Is it Possible to Be a Grad Student (or Professor) and a Parent?

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Grad school and writing a dissertation (and being a professor working towards tenure) is hard enough. But add a baby to the mix and it can become overwhelming. Jayne London, Academic Ladder Associate Coach,  answers one harried mother’s question about how to cope with both grad school and motherhood.

Q : I am a 6th year graduate student and had a baby girl seven months ago. I thought that I would be able to return to working on my dissertation a couple of weeks after her birth, but it has not turned out that way at all. In fact, seven months have passed and I have not done any work at all. I was already feeling behind in my program, and now I’m wondering if I should just give up altogether?

A: Having a child changes one’s life in more ways than any of us can ever anticipate. For those who want children, it is a joyous and most wonderful experience (at least most of the time!). But whether you are a man or a woman, you simply do not have the same amount of time and energy available to you once you become a parent. Being responsible for another human being, particularly one who is fully dependent on you to meet his/her needs means that you no longer control your time. For mothers, the physical and emotional demands of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding can make the initial first year even more difficult to adjust to.

But don’t give up out of feelings that it’s not possible to finish. It’s hard to be a graduate student parent but there are ways you can still finish your dissertation. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. If you can afford it, hire someone to take care of the baby for a few hours at least several times a week. Many of us don’t want to have anyone else care for our babies when they are young, but you will most likely find you need to have some hours freed up. Treat those hours like a job, and dedicate yourself to making the most out of that time.

  2. Start slowly getting back into your work. Be patient with yourself. Think of your brain as being a muscle you haven’t used for a while and that you need to work back into shape. Begin with small goals, such as spending 15 minutes a day gathering your work into one place. Then spend some time rereading what you have written thus far.

  3. If you’re working at home and finding yourself being distracted by your baby’s cries and laughter (as happens to many parents), find a place to work outside of your home. That will help you to work when you are working, and to be fully present with your baby when it is not your work time.

  4. Make sure you get the rest you need. If you try to work when you are exhausted, you’ll only become more frustrated and down on yourself.

  5. Don’t underestimate what you can do in short blocks of time when you are fully focused on your work.

  6. Be prepared to feel that you aren’t doing enough. You will undoubtedly berate yourself that you could be writing more, that you could be a better parent, etc. This is normal. Don’t let those inner voices get in your way and undermine what you are getting done. You need to accept and value what you are able to do and not focus on what you aren’t able to do. You have a lot of things you are juggling.

  7. Likewise, don’t compare your output to what you used to be able to do before you became a parent or to what your peers are doing who do not have children. You are on a different path than others.

  8. Seek out other student parents for advice and support. It will be so helpful and comforting to know that you are not the only one undertaking parenthood and struggling with these issues, while being in graduate school.

Being a parent can lead to feelings of isolation, which are compounded by the pressures of dissertation writing. The advice, support and camaraderie of a phone dissertation group for moms can help you get the optimum amount of work done while enjoying motherhood.

Jayne London, November 2006

If you’re a grad student or professor struggling to raise a family while you write your dissertation or work towards tenure, get all the support that you need.  It takes a village to get a Ph.D. or become a tenured professor!

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