In the June edition of the British Ecological Society Bulletin The Niche, an article appeared that I wrote about student carers in the UK. The BES is a huge network of people who work in the environmental sector in the UK, but also around the world, it’s a network of peers that I hope to move into in my career. I’m very happy to have appeared within it, but also a little daunted given the nature of the article. I have reproduced the article here, followed by a discussion about it.
Three in five of us will be carers at some point in our lives. With so many of us facing this, how can we ensure that ecologists receive the necessary support when care work becomes a part of their life?
If you look after or support someone, despite it not being your job to do so, or if you look after a child for some other reason than their age, you are likely a carer. Carers save an estimated £132 billion for the UK economy in unpaid work, averaging out at over £19,000 per carer per year, or around £2000 for each person in the UK. These individuals should be facilitated to pursue the careers that they otherwise would have done had they not had additional responsibilities. You may not have thought about it, but at some point in your life you may decide to look after a dying relative, your significant other may become injured or ill, or you might help a close friend or housemate struggle to overcome addiction. You may already have looked after someone in this way or are doing so now, and you still might not think of yourself as a carer. Carers in all careers can find it difficult to balance work and home responsibilities, or dedicate enough time to career progression, ecologists are no different. Unsupported carers are at high risk of dropping out of careers that they otherwise excel at and are passionate about.
Care responsibilities can profoundly impact work life, health, and mental wellbeing. Ecologists who are carers face unique challenges that may require them to work flexibly, take time off, or go extra lengths to financially support an extra person on a single salary. Importantly, caring responsibilities can impact work or career progression. This is especially clear for student carers and early-career ecologists with caring responsibilities. An estimated 3-6% of students are carers, and the difficulties that they face make them around four times as likely to drop out of their studies as their peers. For ecologists at the early stages their careers, they are having to make choices about whether they can afford to pursue their passion for ecology, whether the sacrifices they need to make to do so will negatively impact on the health of a loved one, or whether a family member’s quality of life will be affected by a field season away from home. Reliance on healthcare and benefit systems can limit the mobility of ecologists who are being told that in order to progress they need to be willing to relocate within or between countries.
I am a British PhD student and have been a carer for nearly five years. I care for a partner with chronic, debilitating illness that prevents them from working. My partner relies upon me physically, to do the work around the home that they cannot do, and emotionally, to provide the support that would normally be gained from a support network that is difficult to build while ill. My experience of being a student carer has covered all stages of my university education: undergraduate, masters, and now my PhD. Each transition raised new dilemmas in balancing workload, home responsibilities, and both our finances. For example, choosing to undertake a PhD and take on a stipend made my partner ineligible for housing or sickness related benefits and required us to rely on a single PhD stipend for all of our living expenses. Caring has affected the choices I made concerning my early career development.
One such example occurred during my masters degree while my partner and I were still eligible for benefits. Then, working as a demonstrator in university practical classes actually cost us money and additional time. Every month I would have to meet with the Department of Work and Pensions to supply the hours worked and they would remove the earnings from my partner’s benefits. In effect, demonstrating during my masters moved money from my ill partner to me without improving our financial situation. I also had to take time off during my studies and pay transport costs to attend the meeting. I offered to do demonstrating work unpaid so that I could still gain the experience without the hassle, but this was not allowed. As a result I rarely demonstrated.
At the postgraduate level, the financial support received by undergraduates with adult dependents disappears and universities rarely step up to replace it. Additionally, full-time students become ineligible for carers allowance benefits, irrespective of how much care they provide. Though university hardship funds may be available they normally require the student to be in the state of financial crisis. I would expect that for many students in that situation they would probably withdraw from their studies and seek more gainful employment. I certainly would consider it, I can’t risk my partner’s health and wellbeing by getting into dire financial straits. There are no more pots of money at a national level, there is rarely a support framework within the university. In short, postgraduate carers are on their own.
This sound like a national problem, why am I bringing this to the attention of The Niche’s readers?
“Nurturing, fostering, and developing talent from all sectors of society are core to our education work alongside career help and advice” – Hazel Normal (‘What’s the point of the British Ecological Society,’ The Niche 49:4 p6)
I believe carers are no less deserving of education and success than their colleagues, but they cannot succeed without support and help from all of us. Carers are no less capable than their peers. If we want the best work to be produced by members of the BES, we better step up to the challenges of making sure that talented individuals are facilitated to do their best despite barriers raised against them. Put simply, if my partner and I didn’t have the financial support provided by our family I would have been unable to afford to continue in higher education. We also benefited greatly from their advice, patience, and emotional support. The BES could support career progression of early career ecologists directly with funding, or indirectly through its policy teams and members by raising these issues to at a governmental, university and/or industry level. You shouldn’t need to come from a wealthy, supportive family to get by as a PhD carer. But for certain carers, I can’t see how it could be any other way.
Carers need to come together to share advice about how to survive in the highly political world of academia and in the demanding workplaces of ecologists. Other ecologists could be more aware of the additional responsibilities of carers and think about how they can support them in big or small ways. This is why I have suggested the formation of a carers’ group at the next BES Annual Meeting. If you are a carer, or unexpectedly become one, then this group is a place for you to meet with ecologists with experience balancing care at home and work. If you have had to do so in the past, perhaps during a formative stage of your early career, then you may be able to offer advice and encouragement to others. If we pull together then the BES as a whole can better understand the needs of their membership, identify what obstacles they are facing in their journeys to produce excellent research, and make plans for lifting all ecologists onto an even footing.
 Carers UK & University of Leeds (2015),Valuing Carers
 NUS (2013), Learning with Care, Experiences of Student Carers in the UK (NUS)
 Kettell, Lynne (2018), Young adult carers in higher education: the motivations, barriers and challenges involved – a UK study, Journal of Further and Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2018.1515427
Thanks for reading my article.
I wrote this following a discussion with the head of external affairs at the BES, in December 2018 at the BES annual meeting. I wanted to ask this person about the possibility of doing more to connect carers within the organisation. Mostly this was because I have often found it hard to achieve work/life balance in my PhD. I was having a hard time talking to myself about what I perceived as personal failings in this area. If I was struggling with this, other carers probably felt the same way and it would be good to have someone to talk to about it with, someone who could be a role model for me in my industry, and perhaps, someone I could help with my experiences. The staff member agreed and suggested an event for the next annual meeting and an article for the bulletin to publicise the issue.
Melanie Edgar (@agroecofarm), who’s article on sickness during PhDs had just appeared in the inaugural issue of The Niche, was the first person I wanted to talk to about it. She offered some really great advice, I also talked to my supervisor about it, the Young Adult Care Worker at Newcastle Carers who has helped me these last few years, and, obviously, my partner.
One of the hardest things to convey has been how difficult it can be to identify as the carer of someone who you are meant to have a balanced, equal relationship with. Sometimes, when talking about being a carer in earshot of my partner, I worry about how it makes her feel. If I am a carer, she is a caree. When I recognise the challenges of my position, I remind her of her situation. When I receive support from Newcastle Carers, or talk to someone about my problems, or make headway in any of these areas she is proud. But it is infuriating for me, and devastating for her, that for all of the failing of the support for carers in the UK, we are still treated better by the system than those who are actually sick.
Day to day I worry about how my work/life balance affects my results, my PhD, my career. But my partner’s illness reminds me that these are luxurious problems to have the opportunity of dealing with. The thing that really upsets me is, that after five years of looking out for her, I still don’t know what to say when we talk about what happened to her twenties. That’s what I need help with.