The home: a complex location for doctoral carers

This is a guest post by Dr James Burford (@jiaburford), Lecturer at La Trobe University, and Co-Founder of the Conference Inference blog, which discusses the role and meaning of academic conferences. In this post James argues that space and care responsibilities are important factors that shape the conditions for doctoral education and discusses the role supervisors can play in supporting their supervisees no matter their spatial and care arrangements.

A kitchen space showing washed up dishes

Across the COVID-19 pandemic many doctoral researchers transitioned to working from home. As university campuses emptied of much human activity, home spaces often became noisier and more hectic. This was especially true for households where multiple people needed to be online working or learning at once. As a research educator working primarily with graduate researcher cohorts, I witnessed this transition from the vantage point of my zoom square. Colleagues beamed in from spare rooms, kitchen tables, bedrooms, garages, backyards, a park, a car, a couch surrounded by tiny dogs. Children and partners appeared, sometimes handing a cup of tea, playing a musical instrument, or asking when lunch might arrive. For some, COVID-19 was a new experience of negotiating work at home, or as some have put it ‘living at work’, and the consequences of this are currently being assessed. Yet for many doctoral researchers #WFH has not been a novel experience at all. For many, doctoral students with care responsibilities the home has always been the primary location where research work gets done. 

I’m a higher education researcher who is interested in the felt experience of doctoral study as well as what it means to think about doctoral education as an emplaced and spatialised practice. Together with my colleague Dr Genine Hook, I have been thinking about doctoral study from home, and the care-heavy contexts that many researchers negotiate when working from domestic spaces. Genine and I collaborated on a paper published (before COVID-19) in Higher Education Research & Development, entitled Curating care-full spaces: doctoral students negotiating study from home (or see here for a handy summary of the paper written by Emunah Woolf). We wanted to explore what it’s like to navigate doctoral research primarily from home rather than from a university campus and how the ‘home’, as a location for doctoral research, may enable and constrain both doctoral and carer identifications. Genine and I also wanted to use this paper as an opportunity to consider our own care-full doctorates in a new light. 

Genine and I first met at a conference in 2014. Since that conference we have kept in touch and cheered each other on as we finished our PhDs, published research, took up and left jobs, moved states and countries, and found our feet as scholars. We share not only an interest in queer theory, higher education and the odd glass of prosecco, but also the experience of being people who shouldered significant care responsibilities during our doctoral studies. Genine was the sole parent of her primary school-aged son, and I was a carer for my mother, who became very unwell during the first year of my doctorate.

One day Genine and I were hanging out in Sydney when I hopped over for a visit. Sometime over lunch we cooked up an idea that we might think more about our own experiences of being home-based doctoral student-carers via collaborative autoethnographic research. Initially, we decided to think about care-full doctorates from home because of the particular (some might say peculiar) spaces that each of us wrote in.  

Hyphenated beings, carer-doctoral researchers

The story Genine told was about negotiating doctoral study and care obligations inside a walk-in wardrobe, which she nicknamed ‘The Bunker’. The Bunker was a 1.5 by 2.5 m space with a desk along one wall and the inbuilt shelving designed for clothes covered in books and study notes. As the sole parent of a primary school-aged child, Genine’s doctoral study was interwoven with parental care-work. The Bunker both enabled Genine to be available for her son and to get to PhD work in the ‘in-between’ times and she could close the door on The Bunker (and the PhD work) in order to shift her focus back to care. The Bunker was windowless and so in winter Genine would close the wardrobe door to maximise heating and minimise the electricity bill. Clearly, this is a complex space. On the one hand The Bunker isolated Genine from all of the action on campus, and on the other, it was necessary. As Genine said, without the ability to work in her wardrobe she may not have had the resources to travel to campus, nor the time between caring responsibilities to do so. The Bunker helped facilitate Genine’s capacity to be both doctoral and a carer. 

My own story shared some similarities to Genine’s. During the first year of my PhD I was living with my partner and working in Dunedin, in the South Island of New Zealand. At the same time, I was studying remotely at Auckland in the North Island. However, during the first year of my PhD my mother became very unwell. One day my brother called me to tell me that her health was so poor he worried she might die. Within one month I had quit my job, me and my tabby cat moved to live at my parents’ home so that I could care for my mother full-time. I took a leave of absence from my studies, pausing my scholarship and began living off my savings to care for Mum for several months. Later, when her health had stabilised, I went back to study while still living at home and caring. All up, I was closely involved with her illness and recovery for about one year. 

My care obligations included preparing meals and medicine, lifting and mobility support, help with showering, cleaning, laundry and managing medical appointments. Like Genine, my possible workspaces were limited. My family home did not have spaces that were routinely free of noise or cigarette smoke, nor rooms that were set up with desk space or WiFi. Most often I ended up working in a bed in my Mum and Dad’s old bedroom at the far end of the house. While this space was not the booklined study space ideal (that I use for my zoom background now!), it did facilitate my dual role as student-carer (for more on the complex ‘after’ of my care story see here).

Most people would not recognise the spaces that Genine and I worked in during our studies as ‘ideal’ spaces for becoming a doctoral scholar. There are real limitations to these spaces, which often closed us off from others at the university, and all of the learning that occurs from ‘being there’ in and around the intellectual climate of an office, a department and a campus. To combat this isolation, I was as active as possible on social media. Our doctoral cohort also had various monthly catchups, reading groups or Facebook groups to belong to, and I participated in them all. 

And yet, Genine and I also experienced a kind of stigma surrounding our unusual working spaces. Some people described Genine’s Bunker as ‘creepy’ or ‘disturbing’. Indeed, in our paper Genine and I wondered if perhaps such an image is:

too close to the image of the mad woman in the attic. The woman who spends too much time alone, focussed on non-domestic activities.

I had similar conversations about what it means to become a scholar while sitting in your parents’ bedroom. And yet, these spaces still afforded possibilities of becoming doctoral. Rather than ‘creepy’ or ‘disturbing’ – we began to wonder about the creativity, savvy, wilfullness and ingenuity we displayed in order to carve out a space for ourselves as hyphenated beings, carer-doctoral researchers.  

Our paper aimed to explore the enabling and constraining conditions of care/doctoral study/ home space. Our thinking was premised on the idea that educational spaces, such as campuses, are involved in the maintenance of academic norms that position care-work as invisible and out-of-place/space. Given the constraints that institutional spaces present, ‘the home’ is a key location where doctoral students can ‘put a life together under often contradictory and partly incompatible conditions’ (Beck & Beck-Gernshein, 2001, p. 126).

In our work together, Genine and I have argued that various university stakeholders can consider the challenges experienced by home-based doctoral students with care responsibilities. However, rather than solely discerning narratives of disadvantage and frustrated potential, we wanted to offer readings that highlight ingenuity, wilfulness and negotiated agency. By sharing our stories together, we hoped to show that the creation of productive home spaces, which can facilitate both care and doctoral work, remain possible. Our goal in publishing our stories was to share different ways of being a caring academic subject, working from home, and succeeding in your PhD. 

We know that others might need to know this is possible, in spite of the constraints. 

Some thoughts for those supervising home-based doctoral students with care obligations 

Care and space are important factors that shape the conditions for doctoral becoming. What role might supervisors play in supporting their supervisees no matter their spatial and care arrangements?

  • Think about how you can include remote doctoral candidates in the intellectual climate at all levels. I am grateful that both of my supervisors made the effort to introduce me to other students and include me in various communities. One supervisor made the effort to include me in a methodology reading group she convened with her supervisees, even though I was studying at a distance. It meant that when I did come to campus and met other students, I already felt a part of the community. Another supervisor encouraged her students to set up a Facebook group where we could all share our experiences of the doctoral process. This was a rich space full of funding and conference opportunities and advice about navigating various doctoral milestones (e.g. human ethics approval, or confirmation of candidature). Through both activities I have built enduring connections, including with friends I have gone on to collaborate with. These things are unlikely to have happened without my supervisors making these kinds of spaces available to me as a remote student. 
  • Question some of the norms that surround the ‘doctoral researcher’. Lots of these norms function to reproduce a ‘young, independent, mobile, unencumbered’ ideal of the doctoral student. Many of our doctoral cohorts are much more diverse than this. This means students cannot necessarily attend events or meetings during school-pick up time or spend long periods of time away from those for whom they care. Doing this ‘re-imagining’ work is important for equity reasons. It’s also important for knowledge. We need the diverse experiences of all kinds of knowers in universities, including carers and students who are at a distance. 
  • Connect your students up with resources and supports that are out there for doctoral carers. Some institutions or scholarly associations may have specific supports, including carers grants to attend conferences and other events. There are also lots of spaces on social media where doctoral carers can find support including the communities that build around Twitter handles such as @parent_phd and hashtags like #PhDparent, #PhDparenting and #PhDMom, or communities such as Virtual Not Viral. Online groups have arisen, such as the PhD and Early Career Researcher Parentsgroup on Facebook, which has spawned its own virtual ‘Shut up and Write’ initiative

Supervision pedagogy always involves improvisation and attunement to the shifting needs of an individual student.Feel out what kind of conversations are comfortable and desirable for your students. For some, having a supervisor ask after children or other family members may feel warm and give proper recognition of their life context. Others might want to keep their home life more private and spend supervision time focused on the ‘work’ of the PhD. As a supervisor, I know this can be a tricky thing to suss out. Sometimes when I have worked with doctoral students, questions arise about the material realities of home as a study context and relational realities of how domestic labour is distributed. Sometimes, students and I have worked together to troubleshoot working spaces or working times that seem to be debilitating. Other times we have chatted through the key points that students want to discuss with partners or other family members about instituting boundaries around study time or space in the home. 

Finally, there is lots of advice out there offering tips for working from home which supervisors might want to read, and/or discuss with doctoral students they are working with. As with all complex relationships, your mileage may vary with sharing some of these tips:   

Your experiences, and discussion of any of these topics is welcome in the comments, and sharing great additional resources you have found, would be most appreciated.

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