Mums in Academia- Sherran

For the second feature in Mums in Academia series, I am delighted to introduce Sherran, whom I found through her amazing and inspiring blog, How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)’ I have most definitely benefited from reading the posts there which have given me very practical guiding points from process to writing of the dissertation, I also particularly found much solace (and inspiration) from her work-family-life balance insights.


I’m an early career researcher, writing coach, wife and mum. I graduated with my doctorate in education in 2014, and my research focused on connecting disciplinary knowledge structures with knowledge-making and literacy practices more overtly through teaching practice. By making these connections clearer, and more knowable and learnable, I believe we can widen success for students in higher education, and give them greater access to and means of harnessing the powerful forms of knowledge, and knowledge-making, in their disciplines or fields.

My own PhD got off to a rocky start. I registered in 2010 when my boys were 3 and 7; I had just started a new job that was proving to be a steep learning curve, and my marriage was going through a rough patch. People kept saying that my PhD would bea refuge and a space just for me, but I did not experience it like this. On top ofeverything else, it was a burden: I could not find or make enough time for it, and Ispent a lot of time feeling guilty and stupid. I struggled to actually find a research question, and believed at the time that this just meant I was not cut out for a doctorate (at least not at that stage of my life anyway).

So, I suspended my registration in 2011, and just went about living my life and getting my family settled and my marriage and job on track. After about 6 months of PhD-free life, I found myself thinking about a different subject, one that felt more like a real PhD question, and something I wanted to know the answer to as it affected my professional life. I wrote a proposal, made it through the early approval stages, and was on my way.

That makes it sound super easy; to be honest I am three-years almost to the day post-graduation day, and much of the struggle and grind has become vague in my memory. But it was not easy. I had to work full time, and parent full time, and finding time toeat properly, exercise, read, write – think! – was really hard. I never got the balance right. But I was determined. This, I think, was my greatest strength. My determination, combined with careful and clever strategies and organisation, helped me to complete my PhD in just under 4 years. But below are a few key lessons I learned, that have helped in my post-doc life too.

Strategy: I married a relevant work-related practice interest with a research question.So, all the reading and research I did for my doctorate fed back into my practice. I aligned my daily work and my PhD research as much as possible, and quite deliberately, and this lessened my workload considerably, as I wasn’t trying to work and then also do a PhD on top of that on unrelated questions and research.

Organisation: I became really organized, and quite good at using my time effectively. I’d love to say I wrote every day, or gave the PhD specific blocks of my time every week, but I just can’t work like that. I work in fits and starts – not quite binge-writing, but not consistently either. I find that works for me. I worked on the PhD every week for the whole time I was doing it, but not every day or in the same way every week.

When I had PhD time, I used it well, and when I had to focus on other things I tried to keep talking about it with my husband, supervisor and colleagues, and writing short notes in my research journal at least, so it kept ‘percolating’, and could be more readily picked up again when I had time to work on it.

Support: I have a wonderful husband and great friends, so my support network was pretty strong during my PhD. The problem with support is often me: I don’t like to ask for help and try to do it all myself. But, I am learning to ask for help. I think that’skey in trying to balance a PhD, work and motherhood. Women, especially, feel guilty putting themselves first, and taking time to do something just for them (which is what a PhD is). So, asking for help is important, and accepting it when offered is too.

Motivation: Based on my experience (and a fair bit of research and anecdotal experience from others), I would argue that you need to work on a research question that you really want to answer. If you can learn to like, or even love, your research and be passionate about it, it is that much easier to take time away from your kids and partner and social life to give to the doctorate. If you are doing your PhD mainly for reasons of career advancement or some other form of external motivation, find a locus of internal motivation and drive – the thing that makes you really want this for yourself – and harness that to pull (or push) you through.

If you are what I call a part-time PhD student with a full-time life, and that life includes work, kids, partner, gym, friends, church and all the other things that pull and push us in different directions, strength to you. It’s a tough thing to take on a PhD, and balance this effectively with work and life. But the rewards of doing this big,important thing for yourself do outweigh the struggles in the end.

Sherran Clarence is a postdoctoral researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. She works as an independent higher education researcher and academic development practitioner. She also works with early career and postgraduate researchers on writing for publication. She founded a blog during her PhD, which she contributes to regularly, called ‘How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)’

( She can be found on Twitter @PhDgirlSA.


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