• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The Career Coach Is In: Pregnant as a PhD Student?

This week’s question is from a research university doctoral student, Ellen, and it is one I would like to throw out to others to share your experiences as well.

Here’s Ellen’s question:

June 29, 2008

This week’s question is from a research university doctoral student, Ellen, and it is one I would like to throw out to others to share your experiences as well.

Here’s Ellen’s question:

I'm wondering if you think it's level-headed for Ph.D. students to get pregnant. I have just finished my coursework and I'm about to begin my dissertation, which will hopefully take me the standard two years to complete (if not less).

My husband is also a student, so we are not exactly what you would even consider "middle class." I've received conflicting advice on this idea so I'm just wondering what you think about motherhood and being a Ph.D. candidate.

Dear Ellen,

This is an important question, a common question, and a question that will have as many varying answers as the amount of people you ask. In other words, it depends. It truly depends — on you (your personality, multi-taking ability, health, family support, etc.), on your field (which I’m assuming is not humanities, as mine was, given you are planning a max of two years of dissertation writing!), on your department, advisor, university, the list goes on.

Some women have had positive experiences being pregnant and having children in graduate school, completing doctorates and landing jobs in the process; others have found it alienating and downright impossible. Just take a look at our anthology, Mama, PhD, and you will find several different perspectives there.

From pregnancy complications to unsupportive colleagues or advisors to changes in personal priorities, some factors make pregnancy and graduate school seem like oil and water. And, yet, a supportive family and department, and a relatively easy pregnancy, can make the two blend like coffee and cream. It just depends.

The numbers we have, particularly from Mary An Mason and Marc Goulden’s series of “Do Babies Matter?” studies, are not incredibly encouraging — if you want to achieve tenure, that is. We know it is significantly less likely that women who have children within five years of getting their doctorate will achieve tenure, versus men who have children early in their careers (see Elrena and Caroline’s Intro in Mama, PhD for more on this). And, yet, there are women on the smaller end of those numbers and many (including a Mama, PhD contributor or two) insist that it will only get better for moms and moms-to-be if more are able to get through the system as they want to.

Since the 1960’s, according to researcher Barbara Lovitts, graduate students have an average of about 50% chance of finishing their programs — in some fields and for some populations the chances are greater than others. It’s tougher to finish in humanities, and for women and people of color. So, what do these numbers tell you for your situation? I’m not actually sure. I’m one who looks at all the research and then follows my gut.

So, to answer whether it is “level-headed” to get pregnant while a doctoral student is not a simple question. Of course, is it ever “level-headed” to give your body over to growing another human being while still attempting to function as you did before you were growing another human being? (I say this as I actually am growing another human being as I write this, very close to deadline, as a matter of fact.)

In short, I’m not sure “level-headed” is the optimal factor to base your decision on. Instead, I suggest considering what you most want, your true priorities, what you feel you may regret or not regret, your situation in your program and in your home. And then know that, whatever you decide, some things will be completely out of your hands.

I wish you the best in making the right decision for you. And I truly hope others will chime in with experiences to share with you. As we Mama, PhD contributors know well, it can help to share our stories and read others’ stories as we navigate the decisions of career and parenthood. Then, at the end of the day, we each must decide within ourselves the right course for us.

Wishing You Your Own Vision of Success,



Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top