Spinning plates

The first post in July Special Issue: Women Clinician Academics by Anna Pettican. Thanks for taking up the challenge!

By Anna Pettican

I was really pleased to be asked to write something for this blog, especially the women’s special issue.

I am currently completing a part-time PhD while working part-time as a lecturer in occupational therapy. I am also a wife and Mum. These various commitments mean that I live with a constant sense of spinning plates, as I desperately try to move between my different roles while keeping everything else going at the same time. I am fortunate in that the University I work for has family friendly policies that support flexible working and even a parent career development fund, which I have used to cover the cost of childcare in order to attend a development opportunity on a non-work day. However, there are still many frustrating realities to working part-time in an organisation that is in general orientated around a five day working week. For example, that the volume of emails and number of team meetings are not pro-rata!

Progressing my PhD studies is frequently a challenge alongside my work and personal commitments, but as I move through different stages of the PhD and the related activities this involves, I have realised there is a need to adjust family life and childcare arrangements. In the earlier stages of my PhD it was more feasible to complete some activities by snatching ad-hoc pockets of time, perhaps on my days off or in the evening after my daughter went to bed. In these pockets I could read an article, arrange a research interview with a participant or complete a short piece of interview transcription.

However, since completing my data collection and moving into a period of analysis and writing-up I have realised there is a need for more defined and consolidated time. This is particularly essential since my writing load has increased as it is simply not possible to write in short pockets of time. Therefore, family life and childcare arrangements need to be adjusted accordingly, to create longer (and quieter!) periods of time. For example, by using my daughter’s Early Years funding to arrange additional childcare on a non-working day or sometimes asking my husband to take our daughter out for a few hours at the weekend so that I can get some writing done. Equally, as initial findings emerge from my study and dissemination activities increase, there is a need for the additional logistical planning involved with an overnight stop to attend a conference, childcare, pick-ups and drop offs I wouldn’t be available to do etc. This is all in harsh contrast to when I completed my MSc studies, before I was married, pre-child and while living alone – next to no logistical planning required!

The bleak and disheartening weeks are the ones when I don’t feel I have managed to do anything successfully, when there is a sense the plates have come crashing down and I have not fulfilled any of my roles well.  These can be lonely, overwhelming times that I don’t remember experiencing during my MSc studies, although I do think the PhD journey is inherently a lonely one and my experiences are not simply a direct result of choosing to combine PhD studies and family life. These times are also balanced against the good weeks, when I do feel I am managing things and perhaps have a break through, receive some positive feedback or pass a significant milestone in my studies. These times are exciting and I come to believe that I can make it work – have a fulfilling career and also be available for (and making a meaningful contribution to) family life.

I would really like to find a way of keeping all the plates spinning most of the time… I hope I can.

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