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Going to grad school with children

In a previous post, I talked about the many concerns that people have in deciding to getting a PhD later on in life when you already have a career and family. One of the major concerns is your family. Will you have enough time for them and still dedicate the hours of your life to studying for courses, preparing lectures, and of course, doing research projects to work towards putting together a PhD thesis.

work and kids

As someone who grew up with a mother that was in the lab all the time, and as someone who got a PhD myself with classmates who had children while in grad school, I know that the decision of going to grad school could have a huge effect on your children, but you could also still be a dedicated parent at the same time. It all depends on you.

My mom’s journey in getting a PhD with a kid

My mom was an electrical engineer at a research institute in Shanghai before she decided to get into a PhD program in the US. At that point I was already 8 (I was the only child). When my dad and I joined her in the US 6 months later, she was pretty much busy all the time. I remember only seeing her late late at night. And even then, she would be burning the midnight oil deep into the night while I tried to sleep with the covers over my head to cut out the light. Since her PhD stipend was our family’s only income at the time, it was a huge difference in lifestyle. We were really well to do back in China, where as in the US I was getting free lunch at school since we were barely above poverty line. My dad had to give up his career as an opera singer to come to the states. And since he took up odd jobs to try to support the family as well, I was home alone most days as a kid.

The other side of the story

That being said, getting a PhD with kids is definitely doable. You don’t have to be like my mom and focus only on work (for her there was also a language barrier). In my class at the University of Michigan Neuroscience Program, there were two parents. One mom came in to the program with a little girl (before school age and we watched her grow up), and another guy that had a baby in the middle of his PhD. Then there’s also the examples of people who comes to the US for their PhD or Postdoc, while leaving their kids and spouse back in their home country where there’s more family support (something I would have preferred as a child).

If you decide that work life balance is important to you, it is definitely possible to achieve that. One thing is to do as much as possible during the time you dedicate as work time so you have more family time after that. The other is perhaps more important, which is to find a lab with a PI (Principle Investigator, basically your boss) that is understanding and a family person themselves. There are definitely PI’s that are on the very understanding side and tries to be on your side, and then there are PIs who would be very unreasonable and believe you should work 12hrs a day like them and on weekends and holidays, and even fire people because they just had a baby (which is what happened to the guy in my class, I was able to introduce him to another lab I knew).

Personally, I think getting a PhD with kids is definitely doable, especially if you have a spouse that is there to support you through it. It will be hard to balance between work and family, but not impossible.

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