18 September 2018

Academic FOMO


I had a perfectly timed academic baby this year: she arrived the first weekend in June, just before the quieter period, where academics with greater teaching responsibilities in the first two trimesters of the academic year get on with (amongst other tasks) writing papers and undertaking research. You'd be surprised by how many of us “coincidentally” time things just right when growing a family to keep our academic careers on track, whilst acknowledging that any time out is a risk.

I've missed out on a lot of excellent conferences in my field this summer-autumn, including turning down presentation spots that would've been REF-able and good to have on my CV. I'm back at work but attending events away from Scotland is becoming increasingly tricky. I'm not averse to taking one or both children with me, and their dad. Like many academics, a conference trip often becomes an opportunity for a “workcation” for me with the family in tow. Plenty of folk have met my entourage already, and now it's expanded.

But it has suddenly become much more difficult; my eldest recently started school and I've returned from maternity leave “early”. That is, when my child is barely out of the newborn stage, (breast)feeding around the clock and still somewhat unpredictable. I'm increasingly reminded of how unusual it is that I took only 16 weeks off, even within academia, where short maternity leave is prevalent - more on this in future blog posts! The baby doesn't yet have a passport, however inclined she and I might be to turning up to a conference with her in a baby carrier, where woe-betide anyone taking issue with her presence (I've said many times before how there really are minimal adjustments needed to accommodate babies within academic environments). The requirements of my face-to-face teaching and annoyingly complex flight connections to seemingly easy-to-reach European locations have in fact been the main barriers. Why? Because the potential for a flight being cancelled is enough to put you off a convoluted trip with a baby in tow and potentially unsuitable sleeping environments, or with one left at home in need of breast milk.

The family can't always come along now, because one of them is in school and I'm a firm believer in children only missing out on their education when it is essential. At 4 years old, selling the “cultural experience” opportunity is still a bit premature for my son, although he did get to spend his 4th birthday in two different Nordic cities, while mummy (who was battling morning sickness at the time…) worked. It's a familiar story though: extended family are the main providers of childcare in the country, but if, like us, you don't have a queue of healthy, local, time-rich relatives nearby things have to slide. It seems like, as ever, the issue is the same and both the problem and the solution are summed up in one word: childcare.

Despite all of this, I count myself lucky: I already have a permanent academic post and can make these choices not to attend. There are many parents for whom missing out on a conference slot has the potential for greater detriment.

With one child cutting about in his school uniform, the other being (as in, right now) in my arms pretty much every moment I'm not on campus teaching, in meetings or working from home at my desk, I’m reminded of how fast times passes, of how soon they aren't so wee and don't need you as much. But it's always going to be emotionally challenging, when you see colleagues trotting off to cities you'd quite like to see on your way to a speaking slot, and Fear Of Missing Out, or Academic FOMO as I'm referring to it, creeps in.

My research and teaching focuses on how all career decisions are complex and multi-faceted. Due to my subject area, I'm aware I am perhaps more explicitly and overtly making choices in relation to my career path at present and trying to make those decisions visible, as they affect academic women more than men. Yes, there will always be other conferences and no, there won't always be first babbles, first sideways rolls, first crawls, first steps. But turning down opportunities, in the current climate in academia, isn't easy.

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