balancing grad school and parenting

Starting a family during grad school can be tough.

There are lots of reasons not to go to grad school while raising a family—lack of time, money, and job security, for starters. But having a baby in grad school comes with a surprising number of benefits, too. Here are eight ways you can adeptly balance grad school with kids.

1. Take advantage of your flexible schedule

In grad school, it can feel as though everyone is always working. While there are very few places you have to be at particular times, you’ll always have a lot to do. After all, funding for graduate school is often time-limited, and you’ll have significant academic requirements and teaching commitments during your graduate school years. Lots of universities have amazing libraries—many of which are open 24/7—and you may worry that any absence from your library carrel on a Tuesday night at 11 p.m. will negatively affect your productivity.

We are here to tell you that you do not need to stay up into the wee hours of the night to have a successful, productive graduate school career. You can, without apology, take advantage of the flexibility that grad school affords, and plan a schedule that works for you—and for your (growing!) family. As a graduate student, you likely have inked-in commitments for just a few hours a week: classes and talks to attend, teaching time, and office hours. The rest of your time is yours to allocate as you see fit. Perhaps with the exception of any future sabbaticals, you’ll rarely (if ever) have this much flexibility in your career again.

2. Build your time-management skills by using every minute efficiently

Even if you were able to work around the clock, you wouldn’t necessarily produce more. After a certain number of hours, you’d get diminishing returns. As a parent, you couldn’t invest unlimited time even if you wanted to, but take heart—parents quickly learn to be efficient workers.

There are many ways you can allocate your time. Some grad students keep their academic life to a 9-to-5 work day, ensuring that those hours are as productive as possible. Others plan their days around their family needs—for instance, taking time out in the middle of the day for a parent-and-child music hour, and then staying up post-bedtime to finish working. You should do what works best for you, and have faith that you’ll learn to make the most of every working (and every family) moment. In short, you might not be a better student in spite of parenthood—you might learn how to be a top-notch scholar because of it.

3. Make the most of the resources your university offers

Some universities offer child care assistance subsidies. Cornell, for instance, offers student child care grants. A number of schools have onsite child care centers, as well. You can make the most of having nearby, high-quality child care—this is not available everywhere! On-campus centers may even allow you to stop by in the middle of the day to see your child (particularly if you are a nursing mother).

4. Attend academic events when necessary

While graduate school offers more flexibility than any full-time job we’re aware of, it does come with obligations. You’ll need to make arrangements to attend major academic conferences, office hours, and the occasional workshop-led-by-a-famous-scholar-in-your-field. Not only will your attendance at these events serve their intended purpose—i.e., you’ll learn new things and network—but it will also help you feel just as much a part of scholarly enterprise as you ever were.

5. Apply newly acquired decisiveness to your craft

Being a scholar entails doing nuanced interpretive work. (The more you learn, the more you realize you have yet to understand.) That said, some graduate students find themselves in the unenviable position of getting bogged down by details—to the extent that they sometimes can’t see a broader argument. In large ways and small, parenthood is all about seeing the big picture through lots (and lots) of details. (For instance, irritability, a runny nose, and a poor night’s sleep may anticipate illness—and many parents can identify that from even one of those symptoms, all while packing lunches and changing diapers and completing the day-to-day tasks that keep a household running.)

Parenthood also entails making decisions—both large and small—all the time. (Maybe you would opt to keep your child home from school before the fever hits because you know it’s coming. More significantly, you could choose a child care facility after distilling a large number of data points—over the course of an hour-long visit.) In many cases, you’re making choices that may affect your child and family significantly—and you may be doing so with incomplete information and on very little sleep. Parents have to be decisive all the time, and that same decisiveness will benefit the articles, book reviews, syllabi, and ultimate dissertation you will write.

6. Channel your parental confidence

As a parent, you become more competent each day. Whereas at first it might seem overwhelming to take your child to the supermarket—wrangling a diaper bag, change of clothes, and bottles along with an infant and all of your groceries—that formerly mundane activity becomes routine once again. You learn new skills, become more competent, and strengthen your confidence. You may at some point contend with an ER visit, a stressful overseas flight, or any number of challenges associated with having a baby. In learning how to manage these stresses, you’ll demonstrate to yourself how much you are capable of. Your growing competence should be a source of confidence. Channel that in your work! Completing a dissertation is an immensely difficult endeavor. But, as with parenthood, others have done it before you, others will do it after you—and you can do it too.

7. Look forward to your kids being older and more self-sufficient as you build your career

If one of the drawbacks of starting a family during graduate school is that you endure the challenges of early childhood while balancing so much else—well, that’s also one of the benefits. Taking care of a baby is really hard work ... no matter when you do it. If you put off starting a family, you may find it increasingly difficult to do so until you become more established in your career. After all, it’s difficult to be on the job market, with all its pressures and uncertainties, while taking care of a baby (and worrying about where you’ll end up living and whether you’ll have continuous health insurance coverage). Once you land a job as a junior-level faculty member, you’ll be very busy finishing your first book, teaching a full course load (likely for the first time), and building your CV for tenure consideration. Only once you have tenure might your schedule ease up.

This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t start a family at any time. On the contrary, you should do what feels right to you, whenever it feels right to you—and know that you can always make it work. That said, if you decide to start a family during graduate school, then it’s possible that by the time you go on the job market and launch your career, your child(ren) will be old enough, and self-sufficient enough, to allow you to sleep through the night and get work done in their presence. Graduate school may just be the perfect time for you to start a family.

8. Talk about your work with your kids

Since your kids are definitely going to see you working, tell them about it! They’ll pick up on how hard you work toward your goals and file that away as a model for themselves. Your kids will end up learning a lot about a really interesting topic, and they may acquire your love of learning in the process. Being in a campus environment also affords many opportunities to attend exhibition openings and other interesting events. Your kids will be surrounded by stimulating information and resources—lucky them!

If you’re still looking for your best-fit graduate program, be sure to ask about whether grad students often have families, and what each school does to support families (e.g., onsite child care, health insurance options, parental leave policies, and so forth). The more you know in advance, the easier it will be for you to find a place where your family will feel welcomed, valued, and supported.

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