Diapers, Dissertation, and Driver’s Ed: Eight Suggestions for Navigating Life as a Grad Student Parent

By: Renata Opoczynski, Paul Artale, and Joy Milano

Many of us begin our doctoral journey ambitious and eager to sprint towards finishing our degree while hopefully having some free time to binge watch Netflix. For those of us who are crazy enough to start the program with children or have children while in the program, the PhD can feel much more like a marathon. Or perhaps even an obstacle course marathon! As most doctoral students are goal driven, it can be very difficult to slow your pace and not have control over what may pop up in front of you. Being a grad student parent involves a lot of balance (nursing a newborn while reading for class), negotiating (finding someone to drive your kids to activities) and working on the fly (your son wakes up sick and can’t go to daycare the same day you are defending your dissertation proposal-been there!). We are all PhD students who either started the program with children or had children while pursuing our doctorate. We also all will be graduating within the next year, proving it is possible! While everyone’s experience will look different, here are eight tips/suggestions that may help other grad student parents or others thinking of having children during their PhD.

1) Their journey is not your journey.

While it is a good idea for all PhD students to not compare themselves and their timeline to others in their program, for doctoral student parents this is especially vital. As competitive people we can often get fired up when we see colleagues defend their proposals, get IRB approval, and become Drs. This can lead to feelings of anger and failure. We once heard a colleague say “There’s no excuse to not be done in 4 years.”   Of course that colleague was single and had no family obligations. Feelings of isolation can grow as colleagues form writing groups or plan social events that conflict with work schedules or other family commitments.

It wasn’t until we truly embraced the fact that every doctoral journey is different and we can’t compare ourselves to others that we felt at peace with our own doctoral journey. Moreover, every doctoral journey is highly customizable within certain limits. It is ok for some to choose to be more family oriented or career focused or have a slower pace than others. Balancing being a parent, student, employee, researcher, etc. is hard and inevitably something will have to give. Keep your focus on your own goals and timelines and you will find that the doctoral experience will become manageable and much more enjoyable.And remind yourself of this, often.

2) Balance-is it ever possible?

As a grad student parent you will inevitably be filled with guilt at times. “I’m not spending enough time with my kids.” “I didn’t do as good a job on that paper as I could have.” Bottom line, you will always feel like there is something else you should be doing or that you could have done a better job with something. Being a grad student parent is a balancing act and while you may have some super productive days writing 20 pages, other days you will spend the whole day parenting. While it is frustrating trying to balance everything, we have found what works is to think of it similar to toddler nutrition. Most pediatricians tell you not to worry too much about your child only eating carbs one day, as long as over a week span they get a good variety of foods. Similarly, we have learned not to get too upset if we spend one day completely as a parent or one day locked in the office writing from 9am to 5pm. What matters is whether you are meeting all your obligations over a week or month span. Did we spend enough time with our kids? Did we spend enough time on our dissertation/classes? Did we spend enough time on our work? As long as everything balances out over a week/month, we consider it a win!

3) Some days/weeks it’s ok to be a parent and nothing else.

Being a parent means that anything can happen. Children demand your attention and at some point you have to make peace with the fact that you can’t always split that attention. Some days you need to be a mom or a dad and forget the rest. It’s ok. Whether it is taking time to play with your child or caring for them when they are sick, being Superparent requires you focus on family. This can also be true for family visits and special occasions. If you try to cram in readings or writing when family is in town you can miss out on some great moments. Give yourself the space and permission to be just a parent some days.

4) Small progress is still progress

Although it is ok to put family first and work at a slower pace, it is still important to keep moving forward. As grad student parents it can be difficult to set big lofty goals, which given the unexpected nature and balancing that comes with parenting, can be difficult to achieve. We have found it works best to set very small manageable goals. For instance, perhaps you can commit to write 100 words a day. As you hit this benchmark day after day (and chances are you will write more than 100 words most days), you will feel the momentum build and be able to get even more done. Remember even a few hundred words a day is better than nothing and will eventually get you to your goal.

5) Get yourself a village!

We would have never survived being grad student parents without a strong village around us – from other PhD students who had children, to friends we knew we could call on when we needed a last minute babysitter (see proposal defense experience above). These support people helped us through everything from how to tell your supervisor you are pregnant, to toilet training advice, to a place to vent about how hard it can be to see your child move out. Having other people who have gone through the same thing is vital to your sanity, but equally important are those friends who may not have kids or may not be grad students but who love you and are willing to be there for anything you need.

Be sure to also join the “ASHE Grads-Parents” group on Facebook. This is a safe place to network with your peers or commiserate on the struggles of being a grad student parent. Plus look for our Fall webinar on navigating a tenure track faculty position while parenting.

6) Your program/institution is also your village

It is important to know the culture of your department and how supportive of grad student parents it may be. During campus visits it is clear there are certain institutions where “that is not done here” and others, like where we ended up, that are extremely supportive – even happily giving out contact information for other students who had children during the program. It is important to know if your program will accept all of you (including your parent side) or if there will be a strict separation between school and your personal life.

We also encourage you to reach out to your institution’s family resource center. This office should have a wealth of information regarding institutional policies, information on local services, and often plans family activities. They can also help you with financial aid, child care, or negotiating legal issues related to employment.

7) Identity Development

Part of your identity as a graduate student is likely to be fighting off imposter syndrome; however, as you work to integrate graduate student into your identity, keep in mind that it isn’t just reshaping your own identity. It also shapes your children’s identities. Having a parent in graduate school and participating in academia shapes children and their outlook on education. It adds something to their identities and opens their eyes to the atmosphere and practice of intellectual pursuits.

8) Parent Demographics

When people think of grad student parents they may picture a partnered couple with young children, but this is not the only type of grad student parents and two parent demographics are worth mentioning:

Single parents

When you don’t have a partner, trying to cover at home while you’re away requires extra support. Utilize your network (neighbors, friends, family members); don’t be afraid to ask for help because you can’t do it alone. Make sure you and your children trust the people you rely on, and do not feel bad for asking. Allow them to help you and play a small part in supporting your goals and aspirations. They will be thankful for the opportunity to show their support.

Teenagers and up

Though some may think teenagers are easier to parent as a graduate student that is not necessarily the case. Yes, they are more self-reliant and you don’t have to watch over them as closely. But, their needs are different. Children start to take control over their lives as they move into their teenage years. As a parent, your job changes to more of a mentor and facilitator as you slowly release control of their decisions to your children. But they need their parents just as much. Teens want parents to be their rocks, their foundations. They make their decisions but they need a parent to be a sounding board and their support system. Your teenagers want to roam, but need to know their parents are close by, ready to consult, support, and comfort. Text messaging and cell phones are a god-send, parenting by text on breaks in classes isn’t a panacea but it at least provides some support and contact with your kids when you’re in class.

Following these suggestions will help you stay sane, reconcile your student and parent selves and hopefully ensure successful completion of your program. Being a grad student parent may feel like a marathon and be filled with obstacles along the way, but when you cross the finish line and get to hear your kids call you Doctor with pride and happiness on their faces, it will all be worth it!

Renata Opoczynski is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University where she serves as a graduate assistant for the College of Education’s Dean’s Office.  

Paul Artale is a PhD Student in the Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education Program at Michigan State University, is a keynote speaker, and serves as Director of Leadership Programs at the University of Michigan Flint

Joy Milano is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University and works full-time as part of the team at the Michigan Department of Education that administers the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant at the state level.

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