Name: Tamsin Hinston-Smith
Degree and university: Sociology BA, Social and Political Thought MA, PHd (on single parent students) Sussex
Did you always want to study? I applied for university at 17, but I found out I was pregnant before finishing my A-levels, and consequently turned down a place to study Sociology I had accepted at Sussex. My mum secretly phoned Sussex back asking them to defer my place for a year, and I subsequently took the place up after struggling financially as a lone teenage parent.
How difficult was it to juggle studying and motherhood — timewise, emotionally, financially? Very difficult. Tears have been shed, and housework and quality time with children skimped on, but I know from my research this is common to all lone parent students! Juggling study with lone parenthood (and often paid employment as well), means there is seldom any genuinely ‘free time’ to relax. Study provides the only respite from domestic duties and vice versa. Studying does provide you with something for yourself beyond being ‘just a mum’, and caring for the needs of others. It also provides you with the positivity of more hope for the future than being a struggling lone parent.
Did you find your university supportive? I was assisted with grants from my university’s Access to Learning Fund several times. My daughter and I lived in a family flat on campus while I completed my BA, and from age eight months to four years, she also attended the campus university crèche, at a subsidized rate. These factors were all invaluable, and I wouldn’t have been able to do my degree without them. But perhaps the most important thing was the encouragement of individual academics who could see that I worked hard, and wanted to assist me to be able to carry on. Students from backgrounds unfamiliar with academic paths really need that support and encouragement to boost their confidence.
Why did you decide to continue studying? By the final year of my BA, my academic confidence was growing and I felt I would like to stay on for postgraduate study – the flexibility and autonomy of studying also seemed easier to manage with lone parenthood than a full-time job. I didn’t have experience of postgraduate study or graduate careers from my family, or financial resources to draw on, but faculty at Sussex supported me in applying for and winning an ESRC quota award to study for a Masters in Social and Political Thought. I found this very challenging, but worked hard and achieved a Distinction, and wanted to pursue a DPhil. I became a parent again at this point, and subsequently a lone parent again when my children were a few months, and five years old.
After several years of failing to get DPhil funding I was finally successful, and was able to begin a DPhil. During the gap I used my time productively by studying for a postgraduate Diploma in journalism, choosing this because as a lone parent on benefits I qualified for financial assistance with meeting course costs. I tried my hand at freelance journalism and undertook work experience placements at the Guardian newspaper – which I really enjoyed, but once again found that the daily life of a young newspaper journalist, including the commute to London, wasn’t compatible with the responsibilities of being a lone parent.
Why did you decide to enter academia? I began teaching undergraduate courses part-time as an hourly-paid associate tutor while I was studying as a postgraduate at Sussex. I initially undertook the work to help make ends meet financially, then I increasingly enjoyed it as my confidence grew, and in 2004, after three years of teaching, won an award for excellence in teaching from the university. Finding a real vocation in teaching, combined with the compatibility of managing a career in academia alongside being a lone parent, made me keen to pursue an academic career and in 2006 I secured a temporary full-time lectureship in my department. I was nervous about managing full-time employment with being a lone parent, as well as my continuing DPhil studies, but have found it manageable. The long university holidays fit with children’s school holidays, allowing time when I can work at home with them.
What advice do you have for single parents wishing to study? You have to be determined. It is undoubtedly a challenge. But my in-depth research with 80 lone parent students over the course of a year has really shown me despite the difficulties all lone parent students encounter it is nevertheless possible to succeed. Help provided by family emerged as really significant to lone parent students from my research.
What strengths do you feel someone in your situation needs to succeed? An intrinsic enjoyment of study and your subject; belief that it will enhance quality of individual and family life; and willingness to suffer financial hardship and time pressure in the short-term in order to benefit in the longer-term. I finally submitted my completed DPhil in March, and am also very happy and surprised to be expecting twins with my partner! It’s nice to have a supportive partner and not be a lone parent anymore, but studying has definitely changed my and my children’s lives beyond recognition.