Surviving the Pandemic as Grad Student Parents

Laura Cruz and Hoda Ehsan outline a list of strategies they'd like to share with others.

November 10, 2020
 
 
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We've both been graduate student parents, and one of us, Hoda, tells the following story. “An evening of a long and busy day, I was sitting by my 3-year-old child’s bed, who had just slept. As usual, I started checking my phone. I read an email from a well-known researcher in my field: ‘Now, that we are all staying home with more time, let’s do some introductions …’ I took a deep breath and checked my Twitter. I saw loads of tweets from academics and advanced professionals who shared strategies for being more ‘productive’ during the pandemic, their accomplishments and progress, and the hobbies they picked during this time.

“Before getting overwhelmed,” Hoda continues, “I looked for my Facebook app. That morning, I had posted a photo of my child holding some cupcakes we made together. I enjoyed the thoughtful comments indicating the inspiring mother I was, who could perfectly balance being a mother and a Ph.D. student. Feeling full of joy, I moved on to check my timeline. One post after another was by parents who shared the many amazing activities they had done with their children at home.”

She concludes, “The joy was suddenly gone and was replaced with guilt and shame of not doing and being enough. In my heart, I knew that the picture of my child was the only shiny snapshot of a very messy and overwhelming day. That single snapshot of my life was nowhere close to being compared to what other parents had been doing with their children. I left my child’s room, blaming myself for not being productive and not even spending enough time with my child.”

As parents who had their children while pursuing Ph.D.s, we have no choice except to have a clear daily routine. Before the pandemic, we used decent time management strategies. We would work only when our children were in daycare and/or after they were in bed. We have also learned to be flexible and adjust our plans when unexpected events happened, such as when our children were sick.

But having that experience did not make us ready to be “productive” in a pandemic. In the past months, like many parents, we have struggled daily to find a new routine and to be productive. More than any time before, during the lockdown, we’ve wrestled with the guilt of not being a productive graduate student, an involved caregiver and a supportive partner. We’ve had breakdowns at times and wondered if being in graduate school or an academic was even worth it. Like many others, we wished the lockdown would end and we could send back the children to daycare/school; at the same time, we feared for their safety and health.

That said, after months of being in lockdown at home with children, we’ve been able to compile a list of strategies that have helped us survive that we’d like to share with other graduate student parents. If you are in that situation, we hope you’ll find these strategies helpful and realize you are not alone.

Celebrate small accomplishments. If you have two or even three essential roles -- student, parent, worker -- acknowledge what you are doing. Celebrate your small accomplishments. Did you have time to read with your child today? Did you watch TV with them while taking a break? Then count it as quality time with your child and celebrate it! Were you able to work a little bit on a project that you haven’t touched in a while? Even if you could not make more than five minutes of progress, celebrate that you were able to open that old file on your computer and think about it for a few minutes. Were you able to write one page of your dissertation? Then that’s a victory! Celebrate that! Thinking about those victories will give you the motivation to achieve many more.

Be cautious about/avoid social media. We are in a privileged moment of history in which we can communicate with others without going out. However, social media may sometimes create undesirable effects. The moments that we share with others are small pieces of our life but sometimes not a good proxy of what our real life looks like.

How many times have we shared a photo of our child’s meltdown? Probably never. Or would we tweet that our article has been rejected twice in two different journals? Probably not. Since we share only those happy and proud moments of our life, it may create frustrations for others. If you are like us and several times have allowed the shame of “I am not enough” pass through your head and land in your heart, then consider using social media with precaution, both when you post and when you scroll down.

Communicate concerns. Dealing with the uncertainty of the pandemic is not easy, especially when you are a graduate student who is providing for a family. Like us, you may fear the future of the job market both in academe and industry. Is there going to be an opening? When does the hiring freeze end?

You may also wonder and fear about your funding if you need to delay your graduation. While the funding situation is just one aspect of the pandemic uncertainty, we need to manage that by exploring and/or creating options.

Our suggestion is to reach out to the graduate school, your department head or your advisers and make them aware of all of your fears, concerns and struggles. They might be able to come up with plans to secure pre- and postgraduate jobs for graduate students. We also recognize that communicating your struggles is imperative, especially in environments in which parents are a minority. We need to stand up for ourselves -- and better we start now!

Find a support circle. Social interactions are necessary for anyone at any time, but within a pandemic scenario, finding people who understand your situation is crucial. One option is to identify other graduate students who are parents. You will benefit from talking to them, sharing your concerns and fears, and being a supportive listener for them. It may be beneficial if you can reach out to those within your department. We were lucky to have many graduate student parents within our department. But if you don’t have that privilege, find other resources. For example, some colleges have associations or networks for this purpose.

Plan with lower expectations but prioritize. Academic pressure is not a myth. We are in a competitive environment with specific measures of success: published articles, conference presentations, class grades, awards, funded grants and the like. For the sake of your mental health, lower your expectations and make a plan to get the most out of the current situation.

One way that has worked for us is to write down all the tasks we have (or we would like) to get done. We then prioritize those tasks: What are the urgent ones? What are the important ones? What are the to-dos that we could let go of? Then we make a macro plan for weeks ahead by setting some deadlines and realistic goals.

Finally, we make micro plans for every week. That way, we know what we want to accomplish, and we tackle the urgent and important tasks first, and if magically, we get more time, we can focus on other ones. For example, if you had planned to send an article to a conference and the deadline seems to be too close, then reconsider. Target an alternative conference or journal with the timeline that better fits your work pace. We understand that it may not be a decision you can make yourself and requires your adviser’s or principal investigator’s permission. That is why macro planning is crucial: you can communicate with them before it’s too late.

Be flexible with priorities. Even when you think you have considered every possible event in your weekly plan, you may still need to modify the program every day -- if not every hour! Unexpected events may happen and change your priorities. Thus, being flexible is the key to keep being sane.

For example, sometimes your children become your priority, even though you planned to conduct data analysis on a team project. They may suddenly need more attention and time than you expected. Just turn off your computer and take a break from your work. When everything has calmed down, replan your day or even your week. Be open to switching plans, stay up a bit longer in the evening, wake up earlier than usual or work a few hours on weekends. (That said, you want to avoid those actions becoming routine.)

While these strategies can be helpful, we recognize that, without an academic support system, your efforts will be undermined. You won’t always have the power to make decisions over your work, and your time and resources will be limited. While both of us study in a supportive department, we acknowledge that everyone doesn’t have this privilege. We hope your department, advisers and graduate peers understand the struggles you face and act on your behalf when you need it.

Bio

Laura Cruz is currently a Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University in her third year. At the time of writing this article, Hoda Ehsan was also a Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue; she wrapped up and defended her dissertation during the pandemic.

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