Studying with children

Mum studying with her children

Concept of work from home and home family education. Mom and son are sitting at the desk. Business woman works on the Internet in a laptop, a child writes in a notebook.

Sara Habibi has two school-aged children and is doing a PhD. She talks to about the challenges this presents.

Fancy doing a PhD? The student life may appeal when you are considering all your options after having a baby. On the upside you can set your own hours, more or less, and studying keeps your mind working instead of focusing all the time on more immediate issues like playgroups, meals and homework. On the downside, a PhD requires time for deep focus and reflection, something that may be in pretty short supply when you have small children.

Sara Clarke-Habibi is doing a PhD in Education at the University of Cambridge and has two young children, aged eight and 10. She started her PhD after taking several years away from work to look after her children. She feels it is easier to study now that the children are at school than when they were younger. When her first daughter was born she was building an NGO which was working in Bosnia to promote peace through education and training teachers. She was based in Switzerland at the time. Before having children she travelled internationally to conduct training and manage projects. Once her first daughter was born she managed to focus her work more on curriculum development and writing, which was more suitable for remote working. By the time her second daughter was born she was working very reduced hours for the NGO which she says made it difficult to do anything meaningful.

Switzerland offers very few part-time roles for professionals so she started to invent things she could do that had some meaning for her, including teaching English in her local community. “I needed activities where I could use my skills,” she says. She helped build websites for NGOs as this made her feel more connected to the world. “When the kids arrived, I felt like I had been sent into outer space,” she says, “and that I was losing my professional expertise and a large part of my identity. I wanted to be able to say that I found satisfaction just being with the children, and I did enjoy it. But I felt I needed more so that I could keep being myself.”

Now or never

After a few years Sara realised she would not be satisfied doing a patchwork of projects which had no particular direction. When her daughters reached school age, she decided it was a ‘now or never’ moment that she had to grasp and she applied to the University of Cambridge to begin the next phase of her career. However, doing a PhD with young children is a challenge. “I thought that once the kids start school I would have ample time to do my studies. I did not anticipate how demanding having children at school would be in terms of the extra-curricular activities, homework, and holidays,” says Sara.

She feels she is subject to constant dilemmas, for instance, should she use after school clubs regularly or try to schedule all her research meetings around pick-up times? She asks herself continually if her children should pay the price for her education. Guilt is, of course, a regular for many parents and, although she hopes she is a good role model for her children, Sara admits that her daughter sent her a Mother’s Day card which said ‘I hope you have a nice no PhD Mother’s Day’ and stated that she never wanted to go to university like her mum.

Sara tries to balance the needs of her family and her university work, but feels her work sometimes suffers and that she misses out on the broader student experience. “A PhD is not just the dissertation, it’s also the network you create. Those who move on to a meaningful career will have made connections, collaborated, innovated with others. It’s hard for me to participate in these extra things that often take place in the evenings or weekends when I devote time to the family. I can meet people during school hours, but most networking opportunities – the social events and talks – tend to be between five and seven which are the worst times for me.”

Sara feels she is extremely fortunate to be the recipient of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Cambridge’s most prestigious international scholarship programme. One of the advantages of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship us that it has no age restrictions. “I took seven years out of my career working part time and I am older than a lot of people doing PhDs in education. I am hugely grateful for Gates for not setting any age restriction on scholarship applicants,” she says.

Even so, most Scholars and other Cambridge postgraduates are in their mid-20s. Sara feels many students, particularly women but also men, are unprepared for the impact that having children might have on their future careers. While the Scholars focus a lot on professional development, Sara believes that many of the female students will have children within a few years of completing their studies and may be forced to make compromises in their career or family life. “It’s the ‘elephant in the room’ that we don’t talk about. We don’t talk about the choices that most of the University’s female students will have to make at some point. Furthermore, many Scholars – male and female – will go on to be leaders of companies who will set company policy on things like parental leave and flexible working arrangements,” she states.

She adds that students might also need to consider the impact of their future spouse’s profession on their own career. When one partner earns substantially more than the other, it is likely that the higher earner’s career will take precedence, especially when children arrive.


When both parents need to travel for work, as in Sara and her husband’s case, childcare can get tricky. Like many postgraduates, Sara moved to the UK with her family expressly for her studies. Neither she nor her husband have extended family in the UK who can help look after the children when both are travelling for work. The University provides some help and advice around childcare, she says, but much of it is focused on very young children rather than school-aged ones. Sara says she is fortunate, though, that her supervisor is a woman who raised children while doing her own PhD and understands many of the issues she is facing. “She pushes me to work hard, but if family matters arise she is understanding,” she says.

Her supervisor has helped Sara plan her research fieldwork so that she is not away from the family for long periods of time. Her work is currently focused on Bosnia and on the role of education in promoting reconciliation following violent inter-group conflict. Instead of relocating to Bosnia for two or three terms to collect her research data she will undertake a series of shorter trips. This approach means she has to arrange as much as possible in advance so she can hit the ground running. In her first trip in January she packed in 25 interviews and 200 surveys into two weeks. “I have to be 100% efficient,” she says. Ironically, the pressure over fieldwork is not too stressful. Being in the field helps her feel she can really get into her PhD in a meaningful way. “It’s a topic I’m passionate about,” she says. Her husband was able to look after the children and she Skyped with the family every night. “My life’s a continuous negotiation between work and family,” she says.

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