How to support academic parents to succeed

Parenting during the pandemic was tough for everyone. Eva Lantsoght identifies lessons from it on enabling academic parents to succeed

Dr. Eva Lantsoght is a Full Professor in Civil Engineering in Ecuador and tenured assistant professor in the Netherlands.

In March 2020, the city of Quito went into a complete lockdown.

I found myself having to switch immediately to online teaching. Luckily, I live around the corner from my university, and could sneak in to recover my class notes right before the campus became closed off.

The next few weeks were a whirl of figuring out everything about online teaching, trying to support my doctoral students who saw their lab work delayed, doom scrolling and calling my family back in Europe – but also trying to find ways to keep my two-year-old daughter entertained in the midst of it all.

In practice, it meant working odd hours somewhere between 5 am and midnight, and dealing with a toddler who suddenly started to wet her pants and bed again because of all the anxiety around her.

We’ve all been there

My experience is a classic tale from the lockdown days. Ask any parent in higher education about how they sailed through the lockdown, and they will sigh and give you some insight on how hard it was and how they did their very best to still care for their students.

While the experiences of academic parents internationally differ, as the lockdown measures have been loosened and tightened in response to local situations, we all agree that it was, and still is, difficult.

As I wanted to gather data on what this pandemic meant for academic parents internationally, I collaborated with international colleagues who were willing to volunteer some of their precious time to study this topic.

We collected data through an online survey and had many Zoom calls to talk about the findings of the research – with our kids showing up in some or all of our calls. Ultimately, we brought everything together in an article published in Frontiers of Psychology – Educational Psychology.

Research was hit hard

One of our findings is that more than three quarters (77 per cent) of the participants indicate that the pandemic had a somewhat to extremely negative impact on their research. The challenge of combining childcare with working from home was one of the problems many participants identified.

In addition, they had less time for their research, and indicated that they could not find a calm and quiet space for writing in their house with everyone at home. They also reported less sleep, more stress, neck and back pains from working in an environment that is not ergonomic, and a general reduction in their wellbeing.

While the vast majority of our study participants saw being an academic parent during Covid-19 as a major challenge, we also found a few silver linings. Some researchers received more funding as their work was related to Covid-19. Some considered this lockdown time an excellent chance for better bonding with their children, and others reported that their coparent got more involved in parenting.

Others indicated that this abrupt change made them reflect on their values in life, their purpose, and find new meaning in the face of adversity.

Virtual conferences were described as a blessing and a curse. Not having to travel and figure out childcare while traveling was seen as an advantage. At the same time, virtual conferences do not provide the same opportunities for networking. Some participants also indicated they missed the ability of being an adult in a hotel room, temporarily without care responsibilities.

Dad dancing

We found that the pandemic has impacted all academic parents. While most research and articles have focused on the impact on academic mothers, we found that academic fathers are also impacted by the pandemic. Academic mothers work fewer hours during the pandemic than their male counterparts.

However, both experience negative effects on their research and overall well-being. As such, we call for university administrators to consider care responsibilities from a broad perspective as we evaluate academics on their performance during this pandemic.

When looking at the impact of the pandemic on academic parents, we found that the associate professors take the hardest hit. We haven’t been able to figure out why, but we can speculate.

Perhaps, associate professors see increasing workloads, increasing numbers of graduate students under their supervision, and increased demands on their time in terms of service and administration.

At the same time, they don’t have the same systems and support networks in place yet as full professors who may have well-running long-established labs. In fact, a report by publisher De Gruyter also found the largest negative impacts on mid-career academics so that Virginia Gewin for Nature called this the “mid-career minefield”.

Acting on the findings

After looking at our data, we sat down and asked ourselves: “What can we do with these insights?”

First of all, we call on university leaders to talk to their academic parents and see how they can best support them. We don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, we recommend individual measures to support academic parents in a way that serves them.

The needs and struggles of early career researchers are different from those of their more senior colleagues, and the particular difficulties that they face may also depend on the age of their children. For example, when it comes to tenure and promotion, we learned that some academic parents prefer and benefit from a tenure clock freeze, whereas in other situations going up earlier for promotion can be the right solution.

Our respondents also pointed out that universities and administrators have sent out “advice emails” on how to work remotely, how to balance work and life, or how to become a better online teacher. Yet, in many cases, they have not turned this advice into policies.

Potential solutions here are: using a different form of annual evaluation, reducing the teaching load in future semesters on academic parents who’ve seen their research completely stalled, providing more teaching assistants or other types of support to reduce the teaching load, temporarily reduce service and administrative burdens, and/or have better parental leave arrangements. One respondent indicated that their university developed a working parent task force, to get input from the working parents and think about solutions together.

Taking a step back, we recommend developing a culture of care, and making our universities places where compassion and solidarity are important values.

As I write this, some countries are fearing a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections. Universities are debating mask and vaccine mandates. In Quito, schools are slowly reopening for the first time since March 2020 and we are cautiously optimistic.

At the same time, we know that this pandemic is not over yet, and that quarantines and stricter measures loom around the corner. And as an academic parent, I want to shine a little light in these days to call for support for my fellow academic parents – support from their colleagues, their administrators, and their university communities.

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