CAREER COLUMN

Becoming a parent in graduate school shaped my approach to work–life balance

Karishma Kaushik thinks that learning to share details of her personal life at work has made her a better academic mentor.
Karishma Kaushik is an assistant professor and Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellow at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology, University of Pune, India.

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The Kaushik family at the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival in Woodburn, Oregon.

The Kaushik family at the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival in Woodburn, Oregon.Credit: Bryan Rupp Photography

Out of breath and running late, I entered the room to discuss my latest research updates with faculty members and graduate-school colleagues. Flustered, embarrassed and more than seven months pregnant, I proceeded with the important presentation, not mentioning the false contractions I had woken up to that morning.

It was July 2011, and I was just a year into my PhD programme at the University of Texas at Austin, after graduating with a medical degree in India. At the time, I drew strict lines between my professional and personal lives. This stemmed from the fear of being perceived as ‘not serious about science’ or ‘having a life outside the laboratory’ — something I felt was part of academic culture.

However, choosing to become a parent in graduate school meant that my academic and personal lives could no longer be completely separate. Those rigid divisions between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ weren’t as solid as they once were.

After my child was born two months later, I continued being discrete about my ‘non-work’ life, avoiding topics related to health concerns, child-care conflicts or personal upheavals.

This came from both self-imposed and institutional pressure to operate within a system that did not account for a ‘non-conventional’ graduate student, be it a young mother or an older candidate.

I defended a major research proposal a few weeks after childbirth, silently accepted curriculum plans that scheduled teaching at 8 a.m. and continued my very heavy workload of course requirements for the PhD programme.

This made an already difficult academic career phase even more challenging. I felt like I was struggling alone professionally, and I felt isolated as one of few new parents in graduate school. I rarely spoke about my child at work, and I hesitated to share insights into the happy moments of my life outside the lab — moments such as celebrating my son’s first birthday or summer plans for a family road trip.

My approach to being open about work–life balance changed through the years of my PhD. During this time, I successfully navigated several crucial milestones in my programme and my research, both of which I had previously struggled with in the early years of my PhD.

Every small accomplishment left me feeling more sure of myself as a scientist, and I gained confidence in my ability to effectively navigate work–life balance.

I realized that my previous approach of putting work above all else, or having no time for life, was farcical, superficial and dishonest to myself and those around me. It disturbed me to think that I was perpetuating the stereotype that to be committed, scientists should have no life outside of science, when in reality I was attempting to do almost the opposite: to raise, in my son, an entire life outside of science.

I resolved to share and openly prioritize parts of my life I had previously kept hidden, including both the responsibilities I shouldered outside of work and the joys of parenthood. I formally requested that my institution reschedule my teaching to a later hour, making it clear that early-morning classes were difficult for a young mother.

I politely excused myself when meetings stretched into the late evening, saying I needed to relieve the nanny, and would catch up later. Over lunch conversations with colleagues, I shared anecdotes of my son’s growth milestones and my plans to host a dinosaur-themed birthday party.

Openly prioritizing and planning my work and life around each other greatly enhanced my competency and enthusiasm at work. My teaching reviews — based on student feedback — went from average to exemplary, The quality and pace of my research output strengthened, and accolades and recognitions for research, teaching and science outreach started coming my way.

My openness also improved my professional relationships and my understanding of the scientific community. Because I was open, others were more open with me, too. While my concerns centred around childcare and managing dual career paths with my spouse (an engineer in the private sector), I discovered that my colleagues had their own hurdles to jump: mental health, immigration concerns or financial constraints.

Today, I am very open with researchers and students in my group about the day-to-day juggling of my personal and professional roles, and I encourage them to be the same. I believe that this fosters honest and respectful professional relationships and a constructive work atmosphere in which we do not hesitate to share the need to manage personal priorities. Not only does this make us more humane, empathetic and approachable individuals, but it also, in a small but powerful way, makes academic science a more inclusive and considerate place.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03162-7

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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