Having children during a PhD/Research Fellowship

May 15, 2024


By Dr Jessica Lawson, Research Fellow at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), and former SRF PhD Early Career Representative.

Author Biography:                                                   

I graduated from the Royal Veterinary College with my veterinary degree then headed off to the USA to undertake an equine orthopaedic surgery internship, followed a year later by a second (primarily stud medicine) internship in Kentucky, much to the surprise of my UK-based boyfriend who had agreed to a year’s long-distance relationship. In Kentucky, my passion for reproductive medicine was really cemented, along with the development of some great relationships with people who have continued to be  mentors and role models to this day. I stayed in Kentucky for another year by which point something had to give, and I knew ultimately, the priority for me was my family. Although I had a couple of positions as a vet in equine general practice when I returned to the UK, I wasn’t passionate about the work, so I looked for something with more of a focus on reproductive medicine. This is how I came across a PhD in Professor Mandi de Mestre’s lab which allowed me to work in equine reproduction in a research setting. I completed my 4-year PhD under Prof. de Mestre’s excellent and supportive supervision, and then was fortunate enough to be awarded further funding for a Research Fellowship to continue my studies, which brings us to now.

At what stage in your career did you have your children? Was it easier/harder than you expected to balance starting your family alongside your career?

I knew I wanted children, but I wasn’t in any rush – that is, until I attended my first Fertility Conference. Here the barriers and difficulties associated with fertility were starkly highlighted to my semi naïve self, so I returned home with a purpose. I had my first child 2 years into my PhD and although I was very nervous about telling my supervisor as I felt like it was a huge “problem”, she could not have been more supportive and positive about it. I was pregnant with my second child at the end of my PhD and had him between my viva and graduation and am now currently pregnant with number three who is due in a few weeks.

For my first child, during my PhD, it was initially unclear whether I would receive maternity pay due to the way in which my project was funded, however, my institution did address this prior to me starting maternity leave and now all PhD students are offered the same benefits irrespective of their funding body. I was very aware of not wanting to extend out the project end date by too much so chose to take 6 months maternity leave which worked for my family. Childcare wise we are very fortunate in that both sets of grandparents are local and are love having the one-on-one time with the kids, meaning we only need to use nursery 3 days a week. It also has proved immensely helpful with attending conferences and SRF council meetings etc. My mum has been dragged to all sorts, although I think she wishes they were in slightly more exotic locations…

The one frustrating thing is the lack of government childcare support for students in post graduate education. During my studentship we were not eligible for tax-free childcare (due to being on a stipend) nor any other government support. We literally fall through the gaps on everything which was very frustrating. We made it work but it is a difficult balancing act. It would be great if universities could work together to lobby the government to recognise post graduate students in their childcare support schemes.

What advice would you give to someone in similar position that was considering starting a family during their PhD/Fellowship/PostDoc?

Go for it! I found that having a baby during my PhD was a positive experience and it changed my perspective on a few things. I found that having a child made me far more productive during work hours and focused, as time is a premium. Whilst this does unfortunately come at a price, such as not being able to have long catch ups with colleagues, or having to park certain things when you are on a roll – on balance, I am a much more driven person. Everyone has different priorities and what brings them happiness in life but for me, having my kids has not only bought me the fulfilment of a family but I appreciate the small things more too; most notably, the pure joy that comes with being able to drink a hot cup of coffee at your desk without being bothered by toddlers.