Becoming Dr Mum

Commentary and resources


Realities of pregnancy, birth and infant care
Even after reading several libraries’ worth of publications about new motherhood, most of us still seem to feel we haven’t been adequately warned about the sheer overwhelming volume of physical and emotional work involved in bearing and raising children  – even as they bring joy, laughter and meaning into our lives.  This page highlights some of those aspects that women in our study felt particularly complemented or clashed with their PhD studies.

Breastfeeding is...
Breastfeeding is a topic that illustrates several larger themes from this study: (1) the magnitude of the commitment made by aspiring Dr Mums; (2) the complexity and diversity of the experience; and (3) the interdependent physical and emotional existence of mothers and babies, which begins in pregnancy but continues long after birth. Women who nourish their babies by alternative means share many aspects of the this experience. For this page we asked a small, informal focus group of Dr Mums, including some who had and one who had not breastfed, to brainstorm their thoughts on breastfeeding. 

‘What did you do all day?’ 
A partial task list for new mothers, taken from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Time Use Survey for New Mothers. For data from another recent survey and an intelligent discussion of how mothers spend their time in the first year of their babies’ lives - including coping with interruptions and task overload, frequent changes of activity, contamination of time spent eating, sleeping or attending to other personal needs, multi-tasking and structuring of non-childcare activities around being on-call for children - see Research Reports 4/2009 (The time use of new mothers - what does it tell us about time use methodologies?) and 5/2009 (The Australian Time Use Survey of New Mothers - implications for policy) by the Australian Centre for Economic Research on Health, online at

Why would anyone want to have kids?!
To encourage you after reading about how hard it all is: some positive aspects of having children, compiled from an informal focus group with experienced Dr Mums.

Women’s Centre for Health Matters and ACT Health - Women’s Health
Useful links to local sites relating to women’s health services.

A closer look at the PhD 
Some thoughts about the process of obtaining a PhD, based on Dr Mums’ experiences

Challenging the PhD student stereotype
Dr Mums in our study perceived themselves as challenging a PhD student stereotype of a single male in his early twenties, studying full-time, with no dependents. Researchers in the academic discipline of education have already shown that such a stereotype would be false. Two example papers explore part-time doctoral study the diversity of the Australian doctoral student population (Pearson et al., p. 90). 

Some useful ANU websites
Find graduate research students’ services, resources, articles and more.

External websites describing the experience of doctoral study - challenging even without children!
So long, and thanks for the PhD! by Ronald T. Azuma
I did a PhD and did NOT go mad by Richard Butterworth
Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham - a cult comic strip about life at PhD life 

Assess your readiness
Some questions to ask yourself in preparation for becoming Dr Mum.

The road not taken
This page tells the story of one woman who seriously considered embarking on a PhD at the same time as starting a family, but ultimately decided it was not the right choice for her.

Helpful ideas
Random suggestions from experienced Dr Mums.

Why is becoming Dr Mum so difficult?
Read about the positive and negative synergies between PhD and mothering tasks and see which challenges our study participants identified as salient features of their experience of combining the two.

What might make becoming Dr Mum easier?
A random ‘wish list’ compiled from our interviews with Dr Mums and with ANU employees who are familiar with the graduate student experience.

Staying safe: watch out for burnout
Burnout is an occupational hazard for aspiring Dr Mums because both roles - PhD student and new mother - involve prolonged stress. This page contains some information about the warning signs and ideas for prevention. For related problems of anxiety and depression, a useful resource is AFFIRM, a mental health resource provided by the ANU Centre for Mental Health Research.

Down with perfectionism
One of the greatest traps in becoming Dr Mum is to become a victim of impossible standards in relation to both the PhD and parenting. Well-meaning people often tell us we should be prepared to lower our standards and have realistic expectations of ourselves etc. But to do this we need to have a clear idea of what our standards actually are and why they are meaningful to us. Since many of our, and other people’s, ideas of what constitutes a ‘good scholar’ or a ‘good mother’ are implicit rather than explicit, this is often not the case. Instead, we respond to a vague sense of inadequacy or guilt by resolving to try harder. This page offers some food for thought about how good is good enough.

Skills and attributes of successful Dr Mums
Becoming Dr Mum has many intrinsic rewards, and if you complete your PhD here at ANU you will also gain the highest qualification in your discipline from an internationally respected university. But when it’s all over, what transferable skills and attributes can you expect to have gained from the experience of becoming Dr Mum? This page offers some ideas, including high-level management skills that one might more readily associate with a top executive than a lowly new graduate.  Unfortunately, you are unlikely to gain immediate recognition for your new-found talents unless you do some extra work in identifying and translating them into contexts where others can see how much you have learned. Good luck!   

Shakespeare’s sister
A few quotes about women and creative work, for solace and inspiration. 

Study documents
Funding proposal, advertising and recruitment material, ethics approval and interviewer’s interim report.

Additional resources
Books, Internet magazine articles, blogs, discussion fora....