Research Equity & a Phd Meltdown.

My university has a Research Equity Initiative – it’s a pretty good initiative and its aims to “to support researchers with carer responsibilities, and to promote gender equity in research at UTS.”  Here is the blurb from the official website on what the Research Equity Initiative currently aims to do:

  • Financial support of up to $2000 to assist to assist staff meet extraordinary carer costs associate with attending conferences, under the new Childcare and Carer Support Fund (Conference Attendance).
  • Increased funding and support for postdocs and academic staff who wish to maintain their research during maternity leave under the new Funding for Research during Parental Leave guidelines.
  • Research Re-establishment Grants of up to $15,000 for staff returning from maternity leave to enable them to spend concentrated time on a research project.
  • A Research Fellowship of up to $60,000 for mid-career staff whose research careers have been significantly interrupted by carer responsibilities (under development).

Whilst I’m pleased that my university has this scheme- at the same time it kind-of grates me as a postgraduate student I’m not eligible to access any of this funding or programs. In describing the initiative this phrase is used alot “at key career stages”  – and whilst I’m only a PhD researcher – I have been reflecting and thinking alot about what I need to achieve within my PhD time to ensure that I can get a good job post-PhD.

Early in 2013 , I was accepted into a fairly prestigious conference in Dubrovnik and two pretty good conferences in Timor-Leste – yay me. I’d only been back at study a few months since returning from maternity leave and this was a huge boost to my enthusiasm and academic self-confidence.

Then reality hit. 

I am/was still breast-feeding my child – how exactly was I going to get from Australia to Europe? and to Timor?

Timor felt kind-of do-able, my Mum works there regularly and I’ve still got lots of friends living there, I could take my child – she could stay with friends during the day or stay with Mum if it coincided with one of her visits. The conferences occurred before my daughter turned 2 – so the airfares wouldn’t be much extra for her.

But Europe was a another matter – the conference would occur after she had turned 2 – so it meant either (a) leaving her for at least 2 weeks or (b) airfares for me, my daughter & my partner to go.  Now my institute does provide some financial support for the Conferences fees – however, we were looking at about $8000 in airfares and accommodation – plus we would have lost income for the 2 weeks that my partner was travelling with us (he doesn’t get paid leave).  After realising that there was no way we could financially afford it-I considered if I was ready to leave my daughter for 2 weeks and realised that I couldn’t. For reasons that many parents of small children will understand- especially breastfeeding Mums- I just felt that 2 weeks was too long.  So I withdrew from the conferences.


Then I went into meltdown. 

Cried in every supervision session.

Cried anytime anyone asked me about my PhD.

Cried in my GAS (Groups for Accountability and Support)  meeting

Sobbed in the Student Counsellor intake session

Cried in the next 5 counselling sessions

Told my Supervisors that I couldn’t undertake Supervision sessions anymore till I got this under control.

Withdrawing from the conferences was just a small part of some of my PhD Challenges – but it really triggered something inside me – it was like I been constantly reassuring myself that I could and would perform as I had pre-baby. That the moment where I was productive and focused and feeling good about the PhD would re-emerge, that I just needed to give it time, give it energy, sleep through the night, that  I was ok –

and then withdrawing from the conferences made me realise that I was never going to be the same again and that life had shifted – permanently.

Yeah, yeah – I know – “having a baby will change your life”  we’ve heard it endlessly. But people don’t say

having a baby will change your career

Having a baby will change your ability to participate in conferences with your peers

So here I am – no international conferences, I’m on the “mental-health-mend” (more on PhD mental & emotional health in future posts) and I’m thinking about what the Equity and Diversity Unit could do for me as a PhD Research Student.

What happens in my PhD is part of my ‘key career stage’ –  cause it will determine what type of job and position I can apply for later. Reality is I’m in competition with people who haven’t been absent or had carer responsibilities – I’ve been looking at post-doc position description and they are MEGA competitive- some do provide a space to “explain any periods of non-productivity e.g. maternity leave” but I’m wondering

(a) how much attention does the selection committee pay to those sections? (e.g does it affect how they rank you? e.g. we’d rank her 3rd but cause of her maternity leave we’ll bump her up to 2nd)

(b) does it just count whilst you are on ‘official’ maternity leave? What about reduced productivity once you are back studying?

I realise that at the moment its highly unlikely that the university is going to provide any funding for PhD students under the Equity Initiative – but I also don’t feel like “awareness training” for Supervisors is sufficient either.

So here are my initial thoughts of Equity Initiatives that would make a return to Phd world easier post- maternity (or paternity) leave (in no particular order):

  • Childcare would be a good place to start – there is no occasional care at our University and it took +20 months on a waiting list to be offered a childcare spot – even with the government subsidy (50% in Australia) – childcare costs exactly half of my PT scholarship.  How about some cheap occasional care on campus? (Our local community centre does it at $5/2 hours!) This would allow students with kids to come in for meetings with supervisors, visit the library, attend a lecture, grab a coffee with a colleague and stay connected with their research
  • Extend the Childcare and Carer Support Fund (Conference Attendance) to PhD students: conferences are important – for networking, for exposing your ideas and being exposed to new ideas- they also usually mean being away. For the same reason this is available to Researchers – there should be some fund for PhD students- even if it was competitively based at the beginning.
  • have a specific Maternity /Paternity Leave scheme: at my uni I took my maternity leave as part of a general Leave of Absence (LOA) – this means that I can get the standard 2 semesters leave as any other student (and thus used up my quota on maternity leave).  When I needed to take another semester leave- it made me stressed thinking if my request would be declined, or if I’d even be eligible, or what my supervisors would think if I asked for another LOA.  Maternity/paternity leave should be counted separately so that the student knows if they need to take a LOA for another reason later on, the option is available.

I’d love for you to share your experience of equity at your university (whether its a carer issue or anything else) and any suggestions you’ve got on how your university could be more equitable.

Here are some good links for those who are interested:

  • The Australian Academy of Science Gender Equity Report- focused on early and mid career researchers
  • The Myth of Merit and unconscious bias in The Conversation (this article got me thinking about people with carer’s roles who apply to do a PhD – does the ranking system take into account periods of ‘care leave’?)

About Sarina Kilham

I'm a Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. Trained as a social scientist and with a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture, I'm interested in farmer's experiences of growing feedstock for biodiesel production. My research has focused on biodiesel production in Brazil and Timor-Leste. Also on Twitter @sarinakilham and blogging at
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