Graduate school is an arduous path, requiring hard work and patience spanning over multiple years. The process can get more complicated when other issues such as family, financial requirements, and the concerns about future career overwhelm this challenge. The Commission on the Future of Graduate Education found that the dropout rate for doctoral degrees is 40-50% (1), while another report found dropping out of graduate school was dependent on the field (2). Many who fail to complete their studies do so because of socioeconomic, financial, family-related, or mentoring and advising issues. Moreover, path to graduation can be more difficult sometimes for women with a family than men.
The PhD completion rate of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is lower than men by 7-8% (3). However, according to a recent study, representation of women attaining PhDs and pursuing academic careers post-PhD in STEM has increased from 3% in 1990 to 27% in 2012 (4,5). Although this result is encouraging, the gender gap between men and women still persists. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women represent less than 25% of the total STEM workforce (5). On a global scale, women are underrepresented in scientific research roles, publication track record, and have less national and international collaboration when compared to men (6). Although various factors can account for this disparity, one of the major factors is the need for a balance between work and life, which is particularly difficult to establish for those who have kids.
Being in graduate school with kids can be difficult and daunting at times. Here, I address some of these issues and provides tips on how to overcome them from a graduate student (with kids!) perspective.
Set Goals: Set goals and act to finish them in a timely manner. While setting goals pertaining to the PhD project is essential, one should also set personal objectives with consideration to family. It is very helpful to write down the aims and evaluate them on regular basis in order to monitor one’s progress. Although it is okay if some of the goals are not completed as planned, do not procrastinate. Finishing required work before deadlines is essential especially for parents, as they face surprises everyday! For example, your kid may be sick, you may have to attend programs at their childcare center, etcetera.
Ask for help: “It takes a village to raise a child,” holds very true. Whenever possible, ask for help from family and friends. For example, we can ask family members to baby sit at home when crucial scientific endeavors cannot be put aside. Spouse or other family members can occasionally meet the child’s appointments as well. Picking the child up from school or day care is something that must be arranged every single day at a time that typically interferes with the later stages of a workday. Teaming up with one’s spouse, for example, to alternate between who has this responsibility each day can provide extra key hours for completing thesis work. Likewise, seeking out help and delegating tasks in the workplace can be an effective way to increase productivity in graduate school. Although, this most likely depends on your laboratory setting, respecting other people’s time and offering help in return whenever possible can be an effective way to get assistance from coworkers. Such practice also helps to develop collaborative skills and team spirit.
Socialize and Network: Graduate students with kids have to be very efficient in both their thesis work and parenting. Obviously, the vast majority of our time is occupied between graduate school and family. This is good in a way, as it helps to keep us more focused. The downside of this busy life is that we may be isolated from our peers. Needless to say, we may not have as many opportunities as others to network, which is an essential activity if you have any plans to land a job after finishing the PhD. Therefore, moms in graduate school must make every effort to make time for socializing with peers and potential employers. There are many different types of networking events in every major city that we can and should essentially treat as a part of our coursework. Expanding your network as well as maintaining those contacts will eventually benefit in career building and growth.
Believe in yourself: The key to success is your own effort. Being a parent and a graduate student is tough but both are achievable with persistence and determination. Self-motivation and self-discipline in extreme situations is a critical aspect of one’s future. We occasionally feel guilty for not giving enough time to the kids and the family. But we must remember that our family and people around us can be happy only when we are happy. Be the in charge of your own success and do not settle for less than what you deserve. So, if getting a PhD is what makes you happy then follow that dream!
Wendler C., Bridgeman B., Cline F., Millet C., Rock J., Bell N., McAllister P. “The Path Froward. The Future of Graduate Student in United States”. Executive Summary. www.fgereport.org
Miller D. I., Wai J., “The bachelor’s to PhD STEM pipeline no longer leaks more women than men: a 30 year analysis”. Front. Psychol. 2015.
Beede D., Julian T., Langdon D., Mckittrick G., Khan B., Women In STEM: “A Gender Gap to Innovation”. Executive Summary. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration. www.esa.doc.gov
Lariviere V., Chaoqun Ni., Gingas Y., Cronin B., Sugimoto C. R., “Bibliometrics: Global gender disparities in science”. Nature. 2013.
Jyoti Panta is a PhD candidate in Molecular Biology at City University of New York, Hunter College. Jyoti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org