PhD researcher with a story to tell

By Emma White

Emma White is a PhD student with the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, who is on the verge of becoming a published author. Her memoir, Broken will be launched next month. I wondered how she managed to find the time to write a thesis and a memoir, little did I know that she was also balancing this with raising a family. Here is Emma’s story in her own words.

Being a PhD student is hard. It is, on occasion, isolating, bewildering, frustrating and completely and utterly overwhelming – kind of like being a parent.

As one of the many people in our university community raising a family while studying, I’m trying to balance caring for my children with my research, sustaining a relationship with my partner, getting enough exercise, and lately, putting the final touches on a memoir. I want to excel as a mother, scientist, partner and author, and at times, my expectations are unrealistic, resulting in stress, anxiety and fears I’m failing at everything.

While theoretically, it’s possible for me to make my kids animal shaped sushi for lunch each day, stick to a rigorous exercise regime, publish and present prolifically in the best journals and conferences, and meet my publisher’s deadlines; it is about as sustainable as strip mining. In reality, I craft elegant emails to my supervisors explaining why my research is not as far progressed as I’d promised, my kid’s teachers barely recognize me, dust bunnies the size of cats blow through my hallway and we are having toasted cheese sandwiches for dinner – again.

Life will always interfere and prevent us from achieving our research or early career goals as rapidly as we would like, be it children, health complications, or other reasons, and as stated in an outstanding article in Science, we as researchers, need to re-evaluate success and our priorities.

I need to accept that occasionally I’ll miss a school event due to work constraints, or after a kid falls off the monkey bars, I’ll spend the night dozing in hospital lounger instead of presenting my research at a long anticipated conference. My personal and professional life is managed the way a nurse triages emergency patients: which role requires my attention right now.

Borrowing an analogy of work life balance from the author James Patterson, imagine a series of balls representing work, family, friends and spirit being actively juggled. Each ball is made of either rubber or glass and fluctuates between materials at different times. If a ball made of rubber is dropped, it bounces back. However, a fumbled glass ball may chip or even shatter to pieces.

The trick to balance is determining when a ball is rubber and when it is glass.

Emma’s research concerns the statistical evaluation of the effectiveness of groundwater management and her memoir Broken, detailing a backpacking trip around Australia four months after her boyfriend became a paraplegic will be launched by Melbourne Books in June. Her blog can be found here: