PhD and baby: combining the two isn’t simple but it is doable.
There is no “Follow these rules and you will succeed” in making a PhD work while raising little people. Although you may say this premise is true for anything in life, without doubt the territory of simultaneous PhD study and parenting is somewhat skewed towards “highly risky”.
It is hard to give detailed advice (e.g. “Write that paper before the kids get up in the morning.”) because any advice only fully works for the person advising. We are all individuals differently made up and living life in unique contexts, with varying support and capacity.
Nothing would get me out of bed before my little boy cried out for “Mama’” in the morning!
But, there are helpful strategies and I’ll focus on the potential, not the hardship, and how to make PhD and parenting work. To any PhD student who is considering juggling a baby and a PhD, read some of the tips available on PhD and parenting online and make up your own list, whatever works for you. Here is mine. I followed these in the last eight intense months of my PhD.
A brief disclaimer first: (This is important because so much advice is given without context) I was hoping to have a baby during full-time PhD study although I heard how challenging the PhD by itself could be. Mainly, because I am a (generally) positive person and I trust—I trust that things will fall into place and I will figure things out as I go, aka “life only throws at you what you can handle”. This trust is based on a careful consideration of my pre-requisites. I figured
- although my family is a 24-hour flight across the ocean, I had a supportive husband and friends that would provide support, encouragement and help;
- although I did not have a home office (the baby took it), I lived close to campus and library and could walk over any time if I needed a quiet space to work;
- although I studied full-time I also worked part-time on campus during three out of four years of my PhD, which kept me socially and professionally connected
- financially, we would be safe even if I could not continue work and my scholarship would stop, which was the case in the last four months of my PhD;
- childcare was available four full (10 hour) days a week;
- my boy slept well through the night in the last six months of my PhD sprint;
- and my boy and I are generally healthy.
If the PhD was a 9-5pm office job my life would have been too easy. But the PhD is a messy boundless beast that takes over life and at least in my case, required 60 hours of work per week in the last few months of submission.
These were my coping strategies:
- Assess what you have, your support, your safety nets, your mental balance, physical well-being, your motivation, ways you work best, and take good care of these assets. Once, I didn’t exercise for four weeks I grew increasingly discontent and irritable, so I scheduled in regular gym breaks to keep me mentally strong. Working out when I work, study, read and write most efficiently involved some trial and error, and plenty of frustration. My brain does not function between 11 pm and 7 am, for instance, not very well, anyway. I resorted to making every hour count I spent in the office, scheduling in some social breaks and exercise.
- Start talking and communicating what you need, understand and accept what you can get, and work with it. I talked to my husband a lot. I shared how I felt about being away from my son, not spending enough time with him and my husband, but more importantly we continuously talked about ways of keeping everyone happy and me productive. This often involved coffee and pan au chocolat. Talk to other PhD parents, too, you’re not alone.
- Plan, plan, plan everything that is plannable and stick to it. Being organised helped me get things done, tick things off (on paper), but most importantly do not get overwhelmed and stressed. Once it was written down and assigned rough time and space, I felt it was almost done or at least I had made a start. I put my name down on the daycare waiting list when we started talking about having a baby (it’s very hard to get a childcare spot in Australia). I planned meals and snacks or better yet, takeaways on many working days.
- Have a PhD -free day and evening. Mine was usually on the weekends. This was my anchor, which I looked forward to so much. I planned to have at least one day free, to exercise (you can do it with your baby!), to eat well, to have fun, to see people, hang out with my boys and get out of the house. Try and outsource tasks like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and ask friends for babysitting vouchers as birthday gifts, to free up time. I remember some days I was so happy to breathe fresh air and see trees; they seemed so much greener after a busy PhD week!
- Reassess your pre-requisites. If you don’t have similar baseline support and conditions in place that I had, ignore 1-4 and make up your own coping strategies.The challenges of combining parenting and PhD are, of course, intensified in cases of ill-health, multiple babies, additional paid work, single parenting, limited childcare, etc. Google search offers plenty of advice, so mix and match to suit your own needs.
Lilia Mantai works in higher education as a professional, academic and researcher. She is the Senior Learning Designer at Macquarie University. A proud mother, Lilia submitted her PhD thesis on researcher development of PhD students. You can connect with her on Twitter @LiliaMantai and LinkedIn.