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4 Tips for Balancing Parenting and Ph.D.

GradHacker Parenting Week kicks off with a post from a grad student and part-time stay-at-home father.

October 19, 2014

Matt Duvall is a graduate student at Drexel University, focusing on STEM education. He lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife, son, and daughter, whom he loves, plus two cats he can't stand.

In the fall of 2013, I began a PhD program focusing on educational technology. I left a glamorous, highly-paid job as a high school teacher in order to pursue my dream of living virtually penniless while achieving a doctoral degree. This incredible career move was made possible in large part due to the generosity of my university, which awarded me a small assistantship, and the benevolence of my wife, who continues to work as a teacher to provide income/health insurance/amusing teaching anecdotes, while simultaneously pursuing an EdD of her own (at a different, and as she always reminds me, higher-ranked university).

Our son was 15 months old when I began my doctoral program, and part of the arrangement my wife and I made was that with my more flexible schedule I would be responsible for child care on my days off (he generally goes to day care two or three days per week). I assumed this would be easy; after all, don’t we all long to have the easy life of a “stay-at-home” parent? The luxurious free time, the lack of responsibility, the ease of caring for a tiny almost-human being?

Now, entering the second year in my graduate program, we have a new daughter and I have an entirely new world to navigate. At the same time, I learned many valuable lessons during that first year about how to survive the challenges of grad school and parenting, lessons that I hope will make the new routine easier to set up. Below are four things that helped me finish that year with my mind (mostly) intact and my goals met: being both a good doctoral student and a great parent, without unduly burdening those affected by either or both of those roles.

1. Schedule Time for Reading
I originally thought I could multi-task by spending time with my son while also reading all that theory which is so important in academe. This was a mistake. It is impossible to comprehend academic writing when you are responsible for a child and that child is conscious. The only theory my son was remotely interested in was Boynton’s (1982) theory of cows who moo, sheep who baa, and singing pigs who laa laa laa. So, I read during my commute (I take a train to school), during my son’s naptime, and while on the toilet. If anybody has discovered another way to accomplish this, you should write it up and publish immediately.

2. Incorporate Your Child into Exercise
This may seem slightly off-topic, but your physical well-being affects your mental well-being, so it’s important not to neglect exercise. Still, the demands on my time made visiting the gym (or, in my case, the dojo) a luxury rather than a necessity. I quickly discovered, though, that the jogging stroller is one of the greatest inventions ever. My son loves to go “run” with dad, and I get the added benefit of pushing an extra 20+ pounds around. Other exercises can be more challenging to approach in this way (for example, jumping rope once your child is mobile presents a number of possible ways to permanently disfigure said child), but with some creativity you can still manage to pull off most exercises. Before he could walk, my son loved lying on the ground while I did push-ups over him, and the knowledge that if I slacked off I’d crush his tiny skull gave me an extra incentive to maintain proper form. As he’s gotten older, he’s adopted a drill sergeant approach, where he will call out different exercises (“Burpees, daddy! Do burpees!”). He pretends to do them along with me, but either he is in excellent shape or he’s not putting the same effort into them that I am. Still, at least he sees exercise as something fun and worthwhile, which is a side benefit of this approach.

3. Be Upfront About Your Commitments
One note about this one: I am a man, and though I do occasionally encounter the troglodyte who says something sneeringly about women’s work or asks when I’m going to step up and provide for my family, this is relatively easy for me. Dads get a pass on a lot of stuff just because—the common view is that dads don’t do much in the realm of parenting, which means even the minimal amount of effort is praised. (“You know your child’s name? What a great father!”) So I’m much more likely to get a high five for saying that I can’t meet on a certain day because I’m taking care of my child than a snide comment or snarky response. I have noticed that in academia, though, colleagues are typically more receptive to making arrangements due to family commitments, for both sexes. Perhaps this is because many of the professors have been in similar situations at some point in their academic careers. Regardless, I found that it was useful to be clear about what my outside commitments were, and how those affected my availability to be on committees, participate in conferences, and so on. I also sometimes requested modifications (like a Skype call instead of face-to-face) on the fly. In one specific instance, I had to ask for an accommodation for one class period because my son had a fever and couldn’t attend daycare, and our backups (my in-laws) were not available. At the same time, I made sure to meet all the deadlines I agreed to with my supervising professors and to turn in high quality (or a reasonable facsimile), on-time assignments in my classes.

4. Say “No”
This applies to both home and school. At home, remember that your child will ask for all sorts of things. Sometimes those things are good for your child to have (another round of the ABC song), and sometimes they aren’t (Doritos for breakfast). It is ok to tell your child no. In fact, sometimes it’s a necessity. Just don’t do it so often that they stop asking for what they want. For example, sometimes saying no because you’re just too tired is ok—like when your son wants to climb the stairs for the 100th time in a row. Sometimes, though, it’s your duty as a parent to honor a reasonable request—for instance, when your daughter wants you to come sit beside her while she stacks her colored rings (we all have those, right?). Just be sure that you’re not saying no for the wrong reasons—but the trick is, only you can really determine that.

In my program, and in many graduate programs, there is a lot of pressure on students to begin building their academic CVs. You’re expected to read widely in your field, and even more in your research area. Speaking of which, you’re expected to develop a robust research agenda and, eventually, a proposal which will lead to your thesis. In addition, you need to do service—volunteer on committees, attend your school’s/department’s colloquiums and other events, review articles for journals. You may also have a research or teaching assistantship that’s tied to your financial support, so that’s kind of important. But assistantships also involve more of the reading and service, leading to a snowball effect which can quickly turn into an avalanche. Once again: you can say “no.” It’s hard for me to do, and I wasn’t great at it my first year (although I got better). It’s also tough, because you’re afraid: afraid everyone at your university will think you’re a slacker (or, worse yet, you’ll be exposed as the intellectual fraud you’re sure you are), afraid your CV will be so barren that your only career choice will be teaching at a small dog grooming school in the wilds of Alaska, afraid that you’re going to miss the one opportunity that will finally solidify your research for you. This is called catastrophic thinking, and it’s counterproductive. Much like with children, your go-to answer shouldn’t be no, but it’s not a bad word. Use it. It’s better to decline an opportunity than do a mediocre job at something you shouldn’t have signed up for in the first place.

Closing Thoughts
I absolutely love being a parent, even on the days when I loathe it. The same can be said for graduate school. There are some incredibly difficult days, days when I question whether this is really what I’m supposed to be doing with my life (and yes, I’m talking about both again). But I can see in the way my son looks at me, and in the slightly-less-disdainful journal rejections, that I’m getting closer to my goals. My wife always says the time is going to pass anyway—would you rather do something, or do nothing? I know that, no matter how hard it is, in 5 or 10 or 15 years I will look back and say it was worth it, every minute. I may even turn into one of these seasoned academics who goes on and on about how grad school is the best time of your life (although I doubt it). One thing is for sure: if I didn’t persevere, I would regret it.

In this post I’ve shared just a few things that I hope will help those trying to balance parenting and grad school. There are hundreds (thousands?) more lessons that I could share, but if you’re reading this, then you’re probably a grad student and have plenty of stuff to read already. Hopefully what I’ve shared helps you to, at the least, realize that you’re not alone in figuring this thing out. And if you have any tips you want to share with me—or just want to swap war stories—I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at my super-professional email address of duvallenator@gmail.com. Happy learning, and happy parenting!

[Image via Pixabay and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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