Pregnancy, poverty and persistence: A postgraduate study reality check

29 November 2016

Shiftworking postgraduate students falling asleep at the wheel and queries about breastfeeding on block courses. Dr MARK JONES* recently had his eyes opened to the constant and complex juggle that is postgraduate study when he temporarily filled the shoes of his nursing school's postgraduate programmes director.

'Not too arduous a role' is what I thought when I volunteered a few months to cover for our postgraduate programmes director while she was in secondment in Geneva.

 It was great that Jill Wilkinson could work alongside our former Chief Nurse, Frances Hughes in her position as the new ICN CEO. Someone had to take responsibility for day to day postgraduate student and prospective student contact in her absence and it might as well be me.

Jill ostensibly works 0.3 of her time in the PG Director role, but just one week in it felt like I had done nothing but deal with student inquiries. I had missed a trick by not appreciating that changing our postgraduate regulations for next year meant a good many of our students were having to decide whether to complete their Masters under the ‘old or new rules'. Some fancied trying a ‘bob each way’ as a means of maximising their grade point average. This was going to be difficult and I started the second week by resisting the urge to berate enquirers for not bothering to carefully read the information on our website.

But then I started to realise what amazing people our student body is actually comprised of. The group that stood out to me were woman with such complex lives that it beggars belief they would even contemplate postgraduate study.

During my short time in the role I spoke with three of our students who ‘unexpectedly’ became pregnant. None of them worked in family planning it has to be said, but, well whatever. Seriously though these conversations ranged from whether it was viable to carry a pregnancy to term and study two papers a semester, through to seeking an opinion on whether it was possible to start a new paper two weeks after giving birth and then moved onto the practicalities of potential breastfeeding during block classes. I am pleased to say that in all cases a means of supporting pregnancy, birth, and study was achieved.  (I would add that is was pretty cool to have a student whose husband  is taking time off to care for their baby and brings the baby in for feeds during the day.)

My colleague Jenny Carryer recently reported in Nursing Review (Oct/Nov 2016) on the extent to which students are self-funding, some 30% of those studying at postgraduate level. When students, such as the one earning $21.50 an hour in aged care, are stumping up in the region of $2500 per paper we can see the fiscal reality for some. This may not lead to poverty in the truest sense but speaking with students I heard several tales of sacrifices being made to be able to study. Not all sacrifices were purely financial; sometimes relationships were interrupted or suffering as a result of study.  Students also reported guilt if they strayed and read anything not connected with their studies or dared to glance at the TV, let alone go out to a movie.

Postgrad students are persistent people though. One morning I had to work with campus health and safety people as a sleep-deprived, time-poor nurse – through trying to work, study and care for her family  – felt she could handle a trip to ‘uni’ for a day of lectures straight after a set of long shifts. She drove straight into one of the pillars of our Business School building after simply falling asleep at the wheel through abject tiredness.  (It was also a shame that the pillar had just been restored the week before - from wear and tear, I must add, not another accident.)

This was an extreme case, but nevertheless I dealt with so many students who were struggling through exhaustion to get their assignments done on time. One email example: ‘Dr Jones, my assignment is due in three days; I know I left it late but things have been difficult at home and the time I set aside at the weekend went because Amanda was sick in Starship and Jason fell out of a tree on Sunday morning and broke his arm, we waited for ages at ED and were late home and I haven’t been able to write any more, is there any chance of couple of days of extension time please?’.

Is there any chance?  Are you crazy!?  Take an extra week, or make it two  for heaven’s sake! (I was actually rather more professional than that, but you get the point.)

Covering Jill’s student contact for nine weeks opened my eyes to the reality of postgraduate study for many of our students. By and large they are dedicated women who spend their days juggling many competing demands between family and work life before they even contemplated studying. I had seen it for real as my loved one re-papered the dining room with Post-It notes during her master’s endeavour. But hearing the stories day in and day out underwrote for me how committed nurses are to acquiring a skill set they believe will ultimately allow them to improve patient care, either directly or through the services they manage.

If you are contemplating study don’t let this put you off, we can always find a way to get you through, but we all need to pay respect to anyone who is prepared to strive for academic excellence to enhance professional practice. I, for one, am in awe.

Note: Real names not used, but scenarios described are true.

*Dr Mark Jones is Associate Head of Massey University's School of Nursing

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