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Pursuing a Ph.D. as a Parent: How to Survive

Just like every morning, I get ready and pack lunches quietly as to not wake anyone. As I’m pulling my 10-month-old son out of his crib, I realize his face is covered in snot and his little body is burning up. It could not be a worse day for this to happen, as I have a meeting with a big collaborator. I give him Tylenol, in hopes that its just teething, and drop him off at daycare full of guilt; I’ll just pick him up early after my meeting.

30 minutes before the meeting I get a call from the daycare that his fever is persistent and I have to pick him up.

Here’s where my stomach crawls into my throat. I have no family here to rely on, I’m at grad school 8 hours from home, and my spouse’s job doesn’t allow him to rescue me in these situations. I have to tell my advisor I’m going to miss the meeting. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to miss something important because I have children, and the embarrassment of telling him I have to leave increases exponentially each time.

If you’re a parent in grad school, you know this sequence of events. A cold and a few degree difference in body temperature can crush a week-long experiment or destroy an encounter with a big shot in your field. It’s the reality of being a parent while going to grad school. So how do you survive?

Live and die by a schedule.

This is the only feasible way I have managed to keep my sanity. While I may deserve an award for “the most predictable person on Earth,” for doing the exact same thing every single day, my habitual behavior pays off. My kids know what to expect everyday: they know when they’re going to eat, and so they eat; they know when naptime and bedtime are, and so they sleep. This is a good practice for lab life as well. My advisor knows when he’ll find me in the lab and what time I write at night, and thus he has set his expectations for my work around my schedule. This affords me some flexibility in life; I’m not constantly checking my emails at odd hours, because he knows when I’m working. Most importantly, I know my schedule and exactly how many hours a day I have to work, so I use those hours efficiently. A schedule can help reduce the chaos in your life, and even provide structure when the unexpected happens.

Get past your guilt.

It is inevitable that you are going to feel guilty about something you have done at some point. Leaving your child at daycare or not being able to sign them up for soccer because of work can be tough. You just have to get past it. Think about the benefits: children who attend daycare benefit from social interaction with their peers and daily structure, not to mention it’s healthy for parents as well, and completing your degree is going to give you and your family so many advantages in life. Sometimes the guilt may be more than you can take alone, don’t be afraid to vent to your significant other or a fellow grad student, you would be surprised by how willing others are to listen. And always remember, you’re playing the long game.

Create an army.

Most of us go to grad school a good distance from home; in some cases that distance involves a 12-hour plane ride. In short, you don’t have the normal people around to bail you out. When I was about 7 months pregnant with my son, I was lucky enough to get food poisoning. Did you know that the dehydration that comes with persistent vomiting can launch false labor? I didn’t, but I found out that day. Luckily for me, I had an army to both take care of me and my eldest child. I can’t tell you how many times I have needed rescuing in the last two years. You need people in your life because things happen, maybe not this dramatic, but things will come up, and maybe you just need someone to vent to sometimes. Where to find them? The short answer is anywhere. My fellow grad students happen to be really great people, but I’ve also found friends in the undergrads working in our labs and even faculty and staff too.

Choose your advisor wisely.

I think this is, without a doubt, the most important bullet for parent-grad students and non-parents alike. If you already have a family when entering grad school, or you’re crazy enough to start one in the midst of it, like me, choose your advisor carefully. Don’t be afraid to find a new one either, if your situation requires it. I am lucky enough to be in a lab where my advisor is compassionate and understanding of the fact that life happens. When I told him I was going to be having a baby, he reassured me that it is possible to complete a degree with a family. There are many advisors out there who would not have had the same response. When things come up he always tells me, “your family comes first,” and that understanding at least takes the edge off my surmounting anxiety. He’s never afraid to tell me when I’m not on track, but he has never once given up hope on me. The fact that I have a great advisor who takes an interest not only in my work, but also the well being of my family, makes showing up to the lab and sacrificing time with my children a lot easier. You need someone who understands your situation and is unfailingly on your side. Your advisor will be your keeper, whether you’re a parent or not.

In short, if you’re planning on starting your family while in grad school, don’t make this decision lightly. Realize that you are making two massive commitments simultaneously. Most people commit to one of these things, grad school or parenting, at a time, and there’s a good reason for it. It can be extremely rewarding, but also trying. If you’re already a parent making your way through a graduate program, know that you are not alone. We parent-grad students do exist, and we are surviving in our own way.

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