In the life of a single-parent postdoc

A postdoctoral researcher talks about the odds stacked against her and of her determination to overcome them, hopefully with some help from the system.
By | Published on Mar 14, 2019

Prabhavathy Devan is a postdoctoral researcher working on stem cell biology in the laboratory of Jyotsna Dhawan at CSIR-Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.

Two years ago, just into my first postdoc position, my six-year-old son stupefied me with his words. He said, crying profusely, “You don’t know how to take care of your kid… I hate the daycare, they lie to you, and they don’t take care of me.” As I dropped him at school, flashes of his helpless face made me quiver in guilt. ‘What am I doing in life? Is this what my son deserves as I follow my passion?’ This has been a regular episode every morning when I tell him what snacks I have packed for his after-school daycare. Every day as I drive to work, tears roll down. It takes a toll on my mental health and I realise the grave need to take control of the situation. I reconcile with myself every day. This too will pass.

With no family member able to help me, and no nanny services available in the area of my residence, I have to jostle with the routine. But I have promised to keep my son happy by spending quality time with him. I toil away with my daily home chores (I am unfortunate not to find a domestic help who can take over in the required timeframes) and end up doing housekeeping jobs until late at night, after putting my son to sleep… this is the time, I would earnestly wish, I could spend keeping up with literature and reading research papers. I know it sounds trivial, but the brutal truth is that the meagre but valuable time is not being used well for my professional benefit.

I am pushing my physical and mental limits.

Looking back 10 years…

I had to forego an opportunity to register for a PhD program in Indian Institute of Technology Madras (this decision would have fetched me a conducive research life) when I got married to ease my parents’ anxiety. Fortunately, my army officer husband understood my passion for research and he promised that he would support me whenever I got a chance to resurrect it. After a JRF project in RRL Jammu (now IIIM), I could secure a PhD admission in IITM’s Department of Biotechnology. I could take up this opportunity without hesitation while my husband was in Kashmir for field posting, which worked to my advantage. All went well until I realised I have started my PhD at 32 years, the age when most Indian women would have mothered a child.

For some women, the challenges are inordinate and harsher than others. I felt that I had some time to start a family. I underwent a lot of conflicts leading to indecisiveness because my desire to start a family and doing research could not coexist well. I could not let go of my research interests, even when the family advised me to do so as they assumed that it was the stress incurred at work as the culprit for my inability to conceive.

But my better-half transformed me into an optimistic person by uttering those golden words, “If we can’t have our biological kid, we can still adopt one… don’t get worked up for this”. I came out of the emotional upheaval, took a challenge to take the best care of myself, became a fitness freak and did well in my research too. Eventually, I was able to conceive and my son was born. It was an ordeal to face judgement from social contacts for not having a child for eight years after marriage so that I could pursue my dreams! Personally, I deeply liked my research and all my life had to offer at the time. The IITM campus that was the panacea to my loneliness. This part of my life is a testimony to the fact that good mental health determines the best outcome that can be followed by a miracle.

Being wed to an army person, my newly-born son and I got to meet my Colonel husband once in four months. My son started going to the daycare centre in his eighth month. At this time, I also had the luxury of intermittent help from family members. I acquired the quality of being fiercely independent (that any woman wed to armed forces would have), the best post-marriage gift. I repurposed my life with lots of hope to give back to society after setting my family in place. I received my PhD degree by 2015 and then took a two-year break to move to Pune just so that the family could be together. However, I got trapped into a vortex of thoughts to understand, what next? How can I think of a career that is family-friendly? Though I was not appointed anywhere, I took efforts to be in touch with the research environment (not directly, I assisted in organising an international conference held at National Centre of Cell Science) and learnt the R programming language.

I never had the luxury to think of a postdoc tenure abroad. The decision to do a postdoc in India was not easy either, because it would be a life of hardship with a kid, in a new city, with no relatives and friends in the vicinity. So far, I have never encountered any trouble a single woman would face, thanks to my army tag and my haughty attitude when I deal with others to make an impression that I am a hard nut to crack. I get pensive at times when my neighbour lady ask me “how you could live this loner life?” and hardly anybody talks ‘womanly’ stuff with me!

My emotional investment in scientific research

The clinical work I carried out in the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Chennai, during my PhD was instrumental in identifying my emotional investment in research. My studies tried to understand the role of one of the HPV16 early proteins, in synergising with a well-known misfired pathway of cervical cancer, and, how it turns out to be oncogene-like in chronic inflammatory conditions.

I got plenty of HPV-positive cervical tissue biopsies whenever I visited the hospital. This was really positive for my research and I felt a strong feeling of commitment to help young women with chronic cervicitis condition with HPV16 infection (the virus has a long latency period to cause cancer) and fight the risk of cervical cancer with good hygienic practices as well as by doing regular pap smear tests.

I vividly remember those faces of illiterate, young and middle-aged women (with newly-detected cancer of the cervix) anxiously filling up my questionnaire and asking me, “Will I be alright? My husband beats me up whenever I bleed after copulation!” The irony was that they were unaware that it was the husbands themselves who had transmitted the infection. I knew they didn’t have much time, as the majority of cases had already metastasized, according to the pathology reports I had.  Believe me, I get emotional every day… about the hapless situation and lack of awareness among young women.

I knew that I would move heaven and earth to continue my passion.

My dose of inspiration

Currently, my work is on muscle stem cells and the wonder vesicles (exosomes) released by them. The influence of my current postdoc mentor is amazingly significant in my career. She is an inspiration behind my science writing interests (yet to make my blog public!). She is egalitarian, with the grit, determination, humanity and deep knowledge in science with invincible prowess in whatever she does!

She is my role model and I have realised how an exemplary woman scientist can inspire other young women to contribute their best. It may sound like an exaggeration but I would say that, with her charisma, she is the cynosure of all eyes, even in a room full of able and high-achieving men (not to undermine anybody).

She persuades me to have a pragmatic approach in life and career, especially prodding me to contemplate between the best and the worst whether it is designing experiments or making a career choice. The job of nurturing the best researchers is half-done, thanks to mentors like her!

More trouble for women like me!

Right now, I feel more confident to pursue research, looking at the achievers around me. But, here is the snag! I have crossed the benchmark age limit (40 years for women), to apply for the fellowships—except the last one which I could apply and get (SERB N-PDF), which doesn’t give extension beyond two years.

Immediately after my bachelor’s in Pharmaceutical Sciences, I had to take up a marketing job in pharma to support my family. I did manage to do my M.Sc by research (Immunology) at Anna University using my GATE score. The break I took for getting married caused me to start my PhD training late, compared to the average age of doctorates who compete for these positions. I did not have the providential luck, but I did retain my passion to continue in academics and got through every fellowship I applied for, meritoriously.

Women like me have surpassed the difficulty of parenting to an extent; we have matured and seasoned enough to dedicate time to be more productive. We still can make great academicians, scientists and so on. But do we have the options? Not really. Currently, for women above 40 years of age, there are no schemes that can relax the stringent entry rules (both for fellowships and permanent positions). When the age of reproduction overlaps with the age of professional excellence, it is not a level playing ground! Are people making policies for Science and Technology development unconcerned of the missing workforce?

We do have a few schemes for women like me. Women scientists schemes (with age limit of 55 years) take a long window period from the time of application till the sanction of the project. Applying to DST WOS or DBT-BioCARe would take eight months to one year to realise. When such schemes end, many women drift from academia as they can never compete for permanent positions. Only a miniscule end up delivering their research finding to products. Similar schemes helping re-entry for qualified women in the areas of science journalism/education and administration do not exist at all. It is also essential that postdocs or women from re-entry schemes should get a bridging fellowship for a minimum period of 3 months while finding positions or jobs, whether academic or non-academic (this will help everyone). Uncertainties in current schemes lead to frequent relocations that disturb the family and it is all the more strenuous to single parents. Hence, alternative options to academia race through every postdoc’s mind even before the tenure gets over which puts them under tremendous mental stress. Why is the transition not smooth and supportive, even if it is the need of the hour?

How to create better options without gender bias

Short projects (two/three years) are sometimes just a loss of time and unjustified investment of money. Instead, funding agencies should bring in a component that facilitates continuation of the project in the same scheme with more rigorous evaluation. As Ron Vale rightly suggested in his article on IndiaBioscience, transitional grants and unique research programmes would take Indian research to greater heights. These can be introduced with Indian postdoc schemes instead of starting with the faculty tenure programmes. It seeds the intention of working in concert with existing research facilities to maximise research outputs within our Indian research scenario and prepares them for self-evaluation toward the new system.

Such schemes should be Indian postdoc-centric, a move that can cease further expansion of unemployed desi-postdoc pool. Rigorously planned, comprehensive, five-year tenures for fresh doctorates or those with 2 to 5 years of postdoc experience with a possible transitional opportunity (interdisciplinary) will confer huge benefits in terms of research and later employability. Candidates who choose non-academic career (major group) will get an option to enhance the new skill-set required to progress ahead (five years is a big time to bring about change) while others get to continue to compete for permanent positions (minor group).

This will revolutionise the way Indian science advances by making the country’s postdocs not only flourish but work in unison, to understand its own system better, which is much needed for a sustained science and technology development. This is better and more rewarding than believing only in the abilities of foreign-trained postdocs to coalesce international collaborations.

What the future holds

People make choices based on what’s indispensable to them. The choices are between either career or family, or managing both somehow. I can hear those voices screaming (mostly male): “We are not obliged to make things easier, as men also have their share of hardships, you figure out what you want”.

Agreed. But our request is only to provide a level playing ground as we have innate family responsibilities that take away most of our productive time in our profession. Everyone wishes for a perfect trajectory in their profession but in vain. Should we have been cautious about what wrecked our journey? Getting off track happens to anybody (all genders) at any crucial point of time… It is natural. Let’s move ahead.

I would rather resort to philosophical wisdom now. If we stress upon how hard the uphill terrain is, we should also emphasise how enjoyable and experiential it can be! There’s no dearth for motivation and hopes. It is a matter of TIME to see the change.

Let this year usher a hope that ‘science policymakers supporting gender equality would come up with interesting schemes for single-parent women’. As for me, the question remains, “What next?”

You can find more tips and learnings from Prabhavathy in her other guest blog here 

About the author(s)

7 responses to "In the life of a single-parent postdoc"

    Varada Abhyankar says:

    Dear ma’am,
    Thank you so much for giving insights about your life. It definitely takes lot of courage to share life experiences on a public platform.
    As I have completed my PhD and currently looking for a postdoctoral opportunity, I could ressonate with the thought of following your passion and balancing personal life.
    I wish more power to you and hope you have a great life ahead.
    Kind regards,
    Varada Abhyankar

    Sudharsana V Iyengar says:


    I completely understand how you feel. Yes some of the greatest challenge in my life has been walking with out looking back when my 3 year old daughter and 2 year old son stand at the door and call amma amma come back and I have to just walk suppressing my tears. I am too a single mother postdoc. Single because no one to support but physically i have them around me including a husband and mother in law.
    Yes we need to push both our physical and mental limits to balance everything. I would only tell you one thing, No matter what yo do at least make sure you have 30 minutes in a day for yourself so that you do what you like. This will keep the mental stresses away. Take care of your health.
    All the best.

    Hi Prabha, it was great to hear your story here. Thanks for opening up. As we all know, age limit is a clever way to eliminate a few more applicants in a populous country like India and making the scenario unimaginably complex for the dear countrymen already struggling in a chaotic society. But isn’t diversity necessary in every possible way in every job sectors and specially in creative work like research? Why do we have to fight for child care facility that needs to be essential in a civilized world? Raising a child is not only a parent’s sole responsibility. Hope this reaches the decision makers.

    Venkatesh says:

    Prabavathy Madam,
    first hats off to your command in language, knowledge in subject and your skills in presentation(obviously you should acquire from your doctorate) irrespective of your mind being a pendulum between career and mom responsibility.
    I really appreciate the boldness in expressing your problem in a public forum where you stand out of normal women.
    You are one among the very few who fight for the career and passion inspite of the vivid reality of an Indian mom.
    The major drawback in our Indian life style is that there is no clear cut partition between office and home responsibilities.
    We are struck somewhere in between.
    I hope you manage all your burdens to be successful in your career
    and importantly your kid understands you as he grows.

    Lakshmi says:

    My salute to you, strong lady!! This blog talks about the sad state of our society. Young mothers who have passion for their profession, at some point of their life face all the hurdles, you have experienced. The work places can have better support for young mothers. Work from home is not an option for many professions. Providing a day care facility at office can be a better solution.

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