A PhD… plus four kids?!

I’ve written about PhD Parenting a couple of times, but I feel a bit like I do parenting-lite when I hear other people’s stories as I have but one child. How about doing a PhD with four kids at home?! This Post is by Sarah Stanford. As  a  Youth  Pastor  and  Youth  Worker,  Sarah  provided  support  for  many  young  people  who  were  self-harming.  Driven  by  a  desire  to  make  a  contribution  at  a  wider  level,  she  undertook  a  PhD  researching  self-harm.  Her  research  focuses on understanding, responding to, and preventing self-harm in schools, churches,  and  other  community  settings.  You can find Sarah on her website or on Twitter as @DocStanford

People tend to look at you weird if you have four kids. And people tend to look at you weird when they find out you’re doing a PhD. So you can imagine that I have had a generous share of strange looks over the last few years. Common reactions would include:

‘Are you crazy??’

‘You must be a supermum!’

‘How on earth do you do that?’

And of course, the often unspoken question: ‘Why?’

I received a lot of well-intentioned advice during my PhD. It turns out I didn’t follow most of it. So here are the rules I broke, and the things that worked for me.

(I will add a disclaimer up front: Yes, I had a very supportive husband. He would pitch in with all aspects of parenting and running the house. This is just my experience and it will be different for everyone.)

The rules I broke:

Get as much done as possible before your first

I’ve come across very organised people that schedule their pregnancies around their PhD plan. They have the first baby after the data collection, and perhaps add a second shortly after submitting.

I didn’t follow this sensible approach. I was pregnant with my first when I started my PhD. I squeezed in the bulk of my data collection in between #3 and #4. It was probably harder the way I did it, but I don’t regret it.

Get childcare organised while pregnant

Childcare places can book out quickly, especially those on-site at the University. This seems like sound advice, it just wasn’t the path we took. We chose not to use paid childcare, instead we juggled my PhD around my husband’s work. Towards the end we reduced his hours and juggled his work around my PhD.

Accept offers for help with childcare from extended family and friends

I highly recommend that parents take up offers of help with childcare from family and friends. Unfortunately this wasn’t available to us. Family members worked full-time, we lived in three different areas, and we hadn’t yet established a friendship network to share childcare. Definitely great advice, it just didn’t play out that way for us.

Use all small chunks of time

Making use of small chunks of time in your day can really maximise your efficiency. Unless you’re like me, and it just doesn’t work for you. I remember taking a stack of papers to the park to read, but I could never hold my eyes on the page long enough because my toddler would be wandering off. I would try to catch up on the literature while the kids were nodding off to sleep beside me, only to find myself reading the same paragraph repeatedly wondering what it even meant. The reality for me is that I work best with longer working sessions. It takes me a while to get into things, but when I’m in – I’m in deep. So I need to make time to allow my brain to do good thinking work.

Get your baby sleeping through the night ASAP

Seriously, people. Put your order in for a child that sleeps 12 hours straight from newborn. Ummm… yeah, didn’t happen in my house. But hey, breastfeeding through the night is biologically normal and a preventative factor against SIDS. It’s not all bad.

Schedule time to work away from the house + kids + distractions

I would do this at times, but I often found my best work was in my own house. It was noisy, and they did interrupt, but we tried to teach them that mummy needed to work.

Keep data collection simple

I was given very sensible advice about how to collect data in the most simple, efficient manner possible. In Psychology, that could mean a University student sample or recruiting online participants. Instead, I followed my passion and recruited eight schools to take part in my main research project.

Things that helped me:

Use a baby carrier

Invest in a good quality, supportive carrier that is comfortable for both you and baby. Join your local sling meet to find out how to use it. It makes it so much easier to work while keeping baby settled.

Trusting my instincts

One thing I’ve learnt as a parent is that everyone parents differently. Do what works for you, and follow your own instinct. If things aren’t working, read online, ask other parents, and experiment with different approaches.

Staying focussed

Doing a PhD is a massive undertaking, but the project can get increasingly bigger if it veers off course. Set clear goals of what your final thesis will cover, and how each study fits together, so that you can maintain productivity even during slower working periods.

Publishing throughout

I did my thesis by publication, and there were times I doubted this decision. Responding to reviews, re-writing work multiple times, and re-formatting for different journals can be very time consuming. However, I felt it saved time in having to write for the thesis and then re-write for publication. My fourth and final paper from my thesis was published a few months after graduation, so now my PhD feels properly “finished”.

Bulk cooking

Spend a day each month doing a massive cook up and fill the freezer. That way you can enjoy an easy meal with the kids without spending time cooking and cleaning up.

Do It Anyway

Most of the time during my PhD I didn’t quite know why I was doing it, other than it’s what I felt called to do. Sure, I believed that my research might actually help people. But when staring down the barrel of a hard day’s writing while the kids scream “Mummy” in the background…. yeah, nothing felt particularly inspiring. But I Did It Anyway.

Sometimes you just gotta do it.

An inspiring story Sarah! Do you have a large family along with a PhD? Or do you have to use extreme productivity techniques to fit your PhD around caring responsibilities? Love to hear about it in the comments

Related posts

Parenting through the PhD (or 5 ways not to go completely insane)

Single parenting through the PhD

The positives of PhD parenting

The perils of PhD parenting

Will my children be damaged by my PhD?

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22 thoughts on “A PhD… plus four kids?!

  1. Rosalie says:

    I’m sorry if my response causes offence, but I don’t think that anyone – either female or male – should be having four children.

    Surely family planning is a primary consideration in our lives, including PhD planning.

    We need to share this over-crowded planet, which is increasingly suffering burdens caused by human lifestyles. Obviously it’s too late for Sarah now but I think that others should think again, PhD or no PhD.

    Here’s some discussion on abc about this:


    • Fiona Beavan says:

      Well it’s a good job some of us are. Because our children will be the ones working and paying taxes for those people who ‘choose’ not too. I have 11 children, my carbon footprint is less than a family with two children living in London! This is a weak arguement and unjustified I’m so many levels!

    • EPT says:

      Rosalie, by the same token, you shouldn’t have any children. Why do you want biological kids at all? Adopt! There are already kids available! So, how many children have you personally adopted?

      In all seriousness though, this doesn’t seem like the place to judge someone else’s approach to having children. And at this point, it’s not helpful. It’s not like she’s going to go back in time and erase two of them from existence. So you’re really just judging her for her reproductive choices.

  2. Annette says:

    Some great tips and I take my hat off – I have three (12, 10 and 5) and question my decision to do a PhD every day! But I loved your final piece of advice – do it anyway! Thank you

  3. Thea says:

    This gives me hope! I started out my PhD single and child-free. 1.5yrs in I was a fulltime stepmum to 2 little boys. 3yrs in and I had my own child. Still pushing on though!

    • Sarah Stanford says:

      So glad you found it encouraging. Keep pushing on! Find what works for you, give yourself grace when it’s not going the way you hoped.

  4. Maja Whitaker says:

    PhD + 4 kids here too (10, 8, 5 and almost 1), plus a fair amount of volunteer work for our church. Some days I feel like I’m killing it, some days I feel like it’s killing me 😂 But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
    I generally don’t do any work unless the kids are at school/preschool or in bed. Like the author I just can’t manage snatches of reading here and there, I need to get in the flow.
    I struggle to know where I’m pitching myself, because I’m a distance student I’m not surrounded by a whole bunch of PhDs, so I’m often left wondering if I’m doing enough. Having said that, I’m glad I’m not surrounded by a bunch of other people, my work time is my quiet time – no kids, no people, just ideas and words.

    • Sarah Stanford says:

      Some days I feel like I’m killing it, some days I feel like it’s killing me

      Love that!

      I did find it hard to evaluate whether I was going at the right pace, especially being off-campus. But then, you can’t really compare with other students anyway because everyone’s project is so different – so the comparison can actually be a bad thing! My supervisor gave me useful feedback on that, though, which helped.

  5. Fiona Beavan says:

    Some really good tips here. I have no idea how you managed to publish too! Well done. I have 11 children aged 30 – 7 year old twins. I lecture too. It’s far from easy at times but they inspired my study.

  6. mandalawi says:

    This was such a. boost for me. Read it while both my kids, under three, are asleep and technically I should be doing literature review 🙂
    very inspiring, thanks for sharing! I needed to read something like this

    • Sarah Stanford says:

      Sometimes what you feel you ‘should’ do isn’t the thing that you need. So glad this could encourage you. One foot in front of another, hey.

  7. Yvonne Ualesi says:

    🙌🏾 awesome! I have four awesome little people too 18, 15, 13 & 11yo. Busy with community, conferences, guest lectures and managed one publication. It’s tough but doable .. although a little crazy and stressful at times. They’re all sports fanatics, play reps sports, in cultural groups, play instruments .. busy is an understatement. Wouldn’t have it any other way 🙂 Our Faith centres us 🙏🏾 and hugely important.

    • Sarah Stanford says:

      That’s great Yvonne, thanks for sharing! I love your perspective – touch but doable, although a little crazy sometimes!

  8. Ifeoma Ekenna says:

    Thanks for this post. I am considering doing a PhD with 2 children now and hoping for a 3rd and my husband may not travel with me then. I will just go with the flow then. I am so motivated.

    • Nnenne says:

      I have 4 kids with me and new in UK doing my PhD at ages 9,7,6,4. My husband is joining me soon. I must tell you it’s not easy doing it alone. It would have been easier if hubby came along with you to help run around, but it is definitely doable. Maximising your time when they are in school. It would be a lot harder if you are alone with 2 kids, doing PhD and preparing to get pregnant for a third in a different country. Although, they are support around.

  9. Tobenstein says:

    Any formal study can be tricky with kids but doable with the right boundaries and attitude. My wife recently completed an undergraduate online diploma whilst I was working and travelling a lot doing data collection for my PhD. We live and work in subsaharan Africa so we have no support from family or anything but it’s been doable, we just need to prioritise and be realistic about what is possible. All of the stuff above in the context of my wife home schooling our three kids full-time. I think a single parent doing a PhD would be super tough and so good on anyone for having a go!

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