PhD = Parenting Headstart Diploma

Hello sleep deprivation, my old friend.

AsianScientist (Sep. 27, 2016) – In case you’ve been wondering where this column has been since May, my imaginary loyal reader, fear not! I am back at work from time off spent ensuring the survival of a neonate; specifically, my own.

The transition from gravid to postpartum was surprisingly smooth (epidural is your friend), and I’m happy to report that my F1 appears to be one of those mythical ‘easy babies,’ though he hasn’t started sleeping through the night. Even so, waking up every two hours hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be, and in fact felt strangely familiar, as I remarked to my husband the other day.

“Of course,” he said. “You have done it before.”

After a brief moment of confusion, I was hit by a wave of memories that my brain seems to have suppressed to protect me from post traumatic stress disorder: endless nights of sleeping the in lab curled up on an office chair and waking at odd hours to perform repetitive tasks with uncertain outcomes. Compared to that, wrangling diapers on a screaming baby in the dark is easy, plus you get to sleep on a real bed!

That’s when it struck me that a PhD is really a parenting headstart diploma, not just permanent head damage or a sign that you are probably heavily in debt. Here are four more surprising ways those scientist skills have proven highly transferable.

  1. Literature review
  2. This particular skill comes in handy right from the moment you find out that you are expecting. The ‘literature’ out there on the internet is often confusing and contradictory, and yet you rely on it to make decisions that could affect your unborn child, from whether you should eat soft cheese to which hospital to deliver at.

    In fact, the advice seems to become even more polarized once the baby is born, with advocates of cry it out or gentle parenting both staking their claims assertively. Thankfully, as a scientist you have a built in BS detector and you know not to take anecdotal evidence too seriously. (That doesn’t prevent people from offering you unsolicited advice anyway, unfortunately.)

    Not only do you have the ability to find the research that has been done on whatever parenting conundrum that you are facing (PubMed FTW), you even have the statistical training to evaluate whether the studies are trustworthy. Just a word of caution that not everyone sees things the way you do, so citing Smith et al. (2016) probably won’t be enough to convince your well meaning relatives that eating spicy food is unlikely to trigger premature labor.

  3. Troubleshooting
  4. Babies cry. A lot. Much of your time as a new parent will be spent trying to figure out why. And just like in science, there is sometimes no way to find out other than brute force trial and error. Thankfully, brute force trial and error is something you have lots of experience in from your PhD student days!

    Although some people out there claim to be able to distinguish different cries that mean different things, my own experience has been that there are no hard and fast rules. Taking the troubleshooting approach to figuring out your baby could give you enough emotional distance to react calmly and rationally in the face of a red-faced baby and help you narrow down the variables that could be causing his discomfort.

    You could even put your abstract reasoning skills to work and come up with a flowchart like this one. Credit:
    You could even put your abstract reasoning skills to work and come up with a flowchart like this one. Credit:

    But even then there are times when nothing seems to work. It can be as frustrating as a failed experiment, but here’s where you can apply what you’ve learnt from the lab: take a deep breath, pick yourself up and just try again. And if there’s one thing I’m sure PhDs are good at, it’s keepin’ on keepin’ on.

  5. Multi-tasking
  6. When you have a baby, there just aren’t enough hours in a day. Short of bending the fabric of space-time, the only way to make more time is to do more with what you have.

    As a scientist, you have plenty of experience juggling multiple ongoing experiments at once and are skilled at planning ahead. After all, it would be a tremendous waste of time and resources to begin a multi-stage, months-long experiment only to find out right at the end that you forgot to order a key reagent. Make that mistake once, and you’re unlikely to do it ever again, inside or outside the lab.

    And if you did a lab-based PhD, you have the additional benefit of manual dexterity, allowing you to do things like open screw caps with just one hand. What once seemed like a useless if nifty trick suddenly becomes, well, handy. Pumping breast milk while reading emails, eating lunch and simultaneously rocking baby to sleep? No sweat!

    Credit: Breastfeeding Mama Talk.
    Credit: Breastfeeding Mama Talk.

  7. Aseptic technique
  8. Speaking of useful lab skills, aseptic technique can literally be a lifesaver. Babies are basically biohazards, as any parent facing a raging hand foot mouth disease outbreak at their childcare center can tell you. So if you have an older child, practicing good hygiene while pregnant can protect your fetus against infectious agents like cytomegalovirus, which can cause abnormalities like hearing or vision loss.

    Once your fetus makes it out as a neonate, aseptic technique once again comes to the fore. While there is no need to be a complete germophobe if your baby is healthy, you will be in nearly constant contact with baby bodily fluids, from drool to spit up to pee and—if you’re unlucky—explosive poo. Good aseptic discipline could prevent many a needless bout of illness, the last thing you need when you are already sleep deprived.

At the end of the day, I still believe that no one is ever really ready to become a parent. Nothing can quite prepare you for the seismic shift in perspective, priorities and physiology once baby comes along, but having a PhD doesn’t hurt either.

This article is from a monthly column called From The Editor’s Desk(top). Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Pexels.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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