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Finishing Grad School, Taking Lessons from Our Kids

GradHacker Parenting Week concludes with a post on hacking grad school and parenting.

October 23, 2014

Travis E. Ross is a graduate research fellow at the Tanner Humanities Center and a PhD candidate in History at the University of Utah. He is currently completing his dissertation. His son Dillon is completing his second year of life and specializes in the spatial theories and taxonomy of colorful objects.

Until our son was born in November 2012—over Thanksgiving break, mercifully—going to graduate school was the most grown-up thing I had ever done. Up to that point, I thought of myself primarily as a student, albeit a graduate student, a modifier I emphasized by wearing collared shirts instead of hoodies on teaching days. Becoming a parent meant conceiving of myself in fundamentally different ways. First, I learned that the impostor syndrome that I shared with all graduate students had nothing on the impostor reality I experienced when we brought a newborn home from the hospital. My honed set of graduate student skills did nothing to help, either. No amount of procrastination, all-nighters—and we pulled some all-nighters—or even copious amounts of reading made the terrifying sense of unpreparedness go away. So we did what basically all new parents do. We decided to stop worrying and just to do it, knowing we would make mistakes, that he would survive, and that we would get better at this.

I was surprised to find that the blank stare of a brilliant white page—the one that greeted me on the morning of my comprehensive exams, or the one that glared back at me from where my prospectus and eventually my dissertation were supposed to be—had nothing on the cute, terrifying gaze of a helpless child whose life depended on me. At least I had done all the reading for the academic tests, and the stakes had been far lower in those instances!
There is no shortage of people ready to tell you that trying to raise kids and finish graduate school simultaneously is a foolish endeavor. I disagree with them. Used strategically, the life changes that accompany having a child can make you more successful in graduate school. Having a child provided new motivation for finishing grad school, but it also gave me new skills and perspectives that have helped in surprising ways. First, I learned to start thinking about myself as a professional rather than as a student, to stop worrying about whether I was faking it—we all are, to some degree—and to start getting better at not faking it. Second, the rigidly held beliefs about parenting best practices (to put it nicely) that we held in those early months of parenthood eventually gave way to experimenting with less ideal options until something worked. In that process, I learned that making progress is better than making perfection—and my dissertation has benefitted from that. It might not have all the perfect words in the right places, but it has more words in more places than it would if I had waited around to figure out the right ones.

The point here is not to hold parenthood up as the pinnacle of adulthood. Too many people already do that to twenty- and thirty-somethings without kids. But if you have children and you are worried about whether you can finish your program, take comfort in knowing that if you have managed to keep a small human being alive, then you have already done something harder than writing a dissertation, and—in many ways—the same skillset applies. You mostly just pretend you know what you are doing until you actually do, and finding out usually involves cleaning up a mess or wiping some tears. If everyone survived—in grad school and in parenting—then move on.     

The worst thing about being a parent while finishing graduate school is also the best thing: you have a lot less time to waste. So find a schedule that works for you, your partner, and your children, whatever it might be, and then stick to it. Good fences make good neighbors, they say, and academic work likes to be a terrible neighbor, always creeping out of where it belongs. When you’re at work, do work. That means writing your dissertation, not some GradHacker guest post. Oops.
Find ways to plug the leaks in your schedule, but be aware that trying to plug those leaks can be its own form of procrastination. Find a good way to get things done, but don’t waste hours trying to get just the right GTD workflow. I know, because I have. From those wasted hours, I have arrived at several actual timesavers:

  • Go device independent. Before we had our son, I exclusively used my MacBook. Now I never touch a traditional computer outside my office. Laptops are not kid-friendly, so for the parts of your workflow that refuse to stay walled off from your life, find tools that work between your devices. Evernote and Google Drive are both great for syncing information between devices, though I prefer to use DevonTHINK for my workflow and rely on cloud storage and PDF Expert to move between my iPad and Mac.
  • Get cloud storage. There are great free and paid options. I use Box.com, but Dropbox is ubiquitous and has great new pricing. Find a solution that works for you financially and technologically and then use it.
  • BACKUP. If you don’t have a solution, stop reading this and get one! Think of the cloud of disaster that follows in the wake of a toddler and then imagine years’ worth of research buried in the wreckage of a computer pulled off a desk by its cord or drowned in spilled milk—the only situation in which one definitely weeps over spilled milk! If you won’t remember to plug in an external drive, build a wireless option. I built an Ubuntu server out of my wife’s old desktop from college and set it up as a Time Machine capable network volume. It is easier than you think. Whatever you do, do it now.
  • Get Pocket and use it to catch all of those things you really want to read but shouldn’t read right now.
  • Email is a lot like zombies. It mindlessly proliferates, overtaking you with volume rather than speed. I finally fixed that with Mailbox. Over a month at inbox zero and I think that the biggest problem has been that the ease with which I use email has made me more likely to send it to other people, people who should be using Mailbox. Everything I loved about Gmail—except good search, oh I miss search operators—is faster and easier in Mailbox across my devices.

The scariest part of parenting is that kids don’t give you a break to catch up, they just keep learning and developing new skills whether you are ready or not—and you’re not, not ever. The scariest part of dissertating is the opposite: the final obstacle between you and graduating will sit there unchanged for as long as you let it, patiently waiting for you to figure out what it needs next.

So if you’re reading this to escape the mockery of the blank line and the expectant blink of the cursor in your stagnated dissertation, then take a lesson from our race’s youngest members: experiment. Sometimes it terrifies me when my son experiments with things he doesn’t understand, but I’d still prefer that over him sitting there patiently waiting to understand everything in the world before trying to interact with it. Watching him learn and grow reminds me that the only way to learn something I don’t know is to take a shot at doing it. The best hack I can recommend to fellow grad students, parents or otherwise, is to find a way forward even—especially—when you don’t know which direction to go.

Our kids learn language, gross and fine motor skills, and where we keep the snacks, all without fully understanding what those things are yet. In response, we figure out how to keep them safe, engaged, and loved without knowing exactly how to do any of those things. That convinced me that I could figure out how to finish a dissertation without knowing exactly what I was doing yet. Hacking graduate school, after all, has a double meaning. Parents know we’re (barely) hacking it, but in the process we learn some really great hacks for success in life, parenting, and grad school.

[Image via Flickr user Drew Coffman and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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