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Can I complete my PhD while pregnant?
This is a question that many people will ask themselves as the years of research start to drag on. What might have started out as a 3 year project may well have turned into 4, 5 or more years.
You are likely to be in a very different place in your life by then time you complete your PhD research. When I started out in 2013 I was working full time in an FE college and had no major commitments outside of my financed car.
By the time I finished, however, I had a new job teaching at a university, I had bought two houses, got married and was about to give birth to my first child!
Whilst completing, or even just making progress on, your PhD is most certainly more challenging when pregnant (but everything is, right?), it absolutely can be done! (Read how I did it here)
You might also be interested in my post- ‘Should I do a PhD? 5 Reasons for and Against‘
So I thought I would share with you some tips from the experts- those who have been there and done it! There is an excellent community on Facebook (click here to join the group), who are really supportive and I asked group members to share their top tip for surviving a PhD while pregnant.
Tips for surviving a PhD whilst pregnant
Work as much as you can in the second trimester!
The second trimester is known to be the best. This is when most women feel most productive and energetic. So, if you can, plan the most intensive work during this period!
Plan as much as you can!
A plan is always a good idea when doing a PhD, whether you’re pregnant or not. But sometimes you need to be prepared not to stick to it!
When you’re pregnant you never know how you will feel tomorrow or the next day. Use your time wisely and work while you can, resting when you need to.
I suggest that you have a plan, but work to it with flexibility- if you’re not feeling great, work on something that doesn’t require too much brain power and save the tough stuff for your good days.
There’s actually a really good book that I highly recommend which is all about time management. It’s been a game-changer for me and I suggest it is worth a read, pregnant or not! It’s called the 4 hour work week by Tim Ferriss and you can find it on Amazon here.
You might also be interested in my post- ‘How to Win the Three Minute Thesis Competition‘
Write down everything you do in a notebook
A PhD takes a lot of man hours to write and can span over several years. We are only human and it is, therefore, highly likely that you won’t be able to remember everything! Doing a PhD while pregnant can make this even worse- ‘baby brain’ is a real thing, don’t you know!?
There have been many occasions when I have had a brilliant idea, only to forget what it was later that day!
Carrying a notebook, or in my case a notes folder on my phone, can be a lifesaver. When you have a thought or idea, simply jot it down in your notes.
This way you won’t forget it and you can work on it when you have time. It can also be a great way to help you to relax- sometimes it can be difficult to ‘switch off’ and by writing things down it can help you to move on and think about something else. You can find more tips like this in this book- How to Survive Your PhD: The Insider’s Guide to Avoiding Mistakes, Choosing the Right Program, Working with Professors, and Just How a Person Actually Writes a 200-Page Paper.
Have small, achievable targets that can be achieved in 2-3 hours
Doing a PhD while pregnant can be a challenge when you take into account morning sickness, fatigue and trouble concentrating. For this reason it is best to set small, achievable targets.
2-3 hours is a realistic amount of time to concentrate, so I suggest that you set yourself goals or targets that will take around this length of time to complete. If you’re having a good day then you can tick a couple of targets off of your list.
Have snacks and juice everywhere
You need extra calories when pregnant and your body is likely to crave food often. Many pregnancy websites actually suggest that you eat several small meals each day, rather than three big meals.
In order to keep your energy up and keep your focus as much as possible, I suggest that you keep snacks and drinks close to your work space. You need to drink extra water while pregnant and you might also feel the need for a bit of a sugar hit- juice can be a great way to combat this.
Patience and self-forgiveness
There’s a strong chance that you won’t be able to maintain your pre-pregnant work pace. If you read my post on completing my PhD before I had my baby, you will see that I had actually completed the tough stuff before becoming pregnant and that my progress did slow considerably while pregnant (fortunately no tasks were too cumbersome by this point).
Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do what you set out to achieve. You will have productive days, you will have less productive days and you will have days where you achieve nothing. The earlier you accept this, the better!
You might also be interested in my post- ‘Why most meetings can be avoided‘
Add 10-20% more time for estimated tasks to accommodate for the days when you just don’t have it.
When I was pregnant I felt like my mind was cloudy. It felt a bit like when you had a couple of glasses of wine the evening before- you’re not hung-over, but things aren’t quite as clear as they should be. This meant that ‘thinking’ took me a little bit longer than usual.
I needed naps. I needed extra snacks. I needed extra breaks. All of these things meant that I worked slower than I would have liked to.
I have written a detailed post on how to complete your PhD faster where I outline lots of useful tips. These can come in especially handy when your progress is slower than you would like it to be!
Find a place where you can take powernaps or just lie down and rest a bit
Taking a rest will help you to focus more clearly and to be more productive. If you can, work from home. If you not, try to find a place where you can rest when you need to such as a quiet room, staff lounge or even the back of your car if you need to!
You might also be interested in my post- ‘What Happens to Students if a University Goes BUST?’
Be kind to yourself
Remember that you are growing a human being. You are going to be a mummy! This should always be your number one priority.
Doing a PhD, however, is also a pretty significant journey!
I used to refer to my PhD as my ‘second baby’ and now that I have both completed my research and taken care of a baby I can safely say that both require significant commitment and investment in your time! Whilst analysing data is a world away from breastfeeding and nappy changes, doing a PhD often takes over your life just as much as having a baby does! (for more on how it takes over your life read this post).
Take a break if you need to
I didn’t write a single word in the first trimester. I simply wasn’t up to it. I did do a bit of editing and I had a couple of meetings with my supervisors, but that was about it.
It’s ok to take a break if you need to. Whether this is an informal break, like mine, or whether you choose to temporarily suspend your research or to take maternity leave, it’s ok to have a break.
In fact, you might find that you are more productive after having a break!
Forget getting much done in the first trimester – just sleep!
Even if you object to being treated like a delicate flower, take advantage of people’s offers to help (if only because it frees you up to work!), especially if you have other children.
I slept a lot in the first trimester. Go with what your body tells you and don’t beat yourself up for needed to rest.
Create a glossary of difficult words that you will use frequently
Like I said before, if you’re anything like me your brain might not be working at 100% capacity off you’re doing a PhD while pregnant. Little things like creating a word glossary can be really helpful.
Find out what works for you and make life a little easier where you can.
Make time for exercise
Exercise might be the last thing on your mind when pregnant, but trust me it can really help!
Exercise helps keeps the brain cells oxygenated and happy, which in turn help you to work more productively.
It is recommended that you stick with your regular exercise routine while pregnant and don’t introduce anything new that is high-intensity and your body is not used to.
If exercise has never really been your thing then just going for a gentle stroll around the block can do a wonder of good, there is no need to head out and join the gym if you don’t want to!
Forget evening working
Doing a PhD while pregnant can be very tiring, so don’t push yourself too hard!
For many pregnant mummies, evenings are a write-off because they are too tired. Instead of overdoing it or stressing yourself out, just accept that evenings will be your time to rest and relax- you’ll work better the following day if you are well rested anyway.
Complete it before birth
For me, my goal was to complete my PhD before I gave birth, but I appreciate that this is not possible or practical for everybody!
Instead, I would recommend that you get to a suitable point in your research before birth.
Perhaps you plan to submit some papers before baby’s arrival as these take weeks or months to be reviewed and so by the time you might be sent amendments you will have recovered from childbirth etc.
Or maybe you plan to complete data collection or a particular chapter before starting your maternity leave.
Having a clear cut-off point can help you to be more organised and to pick up your research again when you are ready to.
How to complete a PhD while pregnant
So, these are the top tips for how to complete a PhD while pregnant that I compiled from the fellow academic mummies on Facebook. If you are looking for more support in this area I recommend picking up a couple of motivational texts on Amazon, such as this one by Palgrave, and joining the Facebook group.
Do you have any other tips to add? I’d love to hear them- drop them in the comments below!