Columnist Clara Grazian continues our advice column for early-career researchers:
Question: When is the right time, as an academic, to have a baby?
Clara says: This question was posed to me during a panel session organised for International Women in Mathematics Day 2023 (12th May). The panellist who spoke before me responded with, “When you become eligible for long leave.” I felt incredibly frustrated. Throughout my early years in academia, during both my PhD and Postdoc, I encountered this notion repeatedly: “You can only have a baby once you secure a permanent job,” “Starting a family should wait until you become a faculty member,” “Consider having a family only after earning tenure.” Strangely, these suggestions almost always came from my female colleagues. (There was a lone exception when a male professor close to retirement remarked that women in their thirties should prioritise having a baby over pursuing a PhD—but that is another story!)
My frustration stemmed from my own desire to start a family in my twenties, while I already felt professionally established. Admittedly, I was pursuing a PhD, but I had an underlying conviction that I would secure a job one way or another, which turned out to be accurate. These recommendations conflicted with my aspirations.
My perspective has evolved since then. The crux of the matter lies precisely here: only you can determine if you are prepared to have children. Perhaps you feel secure in your relationship or ready to embark on parenthood independently, with or without a partner. Maybe you prefer a more stable financial situation (let’s be honest: PhD stipends are terrible nearly everywhere!). Alternatively, you might prioritise obtaining a permanent position, with benefits like redundancy packages, extended leaves, and maternity or paternity benefits.
Every individual is unique, and no one can decide if you are ready or not, if the timing is right for you or not, except yourself. Consequently, I am recapturing my initial frustration with that response, realising that while it might not be an excellent piece of advice for a wide audience, it could have held personal significance for that colleague, who possibly deemed it vital to secure a permanent job before starting a family.
What I can share from experience is this: I’ve witnessed it all. Individuals (both men and women) having babies during their PhDs, and it worked out fine. People becoming single parents and thriving, with or without a partner. Individuals having babies after attaining permanent positions, and it was all right. People welcoming babies and not having their contracts renewed afterward, yet managing well. The essence lies in distinguishing between professional and personal aspirations. If you desire parenthood and plan your life to give space to this desire, you’ll manage, one way or another. It’s more about feeling settled than the actual state of being settled, as the definition of “being settled” varies from person to person.
One last consideration: over a 40-year career, situations may arise that affect your job productivity (illness, divorce, loss, caregiving responsibilities). Taking maternity or paternity leave when your child is young is merely one of these reasons—a blissful one, at that!
Early-career researchers are invited to send their questions about the life of a researcher or ask for career advice, and Clara will try to find an answer…
We’ll publish these in the next available issue [anonymized to avoid awkwardness!].
Send your questions for Clara to email@example.com.