This month Ana, Liza, and I are thrilled to start a new series that deals with the joys and challenges of becoming/being a parent while pursuing a graduate degree. We’ve asked fellow students and professors to share their experiences. For this inaugural post, we’d like to introduce Jen Hartmann. Jen is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She is currently writing her dissertation, which explores the occupational folklife of wedding string quartet musicians. She is also co-editing a yet-untitled volume on music and motherhood,* slated for publication by Demeter Press in 2016. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, folklorist Nic, and her two daughters, rambunctious preschooler Mari and sweet baby Rosi. Thank you Jen for sharing your thoughts and insights with us!
Keeping the Balls in the Air: Negotiating Dual PhD Programs with Young Children
I have a problem. Like many young professional women, I like to take on a staggering number of responsibilities at once. I usually excuse this self-sacrificial behavior by saying that I work better under the pressure of a busy schedule, which is entirely true. I’ve reached the pinnacle of my schedule-filling tendencies at this moment in my life: I am a post-funding PhD candidate, married to another post-funding PhD candidate, with two very young children (both born during our PhD programs). My family has moved twice in the last two years—once internationally—in order to pursue temporary jobs that pay very little. It’s truly exhausting, to put it lightly, but I wouldn’t have chosen to do it any other way. Any person with a graduate degree knows that it is a difficult, time consuming, and psychologically taxing endeavor. So is motherhood. So why would I, crazy person that I am, decide (yes, both of my children were planned) to become a mother during my PhD program?
Quite simply, the juggling act of life does not stop when you enter the hallowed halls of your university. Like other young professionals, we are faced with a decision about the “right” time to have a baby, and the strict tick-tocking of that pesky biological clock factors heavily into that decision. Society provides some pressure as well. We’re not really encouraged to have babies during school, so even the most efficient student could be in her mid-thirties before her run of graduate school/postdoc studies would be complete. Then, if said person were to wait until acquiring a tenure-track job (or even tenure itself), she could be nearly forty years old by the time babies were even on her radar. One professor, who had two babies very close in age while she was working on tenure, highly recommended that I not wait until that point in my life, because we are more biologically prepared to have a baby when we are younger. I saw her point then, and I see it even more clearly now. After all, pregnancy wiped me out when I was 26 and 29; how much more challenging would it be at, say, ages 41 and 44? Furthermore, this also means that my husband and I, who are fairly certain that we are finished having children at age 30, will be empty nesters before we’re 50. This allows us to travel freely and really enjoy our most lucrative professional years, and allows our children to have young parents with flexible work schedules right when they need them. I may be poor financially now, but when it comes time to seek tenure, I’ll have more time available to me, because I won’t be negotiating pregnancy and the demands of having a baby and a preschool-aged child.
Having these babies means that I’m looking at an eight-year PhD, but that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make in order to have a happy and successful balance between family- and career-life in the end. I’ll still have that PhD in hand before I’m 35, and it means that I’ll come out with more publications, conference papers, and volunteer activities on my CV than I would have had I finished in four years.
I think the hardest thing about being a doctoral student with children is that the isolation can be overwhelming. Sometimes I think that I’m all alone, because most of my classmates are childless and spending 100% of their time and money on themselves. Balancing time to ensure that we don’t spend too much money on childcare, but we still each have enough time to do our work, is even more difficult. I’m proud to say that even though my work is currently moving at a glacial pace—and I’m lucky to have supportive supervisors in that regard—my sacrifice will allow my husband to defend his dissertation by this fall. As his PhD work winds down, I have had more time to work on (and get excited about!) my own dissertation, which is a very near-and-dear project I’ve been lovingly cultivating since the middle of my master’s degree. I’ve learned to be easier on myself these last few years, and I’ve learned that even though my degree is more of a marathon than a sprint, those coveted three letters will still show up behind my name for most of my adult life. It won’t be a quick PhD, but it will be a good one!
With that, here are my Top Ten Tips for surviving the student/parent experience:
- Compartmentalize. When you’re with your work, you’re with your work. I call it getting in The Zone. I practically turn off to everything around me when I’m in The Zone. This works the other way, too: don’t think about your work when you’re supposed to be playing with the baby. Just enjoy the sweetness!
- Work efficiently. Set small goals and stick to them. Even 10 minutes of work is better than no work at all. I am a perfectionist, and it took having a baby to realize that even if I can’t finish a dissertation during an hour-long nap, I can get an hour’s worth of work done in an hour. That’s one step closer to done!
- Make use of technology. I took notes for this blog using the voice recorder on my phone while I was driving my older daughter to preschool. I just pushed a button and thought out loud for twenty minutes. I love the book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (Joan Bolker) because it encourages freewriting and keeps your brain sharp, even when it feels like mush after having a baby. Using a voice recorder is an easy way to “freewrite”!
- Seek financial assistance. Many universities have childcare vouchers. If you’re in Canada, there are actually governmental vouchers for licensed childcare providers. There is also assistance available for healthy food and infant formula, and health insurance (in the US) often covers breast pumps. If you have a large post-insurance bill from the hospital after having your baby, some hospitals will offer charity forgiveness. Graduate students, who are often strapped for cash, usually qualify for this kind of financial support.
- Ask for assistance from your supervisors and other graduate students. Ask other grad students if they would be willing to babysit a few hours here and there; they’re looking or a break, too, and cuddling with a baby or doing puzzles with a toddler is a perfect opportunity. Talk to your supervisors. You might be surprised that some of them have been in the same situation as you, and even if they haven’t, many will be supportive. This is especially important if you need maternity leave and/or space for nursing or pumping in a student office. Your graduate student union can also support you if your supervisors are unaccommodating.
- If you are overwhelmed, please seek help. Don’t wait. I made this mistake with my first child, and it cost me about six months of my graduate program; I was drowning in undiagnosed postpartum depression when I wrote my comprehensive exams, and I had to rewrite a section several months later. I was so distracted that I completely misunderstood the question they were asking. Many universities have great counseling centers and physician offices. Some will even match you up with a counselor who had similar experiences.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. It will likely take you longer to finish your degree than it will for others, although this is certainly is not the case for everybody. Still make reasonable goals and plan to be finished as soon as possible, but don’t be too hard on yourself if those goals don’t come to fruition. Remember: the time it takes you to finish is not directly related to how serious a scholar you are.
- Be honest about what you can accomplish and what you have time for. You will likely have to whittle down some extracurricular activities. Focus on the things that will get you ahead and keep you sane. If you’re partnered with another grad student, you might have to make a lot more compromises than you would if your partner had a stable job. As I stated before, my husband will defend long before I will, but in my family, both PhDs are a labor of love for everyone. I am as proud of my husband’s almost-doctorate as I will be of mine!
- Give yourself a date with yourself every once in a while. Do something you love to do. I love to sew, so I will occasionally schedule quality time with my trusty sewing machine. I also sell some of the products I make, so I make money with my personal time. Bonus!
- Live your life. Prioritize your partner, kids, and self. If you do this, your PhD (if it’s the right thing for you) will find its own niche in your life
Whether you decide to have children during your PhD, already have them when you begin your PhD, or life’s unpredictable circumstances put you in the family way, it is possible to have a rich family life and do your work well. It takes some juggling, but the payoff is more than worth it. See?
(Photo by Zach Straw)
*If you would like to contribute to Jen’s volume on music and motherhood, please click here! The new deadline is June 30, 2015.