Life at Lucy: Three Children and a PhD

by Dr Jo Johnson on 13 December 2018


I graduated in Medicine from Leeds University back in 2001 and following this did my post-graduate medical training in the East of England and London. When I applied for PhD funding in 2011 I was a senior trainee in paediatrics. I’m still not 100% sure why I decided to do a PhD but I’m very glad I did!

When I first arrived at the University of Cambridge I had no children. When I left Cambridge with a PhD I had 3! I think I was attracted to Lucy Cavendish College as I thought this would be a supportive environment as a 33 year old female graduate student thinking of starting a family. 

My first impression of Lucy Cavendish was that I had made the right choice. My tutor was welcoming and understanding and I had a chance to meet other similar-aged female graduate students, some also from a medical background. 

One issue I did face was that my personal circumstances meant that I had to commute from Essex and this made it difficult to really feel integrated in student life. This wasn’t helped by the fact that due to clinical commitments I had to matriculate on my own. This was several weeks after starting my PhD and I remember my tutor being shocked at the fact that I didn’t know how to put on a gown, clearly revealing I had not attended any formals!

I had my first child after completing the first year of my PhD. This changed my life completely and I realised I would find it difficult to work full time. So I switched to part-time after a long discussion with my supervisor. I think I was determined to make this work and with the odds stacked against me (lab-based project and commuting from Chelmsford) it somehow did! On top of this I managed to have two more children before completing my PhD!

When I look back on my PhD now, was it hard? Yes. Did I make it harder for myself? Definitely. Would I change anything? No. I am back in medicine now and miss the challenge and stimulation of research, the amazing people I met and the feeling of being in control of when and how I did my work. 

I think if another woman approached me about starting a family whilst studying for an MPhil or PhD I would say do it. Embrace it but get yourself super organised. I wasn’t an organised person when I started my PhD but I am now. I used to plan my day in my head during my communte to work and start my day running. It’s not easy, and I usually arrived after others in my lab and had to leave earlier but I believe by increasing my efficiency and organisation I achieved as much if not more in my working day than my colleagues. 

My other advice would be to choose your supervisor wisely. Mine was a woman of a similar age with two young children and became a fantastic role model for me. 

I am currently working as a Senior Paediatric Registrar at Colchester Hospital and about to take up a Consultant post there next year. I have also just taken up a Clinical Lecturer post at a brand new undergraduate medical school at Anglia Ruskin University where I am lecturing in embryology and genetics and I’m head of undergraduate Paediatrics. I still only work 3 days a week which means I am lucky enough to be able to combine clinical and academic work with for me the most rewarding but often most challenging job of all - being a mum!

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