Tuesday, 13 October 2015

My PhD experience: Juggling, or playing, with two babies? (Shawgat Sharmeen Kutubi)


When I started my PhD in 2013, my son had just turned four. It wasn’t easy for either of us to leave our home and move to a new country.

For me, it was like starting from scratch. I was so busy looking for the things that my son used to love back home. For him, it was like moving from one planet to another. It was a totally new environment in terms of language, culture, and friends, one which I found difficult.

At that time, my son had just started speaking in my language, which is Bangla. Now, added to that, he had to learn how to communicate in English, which he had never heard from his mum or dad back home. While he was struggling with his new-found life at the La Trobe Childcare Centre, I was grappling with shaping my research questions. The emotional journey for both of us was huge. It almost became too much when, after three months, my husband left Melbourne to start his postdoctoral fellowship in North America.

At that point, life seemed not as easy as I thought it would be! Childcare had changed from our home experience of my son having fun to him having to listen to his care-givers in a different language and trying to adapt to an unfamiliar culture. At the end of almost every day, my son complained about his experiences with his new care-givers. On our way back from childcare, both of us used to cry, without knowing the way out or how to feel better about our new life here!


When I was four months into my PhD, I was asking my supervisor lots of questions about the area I was about to explore. I was very restless about not being able to identify the research topic that felt right for my thesis. My supervisor stopped me and smiled. He said, ‘Listen, it’s your PhD; treat it as your child. You will feel comfortable enough to handle it soon.’

Only then did I realise that I was expecting my second baby; a baby not in my tummy but in my mind!

Those words from my supervisor were magic words for me. I realised it was true that both of my babies were young, and they were struggling to settle down in a new environment. Being under pressure from two babies, I stopped for a while and thought I should seek some professional support for my mind. I visited the La Trobe Counselling Service and spoke with one of the counsellors there. The counsellor advised that I give both my kids some time, and to have patience; everything will soon be under control.

Life became a little easier when I discovered that I was not the only one on this journey. I found that a lot of my colleagues were doing their PhDs without having their partners with them in Australia, and they felt the same anxieties. We shared our experiences and learned from each other. We spent some weekends together so that our kids could find a community within our circle. We explored places where both mums and their kids could have time together. It worked, and now my son has best friends whose parents are mostly my colleagues at La Trobe. My thesis also began to take form as I joined in with various training sessions from the Library, Graduate Research School’s RED team, Departmental seminars, and even a Business School seminar on How to finish a PhD on time.

As I write this, two and a half years into my PhD journey, I feel that both of my babies are doing well, and that they are behaving in the way that I was hoping and expecting. My son is in prep this year. Every day, I am learning something new from him, especially about Australian culture. The other day, I was learning the Australian national anthem from him and found it really touching to listen to and sing.

My other baby, my thesis, is growing towards its delivery phase, both inside my mind and in my documents. I edit it, feed it with new references, reshape it, analyse it, or sometimes edit it back to make it healthier. Now, I’m beginning to realise what I’ve achieved by managing these two babies together: it has been an amazing experience.

I don’t juggle with them anymore. Rather, I play with them every day!

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Shawgat Sharmeen Kutubi worked as a senior lecturer in Finance at Independent University, Bangladesh, before moving to Australia to undertake a PhD in 2013. Shawgat has also spent 4 years in London undertaking a Master’s at the University of London (SOAS).

She is currently a third-year graduate researcher in the Department of Accounting, researching banking governance. She also works as an Assistant Health and Well-being Coordinator (Student Leader) at La Trobe's Accommodation Services.

Shawgat enjoys sightseeing around Melbourne. She practices meditation to calm her mind and loves to visit the La Trobe Sports Centre.

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