“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” ― Franklin D. Roosevelt
Does graduate school prepare you well for parenthood? (Or vice versa?)
I was filled with simultaneous joy and terror the day that I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. I was elated at the thought of bringing a new human being into the world, but I felt completely unprepared for being responsible for someone else’s life for 24/7/365 for the next 18 years and beyond. I already had a PhD, but did I have what it takes to raise a child?
I know some of you readers are (or were) parents in graduate school. You are my heroes. I could not imagine raising a child while I was working on my PhD thesis and I admired my classmates who were parents. Some of my coaching clients started their PhDs after having children, and one of their major concerns was whether they had the necessary skills to finish a graduate thesis. As a Mom of two girls (now 6 and 8), I am fairly certain that most parents have already been through some boot-camp training in patience and perseverance that will prepare them well for the challenges of completing a PhD thesis.
I also know that many graduate students are thinking about becoming parents in the near (or far) future, and they have burning questions about the challenges of parenthood: How will having children affect my career? How do I balance parenthood with the demands of my job? Is academia or industry better if I want a family?
Of course, I cannot tell you how having a child will affect your career specifically – professionals in your field (industry or academia) are the best people to turn to for advice on balancing family and work given the demands of that particular work environment. What I can tell you, is that the “survival skills” that I learned by necessity to finish my thesis were essential to raising my children well while also having a career.
When I found out that I was pregnant, I thought I would need to learn a whole new set of skills to be able to take care of my baby. I had no idea that I had already been trained in graduate school to deal well with the emotional rollercoasters of parenthood. Ironically, the first major challenge of parenthood (i.e. giving birth to my first child) coincided with a crisis in my academic career. For this reason I found myself on a fast-track to apply the skills that I learned as a graduate student to save my career in academia while simultaneously making sure that my baby was taken care of.
How I saved my grant money during my first two weeks of parenthood
I was a postdoctoral fellow and 1 week before my due date my coworkers and boss had unanimously agreed that for everyone’s safety (including those who had to pass by me on narrow hallways) I should work from home. Knowing I would be MIA (missing in action) for a few months, I had already tied up all the loose ends of my publications and experiments, so I felt comfortable taking a break before my little bundle of (mostly) joy was born.
It was a late Friday afternoon, the day before my due date, and I had just finished reading over a manuscript. I decided to check my email one more time before “closing shop” for the week. As I opened my inbox, I saw every postdoc’s worst nightmare: A note from my funding agency that my grant money (2 years of salary) was in peril unless I wrote an auxiliary report to complete my grant application within 2 weeks. This auxiliary report required extra data and research, and would have been a challenge to complete even I had been working on it full-time during the following two weeks.
I knew my baby was due any minute. But I felt like I had to do something, or I risked losing not just 2 years of salary, but the opportunity to do the research I was passionate about, and publish papers in a novel area. I decided to call up the only person who could help me in this situation: my supervisor. He assured me that he would start looking into the literature for additional data. After some discussion we agreed to contact our collaborators to see if they had any preliminary results. It was a brilliantly creative solution, as we found out that our collaborators had already collected some data and were happy to share it in hopes of securing grant money from the agency in the future.
After the call to my supervisor I felt relieved, as I imagined following up with him when I returned from the hospital and working on the proposal while my baby napped – after all, I heard that newborns sleep about 20 hours a day. (In hindsight, I think that whoever wrote that babies sleep 20 hours a day got their numbers backwards – but more on this later.) I quickly composed an email with ideas and suggestion for the auxiliary report and sent it to my supervisor to get a head start on the research. As expected, my daughter was born that weekend, and I was glad I already had some of the groundwork in place for my proposal by the time I got home from the hospital.
The Ten Survival Skills I Transferred from Academia to Parenthood
When I hear the term “transferable skills” I usually think about technical or soft skills (e.g. leadership, communication skills) that you can transfer from academia to an industry environment. In fact, I wrote a previous blog about the most important skill that I transferred from academia to industry. When I worked in industry, most of the PhDs were parents too (i.e. they had two full time jobs), and we frequently joked about whether getting a PhD or raising a child was the bigger challenge. It’s a tough call, but one thing is for sure: raising a child and getting a PhD both require a long-term commitment (hopefully the PhD degree will be much shorter than 18 years, though).
While every parent has their own philosophy on raising children, there are ten key lessons I learned in graduate school (that became second nature by the time I got my PhD) that helped me to raise my children responsibly while also pursuing a career. I actually applied several of them during the two weeks that followed the birth of my daughter so I could finish my grant proposal by the deadline.
As a result of getting through my PhD program, I learned to:
1) Stay calm and be creative during crisis situations – I lost an entire chapter of my thesis a week before the deadline, because the file became (inexplicable) corrupt. I had backed it, but the backup copy did not have the most recent analysis which I had done that day. Had I panicked, I would not have been able to come up with a creative solution to recover the file. After the initial shock I took a short walk, and then it hit me: I had printed a copy of the chapter right before it became corrupt. I ran back to the office, scanned in the 30 pages of text and converted it to a new file using OCR (optical character recognition).
After this minor crisis, I was able to handle tough situations with ease. I was shocked to see the email from my funding agency that my grant money was in peril, but I had learned, from hundreds of experiments going awry and my lost thesis chapter, that there was always a creative way to turn a crisis situations around. After reading the email I remember sitting still for just a few minutes, before I called my supervisor. I believe that staying calm during our conversation (while knowing that my baby was due anytime), helped us to come up with creative solutions that saved our grant money and helped our collaborators.
The ability to stay calm and be creative as a parent during tough situations (e.g. playground accidents, loss of a favorite stuffed animal (a major crisis for a toddler), and “the dog ate my homework”, literally) has saved my sanity on many occasions. In addition, I have become a better role model for my children, who are now coming up with their own creative solutions (which are always better than mine) when conflicts arise.
2) Use every fragment of time (no matter how short) to complete a project – As I wrote in my previous blog, the best strategy for finishing a large project is to set aside large chunks of focused time, rather than multitasking. However, we don’t always have the luxury of several hours in a row to complete one task. During the crunch time of finishing my thesis, I had to collect data and write simultaneously to meet the graduation deadline. There was not a minute waste, and I developed some “guerrilla” planning tools to use every little bit of time to make forward movement on either writing or collecting data.
To make a long story short, my newborn daughter did not sleep 20 hours a day – on a good day she slept maybe 4-5 hours, and they were not consecutive hours (twenty minutes here and there). With the impending deadline I worked around the clock to meet the meet the needs of my newborn, while also pulling my proposal together. Similarly to the last few weeks of writing my thesis, I did not have several hours in a row to finish my proposal. I had to use 10-20 minute segments of time throughout the day to complete my proposal and communicate changes back and forth with my supervisor.
3) Take responsibility and show leadership when you are not in full control – One of the biggest frustrations that graduate students face is that they feel like they are not in control of their thesis. In fact, most students feel like they are at the mercy of their supervisors and thesis committee who eventually decide when they are ready to graduate. (See previous blogs on how to get the most support from your supervisor.)
It is true that you do not have complete control over the fate of your thesis, but I learned that developing good rapport with my supervisor and committee members, as well as showing leadership significantly improved my chances of graduating sooner rather than later. By the time I was a senior graduate student I realized that in order to graduate I had to take ownership of my project by deciding the direction of the research, doing the literature search, following through on my commitments and making it easy for my supervisor to support me.
As a parent, how much control do you have over your child’s behavior and habits? There are hundreds of parenting books out there that give you strategies for helping your child do XYZ, such as sleeping, eating well, and becoming more organized. There are debates regarding the success of these strategies (everyone needs to try them at their own risk), but in the end your child will make their own decisions, whether they are 2 weeks or 18 years old.
I followed all the suggestions to help my newborn daughter sleep for longer periods of time, but she slept when she felt like it, not when I asked (pleaded) her to. All I could do was to create an environment that encouraged good sleeping habits, and eventually (2-3 years later) it worked. To be honest, it took about the same time (2-3 years) to optimize my methods to collect data for my PhD thesis.
The revelation that I did not have complete control over my children’s behavior, and all I could do is be the best role model possible, actually lifted a huge burden off my shoulders. I know I have certain amount of control (e.g. arranging an early bedtime, making healthy foods available, providing support for homework, surrounding our family with positive people), but in the end I need to respect that my children have their own unique personalities and preferences, and they will choose a lifestyle and career that fits their needs best.
4) Function (relatively) well on little sleep – Need I say more here? Most college students and parents of young children are sleep deprived. I actually did not have any all-nighters in graduate school, but I did need to pull 18 hour days in my last semesters, which left only a few hours a day for sleep.The ability to focus while sleep-deprived came in quite handy the first few weeks after my daughter was born, when I had to finish the report for my grant.
For me the toughest part of sleep deprivation occurred when I had young children and I had to work full-time in industry with a one-hour commute in each direction. After the first few months I adapted to the situation, and I was able to focus on my work (and take care of the kids at night), even when I had only 5-6 hours of sleep.
As a side-note, I am not a coffee-drinker. I know you must think I am crazy for not taking advantage of such an easily available stimulant. The few times that I did try it, it did not do much for me. Instead, I just sipped on cold water all day, which kept me awake enough to finish reports or change diapers (or both).
I would also like to HIGHLY emphasize, that I do not recommend cutting down on sleep on purpose. Unfortunately, a few days after I submitted the report for my grant proposal I came down with a severe case of sinus infection, probably due to my immune system being weakened from the sleep deprivation of the previous 2 weeks. I never deprived myself of sleep on purpose, just to prove I could do it. I only gave up sleep (very reluctantly) to finish something for work or because my kids kept me awake. In one of my previous blogs I described the health hazards of chronic sleep deprivation, which were more severe than I had expected.
5) Live on a small budget – Unless you still get an allowance from your parents, have a lucrative side-job, or a wealthy spouse, you probably need to do quite a bit of budgeting as a graduate student to pay your bills. I know some students had to save for several years for one trip to visit their parents on the other side of the world.
My husband got a “real” job when I started my postdoctoral fellowship, and we were just getting used to the good life of eating at “real” restaurants on the weekends. Once I became pregnant, we realized all the expenses that we had coming: babies need a lot of STUFF. According to a recent report by CNN, it costs close to a quarter million dollars to raise a child in the US, and it does NOT include the cost of college. Of course, we were not thinking about college just yet, but we did start to look for daycares. When I saw the monthly cost of “tuition” of an average daycare in the Boston area, my immediate reaction was: “Do they offer law degrees here?”
We managed to lower daycare costs by finding an in-home provider (who must be licensed by the state), but by the time we had 2 kids the cost of daycare was equal to my postdoctoral fellowship. Thus, the four of us lived on one salary until I got my job in industry.
6) Respect Murphy’s Law and always have a backup plan – It did not take long for me to realize in graduate school that most experiments did not turn out as planned. There was either a problem with the set-up, the samples, or the results were inconclusive. In order to graduate on time, I always had to play the “what-if” game in my mind and have alternate plans in case I did not get the results I desired.
When I started working in industry, I learned something quite fundamental about children of working parents: they always get sick on the days when both parents have an important meeting or presentation. We did not have any family members nearby to rely on, so we had to come up with alternative solutions. My husband’s company offered backup daycare, and we also found a few babysitters in the area whom we could call on when needed. When my kids got a little older (pre-school aged), I was able to bribe them with movies or snacks, so they would be quiet when I gave presentations over teleconference on the days when I needed to stay home.
7) Develop a structure rather than a strict schedule – As a college student I had a very well-defined schedule: I knew when my classes and exams were, and I could schedule time for studying so I could be prepared. In graduate school it was tougher to have a structure because experimental results were unpredictable – I could make a plan, but it had to be flexible and contingent upon how my research unfolded. This was when I learned to structure my days and weeks, without a strict schedule.
Parenthood is similar in this regard. It is impossible to predict exactly how long it will take everyone to get ready in the morning and it would be futile to try to follow a very strict schedule for the day. At the same time, it is important to have structure with rules. When my older daughter was 3 years old, her idea of structure was: wake up, turn on the TV, and beg Mommy for snacks. In order to break her pattern, we actually disconnected our TV (to this very day), and implemented a more reasonable structure which included regular and healthy meals, exercise, time outdoors and all the other good stuff that made us feel like responsible parents. The great thing about developing a structure with rules (e.g. only snack on fruits/vegetables between meals) is that it makes kids feel more secure, because they know what to expect.
8) Resilience – This is the most important skill that I transferred from academia to industry, but also to parenthood. In simple terms, resilience means “just pick yourself up and keep going.” In order to get through my PhD program, I had to keep bouncing back from failure and keep taking steps forward every day until I finally collected all the necessary data and finished the writing of my thesis.
If you are already a parent, you know that having a child creates extra stress in a relationship: suddenly you have to do more chores in less time and you are sleep-deprived (not to mention the financial burden). If you have multiple children, sibling fights create another layer of complexity. In order to maintain some level of family peace, you need to be resilient. Just as I didn’t hold a grudge against professors who critiqued my work, I don’t hold a grudge against my kids either. This teaches them as well to start every day fresh, without being weighed down from conflicts on previous days.
9) Not taking anything (e.g. criticism) personally – There was a joke in our department that the tough grilling that students went through as part of our qualifying exam was a “Rite of Passage” to the world of PhDs. Getting harsh criticism is just part of life when you are in academia (and industry too, by the way), so eventually you learn not to take it personally. You just implement whichever part of the advice you see most fit and move on.
When I told my supervisor I was pregnant with my first child the only piece of advice I got was: “Just be sure that when your kids become teenagers, you don’t take anything they say personally.” I laughed, but I was not surprised. When I was 15 years old my father bought a copy of a book called “What to do when your teenage daughter drives you crazy.” (From what I heard I was pretty easy-going until I hit 13.)
What did surprise me was that nowadays preschoolers will also say things, which make your hair stand on end. I remember picking up my younger daughter from preschool and hearing several sentences on the drive home that started with: “No offense Mommy, but….” I tried to stay calm as I asked: “Where did you hear that from, honey?” The answer was always “No one, I just came up with it myself.” Now you know that we don’t have a TV, so whatever she said she heard from other preschoolers.
10) Celebrate and be grateful for every small success – As a coach one of my roles is to help student celebrate small successes along the way. For some reason graduate students are very tough on themselves if they don’t meet their goals 100%. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious. In fact I encourage students to have high standards for themselves so they create high quality research papers. However, beating yourself up for not living up to unrealistically high expectations leads to guilt, lowered self-esteem and possibly procrastination.
Appreciating every small success was one of the most important elements of completing my thesis. In the business of everyday life, we don’t realize how much we learned. On a day-to-day basis I did not see how much progress. However, when I looked back on what I had six months earlier, I did see progress. (Not always as much as I had hoped, but there was forward movement)
My older daughter did not speak much until she was about four years old. I was very frustrated that as a three year old she only used a very limited set of words. Even though she was making progress, I was unsatisfied because other kids her age was speaking more fluently. Fortunately, she had a preschool teacher, Ms. Brown, who praised and encouraged her after every small progress she made in her language skills.
By the time she was four years old, my daughter spoke so fluently that there was no sign that she was ever behind her peers. To this very day she is a chatterbox, and she is thinking about becoming a stand-up comedian. I hope Ms. Brown will be able to attend her shows. Thanks to Ms. Brown, I learned to praise and celebrate every small success that my kids make, both in academics and life skills.
At dinner-time our family plays a game that we learned from the Obamas called “Thorns and Roses,” where we each describe a good thing and bad thing that happened each day. I recently learned that in addition to helping children express their feelings, this game also leads to healthier eating habits. I wish I had played this game in graduate school too at dinner-time with my now-husband. Most days I only saw thorns, when in fact there were roses. After all, I did get my PhD in the end.