Juggling the balls, having it all? Tips from a mother and part-time Professor

When I was promoted to Professor in Spring 2017, a number of my female colleagues asked me, ‘how did you do it?’ I have two children, born in 2010 and 2013. I worked three days a week after my first maternity leave, and increased to four days in September 2015 (and remain on a 0.8 contract). I was promoted to Senior Lecturer just before having my first child, to Reader in Spring 2015 and Professor two years after that.

As I have tried to get used to my new title (and some of the additional demands that come with it), the ‘how did you do it?’ question has stayed with me. Partly because it taps into my own imposter syndrome – I imagine an implication that I must have ‘gamed the system’ rather than met the criteria – but mainly because I think there is still a dearth of support for parents, and mothers in particular, trying to navigate having children and an academic career.

What follows is a series of tips based on my own experience. In presenting these, I don’t intend to pretend it’s been easy or to construct myself as ‘superwoman’. Like Melissa Terras, I think the ‘Superwoman Fallacy‘ is incredibly unhelpful and creates expectations that we should all just be able to cope (and maintain a perfect body and/or blow-dry whilst doing it). Also, behind every ‘superwoman’ is an army of others, usually less privileged women, who do childcare and/or domestic tasks for relatively low rates of pay. I am not insensible of the privilege I have in being able to afford some paid help (or how deeply unjust it is that women like me are only able to achieve success because of the labour of others). It’s largely because of the labour of these other women, as well as other forms of help, that I have managed to combine academia with motherhood. But there are a few other things I do which have helped me as well: I hope they help you, too.

1) First and foremost: writing. This is often the first thing to go when commitments start stacking up, and it’s also one of the most important in terms of both career progression and job satisfaction. My advice is: start small, and make things do double (or even triple) duty if you can. Several of my papers have started as blogs, then become talks, then developed into the full-length article. Don’t be afraid to re-use content in these different formats: each time it will probably get better, more complex, more nuanced, so think of it as a form of drafting. For UK academics, the new REF guidance is not unsupportive here: it’s likely that we will be submitting fewer outputs of higher quality. From a job satisfaction perspective, I also think it’s far better to write one great journal article a year than four which are just OK. Starting with blogs is a good way to make sure you are writing every day: sorry about the cliché, but writing is a muscular activity and if you don’t use muscles, you lose them.

2) Get organised: learn how to manage your time. I ‘diary’ everything: research time, marking, childcare. I also try to clump things together, so I’m not constantly making ten-minute appointments which can pepper my days and leave little time for other focused work. For instance, I hold four drop-in ‘office hours’ per week for students to keep the ad hoc meetings to a minimum. I try to avoid long Email discussions, but also resist the urge to set up meetings when a quick phone call or Skype would do the trick. During term time especially, I use a double-sided sign on my door (originally intended for a toilet) which can be flipped to ‘free’ or ‘busy’, depending on whether I feel I can be interrupted or not. I use Trello to keep track of all my different roles and tasks, from research and writing projects, to my MA programme, to my big admin jobs. Trello allows you to create ‘to do’ lists and to write notes on each item, attach files, and add comments. You can also share your lists with your team.

3) Say ‘no’. A lot. I mentor a number of junior women, and this is the main thing I try to teach them. It doesn’t mean be a bad colleague: we all know that male academic who doesn’t do anything unless it gives him a line on his CV. Instead, it means getting better at filtering out what’s necessary from what’s not, and learning to work on your own terms instead of constantly reacting to other people. I have (and have had) a huge number of different roles at Sussex, so sometimes it feels as though everyone wants a piece of me, and they all want it now. When someone asks for a meeting, my first response is always, ‘what’s it about?’ This enables me to triage. Unless it’s an emergency, I then resist the urge to stop what I’m doing immediately, and instead offer half an hour at a different time when it’s less interruptive. Knowing what people want upfront also means I can signpost them elsewhere if it’s apparent that’s what they really need.

In external terms, I say no to about 85% of the requests I get. If they’re interesting, I try to recommend junior women who I think might benefit from the exposure. If not, I let them go. It’s difficult to say no – many people, especially women, are uncomfortable with it – and as academics we are often pressured to be everywhere and do everything. But you can’t, especially with young kids in tow. I also don’t think it’s necessary – let’s go back to quality rather than quantity – people will remember you far more for that one kick-ass talk you gave last year than for four which were just OK (and you will enjoy yourself more too). Finally, some opportunities, to my mind, offer notoriety and nothing else. Do I need to go to the Oxford Union to debate someone from Spiked on ‘safe spaces’? Absolutely not.

4) Use resources wisely. Instead of spending your research allowance on yet another conference, use it (or apply for a small pot of money, if that’s how it works at your institution) to enable you to delegate certain jobs. I have done this in order to get literature reviews produced, to get support with impact activity, and to get help organising conferences. A bonus is that you will generate work for some poor hungry postgraduate student, usually paid at a decent rate and which develops them and is good for their CV. I have also used small funds to pay for coaching (thanks Natalie!) and other career/personal development opportunities which have given me many of my organisational strategies, helped me to manage stress (and know when to push back) and deal with the constant feeling of not being ‘good enough’ (more on that later).

5) Use social media and other technologies as much as you can. Lots of conferences now allow you to ‘be there’ without actually being there, via Skype or other platforms (which will free up your budget to be spent on something else). Blogs are a terrific way to publicise your research, as is writing for publications such as the Guardian Higher or Times Higher Education. Share your articles and projects in Facebook groups and on sites such as ResearchGate: they’re great for networking (but remember, you need to show interest in other people’s stuff too: we all roll our eyes at those academics who are only about themselves). Twitter is also fantastic, if you can filter out all the noise. When my kids were tiny and I was hardly travelling at all, Twitter was my lifeline: I used it to build new audiences for my work and (more importantly) to stay plugged in to debates I was interested in. I got a lot more from this than I was expecting, due to the variety of voices you hear on Twitter that just aren’t represented in mainstream academic discussions. As a relatively immobile academic, this was key to my intellectual development (and still is).

6) Know your rights. As a part-timer if you are one, your rights to flexible working, rights to unpaid time off to look after your children, and other things. Citizens Advice have good resources, as do ACAS. Make sure you are a member of a union – I can’t emphasise this enough – and familiarise yourself with your institution’s policies on things like equality and diversity, bullying and harassment, wellbeing and stress. Do this before you encounter that manager who insists on making you work days you’re not contracted for, or expects you to answer emails at the weekends, or that male (or sometimes, unfortunately, female) senior Professor who dumps all their unwanted admin on you.

7) Know who your supporters are. I have been lucky to have very supportive managers on the whole, who have agreed my requests for part-time and flexible working and have been open to discussions about ensuring my workload is apportioned appropriately. Not that there haven’t been problems: especially in academia, part-time is very rarely part-time and workloads for all of us have increased in recent years. I am also in a relatively small department in which capacity is often limited. However, I have always felt I had some room for manoeuvre and/or some possibility of discussion. If your manager isn’t supportive, you may need to find someone in HR or another mentor in your department or unit, who is able to advocate for and advise you. In my experience HR staff are usually very helpful with queries about part-time and flexible working, because so many of them do it themselves. I am also lucky to have, as well as some paid help, an incredibly supportive partner who shares the childcare 50/50 when we are at home, or even does a little more than his share to balance out the fact that I work part-time. If you don’t have this, it can be incredibly difficult (and you have all my admiration), and you may need to think about developing a supportive network of friends to relieve at least some of the pressure. Especially once kids are at school, I’ve found other parents are very willing to help out, as I am myself. It’s also often easier to get on with a bit of work (of any type, household or academic) when your kids have their friends round. In the absence of full communism (now!) I think we should try, in our own ways, to collectivise childcare as much as we can.

8) Don’t beat yourself up. I am useless at this: I feel like a bad parent about twenty times a day (including right now: I’m writing this while my kids are amusing themselves in the park, and other parents are building sandcastles or coaching their little tykes on the climbing frame). Like everyone, I feel like an imposter at work too, and also give myself grief when I’m not able to write to the quality I want or be as available to students or colleagues as I’d like. I’m working on it. Have you heard of the theory of the ‘good enough’ mother/parent? ‘Good enough’ parenting means you don’t strive to be perfect, nor expect perfection from your kids. It lets everybody off the hook. I try to remember that I will teach my kids they have to be perfect if I’m always striving to be. I also reassure myself that if they never have to use their own resources, they will be ill-equipped for life.

I think we can apply the same principles to our careers, despite the messages we get from our institutions, our colleagues, our students and ourselves. All we have to be is ‘good enough’. We don’t have to be everywhere and do everything: the world will carry on without us, and we can let others have a turn. Our students need to develop their own skills and resources as well as having the benefit of ours, and sometimes students aren’t the best judges of what’s right for them: they might want more and more of you, but your job might really be to help them build the confidence to reach out on their own. I still try to prioritise quality over quantity, but I also try (and usually fail) to ‘let things go’ if they’re not quite as good as I’d like. In the area of admin, I apply the ‘quality’ principle selectively, as there is a lot of paperwork to do in the neoliberal university, and some jobs are more important than others. I am leading the REF2021 submission for my department, which has serious implications, so I will do it to the very best of my ability. However, I don’t think that’s necessary for the endless internal monitoring forms and reports which probably end up at the back of someone’s filing cabinet.

9) Take time out when you need it. Take time out when you don’t need it. Just take time out, regularly. I don’t habitually work evenings and weekends, unless I’m making up childcare time from the week. If find myself slipping into working a lot outside my designated hours, I see this as a warning that I’ve said ‘yes’ to too much, or that my allocated roles and tasks have got out of control. So I try to pare down, or have a conversation with my manager about my load. There’s a culture in academia that ‘more is better’, and I know some departments where staff compete about who can work the longest. I know these cultures can be powerful and I don’t mean to be flippant, but life’s too short for that shit. I’ve also found that if I focus on quality rather than quantity, I can usually do my job in the allocated time. Regular time out helps me to look after my physical and mental health and makes me more efficient when I am at work. I take time out from my kids, too: sometimes my partner takes them out at the weekend to give me space (if you don’t have a supportive partner, you could do a quid pro quo with another parent), or I might occasionally go out for an early evening drink or dinner with a friend. I do things for myself: once the kids are in bed I do an evening ballet class twice a week, and I sing whenever I can (these days mostly to myself). Not to go all Loréal, but I’m worth it. I don’t say this to guilt or shame anyone who is working all hours and feels they have no alternative: but I would encourage you to explore any possible alternatives you have. You’re worth it, too.

10) Finally and perhaps most importantly, know that it’s OK to not be OK. The ‘superwoman fallacy’ really is a fallacy: nobody can juggle all the balls, or ‘have it all’, all the time. Find out what your institution offers in terms of staff welfare support, and avail yourself of it. If they don’t offer any, ask them why (and tell your union). Pay for support if you can afford it: your mental health is the best investment you can possibly make. When you’re feeling OK, look after yourself and try to have a good time. Without getting too ‘lean in’ about it, I try to enjoy my work whenever I possibly can. Life is short; academia is a rewarding profession, despite the stresses and irritations. I try to eat well. I look after my teeth. This has gotten easier with time: when my kids were really tiny, I was constantly ill and life regularly felt out of control. If this is where you are, please don’t beat yourself up about it (and let me give you a virtual hug). I hope this helps, because I have to go: the little one wants to show me his sandcastle, and the big one’s waving from the top of the climbing frame.

* In this post I have used both ‘motherhood’ and ‘parenthood’. I think the tips here apply to all parents (and I realise that not all those who give birth to children identify as women or mothers). However, the fact remains that it is disproportionately mothers (whether they have given birth to their children or not) who do the bulk of parenting and household chores, and who are more likely to work part-time, so it’s important to acknowledge that.  

**The title of this piece borrows from a paper by the late Steve Dempster, ‘Having the balls, having it all?’ about constructions of ‘laddishness amongst undergraduate students. Although I never had the privilege of meeting him, Steve’s work has informed mine a lot, so it felt appropriate to borrow from him here. RIP Steve 💜

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Arguing from qualitative data

One of the main persistent queries I get from research students is about how to develop an argument using qualitative data. When you are sitting with a trove of diverse narratives, how do you shape these into something interesting and important without losing complexity and while letting people speak for themselves as much as you can? This is difficult, painstaking work. In the current political context, it is crucial that we take pains to develop our data into arguments which are relevant and substantive: for some of us, this will be our most useful form of activism. While I have many doubts about our ability to deploy knowledge progressively in what has been called a ‘post-truth’ era, I am not yet ready to give up on the political potential of thoughtful social research.

This post does not contain advice about data analysis but about what happens afterwards: the interpretations which can be created from data once they have been synthesised into categories or themes, once an understanding of key trends has been reached and any particularly interesting or significant cases identified. You will probably have engaged in some form of coding to get here, whether software-based or by hand. Of course, the distinction between analysis and interpretation is permeable and often arbitrary: interpretation frequently starts at the data collection stage (or in bad research, before it), when arguments begin to form in your mind. But in many projects there will come a point when it is necessary to shift up a gear intellectually. What do you really want to say about these data, and crucially, why? At this point, you could try the following:

1. Examine your motivations. Are you preoccupied with being clever and making your mark, or are you committed to saying something relevant and useful which you can evidence? Academia tends to showcase the former at the expense of the latter – indeed, research has shown that the pressure to innovate in natural sciences often leads to ‘bad science’ being published which prioritises surprising findings that are often wrong. Decide to show integrity in your work.

2. Go back to your rationale and research questions (this sounds obvious, but many students fail to do it). Why did you deem this study important, and what did you originally want to know? Of course, you are not bound by your original aims: often the process of research shifts our paradigm of inquiry because our data tell us unexpected things. We should be alert to this possibility (and remember that deriving unforeseen conclusions from rigorous analysis is different from focusing on an anomalous finding because it will help you to make a splash). Revisiting your original aims will help you focus on what your data say, whether you set out to discover it or not.

3. Go back to the literature. Whether this is your theoretical framework (if you have one) or the empirical literature review (or both), check back in with the existing field to figure out how your data speak to it. Do they merely confirm what has already been written or are there new stories, unanswered questions or anomalies which need to be explored? If you are using a particular theory, are your data consistent with it or do they expose any gaps or weaknesses? If you analyse data in enough depth you will usually find challenges to existing theoretical frameworks: when developing an argument, it is better to start here than plucking something out of thin air based on a cursory glance through your dataset. Resist the temptation to name, to speak, to conclude before you are ready. Build on the intellectual work of others – this is how understanding becomes full and deep. If you need different theories or literatures to make sense of your data, go and find them: and make a point of seeking out diverse perspectives. If your intellectual canon consists mostly of white men your analysis will be much weaker for it.

4. Analysis is often a process of shuttling between theory and data. As you make these journeys, check that you are clear about the concepts you carry, and how you are using them. Do you have a sense of what ‘power’ might look like? Have you thought about how to actually ‘do’ intersectionality in empirical research? Do not carry ‘black boxes’ – empty versions of concepts which can be inserted into an argument as conclusive, but with nothing going on inside. Agency is a good example. If you think you can identify agency in your data, shuttle back to the theoretical definition, then forward into your data to consider if you can really see it in practice. What differentiates agency from action? If you think you can identify moments of agency, what are the broader implications? (the ‘so what?’ question – see below)

5. Be honest about what your data actually support. In the context of marking criteria (and scholarly norms) which prioritise ‘originality’, students often create arguments which sound lovely but bear little relation to their dataset. Beware ‘armchair theorising’ which is not grounded in your research: this might be your pet idea, but are you sure you can evidence it? Beware buzzwords which explain nothing, merely describe the familiar in different terms, and/or are just thrown in when we don’t know what else to say. Steer clear of inventing your own terms or concepts unless you have the data to back them up – and this often takes years.

6. Know the difference between novelty and significance. The latter implies an ability to challenge received wisdom in a substantive way, and sometimes the most obvious story about your data is not the most significant one. You might interview 40 women architects: the majority might highlight pay inequity and persistent everyday sexism, but reflect favourably on initiatives designed to encourage women to apply for promotion. This is important, although nothing we don’t already know. What might be more significant is that the two black women in your sample had experienced specific forms of gendered racism which meant that initiatives around ‘promoting women’ were not particularly helpful. These cases, alongside other studies, might help to evidence the argument that equality initiatives situate white women’s successes as a proxy for women as a whole, creating the illusion of collective progress and masking the specific difficulties black women face. When arguing from your data, you might prioritise this story over the more pedestrian majority narrative we have heard many times before. This choice is a political one, and this is the value of qualitative research: it allows us to dig deeper than the majority story and explore the nuances of social issues.

7. Exploring those nuances means engaging with the ‘why’ questions about the trends, anomalies and interesting cases in your data. This also requires an understanding of issues around ‘voice’ in qualitative research and the potential pitfalls of that term. The common practice of using social research to give people a ‘voice’ is a laudable (if perhaps doomed) attempt to elevate marginalised narratives and avoid imposing ‘false consciousness’ on participants. We could talk for days about the ethics and politics of this: for now however, I want to highlight the difference between honouring people’s experiences and perspectives and taking them at face value. There is no pure ‘voice’ prior to politics. Consider the inappropriateness of taking racist ‘immigration concerns’ expressed by white working class people as given, without deconstructing the white supremacist culture in which they resent and blame people of colour for their economic woes. Consider the use of cis women’s rape trauma in advocating for trans women’s exclusion from women-only space. Engaging rigorously with qualitative data requires us to set experience in context and explore how it is produced and framed.

8. Once your argument starts coming together, ask yourself ‘so what?’ How does it shed light on broader economic, social and/or political issues or concerns? This isn’t about micro- versus macro design: often in-depth research with very small samples can illuminate wider debates with more insight than much larger studies. The ‘so what?’ test refers to your mindset when you argue from your data. Are you content to tell a nice story, or do you want to try to influence something to change? Again, your ambitions can be quite small, and it is often more practical to set your sights on something specific or local than to make claims which are too grandiose (which will take you right back to what your data can actually support).

9. As your argument takes shape, try writing an abstract of your thesis or dissertation – this will help you to construct a narrative which is focused and makes logical sense. You can also outline chapters and sub-headings using Pat Thomson’s technique for avoiding ‘blocky’ writing: this is a really useful way to get that coveted narrative flow. Keep your abstract and outline handy as you write up, so you can amend them and stay focused as your argument develops. Start to enjoy it – watching a research narrative emerge is exciting, and research does have political potential. Knowledge may not change the world, but it can be used by progressive movements in a variety of different ways. What if you were able to construct a catalogue of police brutality against sex workers in your local area? Or a detailed narrative showing how a school has negotiated racist government policies and protected refugee children in their midst? We will need all the tools we can get in the years to come: if you can furnish us with any, I personally thank you for that. 💜