(Written by Jayme Cisco, PhD)

All kids are different, all programs are different, so my experience may be very different from your own. However, if you are currently a parent or may become one while in school, here are some tips for surviving and (hopefully thriving) in the process.

Before I became a parent, I knew some people who found it easy to finish school (write their dissertation, complete coursework, etc.) while taking care of a newborn or young child.

“It’s easy, you just write when they are napping!” I was told. 

With this advice in mind,  I felt totally prepared when it came time to have my own. Our son was born one month after I defended my comprehensive exams. I had finished all my coursework, I had defended a dissertation proposal, and I had cut back on my workload to just one teaching position and a tutoring position (half-time employment at my university).  I was used to working 2-3 positions each semester while taking 3 courses and studying for exams. This should be a piece of cake!

I. Was. So. Wrong. I know this isn’t true for all babies, but our baby hated to sleep. Ninety minutes of fighting sleep would yield a fitful 20 minute catnap. This was followed by hours of colicky crying. In addition to struggling to find time to work, I just couldn’t focus on anything on such a lack of sleep and frazzled nerves from newborn crying and incessant demands.

It took me quite a while to figure out how to get anything done, but once I did, I completed my dissertation in two semesters, from data collection to defense. If you find yourself in this position, here are some tips that might help:


1. Don’t turn down help.


Maybe this is obvious to some, but I internalized the idea that I had to be supermom, super-student, super-researcher, etc. Friends offered to help, but I didn’t take them up on it. I felt that doing so would mean that I wasn’t capable of doing it on my own, of keeping it together, or that I would burden my friends and family. I remembered the stories others (with easy, sleepy babies) told me, who said that it was so easy for them. I worried that something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t good enough. After waiting way too long, I finally took up a family member on their offer to watch our son for 10 hours a week so I could work on the dissertation. (Or you could hire someone to baby-sit or take baby to a care center for this time, but you need to take it!)


2. Meticulously plan how you will spend those precious few child-free hours.


I essentially had 10 hours per week to devote to work/school. This meant that I had to carefully prioritize and plan every minute so no time was wasted. For me, this involved creating a detailed weekly agenda that I set out for the entire year’s dissertation process. This included weekly writing goals, deadlines to send chapters to my committee, a timeframe to receive comments, and deadlines for revision. I then had my adviser look over it and agree to work with me to stay on this schedule. It can be a challenge to get a 4-5 person committee to get comments back on time, but setting out with this schedule from the beginning made it much easier.


3. Be honest with your committee.


In order to keep my committee on schedule, I had to be very honest with them about my goals post-graduation and how important the deadlines were to me. In fact, I told them that I HAD to graduate at the end of the year and that continuing beyond that time was not possible given my family situation. At times I had to be a bit pushy with this. I asked them up-front to let me know if they did not feel that they could agree to the timeframe to graduation, which was great insurance later on when inevitable hiccups or unexpected requests for revision occurred. (This also gave me an excuse to find a new committee member if someone was too busy to provide feedback on schedule.) I was also honest about what my goals were post-graduation, which meant that I was able to turn down opportunities suggested by my committee that would have de-railed the plan and taken extra time.


4. Learn how to say “no.”


This skill will become essential as your kiddo starts pushing boundaries, but many academics I know (with or without kids) find it hard to turn down opportunities. I was a very productive, successful graduate student prior to becoming a parent. I was a leader in my program, presented at conferences, participated in research, and was highly efficient with my time. I expected to be able to keep up with my non-parent peers after having a child. “He can just fit into my life!” I told myself. I found, however, that it just wasn’t possible for me to keep up with my former obligations AND be a full-time parent. I struggled to set boundaries and found myself completely burned out. If you want to preserve your sanity and health, you will have to say no sometimes to opportunities, social events, professional development, etc. This is okay, which leads to the final point…


5. Be kind to yourself.


This was perhaps the hardest lesson, and one I am still working on. Our culture does not promote the idea of self-love and self-care. I think our generation in particular was raised on the idea that we have to be the best at everything, and those of us who go to graduate school are typically accustomed to setting extremely high standards for ourselves. I was (mostly) able to meet my own expectations prior to having our son. After having him, though, I often felt isolated, depressed, exhausted, and completely lacking in motivation to do anything but take a shower and sleep (which seldom happened!). I can’t say this enough – be kind to yourself. Find a support group, if you can. Lower your expectations of yourself. Realize that you aren’t in complete control of your time anymore, and that there will be times when you cannot satisfy everyone’s expectations of you (including your own). Don’t feel guilty that you are not doing enough – you are enough.

In the end, I think having a child during graduate school can be good timing. The schedule is typically more flexible than after school, and from the female perspective, it is usually easier to have children earlier than later (my pregnancy at 27 was much easier than the one I’m in now at 32!). Parenting requires that we have vast amounts of patience with our children, but the surprise is how much patience we need to have with ourselves. Taking care of yourself is good for everyone. You can be a better parent and scholar if you are not burned out, so don’t neglect yourself in the attempt to be the best at absolutely everything. Learn to let go of perfection, and you will be able to finish and parent with far less stress and an equally positive outcome!


How about you? What advice would you give to a fellow graduate student who is considering becoming a parent (or already is one) during school?


Want to Learn How to Thrive in Your Graduate Program? Head over to The Grad Academy Online for an online course that teaches you how to read, write, and succeed in graduate school. Find our course at JOIN.THEGRADACADEMY.COM.

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