This post is by Associate Professor Evonne Miller, Director of Research Training, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.
How do you balance maternity leave with thesis supervision?
This post is in response to a reader query (thanks Catherine!), who asked this question and for any resources we were aware of. While there are a few blogs about returning to work post baby, we could not find anything specifically on supervising research students during maternity leave. As I have recently done this twice – at the time of writing, I have two young girls (a 16 month and 3.5 year old) – this post reflects my learnings.
While these tips are focussed on maternity leave, the principles are also applicable to any longer periods of supervisor leave – perhaps a research sabbatical, professional development time, industry placement, extended travel/meetings for international conferences, long service leave or extended sick/carers leave. Everyone is different, and will make different choices at different times in their life, but if you are going on maternity or extended leave any time soon, the three steps below provide a starting point for discussion, thinking and forward planning. I apologize upfront for the length of this post – it is long, but these are complex issues.
Step 1: Assess yourself, honestly – and repeatedly
At the outset, take some time to think about what you want this period of leave to look like. You need to think about your career, any deadlines, how much time you think you want to take out and what (if any) non negotiable deadlines might occur while you are on leave and how you might approach them. Don’t ignore your feelings, expectations or dream of how YOUR maternity leave will look.… acknowledge what you would ideally like, look at your research students and put a practical plan to achieve that in place.
It is very hard to predict your experience of parenthood and what you and your baby might be like – some mothers can express, breast or bottle feed while typing emails with one-hand. Others are up all hours, becoming experts in the literature on baby eating, sleeping and general wellbeing as they try and figure out why THEIR BABY IS BROKEN AND JUST WILL NOT SLEEP*. Most parents swing between these two extremes, on an hourly, daily and weekly basis. The point I am trying to make is that every parent and baby is different – and it is really important to NOT put too much pressure or expectations on yourself to maintain close contact with your students.
And, although it really does not feel like it, you are not irreplaceable.
In the scheme of a 30 +year career, taking 3 – 6 – 12 months leave (or more) is a barely a blink of the eye in time. So, if you want, you can and should completely disengage (without guilt!) from your university and students during this period. HOWEVER – if you intend to do this, you need to be responsible and develop a plan in conjunction with your students and work with your university graduate school / higher degree support team to find your students alternative / additional supervisors, or change the weightings so the associate steps up officially (please start these conversation early, NOT 4 weeks before you go on leave – #notme ).
For me, I was pretty sure I would endeavour to stay as actively engaged as possible with my students while on maternity leave – but I actively prepared everyone (including myself) for minimal contact in the beginning. I recommend you accept that your ability and willingness to engage with your thesis students will be relatively low – at least for the first few weeks and months: if possible, prepare your students to expect no / minimal contact and feedback at all for the first 8-12 weeks.
That said, young babies are very portable and you might want a reason to leave the house and to talk non-baby related topics… during my maternity leave, I met my students in person with a baby (and sometimes a toddler) in tow. Three times I went to campus to met students, but more often it was at cafes, parks and libraries near my home – if someone wanted to met me in person while I am on maternity leave, then I (a) pick the venue and (b) will have baby / young children with me.
DO NOT try or plan to do too much. BE honest with everyone about what you can and cannot do – especially be honest with yourself. The priority is you and the baby – and enjoying your maternity leave – everything else, especially a clean house and your thesis students, are lower priorities.. but you need to take the responsibility to actively plan for your absence, which is the focus of the next step.
Step 2: Assess student deadlines, progress and personalities – and the broader supervisory team
Having thought about your personality and predicted preferences during maternity leave, the next step is to think about your students. You need to realistically assess their needs and where they are in their thesis journey. If you are lucky, the associate might step up. While that is theoretically the purpose and role of an associate, all supervisory relationships are different – and only you know how feasible or attractive that is as an option. So – consider adding another supervisor to the team to provide specific extra support while you are on leave.
If a student is at the beginning of their journey, you might have to make some tough choices. In one situation, while on maternity leave, I stepped down as principal supervisor and eventually completely away from the supervisory team. While it was a somewhat painful decision (and much more complex & messy than described here), I realised I could not provide the amount of direction that student needed – at the beginning of their degree, deep in research planning, design and ethics etc; other supervisors could.
Critically, I also had two other students who were nearing the end of their PhDs at the same time – as their principal supervisor, my commitment was to them: the need for me was greater. Before baby, we made action plans that required less of me – they had clear tasks, deadlines, key books and references. One student worked full time inter-state, the other was a single parent with a young daughter – so our meetings had always been via Skype and emails at random hours. If your students are used to face to face meetings, I highly recommend that you start to transition towards online and more flexible communications .. it is much easier to say ‘I will Skype on Tuesday morning sometime if / when the baby is asleep – and if I got some sleep overnight ‘ than to actually leave the house!
Step 3: Engage, on your terms – accept your energy will change
Perhaps the greatest learning I have had is that things change, and what you want to do and how you want to participate (or not) changes. I have variously changed my mind about doing research supervision related tasks while on maternity leave. At least four times, I took my babies to student final seminar presentations (internal milestone at my university before thesis sent for external examination). Once I was in the audience to support and see a close friend present, the other three times I actually sat on the panel (my proviso was: you can have me, but I am on maternity leave, so baby comes too). Of course, I was prepared to leave the room if required – luckily, my babies slept most of the duration in their prams (thanks goodness) and then played happily on the floor for the last 10 minutes.. see the picture of my first daughter below … but even a happy baby makes a lot of noise (gurgles etc) when it is JUST a student talking. I probably would not recommend that – unless you have no other choice; so for the final seminar of a student I was co-supervisor on, I brought baby to campus and arranged for a friend to mind her.
Also, accept that your energy will vary and, thus, plans change. I planned to attend and present at an international congress in Thailand when I was 5.5 months pregnant (with a toddler at home); I personally paid the registration and then realised – I did not actually want to go. I did not have the energy for the flight and all the logistics. Similarly, you will have to let some opportunities go – I have (slowly) learned to trust my instincts.. if I feel reluctant, then it is important to be honest upfront and say no straight away.
On the other hand, some things you might want to fight and plan for.
While on maternity leave, I was invited to co-present a symposium at an international conference in Melbourne. I decided that was important to do, so self-funded to attend and present. I purposely arranged an extended family holiday before the conference in New Zealand; when my husband flew home with the toddler (from Queenstown to Brisbane), I flew Queenstown to Melbourne for the conference with my mother (the baby minder) and the five month old. That was a choice I made – while I am not sure I would make it again (as while I enjoy travel and adore Melbourne, I was happy to get home), we survived.
Overall, when approaching your maternity leave, I have three key take home messages:
- First, prepare by having an honest conversation with your students, co-supervisors and university thesis support team about what you would like to do (or not do) during your maternity leave. Talk to any colleagues who have recently taken maternity leave and learn from them.
- Second, be adaptable – it is really important that you reflect on how things are going and change plans if needed. Balancing your new family, career and research students is not necessarily easy, but we are generally fortunate as academics to have flexible workplaces and access to paid maternity leave.
- Third, and finally, enjoy this special time. Make conscious choices, keeping what works for you and your family at the forefront of your mind.
*As a baby, my first daughter never slept. Ever. Her nickname was ‘Ms No-Sleep Samantha’. As I remind anyone always, sleep deprivation is used in torture for a reason. As the picture of books about babies illustrates, I recently very happily donated my many (10+) books on child sleep to a friend and charity bookstore. (Yes, as a typical academic I read and researched a lot about baby sleep – if you need advice there, message me!). The second picture is my eldest daughter, at about 6 months of age, playing on the floor during a seminar.