Parenthood in Graduate School: How do we do it? (And why?)

By Athena Russell,  Genetics & Molecular Biology, ‘17

Art by Amielle Moreno, Neuroscience '12

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            My son was one year old when I began a Master’s program, while working full-time, having just been promoted to a supervisory position in my lab. It was hectic. Then with a 4-year old in preschool, I decided to quit my job, take a 50% pay cut, uproot my family, and move to a city where we knew no one to pursue a PhD. These were some of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. Yet this leap of faith is proving to be worth the sacrifices and a wonderful experience for us all.

            Being a grad school parent might seem like a crazy idea, and we are surely still the minority. Why would anyone want to make grad school any more difficult? Interestingly, Bijean Ford recently surveyed 106 GDBBS students and found that every respondent who had children was also a first-generation PhD student (read Ford’s article here).  I can only speculate upon why this might be the case for others; but as a first-generation PhD student myself, I can say although I knew this would be a major undertaking and not for the faint of heart, I couldn’t have been more confident that this decision would be the right one in the end, especially for my son, and well worth the unique challenges associated with being a student-parent.

I spoke to other grad school moms to hear their thoughts about this experience: the good, the bad and the ugly, and to find out what suggestions they would have for others. Here’s what they had to say.

Flexibility

            Mothers or women wanting to have children were once discouraged from careers in academia. A faculty mentor and mother of two I spoke to said she never understood this, as academia offers perhaps some of the most flexible jobs out there. After talking to students with children, they agreed. “One of the biggest benefits of being a parent in graduate school is my flexible schedule,” said Julia Baker, a 4th year PhD student in Epidemiology. “I feel fortunate that my research activities are flexible in terms of when and where I do them.” Sydney Silverstein, a 6th year Anthropology student corroborated this view. “It’s nice to be able to not have such regimented work hours, and get to see so much of my child when he is small.” In case you didn’t know, kids get sick. A lot. So, having some degree of freedom setting your own hours or leaving when your child’s school calls about the inevitable fever can be a huge advantage.

 Sydney Silverstein, 6th year Anthropology PhD candidate with her newborn baby performing long-term fieldwork in Iquitos, Peru

Sydney Silverstein, 6th year Anthropology PhD candidate with her newborn baby performing long-term fieldwork in Iquitos, Peru

            But even flexibility doesn’t save grad school parents from the challenges and responsibilities associated with childcare. “It is really hard to draw firm boundaries, and prioritize your work time,” said Silverstein. Being a parent means having to take unexpected time off which means “deadlines have been delayed,” said Baker. “If I’m not working, my projects are not making any progress.” Flexibility and sole responsibility for your own projects means you must be disciplined to keep things moving forward. Read on for tips on how grad school moms build efficiency and prioritization into their daily routine.

Time Management and Work-Life Balance

            I noticed nearly every senior graduate student or post-doc says something about how they live in the lab, how going home is like being on vacation, how they see their PI more than they see their significant other. I realized that if I didn’t have a child and a family, I would likely end up with the same narrative. I know because in my former professional life I often worked late nights and long weekends, taking on too much, with little regard for other aspects of my life. Having a kid does sometimes make the day-to-day more difficult, but at the same time, it turns parents into time-management professionals. Being both a mom and a student forces me to continually strive for some degree of work-life balance that otherwise I may not have been as driven to maintain. “Being a parent actually makes work-life balance easier,” said Baker. “It forces you to be efficient and productive with your time.” Silverstein agreed, saying, “You just don’t have the luxury to be anything else!” On the other hand, former Emory graduate student in Neuroscience Brittany Howell advises, “I make sure to take the time to think about what is important to me, and to match my efforts to these priorities. It’s not necessarily a 50/50 split, which is fine!”

            I can attest that being a mother and having a family in grad school is enough to motivate me to work hard and perform well in school, for them and for myself. But my time is inevitably split; forcing me to relax, to not take things too seriously and to remember the big picture. I know I have another part of my life that is at least as important that demands my attention and dedication. “Your time is so much more valuable so you learn to focus and cut the slack,” said one mom. “My daughter keeps me grounded.”

Tips from Grad School Moms

            Everyone has their own way of getting by, whether you are a parent or not. After all, grad students are all busy, right? Many of these time (and life) management tips from grad school moms can be embraced by anyone with not enough hours in the day.

Planning: “I now schedule everything. I mean everything – sleeping, eating, working, etc.,” said Howell. Another mom said she would keep a planner and make 7 weekly goals and 3 daily goals – these helped her to evaluate and prioritize her time. By regularly consulting the planner, she could stay focused and make sure her work, her family and herself were always taken care of. When prioritizing, consider this famous Mark Twain quote: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” In other words, tackle the big things first and don’t procrastinate!

Prepping: Do whatever you can ahead of time. “Having meals ready for the week by cooking a ton during the weekend, packing bags (work, baby, etc.) the night before is absolutely the only way I can ensure that I’m not rushing around all day every day,” said Howell. Other moms echoed this advice. “I cook the night before a lot so that I can just come home and eat right away.”

Outsourcing: Sometimes we just can’t do it all, or at least we shouldn’t. Carve out balance however you can, and if that means hiring someone to clean the house so that being at home means spending time with family, then do it.

Self-care: I cannot stress this one enough. Do not neglect your own well-being. Silverstein said it best, “One thing that I do give credit to is prioritizing physical activity. Even if you are behind on work! It just helps so much. And if I’m tired at night, I don’t push myself to work. It’s just not worth it. A bit of recreational reading or TV-watching plus a decent sleep just sets me up to work better the next day.” The take home message: get exercise, get sleep, and let yourself veg out every once in a while!

Be present: Wherever you are, give it your full attention and effort. When at work, be at work. Let all your time there be spent getting stuff done (i.e. stay off Facebook!) When you’re at home – be home. Enjoy your time with your family, or take time for yourself. Baker shared, “I have found that being a parent helps me feel balanced. If I am with my family, I try to focus on them. I don’t check my email or think about school. I try to be present and enjoy my time with them. When I’m at school, I try to focus on my research,” allowing Baker to feel “100% committed to both my work and my family.”

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Julia Baker, 4th year Epidemiology PhD candidate with her daughter Ginny

            So if you ever wondered whether being a parent during graduate school was a possible feat, know this: it can be done! Clearly, there are pros and cons to this approach, and yes, it can be overwhelming at times, but there is truly NEVER a perfect and convenient time to become a parent. It’s always hard. But trust that it will be the most rewarding thing you will ever do. And like Baker said, “What better way to forget the stress of school than cuddling with a happy baby?!”

Edited by Amielle Moreno, Neuroscience '12