Parenting your way to a PhD

This post is by Susan Stewart Loane, who is a PhD student at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  Susan left a career as a management consultant when her first child was born and now juggles family life with research and a little adjunct teaching. 

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 5.37.36 PMPhD study while also parenting can’t be described as easy.  Of course I never really expected it to be, but it’s difficult in ways I never anticipated.

As my youngest child approached primary school age I realised that I was going to be bored when he went to school. Already I was spending far too much time at the gym and obsessing about things that shouldn’t really matter, like keeping windows clean and bedrooms tidy. If I was going to be obsessive about something perhaps it should be something that would benefit future generations, like the creation of some new knowledge.

I carefully thought through my week. If I dropped out of my various school volunteer roles, cycled to university instead of visiting the gym, and took a study break each day between 3pm and 8pm then I could just about manage a full-time PhD program, or close to it, and continue to manage our household.

Surely, I thought, all my years of work experience and juggling the daily needs of the family had made me vastly more efficient than most people, and I would be able to achieve the equivalent of a 40 hour PhD week in about 32 hours. I planned to work 4-6 hours each day during the week (4-5 hours during school hours and another 1-2 hours after everyone had gone to bed) and another 4 hours on the weekend.  It could be managed for 3-4 years.

It was a surprise to find how integral I was to my children’s lives.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but I had never realised how much time was taken up managing the children’s daily routines. Dentist appointments, cricket registration, emails about who can wash the rugby jerseys this week, re-organising missed music lessons, signing the piles of school notes that come home from the local public school . . . these things all take time.

Last weekend I wanted to make a good start on a manuscript I’m writing.  It’s a tricky piece of work as I’m hoping to publish my Literature Review as a stand-alone paper. Having no empirical demonstration within the manuscript to aid with understanding and clarity requires a lot of writing and re-writing, crafting paragraphs that draw from several academic disciplines to justify why a particular line of research should be followed (by me).

It takes concentration.

Over the weekend it seemed that every time I wrote a sentence or two I would be required to down tools and deliver someone to play rehearsals, rugby or soccer. Then the family needed to eat, so there were meals to prepare and questions every 30 minutes all day about what snacks they could eat. I probably got four hours work done, but it was in blocks of time that ranged from 15 to 45 minutes.  There’s no consistency and no flow of thought, no chance of “getting on a roll.”

Of course I have put some efficiency measures in place at my house.

All children have been taught to cook, but they still need supervision around sharp knives and hot ovens. Every time they ask “what can I have to eat” I respond with “a piece of fruit”, but that doesn’t stop them asking just in case I might have a rush of blood to my PhD-addled brain and respond with “Oh, help yourself to the ice cream.”

They know how to sort and deliver the washing, one of them irons the school uniforms, one of them washes my car and another one feeds the cat. Even so, getting them to actually do these and other chores without nagging (a further break in concentration) is a pipe dream. In addition there are constant interruptions when someone needs help with maths homework or wants to know if he can play MineCraft or a friend calls up and wants to come over.

Anyone reading this who doesn’t have children (or who hasn’t tried to combine parenting with study) might wonder how on earth I get anything done at all, and why I would even bother trying. I think all of us who are studying and parenting simultaneously know why we bother. We do it because we have a passion for something in addition to our love for our children. We do it because we like it more than we like cleaning windows or volunteering at the school canteen. We do it because, despite the immense challenges, there are important benefits.

My boys are growing up seeing me doing something special. A PhD is special.  Not many people have one, something we forget when we become immersed in academia where PhD’s are a dime a dozen.  It’s a rare and special achievement, and something I’ll be proud to receive on a stage with my boys watching from the audience (a fantasy I imagine when things all seem too much).

I think I’m also getting great training for the time when my PhD is over and I’m juggling family and work. By then I should be so brilliantly productive that no one will even notice that I wrote a report for the CEO while attending my son’s athletics carnival, or reviewed a performance appraisal while supervising music practice. I think that if I can pull off a successful PhD in the midst of family life with three sons I can do pretty much anything.

It’s a negotiation point I plan to perfect for those job interviews one day in the future.

In the meantime I still need to finish that tricky manuscript in which I convince the reviewers and editor that I have a complete grasp of the literature across two disciplines and a convincing argument for linking them. I’ll get onto that now, or at least I’ll get onto it just as soon as I’ve taken my son to his soccer coaching, cooked dinner, paid the athletics coach, made an appointment for a haircut and supervised piano practice…

I’m getting tired even thinking about that Susan! What about you? Trying to combine parenting and PhD? Got any tips for us busy parents?

Related Posts

The perils of PhD parenting

How to parent your way through a PhD (or 5 ways to not go insane)

74 thoughts on “Parenting your way to a PhD

  1. great article..thank you. I have one toddler (22 months) and already have been feeling at times quite overwhelmed, so I am really impressed you are pulling this off with 3!!! I never thought about working in 15-30 minute intervals..it usually takes me this time to get my head around whatever it is I am trying to say :)

  2. I think we make the most distracted yet committed students! I have 3 children under 6, birthing my third halfway through fieldwork in Mexico I’m pregnant with my 4th and just started my write up. I study my phd part time and work fulltime as a lecturer, most days I think I’m going mad but like you dream of the day my children will see me graduate and more importantly will be pleased to have their mother back for a while :) I’ve learnt to take it day by day and children are a great remedy for getting over publication or funding rejections.

  3. Susan, Jenna, all other PhD-ing parents, I sympathise! But it can be done. I did my PhD parti-time in five years, with a full-time job and four males about the house. (Three of them being my sons, the fourth jointly responsible for their existence, and all utterly incapable of putting anything away. Ever.) Susan’s posting resonated, especially when it came to trying to write a paragraph whilst being interrupted to taxi this one HERE, that one THERE, alter THAT one’s shirt and mend the OTHER one’s school-bag! Flow? What flow?! However, it can be done – I made it. Good luck with your endeavours; it’s all worth it, without a doubt.

  4. I am parenting my way through a PhD … on my own! So far I have managed to keep a seven-year-old and two cats alive through the process. My general approach is to embrace the chaos … and every now and then I take a whole day off to find the floor under the rubble at home (today is going to be one of those!) I haven’t checked out the above link about self discipline … but I shall try and exercise some shortly when I get my daughter out of bed and aim to have her out the door in the shortest possible time without either of us self-destructing! Lucky she’s FABULOUS and my PhD topic is all about her (kind of!)

  5. Yes! Thank you for this article, I started my PhD right after my oldest was born for the same reasons- boredom, wanting to make a difference. I found the workload and sessional teaching, along with a very supportive partner kept me on track and pretty efficient. While doing my MA (sans kids) I would get lost in ideas and papers for days (and procrastinate a LOT). Now I know that what needs to be said should be said, lots can be done in 20 minutes while my two boys are keeping themselves entertained, and those precious hours when they are at daycare and school should rarely be wasted. I would be lying if I wasn’t jealous of my colleagues who could just go take a week for a 2-day conference to explore a new city, or can still take a week to read a book, but there are benefits to having little ones remind you what’s really important and what can wait.
    Wonderful article, thanks for bringing this discussion forward.

  6. So lovely to read the article and all the other comments. For the longest of time, I thought I was the only one crazy enough to attempt a PhD while taking care of kids, and home. However now that I am almost done and looking forward for my oral defense, it seems all worth it. Although I wonder how much impact, the lack of published articles and missed attending conferences would have on my chances of seeking gainful employment. Thank you for bringing this thought forward.

    • Priya, I wouldn’t comment about other people’s situations, but you CAN write articles – slower than someone without kids, but perhaps more focused! If not, you can offer to do book reviews – a good way to increase your personal library whilst getting your name known – and you can attend day-conferences or maybe go as a day-delegate to part of a conference. You can also get known on online discussion forums. It’s all about compromise!

      • I’d start by writing to the editor of the journals you use most frequently, say you’re keen to start doing some scholarly writing, then BRIEFLY outline your interests and what stage in your research you’re at. (Maybe mention where you are and who your supervisor is.) Then just ask if they would consider adding you to their list of book reviewers for when something appropriate came along. I’ve never been asked to provide a sample first – but I’ve reviewed things on and off for years. You could always add that you’d welcome feedback if they’d give you an opportunity to review something.

    • Hi Priya, I agree with Karen that you can write with all other constraints. I have considerable restraints (most discussed in my reply below). The way I have done it is to lodge abstracts for conferences. So far, I have been accepted for two. Then I have to produce a paper based on my conference presentation. This means I have timelines and a tangible product at the end. My next conference is at the QPR conference in Adelaide. My two teenagers are happy as they get to see Adelaide while dad “nerds it up” – as they say.

    • Priya, there are always going to be compromises when you’re trying to do so much. In my case I’m doing a Thesis by Publication, so I’m writing articles for publication as I go. I have also attended a conference that was held during school holidays, so my husband took the children on a holiday (in our case in a different location) while I went to the conference. I’ll be attending another one later this year and I’ve given my husband a whole 12 months notice that he might need some time off while I’m away. The compromise I have made is that I can’t take on as much teaching and paid work as I’d like, so I’m not well networked within the university. You can’t do everything. I do think that the compromises you choose to make will be different depending on your stage of life and the ages of your children. Will there be a period of time while your thesis document is being examined? That’s the time to write a few papers and apply for a conference (and you thought you would get a break ha ha!). Susan

  7. I am yet to commence my PhD, but I over the last 7 years since the first of my three children was born, I have completed an Honours degree (first class), a graduate diploma, and a Masters degree (all in Law). To make things a little more chaotic, we homeschool!

    The most effective time management tool I have found is to go to bed when the little ones do, and get up to start work around 3 or 4am. That way I get my 6 – 7 hours sleep, a block of 3-4 hours blissfully uninterrupted (except for the occasional emergencies of nightmares, wet beds or teething) time to concentrate, and the blessing of spending the day with my darlings. They do school work with me in the morning, and the two oldest spend the afternoon outside with my husband (we both work from home as independent contractors as well), while I squeeze in another hour or two of work during the littlest one’s afternoon nap. When she wakes up from her nap, we clean house together.

    A willingness to embrace the dance of chaos is essential. Similarly, an understanding that as soon as you have everything flowing just the way you like it, something in the dynamics will change – it is a constant exercise in flexibility. I find the biggest distraction to watch out for is social media – including interesting articles and random blog comments. However, I have trialed various time management software apps (my current favourite is 30/30 for the iPad) which allows me to set a cyclical timer for different tasks (eg splitting an hour between academic and paid work with scheduled short breaks for stretching and distractions). I get a surprising amount of work done this way.

    • So encouraging to read about another home educating parent. I’m about to start a PhD and we home educate our 14, 12 & 9 year olds. Everyone thinks I’m crazy – and I do a little bit too.

  8. I started my academic journey in 2004 with my undergraduate degree. I am now on my Doc. Ed journey. I empaphise with Susan. I have completed my journey whilst working full time (for most of the journey) and managinf my family commitments, my social activity (only one) and working between 30 – 50 hours per week. And preparing for classes in my own time.

    I also have my own space out the back where the family and I can separate for a time. But, that doesn’t stop them rniging the intercom or strolling out to show me latest Youtube clip or tell me they’re bored or hungry or …

    My saving grace, my ever loving, and ever supportive wife who also owrks full time and manages our household. Without her I would not be on this journey.

  9. Wow,

    I am so glad to stumble on these posts as they have massively uplifted my spirit. Unlike a lot of the previous authors on this issue, I am a father of two little ones (3 and 5 years), plus a supportive wife who is also studying a Masters. I am doing a PhD part time (6 years max), in my third year, working full time and devoted to my family. I have come close to quitting so many times but somehow I remain standing. From the word go my academic supervisor did not take kindly to doing a PhD part time and blatantly suggested it was unworkable. One of the professors on my Thesis Advisory Panel even suggested that the departmental bursary I had (which pays my school fees) was unfair to other full time students. Yes, I have been battered and bruised, but still standing. I work 40 hours a week and pull of 20 hours for studies.

    I have been following Thesis Whisperer for a while but felt the need to share my experience today particularly because it touched on the issue of matured students joggling school, work and family. To these selfless, determined and dedicated ones, I raise my hats to you all, I salute you!

  10. I have thought for a long time about replying to this thread because I really appreciate its positive and optimistic tone.

    But I just want to ask you all a question, as someone who has been working as a full-time academic for the whole of my children’s lives. My daughters are 14, 13 and 8. I have done all the things: got up early, worked late at night, worked all weekends, and endlessly multitasked my presence in their lives with my work. I didn’t choose this because of the value I place on my work (which I do truly love to do) or because I was particularly ambitious (which I’m not), but because the baseline standards for output in our profession rose very rapidly from about the late 1990s, pushed upwards by people with far fewer caring responsibilities, and highly competitive universities who were glad to recoup their gifted time. As a feminist I felt it was important to make the personal compromises necessary to keep up, because I am really concerned about the limiting assumptions about women and parenting that held women back in universities for so long.

    I now look back at some of this with regret, not just because of the impact on me, my children, and my partner, but because this keeping up became a practice of compliance with rapidly escalating professional expectations that I think are actually quite harmful for everyone. So as a feminist I now feel that I want to speak back to the organisations that train you and hire me, and say: wait, stop, think. Can we sustain this pace? Can we sustain it over a whole career? Is this really how we choose to live and work?

    • Absolutely agree – was talking to someone on the weekend about just this issue – who you compare yourself to, and who compares you to an arbitary ‘standard’ is important. Questions need to be asked of management? Are you comparing me with someone who has a reasonable work/life balance, or with the ‘stars’? who is being most rewarded? How sustainable is this, even for the ‘stars’, what are the costs?

      • And what kinds of co-dependency do we manifest with this unhealthy system when we say “whatever it costs, I will do it”? Or when we cheer each other on for doing it? This really worries me.

      • Kate is spot on – we are working the early hours the weekends, whatever it takes and those of us in the PhD/ECR phase are ‘wearing’ the volatilities and insecurities in the system, working insecure jobs getting lower superannuation, as our wealthy universities push the costs of employment onto us.
        High costs indeed to families and lives,
        Kate is right to make us think a little bit wider about the demands of academic life and whether we should be cheering ourselves on for our part in it.

    • I attended a talk one day by a senior businesswoman – I think it was Helen Nugent. This was in the mid 90s and we were all bright-eyed MBA candidates mostly unmarried and none of us with children. Someone asked Helen whether there were any regrets in the career choices she had made and she said that she regretted not being there for her children. That shut the room up for a nano-second, but honestly at that point in our careers none of us had much idea about children and how much time they can take. You’ll notice that my husband does not appear in my original blog post. That’s because he is on a constant treadmill of “meeting and exceeding expectations” – in fact his performance appraisal is based on whether he “meets” (ie. not doing enough) or “exceeds” (ie. killing himself for his employer). As a consequence he is travelling about 50% of the time and is not there to pick up the pieces when the household falls apart due to my simultaneous parenting and PhD’ing. He supports me by earning the household income, which means I don’t also need to take on a big teaching load and my income contribution is a very small teaching load plus a scholarship. Yes, it is worth stopping and asking what happens to children (and spouses!) who only see their father/Partner 50% of the time and who see “work-life” modelled as an all-pervasive monster that involves constant attachment to email, demanding phone calls at 2am from the other side of the world and exhaustion. My kids eye off their Dad and say they don’t want a job like that. I wonder if they look at me and decide that study looks all too hard also. Employers expect too much in my view, but reading some of the posts (including my own!) I think we also all expect too much of ourselves and model these high expectations for our children.

      • This is an issue for me too. I recently heard a very senior woman at the university where I work say that our children admire us for what we achieve. But my oldest daughter’s view of this is very plain. Not only does she not want to work as I have done her whole life, but at the moment she’s clear that she doesn’t even want to attend a university. So like you I’m thinking about what we model. I used to hold out against this thinking because I was concerned that it was yet another way that women were held responsible for, oh, everything, but I am now seeing more and more male colleagues speaking up for mental health and work/life balance in a culture driven by the assumed virtues of super-productivity that your husband is facing.

        I really appreciate your thoughtful response, Susan, particularly given the depth of your professional experience here.

      • I can completely relate to this! I am a full time PhD student with two children and a partner that often works away (well, every week during the working week, he is interstate). My kids have actually said that they don’t want to go to Uni, because they see doing this PhD thing, and at times have seen me in tear over it. And then their dad is away weekly too. I often worry about whether I am setting a good example or not, and if I had a 9-5 job a few days a week, if they would view things differently?

  11. I did it be waking up early and working in the early mornings prior to breakfast/school drop off etc. I am a morning person and I loved those 3 hours or so or even 2 hours before 7am of quiet focus that passed in what seemed like 5 minutes. I still do this when I have a deadline but I wish I did it more often.

  12. Thank you for your post. I have just started a FT PhD on an APA and have 3 under 6. Studying is scheduled into specific slots during school, pre-school and family day care hours. Nothing is done between 3-8pm however I do get a babysitter for 2 days so I can work til 5. I am also a single parent. Somehow I juggle all this with casual teaching. I hope to submit the year my youngest starts school, then start the search for a permanent position. Thanks for the tip about going to bed when the little ones go, I’ll try that.

  13. Thank you Susan and everyone who has commented. I read this post this morning and thought- this is my life! The PhD is coming along (so far) but I am with Kate – I also wonder what our now early teen-aged kids make of it. They are proud of me (and their Dad, who also did his PhD when they were younger), but I have one who tells me, “You are always moving, can you just sit still?” That’s hard to hear when I see myself as a committed Mum first and everything else second :( So now I just try to ‘move’ faster when they are not looking/when they are asleep- any better ideas?!

  14. Thanks for the great post and the comments. I have been lurking here and enjoying the discussion about PhD. But I guess I have to respond to this post on two issues:
    1) “Over the weekend it seemed that every time I wrote a sentence or two I would be required to down tools and deliver someone to play rehearsals, rugby or soccer. Then the family needed to eat, so there were meals to prepare and questions every 30 minutes all day about what snacks they could eat. I probably got four hours work done, but it was in blocks of time that ranged from 15 to 45 minutes. There’s no consistency and no flow of thought, no chance of “getting on a roll.””
    This was exactly my issue. Sometime I do wonder whether I was th only one who could not function and I deeply admire and deeply envious of others who can (and those who can write in 20 minutes blocks). I started a SJD (sort of miniPhD) and found myself hiding in my room at work on weekends ‘cos there were too much interruptions during the week with two young children. My wife and I share (no equally, I admit) the household chores and child-care. It was a real struggle to write anything. I just could not concentrate.
    2) Responding to Kate’s comment. I thought it was great. It follows on from my previous point. After 3 months of weekend at work and missing all the stuff at home, I decided it was not worth it and junked my SJD. Many years later, I converted that into a LLM by coursework. Now the relentless pressure that is the modern academic bureaucracy is telling me I should consider PhD if I want to be promoted. sigh!
    But I think Kate has hit the nail on a crucial point. How much of the expectations of a modern -day academic is unhealthy from a family or work/life balance perspective?
    Re comparison, one of the baby boomers who is now professor emeritus. I guess he could do it and have it all ‘cos he had a wife at home dealing with all the chores and other things?

    And yes, I am one of the men who is a feminist and decided to say no but then is suffering by comparison with other men who are more successful.
    And no, I do not wish to revert to the old model ‘cos I still believe that we can have it all but possibly the solution is at different stages of life/career. Unfortunately work does not recognise that and it is the comparisons that disadvantages.

  15. While I am pleased for the poster and her successes – and of the commenters above, I’m a little nonplussed about the narrative here. I know plenty of folks who are NOT parents doing their PhD and plenty of parents who ARE doing their PhD (I know LOTS of people doing their PhDs, just lucky I guess!). Each and every one of them has a full, busy life juggling the bits and bobs that crop up every day requiring attention – regardless of their progeny or lack thereof. These ‘bits and bobs’ can range from elderly parents, siblings, businesses, chronic illness and disability, animals and a million other responsibilities of life-in-general. I’m not criticising the author of the post or denigrating her success – she has every right to be proud of herself! But does being a parent AND doing a PhD make it a ‘better’ PhD or ‘harder’ or more ‘worthy’? Is it a competition? Does that mean we think less of non-parents doing their PhD?

    • I think because being a parent includes all of those things you’ve mentioned, along with a caring load that is enormous. It can be difficult to realise the enormity of the care-load if you aren’t doing it. Hell, my brother-in-law with two kids queried my reluctance to engage more in a hobby we share after I started the PhD because “I work full-time as well” – he’s not the primary carer though, and that makes a difference.
      It means I need to leave the office at 2.10pm at the latest or I don’t get to the school in time to pick my kid up. And she can’t look after herself, and if I’m not there, it means I not only have an afternoon of panicked and upset emotions to assuage (and my own guilt/anger) I also have to deal with that at drop off for the next week or so. Yes, I could pay for afterschool care but that would mean I would need to budget that in with either reduced money for something else, or more work somewhere else. It’s not just a straight line of added duties.
      My supervisor is engaged with caring for his father and I think it makes a difference that we both understand, implicitly, that the phone call, or the crash, or the wailed complaint, means we need to shut it down and run away from the Skype meeting.
      A friend of mine remembers how in her first year she kept being told to talk to another student because they were so organised. Said other student lived at home, had no other employment, and funnily enough, was able to have a great turnaround on her work. She had pretty much nothing to offer my friend in way of advice because my friend had a household to run, children to care for, and the PhD to do, while the paragon of study could focus entirely on that study. Ignoring the way that other responsibilities affect workload is ultimately unsustainable (and to me, inhumane to the point of unethical).
      There was nothing about PhD candidates being lesser. They may have fewer responsibilities, and some do. It’s about the ways parenting while studying changes how you do it, and has to change how you do it.

      • Great reply, Loup. I didn’t finish the PhD I started when I was young and single. I did another one, from scratch, 25 years later. I am therefore in a position to agree, very sincerely, that you have no idea what parenting OR parent-PhDing is like until you’ve been there. A pet? No, they don’t need nearly as much work as a houseful of teens, or a spouse who had two knee replacements the summer I submitted and defended my thesis. No-one said parent doctoral candidates are better, or that their theses are better – just that caring responsibilities make it that much harder. Well done the people who DO finish their PhD while they’re young and free – it gives them more years in which to reap the benefits afterwards!

  16. Hello again..I am really happy to read all those comments because frankly, the issue of balancing family and Phd is rarely discussed in the Phd circles. I also have to say that I am ‘humbled’ by how much people are pulling off at the same time …juggling full time work, a PhD and more than one child. In the comments I got the impression that many try to squeeze 15 or 20 minutes here and there. I have tried doing this, but with my toddler it doesn’t work..i don’t know if it is because I got her used to having my attention, or because I believe that when I am with her, she deserves my full attention (when she gets it), because once she is back from daycare, there is always the extra bit of cleaning, cooking and what not that you have to squeeze in between coming home and bed-time. On weekends I spend Saturday fully focused on my family (my kid and husband) and work for three hours on sunday) but the progress feels slow…

    Also some of you have talked about attending conferences. How hard was it to go through with this for your child (put up with your absence) and do you think age makes a difference? I am contemplating taking up a consultancy that requires quite a bit of travel but worry how my 22 old month toddler will handle it given the fact that I have never spent one night without her (we are quite attached to each other so the worry is for myself as much as for her). Is it too early? Or is it that it will just ‘never feel right’ so there is really no ideal moment?

    Another question for those of you who decided to have more kids while they were doing their PhD (like jenna lopez), how ‘crazy’ of a time is this? My husband and I would very much like to have a second child, but I worry about being able to advance on my thesis if it comes sooner than later and so we are putting off the idea of trying till I have a solid first draft of my thesis..did you rely on outside help or was it basically just you and your hubby? did you fall off the map of the world for a few months in the beginning?

    Last but not least, thanks for this thread..truly inspiring..and it makes me feel that I am not alone in this…although I am by far not as overwhelmed with multi-tasking as some of you out there…

  17. Nice to see how others are doing the same juggling! Doing a social science PhD is a lonely enough journey, but throw it the fact that most of my peers are about 5 years younger and not parents, I sometimes feel like a bit of an oddity. One of my colleagues at my university is doing her PhD on social support for PhD students and I was the only one in a focus group who had a child. I found my experience of a PhD was so different to the others’, and the support networks I relied on were also slightly different.

    The worst thing about juggling a PhD and having a kid (I have only 1) is the guilt. Mummy guilt is THE WORST. The second worst thing is the chronic sleep deprivation. I’ve been a single parent for the past 4 years. My daughter is 6. I work 2 jobs at 2 different universities and am doing a full-time PhD at an accelerated pace. Will finish in just under 3 years, if I don’t lose my mind between now and then!

    I’ve maintained this workload for the last 14 months, but it’s not worth it. I stupidly signed up to be a P&C member last year, too. The income from working this much is fabulous, as I’m able to support us and give my daughter the little extras–like piano lessons last year. But I realised that it was happening at the expense of proper, quality time with my daughter. I’d be half asleep at her bath time, nodding absently as she tells me about her day. I’d nod off during bedtime reading. So come April, when my research managing contract is up for renewal, I’ll be dropping down to 1 part-time job only and will devote myself to the PhD and the kiddo. No more mummy guilt! Well, LESS mummy guilt. We’ll be dirt poor for the next 2 years or so, but at least she’ll have a mum who can volunteer at the canteen and show up for special assemblies and not scramble to iron the school uniform at 8am.

    I also found that sleeping when your kid/s go to bed works. Bedtime is 8pm, on the dot. If I fall asleep at that time, I will usually wake up at 10pm and will work on the computer until about midnight (unless project reports are due, in which case, it’s more like 3am). I spoke to another PhD parent the other day and she said she has delineated tasks for each day of the week and does not deviate from this. So, Monday may be lit review day, Tuesday is data analysis, Wednesday is side projects, etc. And no answering emails until after 12pm (I can’t seem to manage this!). I also read anywhere and everywhere. Some of my most productive reading has happened on my daily commutes. If I bring the same dog-eared paper with me to read, I’d be able to get through it + plus annotations in a week. The other thing to remember is that just because you may not have time to sit in front of a computer and synthesize information doesn’t mean you’re not being productive. Sometime, the best ideas happen when you’re not in ‘study mode’. I call it ‘thinky time’.

  18. The problem is that once you have kids, they don’t go away! And it doesn’t get much easier as they get older either. In fact once they are at Uni themselves it gets worse, because you don’t even have guaranteed time free during the day. They want to talk to you about failed love affaires, they want to be driven places if they still don’t have a license and they want you to look over their essays! On top of which by this time most of us have elderly parents in need of time and attention.
    I’m in desperate need of a house cleaner, “ain’t nobody got time for that!”

    • Damn! At least they want to talk to you though – you must have done something right :-) Oh – and the name for people in your position is, apparently, is ‘the sandwich generation’…

  19. I have a 15 months toddler and only in my fourth months of PhD. I am so pumped up and inspired after reading the article and some of the comments of Phd parents (cant read them all, i have to go and fetch my kid at day care)

    • I’m really interested in how you are finding it Sarah! I am about to return to my PhD (part time) with a 14 month old. I’ve been on leave for the last 16 months and only did a year before that. Do you have any tips on how to get back into the swing of things with a little person? Am feeling a bit nervous to say the least….

  20. I have read with interest all the comments & empathize with most. I work full time, have 3 children & are 2/3 through a doctor of nursing. My 2cents worth are:
    While its important to show our children the value & rewards of hard work its also important to not be a self sacrificing martyr. This is a bad example especially for our girls.
    I agree we don’t know whats going on in other peoples lives & what they are juggling. But by & large singletons have it much easier & I so wish I had done this years ago.

  21. This is my life! I’m in my fourth year of it now and because my funding has finished, I recently threw an almost-fulltime job in the mix too – which I do over 4 days a week. Yes, it’s all-consuming – but mostly it’s good and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Good luck with it!

  22. You forgot the times when kids fall sick often and bring in the infections from school ;) I have been trying to finish a paper but for the last two months, my son has been down with tonsils and viral flu twice. Each time as soon as he recovers, I get the infection. I feel like I have no energy to do anything. But I know, that as soon as he recovers, it is going to be the same crazy schedule as yours.

    • I’ve been very lucky with healthy children who rarely get sick. I like to think that’s an outcome of early exposure to cockroaches and dead flies on windowsills. You’ll notice there was very little talk about housework/cleaning in my original post.

  23. I’m wondering where fathers are in this discussion? And the assumption that academic women without children somehow have it easier? Sometimes, that’s been a non-chosen “sacrifice.”

    • Well some of the people replying are fathers who are juggling parenting with PhD study (and some holding down paid work also). Perhaps you’re referring to spouses of the PhD students. I can answer on behalf of mine (and did so in an earlier reply) – mine is on a plane most of the time, or on international conference calls trying to work a 60-70 hour week because that’s what his company demands. See earlier post about employers expecting too much! That’s why I’m doing that long list of household chores in addition to the PhD study. I’m very fortunate that, unlike many of the people replying, I’m not holding down a big paid job as well – I just do a small amount of teaching at uni. I don’t know that anyone has singled out any groups and said that they have it easier, although it always seems that someone else has an easier life than one’s own. Many people have responsibilities outside their academic lives that are not child-related: ageing/sick parents, voluntary positions and other additional roles. I do sigh in despair though when I suggest that my undergrads hold a meeting about their group assignment at 8am before their 9am lecture. They look aghast that I would suggest they get up that early. Heavens, by 8am I’ve usually cooked dinner, cleaned up from breakfast, got 3 children off to school, hung two loads of washing and I’m on my bike cycling to uni. I’m sure all the parents and those caring for elderly family or doing volunteer roles of one kind or another know exactly what I’m talking about.

  24. This is an interesting discussion but I too also feel that sometimes people only contribute to these debates when they are managing it all. I am not. I have three children – the youngest two arrived unexpectedly when I was a year into my PhD! Since then I have struggled to get going. When I started I had one child, a helpful mother-in-law and I was on study leave. Now there is always someone off school with an illness or a doctor’s appointment to attend or a school event. I work two days a week and have a long commute and about half of my time at home is actually spent managing the household. My mother in law unfortunately had a stroke and needs constant care.

    I have frequently read that the secret to getting stuff done is to get up early but we live in a very small flat and if I get up early my daughter always hears and gets up too which defeats the object. I can’t work in the evening as by the time the children are in bed and I have sorted things out for the next day I can barely keep my eyes open.

    For me, the experience of trying to do a PhD with children (and at this point I doubt whether I will finish) has been rather negative. I started off with enthusiasm but our circumstances have only served to underline how much I do in the family which my husband (who completed his PhD when he was young, free and single…sigh) cannot or will do. I think it has been very detrimental to our relationship!

    • I’m sorry to hear things are not working out for you. I don’t think I could have done my PhD when the children were younger. Many of the people replying to my original post have quite young children. In my case I was at home with them mostly on my own with no daycare or nanny. Both my parents died a few years before I started studying so there is no help there. Younger children are demanding in a different way to older ones. If you really find you need to give up don’t see that decision as forever. See it as the wrong timing for you . . . and come back to your passion and dream when you have more time to focus on it. You’ll probably only ever have one PhD experience so you want to enjoy it, not resent it. I hope you can find a way forward, if not now then a little later.

    • Hi Ladolcevita,

      I understand.
      On the contrary, I am not managing as well as I had hoped and therefore I can relate. This is the reason why I felt the need to post my message. To draw strength from the original post and other experiences. I believe you’ll make the right decision for yourself in the end. After all what matters is your happiness.

      Keep smiling

    • It sounds like you are dealing with a lot at the same time – every PhD student needs a support crew, but when the support crew needs support it’s very easy for the wheels to fall off. I take my hat off to you for perservering and hope it gets better soon for you.

  25. Thank you Susan ! As a newbie full time PhD student (at MQU incidentally !) and a busy mum I often have the same thoughts and concerns as you. My kids don’t see me as working and busy, just as mum and like you I am always downing tools, driving here and there, cooking etc. Your post made me laugh. I get EXACTLY the same questions about Minecraft/play dates/food !

  26. Thank you for the article! It’s great to know that I am not alone. I have three kids, a full time job and undertaking a PhD part time. Finding that balance is extremely hard but having the drive is what is getting me through it.

  27. hello,
    this article really made my day !Although I am not PHD student and not a mum !
    I am a single master degree student :)
    your article really inspired me as I am a very busy person ,working in full time job , regular volunteer in charity organization all that besides my master .
    After reading your article I had known that I am not the only one struggling in here :) and found an answer to my question :”why mothers bother having post graduate studies ? why they didn’t do it while they were singles (like me ) ”
    any way , thank you so much for that amazing article and best of luck in you PHD , doctor :) !

  28. Thank you for sharing this information with us.

    Only recently, I have learnt the art of spending small amount of time throughout the day (small intervals) to study. Brick by brick, they begin to take shape. I’m yet to perfect this art but in comparison to how I was before, waiting for that long slot of time to study, between full time career and family, just wasn’t enough.

  29. Thanks for an excellent article! I’m only at MRes stage but everything you’ve written rings true. During the course of reading this article I’ve ‘endured’ about 5 separate interruptions! I laughed out loud about the study break between 3 and 8, which sums up my life at this stage too. All the best with completing your PhD on track.

  30. A resource I found so helpful over my journey of research degrees and babies was the book ‘Mama: PhD.’ A bunch of essays where women write about motherhood and academic life. It stopped me from dropping out a number of times.

  31. Thank you sooo much. I found your article while researching on something and my god, its exactly what I grapple with. This has gems that i want to shout about

    “Obsessing about things that shouldn’t matter” – exactly what I needed to hear. Getting interrupted every 30 mns. My children are not as well trained as yours so i need to fix that first.

    I am planning to study and was wondering how to fit it in, and i so needed to read this, and to finally go for further studies like I always wanted.

    thank you, for taking the time to write this thoughtful piece.

  32. I recently had a discussion with my daughter who is in the Ph.D. ‘valley of shit’ about the pros and cons of having other responsibilities while doing a Ph.D. I started my Ph.D. in 1989 when my kids were 1, 3 and 5 years old, finished five years later, and only went slightly mad along the way. It was much easier than combining a Ph.D. with paid work (when they all got chicken pox, one after the after, not concurrently, I just stayed home). Their routines – especially when they got to school – meant I had an annual structure around school holidays, a weekly structure, and a daily structure around their school hours. When I hit the ‘valley’, I had the perfect excuse in the form of letting everybody know that I was taking a year off while my youngest (the one doing the Ph.D now) was at preschool. My husband (fabulously supportive throughout my Ph.D.) did his own doctorate (I was fabulously supportive then!) when they were all at school and was able to combine being the ‘at home’ parent after school and on holidays, paid consultancy work, and a chronic illness that made his life pretty difficult. I don’t think it’s ever easy and there were many times when I had to step back and rethink how much of my energy was going where. But the final result for us – at 50 and 51 – is happy adult kids pursuing their own careers, two Ph.Ds, really satisfying public sector jobs for both of us, and a pretty good life. Hang in there!

  33. Great to know that there are other mammas out there also struggling to balance their doctorate and managing a household with children. I feel encouraged to try harder and finish my doctorate, too. Thank you for sharing this.

  34. I usually go to this site for some inspiration when I am too tired to continue in my work on PhD and I love these supportive posts! I am in the second year of PhD with 4 months old baby-boy. Almost all my friends are having babies too, but I don’t know anyone who is doing PhD at the same time and I feel like I am all alone in it. My former colleagues are usually single and spend all their time in lab or by programming. Sometimes I am thinking about interrupting the studies but when I read how other people are able to rise 3 kids, study and work, I am amazed and inspired.
    Thank you very much for sharing this.

  35. Susan’s points about the skills that PhD parents bring to their research (and future academic positions) are spot on. These skills are also hopelessly unrecognised by universities, who see older research students as indulgers and a waste of money.

  36. A short post. I stumbled on this blog/discussion today and would like to thank Susan for her amusing (resonating) insights into juggling family and PhD. Im a single parent in my first year with three at home (one in primary school & two in high school/college). Managing part-time work, full-time PhD and all the social aspects of family without extended family support can certainly be somewhat overwhelming. Over the past 10 months I have ‘morphed’ into a more relaxed, less stressed mum – at least on the home front. This change in defining what is acceptable at home in terms of ironing / organisation/ tea always at 6pm, has been an important journey not without its ‘Sheldon-like’ (Big Bang) moments for me. However, as mentioned in an earlier response, to avoid demonstrating martyr – mum tendencies as the norm to my children, its been a very valuable journey thus far.
    Also, its nice to hear there are others sharing a very similar experience.

  37. Trying to do my undergraduate dissertation with a 3 year old and a 1 year old that doesn’t sleep through the night yet. And a job. Now THAT’s difficult!
    To be fair, I’ll probably fail, but at least I gave it a good shot.

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