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) .

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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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21 Responses to Grad School and Parenting: If I knew then what I know now…

  1. Jenn Stewart says:

    Thank you for this. I’m gonna give a hearty “hell yeah” to number 5…God bless Ponyo.

    And I’ll remind myself that you’re totally right about number 6.

    • Jennifer Bengtson says:

      I had to Google Ponyo…and I must say I am intrigued. These days my son is all about Star Wars, 24-7. It makes me a little bit crazy. But I am sure I will miss these days when he is a teenager.

  2. Thanks for this. I have been struggling with the school / family balance and my daughter isn’t even here yet!

    I’m going to include rule 4 and 6 in my own list immediately.

    • Jennifer Bengtson says:

      I am super excited that you have a little babe on the way! My son is 9 now, and I am no longer allowed to refer to him as a baby.

      I spent most of my motherhood years as a single mom, but I think a grad school dad perspective is super interesting. I hope you continue to follow our posts! And keep us posted about the little one.

      • Paula says:

        Wow… You really have inspired me and the fact that you said you were a single mother even more inspiring that I can do this. I haven’t yet entered law school but I am currently studying for the LSATs and plan to enter next fall. It’s so overwhelming already and my daughter is 5 but your comment about student parenting and doing the best you can just reminded me of why I am putting myself through all the stress. In the end I am working towards a better life for my child. But I have to say Kindergarten isn’t what it use to be, believe me. Between trying to teach her what she is learning (counting to 100, counting in 2’s and 10’s, etc.., working a full time job and trying to find time to study, not even time for myself is a struggle on a daily basis. I don’t even know what I would do without my mother she has been such a tremendous help and resource for me that I don’t think I can go anywhere for school other than where she is living. But thank you, so many times I get down on myself about not being able to spend all this time with her and even thinking about the less and less time it will be when I get into school that I forget to pat myself on the back and tell myself I am doing the best I can with what I have.

  3. Annie says:

    My husband and I have three young children and are just about to finish our doctorates at Columbia. We had careers before grad school and, honestly, we found parenting easier with grad school than work. Our intermittent schedules mean we can always be available for the kids and their events and activities. All too often, we couldn’t be the class parent, the soccer coach, or the overnight trip chaperon when we were balancing a boss and family. Our best trick is to set a really early bedtime (7:30 for us), focus as much as you can on the kids while they are awake, and then do labwork, reading, grading, etc after the kids go to bed. 8 pm to midnight is our power time for productivity.

    • Jennifer Bengtson says:

      Thanks for the informative comment! I had my son when I was an undergrad, and started grad school right away. So I have yet to be a career parent. I hope to be someday soon, though, because that would mean that I actually found a job when I finished.

      I like the 7:30 bedtime. My son goes to bed at 9:30. My son is nocturnal…just like me.

  4. Andrea says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    While I was reading this post, my 3 yo twins were coloring with markers that turned out not to be washable. I just dropped them off at preschool with my son’s face covered in black marker. Awesome.
    I think what I like so much about this post is the way you encourage compassion towards yourself as a parent. Of course using the TV is okay when the alternative is that everyone is grumpy or overly stressed. I don’t think that’s a crazy solution or even a bad one. People get too worked up about these things when we are all doing are best. I just read Tina Fey’s Bossypants and I love the way she put it, “When people say, “You really, really must” do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver a baby during labor.” When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.”
    Thanks for the post!

    • Jennifer Bengtson says:

      I love Tina Fey. And I love the story about the black marker. I think we all need to be easier on ourselves as parents. And we definitely gotta expect the unexpected when it comes to the kids.

  5. Great post (and pic)! I don’t have any kids (unless you count my dog–I know, not the same), but I’ve actually heard that having a child as a grad student is much easier than having a child as a new faculty trying to get tenure. Can’t say for myself how much this is true, but I’ll bet a lot of these tips would be useful in either situation.

    • Jennifer Bengtson says:

      I didn’t put that picture up. I don’t know how it got there. But it is cute, and so is your dog baby! You know how I feel about my dogs. I consider my four dogs to be members of the family. They are almost as important as my kid. ALMOST.

  6. Jade says:

    I am with Annie, as someone who worked prior to my return to grad school, I find I have so much more time to spend with my two little ones than I did when I was working at times 60+ hours a week in the office and at home. I am also lucky in that I have a very supportive husband with a flexible work schedule so we always have someone home to look after the boys. I know if I didn’t have him this wouldn’t seem as easy as it does with children, but then, work would have been impossible as it was as well.

    I’m also finding that going through grad school with children makes the stress of grad school so much more manageable. When I was in school for my M.A. I spent so much time worry about school stuff I drove myself crazy at times. The kids mean that I have only so much time to spend with school stuff before I have a very welcome distraction. And they also remind there is a big world outside of this little, at times crazy, one we exist in as grad students.

    • Jennifer Bengtson says:

      I think you are sooooo right. A kid really helps to keep things in perspective. I actually think that the only reason I have gotten this far in my education is BECAUSE of my son. But that’s a whole different blog post…

      Having a parenting partner is great. I was a single mom for a long time, and I am proud of the way my son has turned out. But I now have a great partner, and he has made a huge difference in my life. It really DOES take a village. I believe it with all my heart.

  7. Jensie says:

    I love #10. Being a parent is about ad-libbing ALL THE TIME. What works one day isn’t going to work the next but it may work again in 3 months. The point is, if your kids know you love them and you are doing your best, everyone is going to survive.

  8. Marie says:

    Thank you for this post. As a partnered parent of a 3 and 5 y/o, life can get crazy. I am the only one in grad school (Ph.D. in education), so my partner does a lot of the parenting on the nights I am in class or teaching. The kids have adapted to our different parenting styles. It is about balance, and the kids adjust very well. Just when I was feeling the guilt pangs of being an “inadequate mother”, my son tells me that it is cool that mommy is in school, just like him! Hard not to tear up. Thankfully, it will end…grad school will end. I echo the fact that having supportive faculty can make or break your time in grad school. I am also blessed with great faculty mentors.

  9. When I was pregnant and ABD, I read “Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory.” It wasn’t half as good as your short post. :) I wrote my entire dissertation in the year after my daughter was born, with part-time babysitting (and much after-hours care from my husband). As you say, it’s amazing how much work you can pack into just a few short hours!

    I had a conversation with my advisor the other day, and he was amazed at how much things have changed since he was in school and applying for faculty jobs. Back then, he said, all women (and most men) would go to great pains to hide their kids if they had any. While I don’t make a big show of my family now that I’m on the job market, I don’t hide them either. It’s great how quickly student-parents have been accepted in academia (at least in anthropology, my field), although I know there’s still a long way to go.

  10. [...] newbies. The authors cover a wide variety of other concerns of grad students such as teaching and parenting. They also post reviews (like this one on [...]

  11. Key says:

    I just started my first semester as a first year MPH student with two kids-5 and 2 yrs, and I was surfing the net trying to find articles to substantiate the sense of isolation I’ve been feeling as a older, parenting student and I found this article and loved it! I’m working on #3 and #9 is so important.

    Thanks.

  12. Jennifer says:

    This was a great article and I just finished my second year of of my PhD program in Analytical Chemistry and heading into the ABD phase (ahhh the sigh of relief), with two little girls now 3 and 6. Your list resounds with my life and I am glad to know there are other single moms out there going through the same highs and lows. This path can be genuinely exhausting but has been one of the the most rewarding experience of my life.

  13. Annie says:

    I have been considering taking a year off once I get my BA to have a baby (I was planning on getting started the semester before graduating). I’ve been going back and forth about it for some time now and I feel like it’s the right time to do it, considering that I am getting older, but what puts me off is thinking about how Grad school will be with a toddler. It’s great to read such positive things from someone who did it. Hard work, but you did it.

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