"I hope you have more papers than babies." This is what one senior academic told me when I found myself pregnant barely through the first year of a Ph.D. in physics. It was a joke, but even so it was the last thing I wanted to hear.
Out of fear of such remarks, I kept my pregnancy private for as long as I could. Although I was happily married and had the full support of my husband, the idea of raising a child while navigating a Ph.D. was very daunting. When I knew I had to break the unexpected news to my colleagues—if I fainted in the lab, at least they would not be surprised—I was nervous.
I would have continued to worry until childbirth if it were not for some very comforting words from Steve, my second supervisor, who after hearing the news said, “Perfect. Now is the best time.”
Most academic scientists would probably disagree with Steve's assessment. In physics departments, more often than not, senior women have no children, and most of those who do have children had them rather late in life. Why should a woman even think of having children while still in graduate school?
Steve's reasoning, I gathered, is simple. In graduate school you are the responsibility of your supervisor. Your only job is to get a Ph.D.
Of course, that is an oversimplification. We are responsible for ourselves because in the end it is our careers at stake. We need to be reasonably motivated and organized if we are to succeed in our scientific ambitions. But because a Ph.D. is a joint project between student and supervisor, we can lean on a willing and supportive adviser. My supervisor made sure that my research could continue when I returned to work after giving birth. Even though I only took 4 months off, he extended my funding for a year to make up for my maternity break. I know I was very fortunate to have an accommodating supervisor, but it is always in the interest of our supervisors to ensure our success. Not all supervisors are so accommodating, but we need not assume the worst!
Most students will say that graduate school is hard enough, and having a family will just make it harder. I disagree. Stripped of the details, graduate school is simple. There is just one goal: to get the degree. We do not have to apply for research funding, manage a research team, or deal with administrative jobs—duties that a faculty position would entail. Assuming we are reasonably organized, doesn’t it make sense to have a baby during graduate school?
I learned that there's another reason that it makes sense not to wait: The timing makes sense. Raising a child gets easier as the child gets older (at least until he or she becomes a teenager, or so I have heard). Also, being a mother demands physical stamina, which is usually more bountiful when one is young. Professional responsibilities only grow as one climbs the academic ladder. So why not get past the most challenging phase of parenting during graduate school, when you are young and energetic and the only responsibility is to get the degree?
My first few weeks as a mother were indeed the most difficult. I underestimated the amount of work (and joy!) involved in being a new parent. But it does get easier as children become more independent—as they themselves become explorers of the world.
I also underestimated my capabilities. I think most people do the same thing. When I became a mother and time became so much more expensive, my efficiency and focus so improved that I became much more effective than I had expected to be. (And, as I believe my colleagues will attest, I was not bad to start with!)
There are some practicalities. Graduate stipends are not that large, so a modest lifestyle is key. Good, affordable childcare must be available once you resume your studies and research. At my university there is a subsidized, on-site nursery, which was especially convenient when I was breastfeeding. Also—this is important—unless you are a superhero, you need a partner who is willing to share at least half the childcare and household work.
The nature of your science also factors into the decision. My experiments can be left running, which means I can easily go to the nursery if there are emergencies. I do not work in big international collaborations, which require being abroad often. I go to conferences once or twice a year, and that seems to be enough travel. I imagine that some research fields are less amenable to family life.
Finally, getting back to your supportive supervisor: She or he needs to be flexible, especially when your child gets sick.
The perfect time to be a mother is whenever you think you can be a mother. I did not really have the luxury of contemplation; I sort of trained on the job. But, looking back, there is not a shred of regret. I do not feel less of a physicist because I am dedicated to my child, nor less of a mother because I am dedicated to physics. The two endeavors are not mutually exclusive, and it is easier, I think, to keep it that way when motherhood starts during graduate school.
I am now in my second year as a postdoc. My son is 4 years old. I do not think that my scientific productivity has suffered, not even a little. And I can say for certain that being a mother has made me a better scientist and a better person, too.
I often get asked how I managed to finish a Ph.D. while having a son. My sincere answer is, I could not imagine going through my Ph.D. without him. He is my constant reminder that we all started out as scientists.
And just for the record: I have considerably more papers than babies.
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