An Open Letter to Someone Contemplating a PhD and Parenting

15 April 2013, 1440 EDT

Dear PhD Prospective (with kids or thinking about kids),

Thanks for contacting me.  It sounds like you missed Steve Saideman’s sage advice and are actually going to be trying to get a PhD in political science.  Many top people in the discipline will keep working to discourage you from attending – with your best interest at heart – but it sounds like you aren’t going to take their advice to avoid a PhD altogether.[1]   So, welcome aboard!  It’s a fun profession and you’re just at the starting line.

It also appears that you are either (a) a parent already or (b) thinking about becoming a parent sometime during your PhD.  This isn’t surprising – a typical PhD path overlaps with a good chunk of a person’s child-bearing years. There has already been a lot written on how difficult it is to be on the tenure-track or in a policy position with kids.  For those interested in policy work, Anne-Marie Slaughter recommended the option (mainly for women) of avoiding the profession until after your kids are grown.  This might work for you and you are contacting me with kids in college.  If so, congrats!  You avoided this issue and just have to hope that your family commitments stay limited while you work on your PhD.  For all us other sorry souls without a trust fund/wealthy spouse that can support us while we sit on the sidelines for 20 years, please keep reading – this (faux) email is for you.

I’m answering your email because I, too, started a PhD with kids.  I had a child as an undergrad[2] and one more while in a terminal master’s program. Honest-to-God, I started my first day of a PhD program with a bookbag full of Waltz and Keohane… and a breast pump.  It was the most difficult thing I ever have done and, frankly, I have no idea why I attempted it.  But, it was 100% do-able and all of my life – work, kids, partnership – is better because of it.  I wasn’t alone in this path – there are many of “us” in the discipline or in related disciplines – but, for whatever reason, I don’t think we talk about it much.  So, I asked my friends for their experiences[3] and here’s some advice for you.[4]

1.       You probably have a lot of the “voo-doo” juice that makes people successful in this discipline anyway. 

There is a big selection issue here: if you are going to have kids in a PhD program, you probably are a very driven person anyway.  This drive may help you succeed in the discipline with or without children.

2.      A strong support system is essential.  A supportive partner is typically ideal.

The only thing I really have going in my life is a very supportive partner: my husband put his career on hold for me to pursue my PhD.  He found a job that was on the nights and/or weekends.  He told me to “buck-up” when I cried for a week straight after getting an 87% on an assignment in IPE.  It was our dream to have both my PhD and the kids – and his support was essential.

My friend Joe Young (American University) agrees – he offers that “tag-team parenting” and a “spouse making a real income” with him “at home during the day, work[ing] at night” was what worked for him.  Jeff Staton (Emory) agrees – his spouse worked while he stayed home with their daughter.

Another friend, Katy Stigers (Virginia Intermont College), also offered the following sage advice: “make sure your partner/spouse/family are on board with grad school training/lifestyle both what it means to do a phd and what it means for career choices afterward…the answers might change along the way. I think for the family’s sake a couple needs to be evaluating it in an ongoing fashion – when I described the availability of jobs and amount of choice to my husband and used the analogy of the military he said, “I don’t think I want to do that”.  And….Katy eventually decided to leave her PhD program to be a soccer coach.  And, she and her partner are “very happy” with their life choices.

Close family can also step in and help.  My friend (and former student) Rabia Akhtar (Kansas State University) reported that “my husband joined me for one semester but had to return to Pakistan so I consider myself to be a single mother in this situation. At the moment I am working at the archives in DC and my mother is with my son while I am away. Without a support system like my parents and some incredible friends, I would not have been able to manage my research travel.”

If possible, Michelle Allendoerfer (George Washington University), suggests expanding your social support network to include babysitters, either paid or volunteers: “Find child care and use it!  If someone offers to babysit for free, let them!” And, “if you are paying for child care and spending time away from your new little precious ones, you’ll be more productive during the days.“

Beyond the supportive close partnerships you need, I also think it is important to have a few good friends to vent to and to distance yourself from naysayers.  Extended family with no experience in academia often thought my PhD work was the equivalent of being involved with Oprah’s book club while having young children.  They didn’t understand and, to get through, I really had to gird myself when dealing with them.

3.      Relationships are going to suck at times. 

Kids are often difficult on a partnership.  A PhD without kids is often difficult on a partnership. Money strains can be difficult on a partnership.   All combined, you can have a recipe for disaster.  Know this; think about it often.  It took a good couple of years into the PhD before my husband and I found a rhythm that worked for us.  And, we still have to adjust.  Joe Young agrees: “ My only regret was the strain on our marriage. As soon as one person was home, the other was checked out. One other positive benefit though was that I found that starting as an assistant prof. was much easier than grad school. We could afford some more help, I had more time to work, kids got older and spent more time in school. My first couple of years on the job were so much easier than the last couple in grad school.”

Relatedly, you aren’t going to win any popularity contests with your cohort. My friend Byunghwan Son (currently at Mizzou, soon to be at Wooster) is  “a unique case in which both parents are international phd student(s) in a polisci department.”  From his and his partner’s perspective, one thing they  “ lost was socializing with our colleagues (I pick up my son from daycare 4:45 everyday). The nature of graduate work, particularly in the dissertation stage, involves an absolute solitude (compared to other professions) and if you need to be home from 5pm everyday, there’s no chance for your basic human needs for socializing is satisfied. As an international student who’s trying to adapt himself to the American society, this loss feels even greater.”

4.      Have realistic expectations, especially in the short-term after having a baby.

Some babies are content and sleep a lot.  Others aren’t.  My second baby had colic during my MA comps.  It was a type of hell I wouldn’t wish on “Reviewer 2,” no matter how bad he/she misread my paper.  Michelle Allendoerfer sums it up: “ Be realistic, especially with respect to sleep/lack thereof…  Allow yourself naps in the early months.  I did the bare minimum to make it to class and teach and had to accept that (that includes the house/laundry being largely neglected for a while).  But, unlike with my #1, I knew what to expect so I set my expectations lower the second time around.”

5.      Work when kids sleep.

I work almost every night after the kids go to bed, usually now while my husband plays World of Warcraft beside me.  We started that practice early on with kids.  Putting a baby to bed at 7 or 8 pm and diligently working during these hours really adds up.  Jeff Staton reported that finishing his dissertation required “writing every night after [his baby] went down.”

6.      Realize you are going to have some awkward interactions with professors/colleagues. 

I had a senior faculty member ask to use my computer for a talk one time and then complain that my kids were the screensaver – it signified to the audience that I wasn’t a serious academic.[5]  Lindsay Heger  (One Earth Future) said she had “ interesting experiences interviewing pregnant. For one interview I was extremely sick. On another I met with all men found it really awkward to avoid the 500 (almost literally) lb guerrilla in the room. I think they were trying hard to not offend me by asking, but it was pretty difficult not to notice and odd not to be asked about.”

7.      There are a LOT of positives about the whole thing.

Finally, kids aren’t a liability; they are an asset in SO many regards.  Having children in grad school ensured I didn’t have an exegetical crisis and debate for years about what my dissertation was going to be on.  I had increased drive to finish and perspective about why Dr. X’s comments were just crap compared to what really mattered – none of which I’ve written about in a peer-reviewed article.   Byunghwan Son reported that “having a smiling-and-hugging little guy at the end of your day washes out the day’s fatigue (at least temporarily).”  Michelle Allendoerfer concurred: “I didn’t let the same things get me down, because I knew that there were other things in life besides work.  And kids are a great stress relief.  Playing legos, coloring, going to the park… what’s more fun than that!  Having kids gives you an excuse to act like a kid!” Rabia Akhtar, still a PhD candidate, sums it up: “ It is far from over but am excited to live it with all its attendant headaches and heartaches.”

Anyway, there are my thoughts, together with some thoughts from some pretty awesome people I’m glad to be in the same profession with.  It’s a struggle but all good things in life typically are.

Best regards,



[1] Seriously, I don’t know if anyone should ever take any professor’s advice (including my own) on anything – we’re not professionally trained to be advisors and often just want to be left alone to run regressions in a dark room.   I can’t balance my checkbook, read a subway map, or put on makeup correctly; as such, my advice shouldn’t factor in to anyone’s life decisions.  That said, this is one area where you should probably take Saideman’s advice: the job market sucks and no one should do a PhD just because they “love learning.”

[2] Remember, I come from the land of virginity pledges.

[3] I really am overwhelmed with the quantity of responses my friends sent – which is why this blog is too long. This is an issue that needs to be written on repeatedly.

[4] This advice is completely based on anecdotal evidence. And, as one of my professors said, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”

[5] I guess a picture of me running regressions late at night in my basement apartment would have been ok.