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From 2011 to 2014, Anne Hakim was a biology teacher at a preparatory college in Malaysia. Her first daughter was born in Malaysia in 2014. In the same year, the family moved to the USA. Anne started her PhD in 2016 at the University of Michigan, studying the subcellular organization of bacterial organelle trafficking.
I am a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan, studying the subcellular organization of bacterial organelle trafficking. I obtained my undergraduate degree and my MSc in Biochemistry from the National University of Malaysia, where my husband and I are originally from. After graduation, I worked at a preparatory college where I taught A-Level biology to government-sponsored students planning to study medicine and life sciences in the UK, Ireland and the US.
In 2014, I resigned from my position and moved to the United States with my husband and then three-week old daughter, as my husband had been offered a PhD position at the University of Michigan. I decided to take two years off to focus on raising our daughter and building a new life for us in a foreign land. In fall 2016, I started my PhD and after a year of lab rotations, decided to join the newly established lab of my supervisor, Dr Anthony Vecchiarelli, as his first (and for now, only) graduate student (https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/vecchiarelli-lab/). My husband has been such a steady rock during my first year of my PhD, and since he had gone through the same process, he also became an invaluable resource of graduate school wisdom.
I have always aspired to advance in research and academia so the decision to take a break from active science was not one I made lightly. But I knew that it was necessary at that time, and in retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. All of the major events happened in a short time and seemed to justify my two-year break: having an emergency C-section after 18 hours of labor; moving to the other side of the world three weeks after, away from any family help to start anew; and the toughest part, not being able to work due to my dependent visa status. However, I did remain connected to science during this break by publishing a paper based on data I generated during my MSc.
Rackham Graduate School of University of Michigan is fully committed to helping student parents navigate the complexities of balancing family life and graduate school. For instance, they offer a Childcare Subsidy Grant for day care. The average annual cost of day care is $15,000 per child, so subsidy grants help somewhat in defraying the costs.
We found a schedule that works for both of us and organized it around our lab work. But between the crazy rush of daycare drop-offs and pickups, holidays and sick days, and our teaching and research commitments, it is easy to switch on to autopilot during the weekdays. There are days when I am riddled with guilt when I realize that I had only spent three hours interacting with my daughter.
We try to get as much work done during the week – one of us would typically return to the lab at night once our daughter is asleep. Working at weekends is usually inevitable, so we try to get it all done during her naptime or after bedtime. Conferences are another challenge. Since we cannot attend different ones at the same time, we have to choose our conferences wisely. The key to our crazy balancing act as a team is compromise and respect for each other’s time and work.
I think supervisors, departments and universities could support scientist parents in many ways. For example, unlike here in the US, in Malaysia, you do not lose your stipend during the two months of maternity leave. Maternity and paternal leaves should be tightly regulated by the universities, to protect the students from any unfairness or discrimination that could stem from inconsiderate or less-than-understanding supervisors. My husband and I are very lucky to have advisors who are fully supportive of our situation and completely understand when we have to change our working hours on the fly due to sick days or medical emergencies. But others might be less fortunate.
“There is never a perfect time to have children” – I think this saying applies to graduate students as well. Life does not have to be put on hold just because you are in graduate school. Do your research and look into benefits and support offered to graduate student parents and you will find that most universities are invested and committed to helping. Despite hurdles, I would not want to go through grad school any other way. Having kids makes me more focused and time efficient, knowing I have to make every second away from my kid worth it.
The challenges we face are not so different to other professionals – the usual balancing act of work and family is quite similar and just as demanding. But as a researcher, and as a graduate student specifically, I have flexible working hours and don’t have to take official time off for unforeseen circumstance. I am really grateful for that.