Life story: Petteri Karisto

Children on campus may be an unusual sight, but if institutions are supportive it can help parents at the start of their science career.
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Petteri Karisto is currently a PhD candidate at ETH Zurich. His first daughter was born in the spring of 2014, during his undergraduate degree in Helsinki, Finland. His second daughter was born two years later, in 2016, during his master’s degree. Petteri and his family moved to Switzerland for his current position later in 2016.

Petteri finds that hiking on the weekend with his whole family is a perfect counter to work-related stress.

Image credit: Kati Blomqvist

How did you become both a parent and a scientist?

I have always been interested in nature, like most little kids are. As I was growing up in southern Finland, my family gave me many nice experiences in nature and tried to fulfil my endless curiosity with countless books. I always loved mathematics, but as a high school student in Lahti, my biology teacher gave me a strong interest in biology as a science. I applied to the University of Helsinki in 2010 and got in. Studying biology felt immediately right for me and becoming a scientist was a pretty clear goal since the first year of my degree. Later I was able to combine my old love, mathematics, into biology in a biomathematics master’s program at Helsinki. The program was international and the lecturers really supported my dreams about a career in science. During my bachelor studies, I met the right one, Annika, who was studying primary education in from the University of Eastern Finland. She got her bachelor’s degree in spring 2013 and two months later we married. My wife moved to Helsinki to start her master’s program and to live together with me.

We both are from big families and we wanted to have kids. In Finland, governmental support for students and families is awesome and we felt there were no restrictions to us having kids during our studies. Our first daughter was born in spring 2014 and a few months later I got my bachelor degree in biology. Annika took some time off in autumn 2014 to stay at home with our baby but returned back to her studies the following spring. That meant we both were able to gain enough credits to complete our degrees while also taking care of our daughter. In fact, our first daughter spent more time on different campuses than any other baby I know. A normal day included morning lectures for Annika, while I was waking up with the baby at home; then I’d go to my lectures around 10am with our daughter, and Annika and I ‘changed’ her around at lunchtime. We decided one or two days in advance how to deal with overlapping schedules, based on who was more able to have our daughter in the room with them: for a passive lecture, it was easy; but for practicals, nearly impossible.

In summer 2015, I had a scientific internship in a biomathematics group, which solidified my dreams about doing science; that internship also led to my first publication and to my master’s thesis. Later, in the fall of the same year, our daughter, who was 16 months old by then, started going to day care. Annika and I then had full days for studying, and only needed to decide who would take the baby to the day care in the morning and pick her up in the afternoon. In fall 2015, I discussed with my master’s supervisor, Eva Kisdi, about possibilities for doing a PhD. She strongly suggested looking for a position abroad, as she believed it would be good for my career, and emphasized that moving abroad is easier with a young child than with an older one. By that time we were expecting our second daughter, who was later born in spring 2016. Annika returned her master’s thesis two weeks before she was due to give birth, and I finalized my thesis after our second daughter was born. Later, in June 2016, the four of us moved to Switzerland for my doctoral studies at ETH Zurich. Now, after two years abroad, we are happy to have combined science and family life successfully. We are expecting our third daughter to be born in July 2018.

What support have you received as a parent from your country, institution, and friends and family?

From Finland, we got generous allowances. For example, in spring 2015 we got 1,700€ per month for doing our studies and taking care of our first daughter. We had a student flat that was clearly cheaper than market price, subsided student lunch (2,50€) every day, half-price public transport for students, and a government guaranteed cheap student loan (about 0.5% interest on 300€/month/student). I got paid parental leave of a few weeks, and my wife got nine months of paid leave. There was even a possibility for either parent to stay at home with a slightly lower fixed level allowance after the baby was nine months old. We also got free day care later, because we were considered “poor”.

In terms of my institution, kids on campus were quite a strange thing, but they were usually a positive surprise for everyone. Lecturers were really understanding, and they even adored our daughter. Notably, parental leave doesn’t count in the studying time. Now at ETH, we benefit greatly from flexible working hours and we get about 15% extra on top of my salary for having two children.

For our friends and family, all the people close to us have been amazingly helpful. We were, and are still, living away from our parents, and so they are not able to give everyday help. However, they could provide mental support, and being aware that they could be there in case of problems helped a lot. Also, our friends often visited us and were understanding of our limitations due to our baby: walking slowly, reacting slowly, sudden breaks for ‘service’, bit of disturbance, noise, etc.

What for you have been the most difficult aspects of balancing parenthood and science?

Two problems: time and money.

Time management is certainly more difficult for me. I think it is the same for almost every parent. It is easy to become lost in my work thoughts with interesting topics for the whole day, and difficult to be present with my kids. On the other hand, I believe and see that I’m generally more efficient during the office hours than my mates, as I don’t have the option of staying a few more hours.

Until now we haven’t felt that we were terribly poor, although it has been challenging. We have gotten used to spending only a little, which helps a lot. It does make many limitations, though. For example, this position in Switzerland was the only one we could afford; salaries are terribly low practically everywhere else. They are low here, too, but we are surviving.

What more could be done to improve your life as a scientist and a parent?

Fixing the two problems: time and money.

The biggest problem, time management, is mostly my own problem, and not caused by my working conditions. My group and my bosses are amazing, understanding and supporting of us as parents, so I feel that I have only a little pressure from my work. I have been extremely successful, though. If my projects were more challenging, I would have significantly more stress and feel pressurized to extend my workdays over a sustainable level from the view of my family. Currently I’m spending only 45–50 hours a week in the office or working elsewhere.

However, for me the biggest impact would be a better salary. It would reduce the stress about my personal budget; it would help me to have holidays and do nice things with my family on my free time. It would also save some time that is now spent for saving money. For example, we live away from Zurich to have affordable housing, which means I spend two hours a day commuting. Also we drive every one or two weeks to Germany to do our groceries, which takes quite some time.

How do you think being a scientist and a parent compares with working in another profession as a parent?

In my case, there is no big difference. In fact, my friends in industry who are also parents find time management more difficult (although they do have better salaries). But I’m sure the work atmosphere in our group is quite exceptional (at least that’s the impression I get according to Twitter). I think scientist parents, especially mothers, will be among the ones who will finally make the big transition from expecting to be a 100h/week scientist to becoming a sustainable scientist instead.

What advice would you give to other scientists who are thinking of having children?

It is possible, but it requires decent support from those around you. You will also have more restrictions, for example, if you want to move abroad. It is possible to find places where it is relatively easy, and searching positions abroad might show some good options for families, like Finland. However, my most important advice would be: don’t do science unless you really want to, don’t have kids unless you really want to, and if you want both, love your kids more than your science.