I enrolled in my Ph.D. program
3 years ago, intent on a quick
completion. But between drop-offs,
pickups, and unscheduled days
off, my candidature time was rapidly melting away. So, after a few
months, and with the support of my
supervisors, I decreased to a 70%
time appointment and periodically
took unpaid leave. Life became
more manageable, my research progressed, and I was happy with the
balance I had achieved.
Then, about a year ago, everything was thrown into disarray
again when a stalled literary project lurched back to life. I was offered a publishing contract for a
memoir describing a camping trip
through the Australian Outback
that my husband and I took a few
months after he became a paraplegic. I could not pass up the opportunity to challenge perceptions of those with disabilities. I met with my supervisors,
dropped to 50% time, and worked on both my research and
memoir—which I recently completed.
I’ve learned to balance my personal and professional lives
like a nurse triaging emergency patients: by determining
which role requires my attention right now. Borrowing an
analogy from author James Patterson, I imagine that I am
juggling a set of balls representing work, family, friends,
and spirit. Each ball is made of either rubber or glass, and
the material changes with the circumstances. If I drop a
rubber ball, it bounces back. However, a fumbled glass ball
may chip or even shatter. The trick is knowing when a ball
is rubber and when it’s glass.
Even with this mindset, at times my expectations are un-
realistic, resulting in stress, anxiety, and fears that I’m failing
at everything. Because of lecture schedules, I missed con-
certs where my kids sang while dressed as rare earth metals.
After my son fell off the monkey
bars, I spent the night in the hospital instead of presenting at a
long-anticipated conference. I craft
elegant emails to my supervisors,
explaining why my research has not
progressed as far as I’d promised.
Meanwhile, my kids’ teachers barely
recognize me, dust bunnies the size
of cats blow through my hallway,
and we are having grilled cheese
sandwiches for dinner—again.
But I am striving to achieve balance. That means accepting that my
academic hydrogeology career is
unlikely to surge forth like a wave,
I’m grateful to my supervisors for their openness to
finding solutions so that we can achieve our mutual
research—and life—goals. But I know that others facing
similar dilemmas lack such support. More supervisors need
to be willing to accept part-time students who have other
priorities—and who often bring unique experiences,
perspectives, and skills to their research. Universities need
to provide flexibility for students who have additional commitments and responsibilities, be it employment, health, or
family. I love being a Ph.D. student, but it does not need to
come at the expense of the other parts of my life. ■
Emma White is a Ph.D. student at the University of
Melbourne in Australia and the author of Broken.
“I determine which role
requires my attention
The art of triage
I was halfway through my Ph.D. coursework and struggling to define my nebulous research topic, with deadlines hurtling toward me and the MATLAB error beep propagating through my skull ike a cluster bomb, when it all became too much. Smashing the keyboard in frustration and rip- ping incomprehensible pages from MATLAB for Beginners, I sank to the floor in defeat. “It’s OK, Mama,” whispered my 4-year-old daughter who, unbeknownst to me, had been watching from the doorway after creeping out of bed. As she stretched her tiny arms across my back, I realized
that, although it is theoretically possible for me to publish prolifically in the best journals while
making my kids animal-shaped sushi for lunch each day, it’s about as sustainable as strip mining.
By Emma White