Good advice? Reflections on being a graduate student and a parent.

IMG_1371By Sarah Hudson
Ph.D. candidate, Department of Biology, University of New Brunswick

“Have kids while you’re in grad school…I did it, it was great!” The advice came from a well-respected, friendly professor in my department. I was 23, single, and in the second year of a master’s degree in science.

In many ways, the advice was good. There are jolly reasons to have your kids while still in grad school. It can be tricky to envision jumping into parenthood at the beginning of a degree, when you likely have commitments to taking classes, teaching, delving into your own research, and possibly doing fieldwork. However, in many graduate programs you can at some point be flexible with your work schedule, and parenting-friendly arrangements can be made. I have fellow-grad student friends who found time to get their theses written between their kids’ naps, after they had gone to bed at night or with the help of a sitter to entertain their kids while they wrote from home. Others travelled as a family doing fieldwork in remote locations. These friends managed to juggle the responsibility of graduate school and parenting, in order to get both jobs done.

Now that I’m older, still a grad student, and now a mother, I find myself reflecting on the “good advice” I was given years ago. I’m knee-deep into my PhD; I have completed the fieldwork stage – mucking around in a remote, Caribbean mangrove lagoon, wrestling seabirds with 6-foot wingspans under the cover of darkness all in the name of science – as well as the lab work component – mucking around with smelly, rotting, regurgitated fish and a few hazardous chemicals in the name of science – and am right in the middle of the dreaded “writing up” stage. As the previous stages didn’t seem all that conducive to having kids, my husband and I, in our “when to have kids” discussions, decided to delay baby making until I was writing, and would have that earlier-mentioned convenience of working from home while he returned to work. I feel fortunate to have the flexibility in my day-to-day schedule that allows me to stay at home to parent our 6-month-old daughter. However, aside from the convenience of it all, there are other aspects that I feel might be worth a mention for others considering entering into the same precarious situation.

The first interesting finding, while I was still pregnant, was the lack of experience faculty and staff seemed to have in “dealing” with grad students having babies. While my supervisor and committee members have been supportive and helpful, other staff have responded with blank stares when asked for advice on logistics and options for support for parenting grad students. “I don’t know, nobody has ever asked about that before!” Nobody? Was I seriously the first graduate student to have a kid at our university? The bemused but friendly responses certainly seemed to signal the relative infrequency of this situation, though perhaps this is changing at other institutions. At any rate, grad student soon-to-be parents might be forewarned that they will have to do some sleuthing on their own.

The topic of health care and funding was my next revelation. I quickly learned that whether I became a part-time student or took leave because I was becoming a parent, the university health care services would no longer be offered (even if I wanted to opt-in by paying for these services). Being “from away,” my husband and I had been in the province for 5 years and not yet been placed under a family doctor, and were unexpectedly faced with the daunting fact that we were becoming new parents and losing health care privileges. Suddenly funding seemed to becoming a little scarce as well; with my PhD scholarship and opportunities to teach dwindling, I was also going to be ineligible for Employment Insurance (Canada’s federal financial assistance program for the unemployed, which also covers those on maternity and parental leave). The normal teaching assistant hours for a graduate student don’t add up enough work time to qualify. I was becoming increasingly aware that, by choosing to have a baby while still a student, I was not going to get paid maternity leave or have access to a family doctor, and my own scholarship and fellowship money would quickly run out while I tried to simultaneously parent and write my thesis. I started having nightmares of becoming a character in PhD comics, permanently destined to be poor, hanging from my supervisor’s coat tails, and unable to enter the job market. All with baby spit-up in my hair and poop on my arm.

Another realization came early on. Shortly after our baby was born, I tried to establish some sort of a routine of parenting and writing, striving for the harmonized balance I had envisioned. But in reality, after we were able to bring our premature baby home from the hospital, the early days went by in a blur of nursing, pumping, and nursing, every 2 hours around the clock. I felt like an exhausted milk cow that might fall asleep on the job. There was no mental or emotional room left for my thesis. As several months went by, and everyone started getting a little more sleep, I vowed to get back in the saddle as a part-time student and started trying to log my hours of work. But logging hours was quickly abandoned when baby started waking up from her nap every 10 minutes. It’s hard to add up all those 10-minute intervals of staring at a computer screen, trying to remember the brilliant thought you’d been just about to write. Every day, I struggle to eek out small amounts of writing time. It doesn’t seem as “convenient” as I was told. When I do find time in the evenings after she goes to bed, I battle the ubiquitous canoe-stick brain and fluttering eyelids, and wonder if I’ll ever get my lurchy brain to delve back into the statistical analyses still required before I wrestle my thesis to the ground.

At the end of every day, I think, “my baby is growing so fast!” On the other hand, my thesis seems to be inch worming its way to a cliff face it’s going to hurl itself off of with a death cry before I can so much as print a page of it. It makes one pause, and ask if that advice I received from my enthusiastic prof all those years ago was good — was it smart to have kids while in grad school? The alternate question is, what are the options? For those on an academic track, and perhaps for most people, there just doesn’t seem to be a “good” time to have kids (I’ll leave alone the issue of whether we should be on the academic track at all, considering the plethora of PhD holders and a dearth of tenure-track positions, as it’s been written about elsewhere). The process of going from an undergraduate degree, to getting into grad school, then landing a post-doc (or maybe two or three), all the while winging off grant and job applications until finally (hopefully) landing a “real” job (see Allison’s great post on not “using” her PhD) becomes increasingly competitive and all-consuming. Taking the time to start a family can feel like putting the pause button on your career path, only to watch those without kids gain the experiences, write the papers, and make the contacts they need to land the few, coveted jobs available.

While it may be easy to grumble about my current circumstances, looking ahead, I can’t see a time in the future when having kids will be any “more convenient.” Parenthood brings a new set of challenges and rewards to every family, graduate student or not. In the end, every family has to choose what is right for them. Like many new parents, I’m taking the advice to enjoy this time, and I’ll just take my daughter, and my thesis, one day at a time.

1 comment
  1. Erin said:

    Excellent post! I can relate to this in so many ways! I also decided to have children while in the writing stage (I got pregnant the first month after my last field trip to Brazil). I also got some awkward comments from faculty (such as, “we’ll, that is inconvenient!”). I also had a preemie in the NICU, followed by surgery at 5 months and a lot of follow up medically. I didn’t get back to writing until my son was almost a year. I did finish eventually, writing most of it while my 2nd child was sleeping in a carrier, bouncing her while writing. I defended when she turned 1, and found out I was pregnant with my third child a few days later. Now, as the baby approaches a year old, I am trying to decide what to do with my life. Sessionals pay so little when you have childcare to factor in and even finding good quality childcare on hort notice to teach sessionally is an issue where i am. My son is now in kindergarten and my husband has a stable job so it is hardly fair to uproot my family for a few years chasing post docs and contract positions. I have come to the conclusion that academia is not compatible with the way I choose to raise my family. I don’t regret my path in the least though!

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