How is it to be a PhD student and a parent?

We are organising a Doctoral Discussion for all of us student. It’s called Modern Superheroes and it is next Tuesday 13th June at noon (12pm) in FUL-214. We think student parents can use the support, can take advantage of the networking so much more than many, and can actually make a difference for each other while they wait for institutional support to be put in place.

Doing a PhD and having a normal life are apparently incompatible, and parenting only complicates that equation further. You not only follow and experience your own body’s limitations and needs, you are also responsible for those of other people… usually smaller people whose demands cannot wait (in most cases). So here we are trying to do what everybody else is doing on top of nappy changing, teenage fights, playdates, swimming competitions, etc. Whatever it looks like for you, parenting only adds to the list of impossible things to achieve in an impossible amount of time.

Also, if a PhD wasn’t already emotionally, physically and intellectually draining, adding parenting to the picture makes it even more of a trip. But there is a good side to it, something probably almost unique to being a parent while doing your PhD: perspective. Being a parent and researching teaches us a lot of research techniques and time management tools. Besides, if the kids are still young we may still be used to an irregular sleeping schedule. While playing, watching TV, cooking, whatever it is you do with your kids, you realise that there is something bigger, better and more important than your PhD and that happens on a daily basis. So, even though it is difficult, there is absolutely no institutional support, tiring as nothing else I have experienced, frustrating, etc. it is also rewarding.

In talking to other PhDs who also have kids, I realised that we struggle a lot and we are in desperate need of institutional support (especially those of us with kids younger than 4) and also that we have a constant reminder and motivation that non parents may lack and that grounds us in a  different kind of way. A colleague once said to me:

 “The best thing: when I feel overburdened and in a bad mood, my baby’s smile when he wants to play and joke with me is an unbeatable source of relief and energy. I surely didn’t have that when I was a lonely single undergrad.”

I identified with that thought. I also noticed the power of being able to disconnect completely every day. In talking with fellow researchers I realised that I am lucky to be able to go home and just play all afternoon, there is nothing else I could or should be doing. My mind is fully there and it makes my mornings so much more productive.

In my household both my partner and I work and study. So our days and weekends are odd, because we have three very different sets of responsibilities: those of a parent, of a student and of a worker. Our lives are clearly fragmented into various realities, but we are also often surprised at how much we can achieve when we don’t overlap tasks and responsibilities.

I have developed some strategies, for example I used a lot of podcasts while writing up my research outline. I didn’t have time to read in the afternoons, but I could listen to a podcast while playing with my 3-year-old (only when he didn’t mind) and that was useful. I also had the chance to network with other student parents at University. We made great use of the Family Room on campus and took turns to babysit and study. This was incredibly helpful for us, because we could discuss so much of our concerns and even met socially for our kids to play. The value of a support network is huge! Other strategies were leaving the house really early (we were up already anyway!) and getting to the Hive at around 7.30am so I could leave at 11.30 to pick my son up from nursery, because we couldn’t afford more than half day childcare.

Studying and being a parent is not easy to do, but there are many more people than we know doing it and we can actually get together and help each other (who else would pick up the phone on a Saturday at 8am?)

Please send us your thoughts and experiences of being a parent and a PhD student, we would love to have more content in our blog about it!

Thanks for reading

Marian

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