Grad school can be an exhilarating and enlightening intellectual adventure. It is an opportunity to explore and develop your academic personality and identity. After years of feigned interest on the part of well-meaning (but confused) friends and family, you will finally get a chance to surround yourself with individuals who share your obscure, esoteric interests. This is what you need to do to be who you want to be. It’s gonna be so awesome…right? RIGHT?! Well, as good as it all sounds, you clearly already know that, in addition to all of this, grad school can also be a complete social/economic/time management nightmare for any student….and this is ESPECIALLY true if you are also a parent. The typical grad school TA/RA stipend is barely enough for one person to survive, let alone two or more. If your kid (or kids) is still little, daycare is a huge expense. Between studying and working, you have to find time to sleep a little bit. And let’s not forget that it’s kind of nice to at least occasionally have some type of meaningful interaction with your child…
It can seem like an impossible feat to accomplish all of this. And for a many parents, it is. Simultaneous grad school and parenting is not for everyone. But, if you are determined, it CAN be done… and, what’s more, it can be done SUCCESSFULLY! I actually believe that we student-parents may even have an advantage in that we are used to dealing with a billion problems at one time while functioning on little to no sleep, which is pretty much what grad school is all about. So maybe student-parents are naturally selected to be awesome at obtaining advanced degrees. (That’s what I like to tell myself.)
Anyhow, looking back at my own experience, I think that the first couple of years of grad school (when I was taking all of my courses, doing exams, and writing/defending my proposal) were the worst. In fact, it was total and complete chaos at times. My son and I both went through a lot during this period of our lives. It wasn’t easy for either of us, but we made it through relatively unscathed. How did we do it? I’m actually not sure. Part of it has to do with the fact that the first years of grad school are the hardest, but (for me, at least) this coincided with the most energetic phase of my academic career (I am now in lazy ABD mode and would probably lazily fail out of school if I had to start over for some reason). Of course, a little organization and planning never hurt anyone. So I will share with you my Parenting Super Plan for Grad School Success. Well, actually, none of it is super. Or even very creative. It’s just common sense, which I weirdly did not develop until after I became a mother. Anyway, I am not delusional enough to think that I can come up with a magical formula that will make everything go smoothly for you, but I think this list of pointers might help at least a little bit.
So here it is, my top ten tips for surviving the first couple years of grad school (presumably your child will also survive) .
- Contact your university’s family resource center. Most universities have one. These people like to help you. In fact, it is their lives’ work to help you. Just like you have dedicated your life to studying 14th century Gaelic poetry (or some other weird thing), they have dedicated their lives to making the university community a more family friendly environment. They can help you find childcare. They can help you with financial aid. They can help you meet other student parents so you can pull your hair out together. Go find these people. Right now.
- Arrange for childcare ASAP…and work your butt off while others are caring for your kid. My son’s preschool was open from 7:30 AM until 6 PM, Monday through Friday. He was there from 7:30 AM until 6 PM, Monday through Friday. I got as much work done as humanly possible during those precious, precious hours. It made life easier once we got home in the evening. Also on the childcare front, look into the public school system and see if they have a preschool program. Many school districts do these days. I switched my son from the university preschool to the public preschool when he turned four and it saved me a ton of money. You might also look into Head Start. You have to be poor to qualify, but you are in grad school so you probably are.
- Set goals/deadlines at the beginning of each semester. Set goals for the day, week, month, semester, etc. Make a schedule. Stick to it as though your very life depended on it. I always had my papers done early, my studying caught up, etc. because I would buy those giant desk top calendars that teachers always seem to have and I plastered the walls around my desk with my gigantic schedule, which I planned out as soon as I got my syllabi for a new semester.
- Plan a menu/prepare snacks. I always did this by week. Sometimes I would make a massive quantity of something and we’d eat some iteration of it for several days. And I always have lots of healthful snacks within reach of both my son and myself. If said snacks come in a large package, I portion them out ahead of time. This scheme prevents me (for the most part) from eating an entire bag of salt and pepper kettle chips for dinner. It also prevents me from having to get up every five minutes to find my son a snack. That kid never stops eating.
- Use the TV as a babysitter without guilt. I’ll probably get hate email about this, but I don’t even care. There comes a time in most parents’ lives when you just really need to put in a Spongebob DVD and let your kid enter mindless TV drone mode so you can get your work done…or take a nap on the couch…or hide in the closet and eat that bag of chips we just talked about. Sorry. I have used the TV as a babysitter on several occasions. Don’t judge me.
- Exercise. Exercising sucks. Sometimes it sucks a lot…like when you are tired…which is always. But gaining a whole bunch of stress weight also sucks a lot. Exercise gives you something to do that is JUST FOR YOU! It will make you feel better about pretty much everything. Include your kid sometimes, but get some exercise alone time if you can. I run. And for the most part I’d rather sit on my butt. However, once I get going, I appreciate what it does for my body and my mind. Just do it. Yeah, I really just said that.
- Ask for help. Maybe you have a partner. Maybe you have a friendly neighbor. Maybe you have a good friend or nearby relative. Ask them for help when you need it. And help them out when they need it in return. It takes a village. It really does.
- Involve your family in the university community. There are often a ton of free/cheap things to do on a college campus or in a college town. Gardens. Museums. Libraries. And colleges love to do community outreach type stuff, which is often child-oriented. Take fullest advantage of these opportunities. Especially if your kids are still young and not completely bored with everything in the entire world except for stuff that costs a lot of money. Which is pretty much where we are at with my son right now.
- Connect with a faculty mentor. Maybe I was just really lucky in this regard, but I had awesome professors both in grad school and as an undergrad. My professors get me. They get my life. They like my kid. Professors have lives, too. They used to be graduate students. Many of them understand how hard it is to find the school/family balance. And a lot of them had similar life experiences to you. I hope you are lucky enough to develop relationships with great professors as I have been.
- Disregard this list and make up one that works for you. There are no universal rules for grad school/parent success. There is no way that everything that worked for me is going to work for you. Maybe you think this list is stupid and that you could make a better one. Do it. I am not offended. I just want us all to realize that furthering our education and achieving our personal goals sets a good example for our children. There are lots of ways to be a good parent, and student parenting is one of them. Sometimes there might be guilt associated with stress and lack of time/money. But that is part of being a parent in general, not just being a grad school parent. Do the best you can. Our children matter most. We all know this. But if an advanced degree is what you want, come up with a plan and make it happen. And feel great about it.
Many of the points I made above overlap with one another, and there are many more issues we can address, and we will get into all of this in future posts/discussions. I hope that this blog will be a good avenue for grad school parents to connect with one another and share our frustrations and successes. It will be cathartic, or therapeutic, or maybe just funny. Who knows? Let’s just see where this goes. Until next time, hang in there. Snuggle your babies, do your homework, and find a little time for yourself. You deserve it.
[Image by Flickr user Pink Sherbert Photography and used under Creative Commons License]
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