Family Life in Graduate School

Drew Anderson  (@AndersonEvolve)

I have recently seen many great takes on Twitter about the need to balance personal life and student life and how schools don’t always foster that kind of mindset.  Yes, being in graduate school makes it hard to keep yourself happy and keep your married/cohabitating/romantic life happy, but one thing that isn’t discussed is the challenges that arise from having a family of your own.  Full disclaimer, I have a family and am fortunate enough to have the support structure necessary to keep on track and be there for my daughter. Most of what I point out has been fairly easy for me to address, but I cannot imagine the trials someone endures in grad school who does not have family support or is a single parent.  

While most principal investigators (PIs) are supportive of graduate students and postdocs who are already parents or expecting to become parent, the general advice I’ve come across for grad students is to not have children in graduate school or delay until you are writing.  While, given the way graduate school works, this advice makes practical sense; that doesn’t make it right. I know people who want children earlier in their lives so they can have their nest empty sooner and/or be healthier and more active to keep up with their children. My decision was based on time, my wife and I have passed the point where each year of life now puts a pregnancy at more risk and we didn’t want to keep waiting.  It is also possible that someone didn’t intend pregnancy, but made a personal choice to keep their child. Whatever the reason, asking someone to change their reproduction to fit graduate school rather than the other way around is unacceptable.

My daughter didn’t arrive until the last of my benchwork was completed, but I have continued on with analysis and writing.  The idea that writing is somehow not hampered by childcare is laughable. I think I would be able to manage benchwork better than writing, as writing takes more mental effort and takes some time to get productive (I need a least a 2 hour block to get some quality writing in).  This type of stuff though is typical of any job and any stage of your career; getting things done while parenting is the gig and people have been doing it a long time.

Where graduate school often fails compared to other jobs is time and money.  My PI was kind enough to allow me flexible hours, so I could split care with my wife and mother-in-law, and I had a team-taught lab where I front-loaded the work in anticipation of her birth and my co-teaching assistant took on the brunt of work on the back end.  As you can see I had two people to split time of care with and was able to have my job work with me as well. I don’t think many graduate students would have this luxury. With the wrong PI, such as one who demands 60+ hours of work and must come in on weekends, a new parent would be quickly overrun and extremely stressed.  Also worth noting, I was able to teach/work right up until the week she was born and was back around the lab the week after–something a female student who actually is pregnant may not be able to do.

So how do graduate programs work with students bringing in a family?  One school I looked at offered 6 months paid parental leave and pushed back your graduation date 6 months, with no penalty for the delay, but I haven’t heard of many programs offering this kind of deal.  While I don’t regret my academic decision of my current program, that deal would have been great for me. Finding a groove between childcare and work takes time and those first few months are challenging, so knowing that your graduation and pay won’t be affected as you figure it out is important.  

Childcare is also really important and something schools don’t offer help on.  Both my wife and I work, but can balance our schedules to makes sure we’re home or a family member can watch our daughter.  The alternative is childcare centers, which have long wait times and can be expensive. Here in Texas, the childcare situation isn’t great as the cheaper care centers are often unlicensed.  My university offers a childcare center (with a wait list), but even with the student discount it would cost ~40% of my take-home income. In addition, the center only offers 5 day care, meaning I can’t reduce the cost by only having them watch her for only 2 or 3 days.

By now you’ve probably realized that issues with childcare in graduate school are the same as childcare for lower-income families because that is what most graduate students are.  By having a wonderful partner (my wife), some extra hands, and a family support structure should I need it, I have avoided many of these problems. I believe though that institutions of higher learning should not exclude people (albeit unintentionally from demanding hours and lack of childcare options) simply because they have a family.  They should work to alleviate some of the stress that having children puts on parents so students can earn their diplomas and hopefully elevate their family and contribute to science.

I know there are likely more issues that haven’t crossed my mind.  There is a whole other discussion on social impacts and expectations based on gender that I didn’t even wade into.  If you would like to share your thoughts, please hit us up on Twitter!