Balancing School and Family, School, Student Life

Finding a Thesis Supervisor

Goin’ on a thesis hunt,

Won’t be long…

Uh-oh, there’s a baby!

Can’t go over it

Can’t go under it

Have to get through it.


Our son was born a few months ahead of my husband’s PhD defense, and was a mewling presence at the event, to the apparent disgust of some faculty members in attendance. Luckily his own supervisors were incredibly supportive throughout his thesis-writing, infant-rearing, doctoral adventure.


Parent holding baby and studying on laptop.


A few years later, my classmates and I have just started our PhDs, and need to identify thesis supervisors.


The general consensus is that finding a PhD supervisor is like dating in your early 20s: it’s hard to figure out if potential supervisors are ‘into’ you, where some interactions went wrong, and what the expectations are moving forward. Adding family commitments to this mix could be enough to turn either party off. Regardless of whether my husband and I decide to have another child during my degree, already having one at home means compressed work hours, days off due to illness, and constant general exhaustion beyond anything I knew in my wild and single 60-hour-workweek days.


I set out to avoid surprises and to find a PhD supervisor who supports my attempts to juggle parenting and research, while avoiding the sort of “flagrantly illegal hostility towards the notion of combining career with motherhood;”* a common sentiment that myself, and many colleagues have experienced from faculty at various Canadian institutions.


So along with a list of questions that were easier to ask (How many first-author papers have your previous students published? What service obligations do you have?), I questioned potential supervisors about students taking parental leave. Every time I asked, I felt nervous, which often led to it being my last question at the end of the interview.


The responses I got were all nominally positive, but the tone varied wildly. One faculty member replied that it’s fine “[…] as long as you get your work done and it’s clear cut,” and that maternity leaves can be a problem when students lose momentum. Another exclaimed that students should absolutely “[…] have as many children as you want to be happy, you just have to find a way to make it work,” but followed up by (perhaps unintentionally) implying that hiring a nanny might be a plausible solution for a grad student. A third was completely supportive of the idea, discussed their own experience with a previous student being on leave, and outlined ways that the leave can be handled according to the student’s preference.


Finally, one particularly delightful pair of potential supervisors looked horrified <<gulp>>, and asked me to rephrase the question. After my clarification, they glanced at one another before one replied “That shouldn’t even be a question – you have the right to a year of maternity leave and no one else gets a say. I love spending time with my kids and miss them every hour of every day I’m at work.” Phew!


The most important features in a supervisor are their interest and expertise in your study area of choice, and their capacity to put in the considerable time required to guide a student through a graduate degree. The responses I received to the parental leave question didn’t change my mentoring choices in the end. But having had the conversation early means knowing that my supervisor supports my family life, and will help me handle the inevitable challenges if we decide that another thesis baby is in the works for our family.


*to quote Cordelia Fine from her recent book Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society


Written by: Andrea Portt, PhD student