When I was in graduate school I could count on one hand (maybe even one finger) the number of graduate students I knew who had children. In my cohort (which I have blogged about before), not one of the ten of us had children before we finished, and this was true of the cohorts before and after mine in my department. I was the first in my cohort to have a baby; born 6 months after I defended my thesis.
I’m thinking about this again now because I’ve been working a few hours a week for a graduate program in biology at the University of Maryland and the graduate student who works with me in the office there is six months pregnant. She will have her baby about a month after finishing her prelims. Many people say this is a great strategy for balancing a family and academia: get a family started while you are flexible as a graduate student. Unlike my graduate experience, when no one was following this strategy, there are a number of students here who have done just that.
While I see her calculating exactly how to fit the baby into her academic life, I am torn for her. I remember the freedom of being a graduate student, the time I spent sitting around in “the fish lab” with a diverse bunch of other grad students on Saturday nights. I remember collaborating with my lab mates on experiments that we jubilantly finished at 4am, and then celebrating by going out for breakfast. I remember bonding with three fellow graduate students who came with me as field assistants to Ecuador (especially after we survived the effects of a nasty food-born virus - three days wracked with fever, lying immobile in small huts in the sticky heat of the Amazon rainforest).
Graduate school provided huge enjoyment for me. I traveled; I thought hard; I worked all hours; I interacted intensely with amazing people; I took advantage of resources available to me. While I understand that the idea of planning one’s family for the benefit of their career is important - often crucial for continuing the traditional academic route - for me the unfettered enjoyment of immersing myself in graduate school was a formative experience that I am glad I did not dilute with a family. I realize that not everyone enjoys graduate school to the same degree. Part of my enjoyment was having a crew of peers who shared my interests, and who were living the same way I was. I’m not sure why students didn’t have children in my program the way they do in other departments, but I’m interested in exploring this, and the effect it might have on graduate and career experiences.
While I loved it, I was ready to finish graduate student life when it ended. I might have enjoyed continuing in a traditional academic career, but I didn’t want to dilute my next intense adventure – parenthood. Again, I put my all into this venture, and wouldn’t have it any other way. For me, the sequential strategy worked well. Now, as my children get older I have more time to weave family and career together, and I am finding academic opportunities I would never have considered if I had planned to mesh these important aspects of my life right from the beginning.