There is a sort of mythos that surrounds doctoral studies – this harrowing vision of life at odd hours, in strange surroundings, with little contact with the outside world. It is a position of solitude and unwavering focus at a level that excludes all human relationships and other concerns. The stories are filled with sacrifice, stress, exhaustion, and the beginning of the struggle for a work-life balance that is, at best, elusive.
Graduate school is a place for ultimate concentration with no room for distractions. So where does that leave the potential grad student with a spouse or significant other at home? What about the moms and dads and parents who are ready and willing to jump headfirst into doctoral study? Let’s just say, the road is not always brimming with encouragement and support.
With this said, my intent is not to dissuade parents or partners from grad school. It is quite the opposite really. As a student I have been (1) a single mother, (2) a newlywed, and (3) very pregnant. I survived, my marriage survived, my family survived, and I successfully completed my PhD and entered the Tenure Track, but it is a journey that requires communication, intent, and compromise on a level that is impossible to imagine. I share my story to let others know that you can have it all, that you can be family and faculty, domestic and academic. I know because that is who I am. Wife, Mother, Scientist, Faculty and so much more.
I distinctly remember hearing three things on my first day as an official doc student:
Look around the room, only a quarter of you will be here at the end of your coursework, and fewer than that will successfully defend
The road to hell is paved in good intentions, and ABD doc students
If any of you are married, you need to prepare now, because it will be surprising if any of you are still married when you are done
That last one stuck to me for the entire day and while the others were equally frustrating, the idea that I was walking in to a situation where the divorce rate was exponential (as in all doctoral programs) I was overwhelmed, terrified, and determined all at once. I set my resolve in those first days and I was determined, as always, that I would not let the statistics, or other people, define me (back story link here).
In the interest of transparency, my husband told me I have to disclose that chaos is my friend and that I tend to thrive and function best when things around me are a whirlwind of insanity. (He means that as a compliment but I know that at times it has made things very hard for him, as he is wonderfully organized and orderly).
So my Advice to Grad School Families (whether a pair or a crew):
1. Surround yourself with others in similar situations to yours. In grad school you are surrounded by other people, many single, who are intellectual, share your interests, and are going through the same struggle. This can create many “grass is greener” situations if you allow it to do so. I found that forming a support group with other grad school parents/couples, allowed me to participate in the social structure but with others who shared my commitment to my family. When you have a “Grass is greener” moment it helps to remind yourself that sometimes what looks like greener grass is actually spray-painted asphalt.
2. Make your family your number one, the people are what matters, the work is second. There are a lot of things going on in grad school – writing, conferences, social events, research. As much as you can, include your family. I can’t tell you how many times I had to say no to playing games with my boys, or watching a show, or whatever it may have been, because I had to work on something for school. If you can do that for school, make sure you are also doing that for your family. I am so thankful for that today because I learned to say no to school, to put down a project and go play with my kids, to have a date night with my husband instead of going to the lab to work. You have to strike a balance and in doing so, you can keep both. I can honestly say that I have no regrets for any of the things I missed or did not end up doing because I was spending quality time with my family. (My middle son actually presented his first poster last year at a conference I was attending…..he was in Grade 8).
3. Openly talk with and include your spouse/partner/family and always keep that line of communication open. Nothing is funnier than hearing a 2-year-old using words like “dissertation” and “homoscedasticity”…. Okay, the last one I tried like hell to teach him, but it never quite came out right. I talked to my children about what I was doing, why I was doing it, and why it was important to me. I shared my passion with them and included them and my husband in everything. Whenever possible, I brought my family to the field, they met my advisors, they were a part of my research and writing spaces. This was our saving grace during my dissertation, when everything becomes so hyper-focused and highly stressful. This is the time when, unlike the normalness of your coursework, you will become a “crabby intellectual hermit” (Greg’s words here) and be not very fun to live with for however long it takes you to finish.
4. Do not let others tell you what your happiness/work/job/success should look like (aka, there are different strokes for different folks). You will have choices to make when you finish school: where to go, if you can go, what level you seek (Research, teaching, industry). Don’t let others tell you what is or is not right for you, or that what you are doing is not good enough. Do what works for you and yours and what makes you happy. If you want to be at a leading research university, do it. If you want to focus more on teaching, do it. All those people giving you advice about what you should be doing are not the ones you are going home to and living with while you are on this journey.
5.Be thankful, appreciative, and reflective (to others and to yourself). As a scientist, we know that there is power in knowledge. This applies to home as much as to the universe. We tend to get engulfed in ourselves and our research during grad school. For that reason, it is more important than ever to be sure that the people around you know that they are loved, appreciated, that you notice what they are doing for you, sacrificing, and enduring so that you can follow your passion. It is so easy to neglect your relationships and completely miss these things if you don’t. These small reminders will be the threads that hold things together in the long run.
I entered my doc program a year after getting married and blending a household with my husband. I became pregnant the same week I completed my doctoral comps. I wrote my proposal while extremely pregnant with my third child, and finished my dissertation while my husband was away on a three-month assignment in Washington, D.C. while I wrote and held down the household.
There were times when I felt like I was fighting the world, when I let other people tell me how important it was to be everywhere and do everything, and it took time for me to figure things out and make them work for me. In hindsight, it was the most empowering thing I could learn. I have not been without opportunities, I write grants/chapters/articles, I collaborate with amazing people, I have even had the opportunity to be part of Science Friday. When I realized that investing in my family was what gave me the strength, support, confidence, and joy to really put myself into what I was doing, my work improved as a result.
I tell you all of that to make this point – if you want it, do it. Do things on your own terms, be satisfied with your choices, do what makes you happy and don’t be too hard on yourself. There were times I rocked all of this advice like a pro and times I failed so hard that things came crashing down on top of me. The point is to learn and grow, learn from your mistakes and your successes and keep moving forward.
Amanda Glaze holds a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction-Science Education and a second major in Biological Sciences from The University of Alabama. She is presently an Assistant Professor of Science Education at Georgia Southern University, USA. Her research centers on the intersections of science and society, specifically the acceptance and rejection of evolution in the Southeastern United States and the broader impact of the conflict between religion and evolution on science literacy and the general public. She has been featured on social media outlets such as @IAmSciComm and RealScientists, as well as an ErrantScience.com guest for Ada Lovelace Day. Her research has been published in Science Education, Science & Children, the International Journal of Science and Math Education, and she is currently co-editor of a volume on evolution research and teaching in and around the Southeastern United States. She presently resides in Georgia, USA, with her husband, Greg, the younger two of their three children, Jaymon and Maddox (the eldest, Stephanie, is a grad student at the University of Kansas), two cats, a hedgehog, one carnivorous frog, and whatever other manner of flora and fauna her boys happen to drag in on any given day.
Lawrence · 11 October 2016 at 14:15
Thank you for such a helpful and supportive post. I would hope too that not only students but also faculty might take your experiences to heart, and work towards implementing a more supportive grad-school culture in the spaces they’re able to influence. Your recollection from your first day – “Look around the room, only a quarter of you will be here at the end of your coursework, and fewer than that will successfully defend” – is evocative of the academic work culture that appears to be valourised in many American schools…where falling off the wagon or straying from the path of academic success is seen first and foremost as a personal failure or “lack of fit” with the academic lifestyle.
Interestingly, we had a similar “pep talk” on our first day of grad school (in the UK), although framed in quite a different way. It went something like this: “Some of you here may find that the best thing you get out of this course is the realisation that you never wish to step foot in a university again. And that’s perfectly fine.”
Amanda Glaze · 11 October 2016 at 14:30
Lawrence, thank you for sharing that, I think it is common experience and I personally took it as a challenge to succeed. It is not a path for the faint of heart or will, certainly. I try to keep this all in mind in dealing with my own students and mentoring grad students. There is a balance and each of them is an individual. We make our own paths and that is okay.
Lisa · 11 October 2016 at 14:52
Thank you so much for sharing your experience and suggestions. I am in a grad program that is comparatively parenting-friendly, and oddly enough, my advisor has a preschool-aged child who is one year older than mine. (Plus I only have one child so my life is a walk in the beach at sunset compared to yours!).
Perhaps given these significant differences in context, I’ve drawn a lot of support and sustenance from non-parent colleagues who “get it,” and actually drawn from them more than from fellow folks in the parenting boat. The non-parents (is there a better word, please?? I’m in English you’d think I should be able think of something…) in my life are often more flexible and easier to schedule coffees & dinners with, although it’s by no means my assumption that they’ll jump when I say jump. That’s just been my experience, since they are lovely and generous and I hope I’ll be able to help them half as much if they ever encounter significant care-giving responsibilities in the future.
Thank you again for opening this conversation.
Kania Greer · 11 October 2016 at 21:24
Amanda, Right on!! Making deals with the family also helps. I told hubby that Tuesday and Thursday nights were my writing nights and that he was on his own but that he could question why I wasn’t working if he saw me up and meandering around the house. It helps to make these sort set plans. He know that by working on Tuesday and Thursday (and Saturday DAYS) I could have a fairly clear rest of the week for us. Just don’t wait until it becomes a problem to figure out a solution. Establish guidelines up front and get whole family buy-in (kids will love telling you that you can’t watch TC because you didn’t finish your homework). Remember the work is about what you are doing but it really is a family effort. They are going through just as much as you and are probably writing a book on living with someone crazy enough to voluntarily go to graduate school. Best of luck to all out there.
Julia · 12 October 2016 at 11:12
This made me cry and gave me strength, and if you will excuse me now – I’ll go and hug my husband for a while.