Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

How I Became a Mommy-Ph.D.

I started graduate school in Chemical Engineering in 1999. I had been married for six months. I had been working in industry, which I found to be overwhelmingly boring (more on that later). What I really wanted to do was be a professor. The career appeals to me on so many levels: the freedom to study and perform research in an area of your choosing, the ability to mold and form new minds into the scientists and thinkers of the next generation, and the flexibility in scheduling and work hours. It was the latter that seemed to make academics conducive to developing a family life.

When I came for my perspective student visit, several of the students asked me if my husband would move with me? What would he husband do? What would we do about starting a family? I felt like these questions would work themselves out. I was blessed with a husband who works in computers, a very portable field, so he could obtain employment anywhere. As far as family goes, I felt like I would have one when I was ready.

As I got futher along in my career, I decided that I wanted to have children while still in grad school. This is very unusual, but not unheard of. Of course, it is much more difficult if you are a woman than a man. Science moves at such a fast pace, it is difficult to tear yourself away, even for a few months, without fear of being scooped by other researchers. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with some of my labmates driving back from a conference in Houston. They were incredulous that I would consider having a child in grad school and suggested that I wait until I was done. But that didn't make sense to me. By the time I was done I would have been married 5 years. I would still have a 2-3 year postdoc left, which would require work in the lab, and then a 6-7 year wait for tenure. I just didn't want to wait that long.

I started reading everything I could get my hands on about being pregnant, having children, and raising children. Eventually I decided that there is no "good time." I decided to wait at least until I had finished my Master's so that I would have a fall back in case I decided not to go on (unlikely but you never know). I was trying to time the baby to be born in the summer, when I would be missed the least right after finishing classes. Unfortunately, my body was not as cooperative and I got pregnant near the end of my last semester of classes.

This actually turned out to be a good thing. I was racked with interminable morning sickness for the first three months. I remember dragging myself to class. Then heading to the library for a nap, then to lunch (but hey why bother), and then back to the library for a nap, and then finally to the lab where I tried to stay as still as possible until it was time to go home. This definately put a damper on my productivity. I coerced an undergrad to do my most dangerous work, and as the morning sickness subsided eased myself back into work.

My daughter was born in December, near the break, which worked out nicely. However, I was horribly unprepared for the amount of work that a newborn requires. I remember thinking so many times that my life would never, ever be the same. I honestly thought that I might never see a movie again, or go shopping, or even out to eat. There were days when I got up at 12:00, and was barely showered and fed by the time my husband got home. My daughter seemed to cry every time I put her down for more than 30 seconds. It was crazy.

Luckily we found a nanny and after about 2-3 months I went back to work. For the first year I confess I worked six to seven hour days, which is not a lot for a grad student. But I was extremely efficient. I rarely went out to lunch, or to the gym, or even stopped to chat to my labmates. I did miss out on some of the important things I would have liked to do, like seminars and reading in my field, but I got my work done.

As my daughter got older, things just kept improving, until I was almost done. I began looking for a faculty position and post-doc during my last year. My thoughts also turned to giving my daughter a sibling. I was hoping to time things so that I would have a child right after finishing, then take a few months off and start my post-doc. The problem is that you never really know if you are done, until you start writing. So I had to guess.

I was pregnant by December. Every job interview that I went on was during the early throws of pregnancy. I would get on the plane, immediately go to sleep, then put on a bright facade for dinner and crash on the bed immediately after arriving at the hotel. The hardest parts of these trips were not being pregnant, but being away from my daughter. For the most part my husband hung in there, but for longer stints away my mother-in-law came to help out.

I was a little concerned that I would begin to show, but I went to great lengths to buy clothes that would leave that is she fat or pregnant doubt in the mind. I have to say that I was fairly successful. My last interview was at 6 months pregnant and only 1 of the 2 men who interviewed me noticed, and that was the first comment I received the entire time.

Writing my dissertation and defense went much more smoothly than my experiments during my first pregnancy, but I didn't pamper myself the way I did with her. I would get up at 7:30 and write until 11:30 only getting up to use the bathroom and eat hurried meals. On the weekends, my husband took my daughter to a local waterpark to allow me to work, and we spend some family time together in the evenings. It was tough. Near the end I began to have several braxton-hicks "warning" contractions and to dilate. A few days before my defense I was told that it could be any moment. My husband told me to lie in bed until my defense was over and I more or less did this (while preparing my presentation). I passed my defense on July 30, 2004. My son was born at 7 PM the next day.

And that, is how I came to be, the mother of two with a Ph.D.


At 2:03 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have written it in a nice way, nothing extra, to the point and short.

At 8:21 AM , Blogger shiva said...

good for you!
i handed in my MA thesis on a weds. the next monday i had #2. I now have three and just handed my dissertation.
so am i crazy that i am looking for a postdoc and pregnant again?

its nice to know i am not alone. thanks

At 6:00 PM , Anonymous Flicka Mawa said...

Wow. Actually, after reading this post, I find that we are incredibly similar! I am in a closely related field, and my husband is also in computers and moves easily. I am in my first year of grad school, and I've been married for 6 months. I don't want to wait until grad school is over to have a baby either, and I do find that most people find this surprising, so it's very encouraging to come across your blog! I also think that there really is no good time, and I just can't imagine waiting five years to have a baby, when husband and I are baby crazy already. He started his own company so his job is pretty unstable right now, but once that sorts itself out (ideally by being hugely successful :-P), then we will start trying, which at the moment looks like perhaps a birth in about two years, or during my 3rd year of grad school.

I look forward to reading more of your archives!

At 11:08 PM , Blogger Amature scientista said...


I am just going to start my pHD. I was never an A+ student, But since is is my dream I have managed to get a scholarship. I'm really proud of you! you're an inspiration.

At 5:16 AM , Anonymous Linda Wall said...

Your story is amazing! You certainly had a lot of things to go through while writing your dissertation for your PhD degree. Any journey can really have it’s up and down, and I think you didn’t let it out of control even with you encounter some bump in the way. Anyway, I think all’s well that ends well, right?

At 8:39 AM , Blogger Danaher Evette said...

The ideas and the thoughts which forced you to do great works and also in the entire life you achieved everything to your success also many experiences and the procedures you go through is also been so necessary, anyone would see, will at once see about your progress. phd thesis in mechanical engineering

At 2:00 AM , Blogger Love Kpop said...

I am looking for my memories through the stories, the narrative of people. I feel it is difficult but I will try.


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