Making It Through Grad School When You Have Kids, a Spouse, Pets, et al.
January 17th, 2017 by Pei-Ling Lee
By Remy Dou
I could see my reflection in the glass as I stared out the window behind my cubicle on the eighth floor of the National Science Foundation where I worked as a fellow. On my desk sat my laptop open to a confirmation screen that announced in bold letters: “Graduate student application submitted.” A million thoughts flooded my mind, not just about what this quarter-life career change would bring, but about how I would manage succeeding as a divorced, single dad. Both the end of my PhD program and the start of my new life seemed a million miles away.
That was four years ago. These days I feel like at every conference I attend I encounter more and more graduate students who have either started their masters or PhDs later, or have chosen to follow less traditional routes than the typical college > masters > doctorate > real-life path. Many of them have spouses, children, full-time jobs, pets, homes, live with parents or all of the above—not to mention the overwhelming responsibilities that come with getting an advanced degree. For me, the struggle was real, but somehow I managed to raise a child, take care of a home, get remarried, and write a draft of my dissertation. Here are seven tips that helped me juggle graduate student life along with my “et al.,” and everything else that came my way:
- Don’t be too proud to cry for mommy…or uncle, sister, or friend who will join you on the journey. When deciding what graduate school to attend I had a variety of options, but only one placed me near people whom I knew would support me. Whether caring for my rocket-fuel powered little boy when I had class, or keeping me company on the weekends, my support crew created a foundation for my success that manifested itself in physical and emotional ways. Nurturing these caring relationships might require stepping outside of your comfort zone, particularly if you live in a brand new city. Visit a community center, attend a religious event, or find a social group that shares your interests. The benefits of the support you can find in others are endless and can make everyone involved happy.
- Be nice to your fellow grad students. Especially when you have few friends and/or family around, your fellow graduate peers are an excellent source of comfort, laughter, help, and sometimes babysitting! Sure, you may feel ancient around them. They will probably wear different clothes than you and speak in different ways, but they will appreciate your experience, wisdom, and kindness. In return, they will naturally make your day-to-day easier. And at the very least, you’ll have people who can relate when you need to rant about your graduate school frustrations
- Recognize that life exists outside of grad school. Some things are just more important than graduate school. Actually, research shows that taking time to remember the things that really matter helps to reduce anxiety and stress. Make time for the special people in your life—your family, spouse, children, and friends. Don’t let distance stop you from staying connected with those you love, and don’t let work distract you from remembering who you are and what you ultimately want in life.
- Don’t be a hermit; you are not a crab. After long workdays and work weeks the last thing you will feel like doing on a weekend is to leave the comfort of your bed. Yes, Netflix, popcorn, and a fleece blanket might sound like heaven, and there’s a time for that, but make sure you spend some time outdoors. Get a little exercise. Smell the flowers. Take a hike. If you are living with family or friends, they will appreciate getting out of your residence. You, too, will appreciate it (once you get up), and your body will appreciate it. (I was literally diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency at one point for failing to follow this advice.)
- Remember the point. Sometimes we lose track of the finish line and forget why we started the race in the first place. You came into graduate school with a specific goal in mind. Graduate school without a purpose other than to get a degree is just bearable when everything is going well; but, when things get difficult at work and at home—as they do—remembering why you’re there and what your end goal is will keep you from disintegrating.
- Have a relationship with your advisor. Your advisor can make your life easier—much easier. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the ideal advisor. They key is to figure out how your advisor likes to work—does she prefer in person meetings, e-mails, or phone calls? Does she prefer short, to-the-point exchanges or long, thorough discourses? Does she expect you to set deadlines or does she want to work those out with you? Making sure you work well with your advisor will help reduce your stress levels, which will make you happier at home, which will give you the clarity to balance every aspect of your life.
- Honor the Sabbath. This is not about me peddling one religion over another, but about the importance of taking a day off a week. And when I say take a day off, I mean, like really, don’t do any work. If you’re crazy busy like me you are probably thinking, There’s no way I could take a day off. I will drown. It sounds counterintuitive, but this actually helps to make you more productive. Taking a Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday or whatever day to just have a peaceful brunch, watch television, stare at the paintings in your apartment, play with your kids, or have coffee with your spouse will rejuvenate you and your family. When you get back to work you’ll have fresher ideas and function more efficiently.
Author Biography: Remy Dou taught high school life science for eight years before serving as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the National Science Foundation. Shortly thereafter he moved to Miami where he is completing a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on physics education research at Florida International University.