Kids and Doctoral Programs: The Challenges and Rewards

I was recently asked to discuss my experience with having children during the doctoral program in an effort to help other students contemplating the idea themselves.  This is because my wife and I celebrated the arrival of our son less than 7 months ago and have been adjusting ever since.  Don’t get me wrong, our son has been a blessing and I would not change anything for the world, but with his arrival our lives have changed in ways we never expected.

Prior to our son’s birth, we were told how time consuming having a child would be no matter what your path in life is, PhD student or not.  You never truly understand this statement until you begin living it!  Our son was born a few months before completing my second year in the program which also coincides with comprehensive exams.  So, I thought I would share some insights from our experience and open up the topic to others in the community as well.  We have also enlisted some additional comments from some students / recent faculty who have experienced this topic during their program as well.  Aaron Curtis recently began teaching at BYU Hawaii but juggled his doctoral program with 5 children.  Merete Hvalshagen is currently a doctoral candidate working through her dissertation while raising 2 kids.  Ben Collier is also a current doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University with a 7 month old daughter.  I have included their comments to the questions below as well to provide additional insight.

Should I have kids in grad school?

While this is truly a question each person has to ask themselves, I will provide my two cents.  For me, it was all about timing or the lack thereof 🙂  Looking back, it was really challenging trying to complete coursework and take comprehensive exams with a newborn.  While I am not suggesting putting off having a baby, think about when you plan to have kids and be aware of the amount of time it takes during those first few months of life.

Aaron:

For us, it was more timing than if.  We knew we wanted more  and we didn’t want our kids spaced too far apart. It was more of an issue of my wife and I both feeling it was time to have another one.

Merete:

When you have started the PhD program, there are three options: Have children now, wait till you are under the tenure clock, or never have children. If your spouse is working while you are studying, but e.g. plan to take some time off when you are taking up a job, the second alternative might be OK. For me however that was not an alternative. And since I wanted children, there was really only one options for me.

Only one thing can prepare you for the experience of having children, and that is having children. It was very hard, at least for me, to imagine how I would manage both being a mom and a full-time PhD student. The only reason I thought I would be able to do it was because other people before me had done it. If they had done it, they why should I be able to do it?

In conclusion, I don’t regret having children during my PhD – I would do the same again. Luckily, though, I don’t have to do it again. I think having kids while doing a PhD is something one only would like to do once in lifetime  🙂

Ben:

You may be a graduate student if you plan your children around comprehensive exams.  This was the case with my wife and I, we waited until just after (2 months after to be specific) comprehensive exams to have our first child.  It is very difficult to know what to expect, our first 3 months were extremely difficult due to our daughter’s rather unusual sleeping patterns, and balancing research and family time during this period was challenging.  When my wife and I were recently discussing the most difficult periods in our life, without hesitation the first 3-5 months of my daughters life were the most difficult, I had trouble even coming up with a close second.  However, I love the quote from Tuesdays with Morrie about having children:

There is no experience like having children. That’s all. There is no substitute for it. If you want to have the experience of having complete responsibility for another human being, and to learn how to love and bond in the deepest way, then you should have children.

As others have said, it is very possible and doable to have children in grad school, and I would not have done it any other way.  If you can plan the timing, I would highly recommend it, but the little things have a way of working themselves out over time.

The Need for Structure

I am now starting my third year in the program with whole new approach:  structure.  Although I was not completely unstructured before having a child, life was bit more flexible so I could put off some work until later that night or over the weekend.  Now, I have become very structured so that my days are planned out and I know exactly what time I have available each day.  After all, what is the joy of having children if you can never spend time with them?  Structure is especially needed with a working spouse since you will be sharing more in the parental duties.

Aaron:

Structure is important, agreed.  I think the underlying message here is that parenting (as is the case with marriage) takes time.  To take a page from Joe Valacich, if you add a commitment to your life, something else is going to have to give. The opportunity to raise a child becomes a sacrificed opportunity somewhere else.  You won’t have the same time as others, so you can’t expect to spend the same amount of time playing Wii or Facebooking and be able to put the same amount of effort into your research / teaching.  Carve out time for the family and give it to them wholeheartedly.  Carve out time for your work and give it everything you have. Trying to do both at the same time is about as effective as twittering during a doctoral seminar.

Merete:

My husband is also working. The positive is that we don’t struggle economically. The minus is that most practical stuff with kids fall on me, e.g. sick days, bringing to and from daycare, looking after them after daycare, keeping the household going etc, etc. Structure is a must, but it usually arises through trial and error. It’s like the bucket filled to the top with large stones, but then you pour in some pebbles, and then some sand, and then some water, and although you were thinking your “schedule bucket” was full at the beginning, you magically seem to fit a few more things into your schedule anyway. There is a limit, though.

Ben

I think I’ve had to learn the structure lesson the hard way.  Similar to Jeff, B.C. (before children) I was fairly flexible with my schedule.  If you can take a walk in the park with your spouse on a beautiful day, then finish your work at night why not?  While at times the flexible schedule can be a blessing (sick days, childcare issues, etc.) that allows you to help with the family, I’ve found I really need to structure my time, and work nearly solely on campus.  I used to enjoy working from a quiet study at home, but home is not so quiet anymore, and the daily commute to the office is worth the effort for uninterrupted work time.  Additionally, in finding a work flow to be able to process all the many “things” that are part of your life with work and children, I would highly recommend Getting Things Done by David Allen to create a time management/work flow that works for you.

Let’s get down to business:  the positives and the negatives

There are definitely pros and cons when it comes to having children during this stressful and hectic stage in our lives.  Let’s start with the cons first to get them out of the way.  One of the key issues I am dealing with now is time and sleep.  My wife works full time which means I have been responsible for taking and picking up my son from daycare then watching him in the evenings while my wife has to work.  This is extremely time consuming which emphasizing my previous points about structure.  Sleep is also an important factor to consider.  Let’s be honest:  YOU WILL LOSE SLEEP!  Aaron makes a good point about sleep, retention and critical thinking in that those will be affected.  Also remember, that babies do eventually sleep (or so I have been told 🙂 ).  Now for the pros.  No matter what achievement you have accomplished in the past or in the future, holding your baby for the first time will rank at the top.  It is an experience like no other and one cannot truly understand how it feels until they experience themselves.

Aaron:

Negatives: having children means lost sleep.  Lost sleep means poorer retention and sleep during the day, which impacts performance.
Positives: First, children are more important and rewarding than the peer review process, and their impact is felt more widely than a journal publication. They also love you unconditionally, something that is very helpful in the doctoral program. Second, a growing family puts more pressure on you to be productive and finish the program. Third, it’s good to have multiple efforts in your life so that if you’re experiencing a failure (i.e., poor test performance, rejected paper) you can still be succeeding on another.  I could go on, but these will hopefully do.

Merete:

Positive: Kids make your life richer (yes, all the cliches are true…).
Negative: Having kids means you have (much) less time to do work, that’s the simple fact. For me, that meant I had to adjust my expectations of what I could possible get done within a certain time frame. I therefore chose to take some extra time during my PhD instead of trying to get it done during those 4 stipulated years. A positive thing, however, is that I got a renew motivation for my work after having kids: now, the time I spend at my desk is really precious.

Ben

Positives: The positive side is so overwhelming that the costs seem negligible in comparison (but there are costs of course).  You will love holding your child, night or day.  The cliche that having children is life changing is an understatement:  it is hard imagine that this person who was not yet in the world a year ago has now become one of the biggest parts of my world.  Children bring joy, in their smile, laughter, in their play, and they will keep you young.

Negatives: I’m forgetting my favorite the parenting quote exactly, but it goes something like this:  “(1) sleep, (2) social life, (3) career:  you can pick any two of those now that you have a family.”  I find myself balancing that all the time, but no matter what you do you just won’t sleep the same.  Do your best to not only structure work, but put structure in social functions (a game night, date night, guys/ladies night) so that you see your friends and family regularly.

Concluding Comments:

So, here is my short answer to the question of having kids in graduate school:  It can be done.  It will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life as well as the most challenging!  These are just a few of the opinions gathered from graduate students tackling the work/life balance of having kids during the program.

Do you agree or disagree?

We would like to hear what the rest of the community thinks as well.

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2010 iGov Research Institute Announcement

2010 iGov Research Institute
July 18-25, 2010
The Hague & Delft, The Netherlands
Doctoral students from all countries are invited to apply for this week-long, intensive residential program on the impact of information and communication technologies on government and governance. The 4 th annual iGov Research Institute is focused on ways to advance, study, and understand digital government research in an international context. The Institute includes both academic sessions and practical field work and is organized around the experiences of a city or region using advanced information policies and technologies for economic, cultural, and social benefits. The faculty team comprises internationally known researchers as well as senior government officials.  This year our field venue is The Hague in the Netherlands. Our local university partner and residential location is TU Delft.
The iGov Research Institute is a program of the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany/SUNY and is supported by the US National Science Foundation. For more details about the program design, please read summaries of programs from previous years.
The 2010 iGov application submission deadline is March 15, 2010. To learn more and to apply, please visit the institute website .
(apologies for cross-postings)