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Kids + PhD = ?

Kids and PhD – not easy, but possible
A testimony by Dr (!!!!) Hilary Wunderlich

I was in my second year of graduate school when I first found out I was pregnant with our first daughter. I was beyond excited, but understandably nervous to tell my lab and my boss. Given the 10-15% risk of miscarriage within the first 12 weeks, I wanted toimg_0233 be sure things would be all right, and decided to wait until towards the end of my first trimester before spilling the beans to everyone. It so happened that Thanksgiving was around that time. I invited my lab over to join me and my husband in celebrating, and thought that would be a good time to share the news. I was terrified when I first pulled my boss aside to tell her the news. Nevertheless, when she congratulated us and expressed her support, I was happy to tell the rest of the party a few minutes later.

As my pregnancy progressed, I, of course, continued working on my PhD project, participated in meetings and presented my research to my TAC committee. Fortunately, my laboratory work at that time allowed me to avoid working with any chemicals deemed hazardous in pregnancy. If there was ever an experiment that required hazardous chemicals, a post-doc in my lab was always happy to help. I am from the US where it is expected that women work as close to the due date as possible, so naturally, this is what I planned to do. To be honest, I thought the German system of taking 6 weeks off beforehand was overkill - HA! It turned out, that carrying a gigantic watermelon around 24/7 is not as comfortable, or as easy, as it seems, so I did end up taking some maternity leave before my due date.

In Germany, the ‘Mutterschutzgesetz’ ( prohibits any work for a minimum of 8 weeks after birth to protect mother and child. During that time, you are entitled to ‘Mutterschaftsgeld’, which you have to apply for at your health insurance. After the first 8 weeks, Germany offers parental leave (‘Elternzeit’) for mums/dads for up to three years. For the first 12 month, the government pays between 300-1800 Euro based upon your salary in the 12 months before birth.

Although this is a lot of support and tempting to exploit, I wanted to continue with graduate school as soon as possible. With help from family, I was able to go into the lab for a bit during my maternity leave to perform some experiments that were crucial to determine the direction of my project. Fortunately, I had put my daughter on the waiting list for daycare already when I was about 12 weeks pregnant. We got a spot in the Daycare Center connected to the Mensa at Martinsried ( when my daughter was 5 months old, which allowed me to continue my work officially.

I began by working in the lab from 8am-2pm, which was determined by the hours of the daycare on campus that are available for babies younger than 1 year (after 1 year of age this time is extended). Since I have a bit of a commute coming into work, I asked my advisors’ consent to work four days per week in the lab and one day per week from home. This restricted amount of lab time did cause some strain between me and my advisor. Understandably, for my advisor it was important that the project continues to be successful. However, for me it was also important to have time to adjust to being a parent. At that point I consulted with the GSN Women’s Representative, who mediated a conversation between me and my advisor, in which we were able to agree on a plan for finishing my PhD project well and in due time, which was beneficial to both of us. The GSN supported this agreement by paying a student assistant to facilitate experimental work. This ensured timely continuation of the project, which was important to my advisor, and provided time for me to work on analyses, literature and writing tasks from home.

hilary mit familie1

Now, having successfully graduated and being a parent to two daughters, I’d like to use this post to provide a non-sugarcoated testimony of having a kid and doing your PhD simultaneously. Working from home with a mobile infant/toddler really means that you work when they sleep (unless someone else is watching them), which may be a few hours during the day and a few hours in the morning and evening. This makes it especially important to organize your time as much as you can and to be prepared that sometimes things like household have to wait. Take whatever help you can get, do not be afraid to ask for it. Write down your priorities, take a look at the big picture and rank what you need to do to get there and when you sit down to work, put away any distractions. When you are in lab, be in lab - I see people killing time or taking an hour for lunch, if you want to get in and out during daycare hours. You need to plan out your experiments in advance and work as efficiently as possible. One last thing I would like to add, which is extremely important: Do not forget to take care of yourself so you can actually sustain the constant tear between being a parent and a scientist.

Hilary Wunderlich with her family