Juggling academia and parenthood

Vanessa Bramwell writes about juggling parenthood and her PhD studies and how attending the 33rd Asia Pacific Roundatable in Kuala Lumpur helped clarify the direction she wants to take her career.
People sitting on couches chatting

Bramwell (third from right) chatting with fellow Track II delegates

I still feel odd when I introduce myself as a PhD student. It’s a place I didn’t always have faith in reaching. I often feel I’ve fought tooth and claw to get to where I am with two young sons, and that makes me tired; half the time I don’t know whether I’m in my sprightly twenties or a bitter old lady. But I simultaneously feel alive with the possibilities my research presents. This ‘doctoral’ world is a lonely but exhilarating one.

I had my second son during my Honours year. At the time I felt I couldn’t stop moving forward or something disastrous would happen, like I’d fall off the face of the Earth. I think many young parents have these fears, and especially mothers as we remain more likely to have our careers jeopardized by parenthood. I knew I was ambitious and that I had a goal, but I didn’t have direction. I had a very textbook understanding of the requirements for success in my field. I worked hard, but not smart.

Reflecting on my recent trip to the Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur, my vision of success is revised. I no longer have a vague vision of sitting in a fancy office in front of an oak bookcase (although if my faculty is reading: I wouldn’t turn those down!).

Success is really about relationships and connections. Not in a Machiavellian sense, but simply in a human sense. People can keep your morale up, they can keep you engaged and positive, and they can connect you professionally.

At the roundtable, I didn’t just meet new colleagues; I also made friends. Other young people in academic careers, from cultural contexts which give them an understanding of the pressures young families face.

Speaking informally about issues facing the Asia Pacific, and watching experts speak to one another in an informal Track II diplomacy style, really drove home the joy that the human dimension of academia and policy is.

A panel discussion in an auditorium

This year's roundatable focused on regional security and the rules-based order that has come under strain in recent years.

The aspect of professional academia that I had previously lacked the most confidence in was the one I enjoyed the most about the roundtable: networking and sharing my research goals.

I hadn’t had much prior practise at this as I attend university part-time to fit around my family commitments, working more from home in the evenings.

Working such hours can make you feel somewhat isolated, like you’re not in the centre of things, and there are associated anxieties about falling behind your peers. However, my postgrad journey so far has seen me gradually realise that the actual hours you spend at work are not an indicator of achievement at all.

What makes goals achievable for anyone is a simple determination to reach them. This involves doing an equation every now and then to work out exactly what actions you need to take in the immediate future to keep your momentum going. You might take those actions at home, at work, on the train, or at a conference overseas; in our increasingly connected world it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you are ‘working smart’, so to speak.

As I grow and develop as a researcher, I continually reorient my perspective. I have always wanted to advocate for children in the security sphere.

Originally my research focused on asylum-seekers in liberal democratic nations. But increasingly, and with my attendance at the Asia Pacific Roundatable, my view has turned towards Asia.

I did some work on East Asian politics in my undergrad degree, but what a fantastic experience it is to actually meet like-minded colleagues from this region that is so important to New Zealand’s strategic and cultural future. And in Asia, on our doorstep, there are complex problems for children in armed conflict and displacement situations, and a litany of possible solutions.

My goal is to work both in and with Asia in the future on research that will promote the security of their – our – next generation. My children will be more connected to Asian children than any Kiwi generation before them, and my Asian colleagues share many of our anxieties about working for the good of their children while being present and raising them.

So now I introduce myself with confidence and I know where I’m going. My next stop will be Japan to engage in research with NGO staff.

I know that my experience will be enriched both personally and professionally by building relationships even before I get on the ground in Tokyo. I’m not sure I’ll convince anyone I’m sprightly; but, I can’t wait for this opportunity to expand my confidence and my human connection.

Bramwell attended the Asia Pacific Roundtable - a regional gathering of diplomats, officials, foreign policy academics and commentators - as one of two NextGen delegates attached to the Foundation's Track II delegation. The Foundation's NextGen programme is designed to nurture and grow the genepool of young New Zealanders with Track II potential.