10 Tips for Balancing Parenthood on the Path to Your PhD

10 Tips for Balancing Parenthood on the Path to Your PhD
2 years ago

10 Tips for Balancing Parenthood on the Path to Your PhD

Graduate school can be a trying time for a variety of reasons. Navigating graduate school with a little one can be even more difficult. But it is possible to enjoy parenthood – in all its joys and challenges – while working towards your PhD.

When I first found out I was pregnant but still had a few years left in my PhD program, I was overwhelmed to say the least. I felt nervous that I wouldn’t be able to complete either task well; after all, bringing a new life into the world and finishing a thesis are both exceptionally demanding tasks. I spent countless hours reading every blog and testimonial I could find, asking advice of mentors, and obsessively trying to plan every aspect of the future. Not to mention dodging the many questions from well-meaning family and friends of “are you still going to finish your degree?” But now, having welcomed a beautiful baby girl into the world and being a few short months away from graduating, I fully believe having and/or raising a child in graduate school can be one of the BEST times to do so. From the ability to create your own schedule and work flexible (but long!) hours to having a mini motivator and cheerleader through the academic process, becoming or being a parent while working towards a PhD can be a wonderful experience. Here are my top 10 tips for not just surviving, but thriving as a trainee-parent.


1. Be honest with yourself about your own limitations

Despite what your past experiences may have led you to believe, you are not Superman or Superwoman and no, you cannot do it all. Read that again and internalize it. It is not a criticism. It is not a reflection of your abilities or shortcomings as a scientist or parent. It is merely a fact. You cannot juggle everything and you will have to learn to make peace with it. We’ve all heard the adage about accepting you will drop some of the many balls you juggle some of the time, but that the trick is knowing which balls are made of glass and which are made of rubber. This is especially important when juggling parenthood and graduate school – you cannot give 100% to both endeavors 100% of the time. And that’s okay! You don’t need to. It is far better to make slow and steady progress without running yourself ragged than trying to chug along full steam ahead and exhaust yourself by overworking. Give yourself the grace to drop a few rubber balls to better manage the glass ones. It’s also important to know that the material of a ball may change mid-throw and become more or less important day-to-day – an important abstract deadline, a meeting with your thesis committee, the baby gets sick, a pediatrician appointment. The sooner you accept that you can only do so much and the rest will have to wait, the sooner you can make the most of each day.


2. Be honest with others about your priorities

It can be difficult to be a trainee and learn how to advocate well for yourself – but it can be even more difficult to try and advocate for your family. It is easy to feel ashamed of the desire to prioritize family, especially when you see peers working 18-hour days seven days a week or posting on social media about leaving the lab at 2am. Even without children that is not a healthy work-life balance, BUT do not give in to the temptation to sacrifice your priorities and neglect your responsibilities at home. Learn how to protect your priorities and practice the skill often. Do not be ashamed to admit to your mentor, your coworkers, your committee, to anyone (!!) that time, care, and attention to your children and family are a priority that must be respected. The most common piece of advice I was given when asking mentors for their recommendations on becoming a new mom was to be directly honest in conversations with my superiors and to both start the discussion before I needed to and revisit it often; e.g. “I have to leave the lab by 4pm every day to pick up my child from daycare. I cannot come in on the weekends. I have to use the lactation room to pump every 3 hours.” During the second trimester, I started talking with my mentor about how my schedule would need to change during the later stages of pregnancy to accommodate doctor’s appointments. We have revisited the topic every few months as my daughter grows and it’s helped me feel more comfortable adjusting to her changing needs. If a person does not respect the boundary of your priorities, take action and seek appropriate help from those who do.


3. Be proactive in learning about your resources and rights

What is your university’s policy for paternity leave? How many weeks of leave are you entitled to? Do your funding source and graduate school have different policies? Do you need permission from your funding agency or department to take a leave of absence? What forms do you need, who needs to sign them, and when are they due? Does your university offer subsidized childcare? Does your health insurance plan cover dependents? Who pays the premium and when is it due? Can you receive prenatal / postnatal / pediatric care at the University health center or do you need to go off campus? Will there be fees associated with these visits? Are there lactation rooms on campus? How will you access them? Are mental health professionals available should you need one? Can you leave the lab for medical appointments? Find answers to these questions (and any others that you have!) before you need to know them. If you’re an expectant parent, it will save you peace of mind to go on leave having all the information you need before the baby comes. If you’re starting graduate school and already have children, having all of your questions answered before you join a lab will help the transition be smooth and stress free. Do not be ashamed to ask as many questions as you need or to keep searching for answers if the first person you ask can’t help.


4. Find a supportive community and check in often

Perhaps your greatest resource and source of comfort through the long, arduous journey of graduate school will be your peers. Even setting the topic of parenthood aside, there’s nothing more precious than camaraderie and the refreshing sound of “oh me too!” said back when you share your successes and struggles with another. As a parent and graduate trainee, friends can be even more important in helping you feel confident and supported while learning potentially helpful strategies to bolster your own success. Whether it’s other graduate students with children, someone ahead of or behind you in the journey, your family, your friends, neighbors, coworkers, or mentors, seek out a supportive community and check in with your network as often as you need to feel comfortable. Both the path to the PhD and parenthood can be grueling endeavors and you will need all the encouragement and care you can soak up during challenging periods. Be unashamedly honest and lean in to the love others can offer. You cannot pour from a cup that is drained – whether you see the glass as half full or half empty! Take care of your mental and emotional health and allow others to care for you in this regard.


5. Know when to get help and don’t be afraid to ask for it

For the majority of my pregnancy, I struggled with nearly every tip listed here, but none more than this. I tried so hard to do everything on my own – to take care of myself, prepare the nursery, plan for the baby’s arrival, complete essential experiments, and stay involved in my many extracurriculars. Needless to say, I was an exhausted, prideful mess trying to do everything well but visibly struggling. The best advice I received from a therapist during this time was to strive to be interdependent. I had never heard the term before, but he explained that as a society, we pride ourselves on being self-sufficient and fully independent. We start as children being completely dependent on our families and grow into adults, becoming more and more independent. But a sign of true emotional maturity is moving past independence to interdependence where you recognize that we all operate better when we don’t operate alone. When others contribute, you can reach your goals much faster. There is no shame in accepting help. Let people help you! It can be a great gift for others to serve you without expecting anything in return and though it may feel like it’s crushing your pride, it’s good for you, too. This has been a horribly hard skill for me to learn and is counterintuitive to the self-sufficiency I thought was a personal strength of mine – it wasn’t. But learning to let go of the desire for independence and control (or whatever it is that’s holding you back) has been a lifesaver. Embrace the help from others and be honest in what it is you need, in and out of the lab. Grocery shopping? Walking the dog? Babysitting? An extra set of hands to help with an experiment? Protocol development? It’s easier for others to help when you take the guesswork out of what you need.

On a related note, if you need help adjusting to the demands of graduate school and parenthood or are struggling with any aspect of your life, please seek out appropriate help for mental health – especially when it comes to postpartum. Postpartum depression, anxiety, and OCD are very real, very serious, and very common conditions. Symptoms can be onset immediately after the baby is born or any time within the first year postpartum. There is absolutely NO SHAME in seeking out help for these or other mental health challenges and doing so will help you be a better parent.


6. Be creative!

As you try to balance the responsibilities of being a graduate student and a parent, you will face many challenges. Be creative in solving them! Use the same skills you’d use in the lab to test a hypothesis and solve experimental challenges to develop solutions to the challenges of parenthood. For example, if the rising costs of childcare are too expensive, team up with other graduate students with children for a nanny share system. Or, if you’re a nursing mom, pump between meetings, in the care, or during experimental breaks. Even better, try explaining your thesis work to your little one (if they’re old enough, of course!) as a fun way to share your science and practice distilling your work to a broad audience. Come up with crafty solutions that are tailored to your specific problems, preferences, and schedule. To this end, work the hours that work best for you (just discuss them with your PI first). When my daughter started sleeping through the night, I would start an experiment with an extended protocol or tricky timepoint in the morning, leave the lab in the afternoon to be home for bath and bedtime routine, and sneak back into the lab for a few hours in the evenings to finish up while my partner watched the baby monitor. The luxury of being a graduate student and completing your own experiments is that you can be flexible with your schedule in the way a typical 9-5 would never allow.


7. Get organized!

Now more than ever, being organized in and out of the lab is extremely important. Most days, you will probably have 1,000 unique thoughts running through your brain by noon and you will need a way to keep track of them all. Take advantage of all of the tools available to you (many programs and apps have student discounts!) and find the system that works best for you – online calendars, physical notes, to-do lists, priority charts, automatic reminders, calendar alerts, etc. Update your lab notebook every! single! day! This is my weakness – I often scribble things down on a sticky note, thinking I’ll copy it over later. But if you’re anything like me, several days and experiments go by before I actually get around to it. You may also have a couple of days where you need to run out of the lab in a hurry and you don’t want to forget important experimental details. Stay on top of appointments and meetings so they don’t sneak up on you. Of course, give yourself grace when something inevitably slips through the cracks and you forget, but catch up quickly and do your best to set yourself up to succeed.


8. Keep up with your hobbies

There’s so much more to life than work, routines, and experimental replicates. While graduate school and parenthood are both full time jobs, you will need to find ways to take a step back from your responsibilities and enjoy your own personhood. Keep up (within reason, of course) with the hobbies and extracurriculars you had before you became a parent or started graduate school. At least once, but preferably two to three times a week, take time for yourself outside of the lab to decompress and enjoy life. Whether it’s going to the gym, trivia with friends, crafting, volunteering at a shelter, or even just binge watching your favorite show. Treat these activities as non-negotiable obligations and even set calendar appointments if you have to. Try to remember that working 100 hours a week to finish your PhD in 3 years is not worth neglecting yourself along the way. It is perfectly acceptable to take 6 years to finish your degree if it means you can be happy and healthy throughout the process.


9. Prepare for the future, BUT stay mentally present

Speaking of finishing your degree, the most important piece of advice I can offer – and something I need to be reminded of often – is to slow down, take a breath, and embrace where you are in this exact moment. Too often, we sacrifice the things that bring us joy in the name of getting more work done. We obsess over planning for the future, of graduating faster, and reaching for the next step. We convince ourselves that life will start ~really start~ when we reach the next phase. But life is happening here and now! You are capable of happiness and contentment now, as a parent and a graduate student. Embrace the chaos of this phase. You don’t want to be so stressed or busy planning for the future that you miss out on the gifts of the present moment. You will graduate. You will earn your PhD. It will take time and there’s no sense in rushing it or adding any more stress to your days by panicking about what’s to come next. Take it one day, one experiment, one toddler milestone, one playdate or birthday party at a time. Have confidence in your ability to solve each challenge as it presents. Trust your future self to handle future problems while you focus on the here and now. You are a great parent. You are an excellent scientist. You can do it!


10. Cherish your life outside of the lab

During my time in graduate school, I have seen more students than I care to count become burnt out, sick, or overwhelmed by the stress of graduate school. Earning a PhD is hard work and can be physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting, there’s no denying it. But you know what makes it better? Your little one(s) at home. Your family. Even on the worst day, when every experiment has failed, you’re behind on writing another abstract or making another poster, you’re overwhelmed and exhausted, a single smile from the beautiful human you’re raising makes it all better. The babbles and giggles at bath time, the first words, and marvels at new discoveries are all precious gifts. Cherish the little moments. Cherish your time outside of the lab. Be fully present with your loved ones and leave the experiments at the door on your way home. Turn off messaging alerts, silence work notifications, or even delete work email from your phone. [If your advisor is ok with this, I 100% recommend it. I have not reinstalled my work email on my phone since coming back from maternity leave. I make a point to log on to my email and check it once or twice in the evening if something pressing is going on, but I try not to when I’m with my daughter. It has personally helped me have better work-life boundaries.] Cherish your family and see time spent with them as necessary daily refueling on your way to the PhD. After all, you are working towards the degree for them, too, and they can be an excellent source of motivation and encouragement.


While the concept of being a graduate student and parent is daunting, rest in the reassurance that you are capable of doing both and doing both well. Working parents exist in every sector and field. Certainly, graduate school is a uniquely challenging endeavor, but take heart knowing many parent-trainees have come before you and successfully made it to the other side. Graduate school should not prevent you from choosing to start a family. When it’s all said and done, having your children present in the audience when you defend your thesis and earn your PhD will be a rewarding and fulfilling experience for your whole family that’s well worth the temporary struggle. You’ve got this!


About the author

Laura Geben is a 6th year Pharmacology PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She studies the contribution of dysregulated mTOR signaling in neural stem cells to the growth of pediatric brain tumors. She welcomed her first daughter, Adriana Maria, with her husband, Martin, in March 2022. Outside of the lab, she can be found posting science content on Instagram, trying a new recipe, traveling the world, or playing with her dog, Presley. Laura is passionate about helping other women in STEM feel empowered in the journey to motherhood.

She can be reached via LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or email at laura.c.geben@vanderbilt.edu.


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