has earned a doctorate and understands the issues both professional and emotional, which one goes through during the process. Also, I feel we have been blessed with a child who is quite understanding, as she isn’t a fussy child, which makes things easier for us. Kids are smarter than we think!!

At university, I am fortunate to have supervisors who understand and respect having a family life. They focus more on quality of work done and avoid micro managing me. In other words, I have some flexibility at work. Plus, we have childcare centre on the campus which is comparatively cheap compared to other options. However, I still sometimes, need to bring my daughter to the office in the evenings or during weekends to get work done.

Q4. Can you describe any other support that you would like to receive but that has not been available?

For sure. There are always people in a department or at a university in a similar family situation. It is useful to come together as a community and work out a plan to help share responsibilities for the kids – like having play dates or babysitting sessions. I do it with my colleagues but it would be useful to have a more structured department-led initiative, even if it was just letting everyone know who was in a similar situation.

Q5. If you were talking to other parents who have been through the experience of doing a PhD at the same time as raising a family, what questions would you ask them? What advice would you seek from them?

I would like to know how they dealt with the stress levels and maintained their energy when juggling work and family life. I would also be interested to find out what kind of support they had access to, or sought out.