I finished my PhD in Geography at a Russell Group University last year. Although I enjoyed the work, am proud of the achievement, I also went through some tough times when pregnant and as a mother of a young baby which I feel could have been avoided with appropriate support from the University and the Research Council who funded the work.
The main issue I encountered was in taking time off when I was pregnant and when my son was first born. The details are complex but it is important for you to understand the context so I have bulleted the progression below:
* In the third year of my PhD I informed the department I was pregnant and would like to go on maternity leave.
* I started the PhD in February 2011 but found out that my official start date for funding was the 1 January 2011. This was significant because it meant I was not entitled to maternity pay from the research council.
* I applied for maternity leave in December 2013. The research council informed me that because the bulk of maternity leave would be in my 4th year “having a baby was not a reason for suspension of studies.”
* The department advised that I should take informal maternity leave and apply for an extension to my submission deadline on my return.
I applied for an extension in the autumn of 2014.
* The department questioned whether the extension was for maternity leave or because I had taken up other employment. They also reminded me of the implications of late submission for the Departments future PhD funding prospects.
* I was asked to pay a £600 continuation fee.
* Having submitted my thesis I had to wait 6 months until my exam
* During my exam a number of disparaging comments where made about the length of time it took me to complete my PhD – even though when accounting for my unofficial maternity leave I completed in just over 3 years.
Although the extension was eventually granted, and the continuation fee withdrawn, the whole process was exhausting and upsetting. At every twist and turn I either came up against a faceless bureaucracy who didn’t have its facts straight, or senior staff who were evasive about my options and motivated by ticking boxes for funding bodies rather than showing a duty of care. I am sure you can imagine the pressure of looking after a new born whilst also working on a PhD. I found the treatment I received from the department and the research council just made this difficult situation harder.
There needs to be changes made to ensure that others don’t go through the same situation. I suggest the following:
* There should be a clear process through which PhD students can apply for maternity leave that is set out at the time the prospective student accepts the PhD offer.
* The university should apply all the pressure it can on the research council to bring its (questionably unlawful) policy into the 21st century, but in the mean time it should uphold its own gender equality policies: PhD students who require a break in study because they are pregnant or have had a baby should automatically be entitled to 4 years to complete just like anyone else.
* PhD students should as a matter of course be supported through their pregnancy and beyond to help them complete their thesis. They should be treated as individuals, with dignity and respect at all times.
It was made clear through this process that I had no maternity rights as a PhD student. I think this is a problematic situation but obviously not one that is in the University’s power to change. However, the University is committed to eliminate discrimination and actively promote equality of opportunity – this policy has clearly not been upheld in my case. There are many women in their early thirties undertaking PhDs, ensuring that they are not at a disadvantage because they have a baby would seem to me to be a basic minimum. I do not hold much hope for the progression of women within academia if we cannot even get these fundamentals right.