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By: Savannah Wright
Starting graduate school is daunting. Starting a family is daunting. Putting them both together at the same time seems insane – but it’s not! Or at least it doesn’t have to be. They are both time consuming, thrilling, emotional rollercoasters, but you do not have to choose one or the other if both land in your lap at the same time. By no means is the situation easy, but also by no means is it impossible. Research shows the average age women have their first child is 26.3 years old (Mathews & Hamilton, 2016). Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reveal that 31% of graduate students are between the ages of 25 and 29. Given the clear overlap in the demographics, starting a family in graduate school is not unheard of. With support systems, research, planning, flexibility, and time management, you can have your cake and eat it too (in this case…have a baby and graduate from graduate school).
Given the clear overlap in the demographics, starting a family in graduate school is not unheard of.
My back-story: I got married two weeks before I started a five-year PhD program. I knew there was no way we could or even wanted to wait five years before starting our family. I was also determined to finish my program on time. I was pregnant with my first son during my second year in the program. During this time, I was enrolled in a full course load (four classes a semester) and worked part-time (twenty hours a week). My son was born two weeks after the school year ended. I was pregnant with our second son during my internship year, while defending my dissertation, and graduation. Not to mention the then two-year-old was also along for the ride. JHe was born three months after graduation. Again – not easy but not impossible. I’m not claiming to be an expert on graduate school OR parenthood, but I will share what made the situation more manageable in my experience.
To give you an idea of what a school’s leave policy may look like this is the one for my particular university: “Graduate students in degree or certificate programs are typically granted a Leave of Absence (LOA) for only one year throughout the course of their degree program. When circumstances warrant, this may be extended beyond one year with approval from the Dean of the Graduate College. LOAs are granted on a case-by-case basis for compelling reasons including birth or adoption of a child, personal or family reasons, medical reasons, military duty, or financial hardship. Students will maintain their status without reapplying to the department and the Graduate College at the expiration of the LOA.” Fortunately, my son was born in the summer so I did not have to talk time off, but I knew that it was an option if I needed it.
In addition to researching leave policies, start researching childcare options! You’ll want to start budgeting and preparing. To give you an idea, the average weekly cost for full time daycare for an infant is $211 per week (Bugbee, 2018). However, full time daycare is not always the only option. Graduate school has the ability to have a somewhat flexible schedule. Due to some online and evening class options and flexible work hours, I was able to condense my working time to three days a week. That gave me two weekdays to be with my son and not pay for full time childcare. Some daycares do not offer part time care, so make sure to keep that in mind while looking. Some universities have childcare options as well. I personally do not have first hand experience with university childcare, as this was not the route I took. There may be pros and cons to this option depending on your research of your particular university’s program. Personally, I chose a part-time daycare that was centrally located and would work for both my husband and me to be able to pick him up and drop him off conveniently. And don’t forget – grandparents and other family members can make wonderful childcare takers too!
Support Systems and Flexibility
Speaking of grandparents, and family and friends in general, don’t forget to keep a good support system. I am lucky to have a very supportive husband who understood that sometimes I needed to hideaway at Starbucks on Saturday mornings to get things done or would take bedtime duties while I met for a study group on a weeknight. We were able to figure out how to tweak our schedules that made school continue to be possible for me. Both sets of grandparents were extremely helpful in sometimes taking my son for time here and there as well. I realize that not everyone has extended family around, but family and friends can still be long distance support systems! Having people to talk to, vent to, and even complain to will help immensely.
Remember that your professors, colleagues, and fellow graduate students are part of your support system as well. Take the time to explain what flexibility you might need with pertinent faculty. Perhaps you’ll have to call in for a meeting while your baby naps instead of coming in (or the baby needs to come with you!). Have candid conversations about what you will realistically be able to be involved in. Maybe you are now helping on two research studies instead of three. Maybe you take three classes instead of four. Maybe you take a research assistantship that allows flexible hours and working from home. It is possible to find opportunities and experiences that will still work for you but not if you do not embrace your program as part of your support system.
That being said, you may run into particular faculty who are less approachable than others about this situation. Try to find a supportive faculty ally. They may be in your program, but perhaps not one of your specific professors or your advisor. If you know of someone who has recently started a family in graduate school (or as a professor!) reach out to them. Learn their tips and tricks as well.
If you know of someone who has recently started a family in graduate school (or as a professor!) reach out to them.
Time management is key in graduate school no matter the circumstance. However, adding a baby to the mix is going to make time management absolutely critical. Gone are the days when you can wait until the last minute to finish an assignment. You know what happens when you leave an assignment to finish until the night before it’s due? Your baby gets sick and stays up all night. It’s a special type of karma. So getting things done in the snippets of time that present themselves (nap time, early bed days, when they randomly sleep in, when you can sneak to Starbucks or the library, when grandma needs to have baby time, etc.) is crucial. Even if it’s not due for a week but you have time to get it done – do it. The stress of a baby who won’t go to sleep when you need to stay up to get something done is awful (they must have some kind of sixth sense about this).
If you’re not a planner – become one! Schedule out your days and weeks on when you can find chunks of time to accomplish things. Get a babysitter for a Saturday morning on particularly demanding weeks, schedule a late night group study session (other people to hold you accountable), or have your partner take a morning during the week so you can get up and out the door early. Just remember the flexibility – the week might not go as planned, but if you are getting what you need to get accomplished done ahead of schedule, you will be a better parent and student! Personally, I felt having my son made me more organized and on top of my work. I had no other choice. If I left things to the last minute, everything would fall apart. It also gave me a much-needed balance in life. Graduate school could no longer consume my life because I also had another major priority.
Like I mentioned before, starting a family in graduate school is HARD but NOT impossible. It takes a lot of determination and flexibility. Know that things will not go as planned. This could mean anything from how you planned your day to when you thought you would graduate. Know that you will not be able to give either (grad school and the baby) 100% of your dedicated time. But in the end it will all have been 100% worth it!
Bugbee, K., (2018). How much does child care cost? Retrieved from https://www.care.com/c/stories/2423/how-much-does-child-care-cost/
Mathews, T. and Hamilton, B., (2016) Mean age of mothers is on the rise: United States 2000-2014. National Center for Health Statistics.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 20 U. S. C. A§ 1681 ET. SEQ.