Having a family in grad school

On a school visit a few years ago when I was applying for graduate school, I remember one of the professors I was interviewing with mentioned that the best time to have kids is during graduate school, not squeezed in after tenure like most people try to do.  I’ve heard stories of people having kids during grad school and labs that are teeming with little kids that play by their parent’s desk as they work in lab.  It seems like the flexible schedule would make for an ideal time to get married and have children, doesn’t it?

But this has not been my personal experience.

I don’t believe that grad school is actually family friendly. At least not engineering.  [Maybe this is part of the reason why there are no females in science and engineering.]

I know anecdotal evidence doesn’t make the strongest when making such a broad claim as this, but I can’t help but go by what I’ve personally seen in my lab.

  • Part time isn’t an option.  Two (male) students in our lab have had children in the past year.  One (international) student’s wife is also in grad school.  They have alternated days of working in lab for this past year in order to accommodate both of their schedules.  The other (American) student has a wife that works full time from home.  In order to accommodate their schedules, he comes in in the morning anywhere from 3-5am  and works till noon and then goes home and takes care of the baby while his wife works from 12-8pm.  Our boss has recently said this is no longer acceptable.
  • Most international students send their children back to their home countries to be raised by their parents while they finish graduate school.  I think this is a hidden secret that no one talks about and is particularly common for Chinese and Indian students who populate a large percentage of science and engineering graduate students.  The aforementioned student in our lab is in the minority of students who actually try to have their children raised here in America, although he has been pressured by my adviser to send their child back to China.
  • Apparently my husband living in another country is not a unique enough situation to warrant “extenuating circumstance” to give me permission to do non-lab-essential work outside of the office (i.e. in Mexico).  I am going against my adviser’s wishes and incurring a pay cut.

Yes, maybe this is just the situation in my lab, but still, my lab exists!  All of these situations that I’ve witnessed in this lab over this past year have made me realize how undervalued family is in academia in general and how hard it is to be a female who has a family in this field.  I’m not saying it can’t be done, its just very difficult.

And I needed to vent.

PS:  We’ve met the writer of this comic strip and he’s hilarious.  We also gave him a few ideas for some comic strips that he wrote down (we saw him!) so we’re still hoping to see some of those published one day…and THEN grad school will all have been worth it.

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10 thoughts on “Having a family in grad school

  1. What a sad situation. It’s amazing how quickly people forget what it’s like to have children (assuming they ever had any).

    That cartoon is perfect!! My husband is paid for 20 hours a week and works 50-60! Oh Grad School….

  2. While I agree with you that in general what you are describing is common in most labs ( and in grad school in general) yours is the first advisor I have ever heard to encourage students to send their children elsewhere to be raised by relatives.

    This has hopefully changed but I do know that as of ten years ago when a friend of ours was applying for residency, it was a bizarre point of pride that no marriage had survived the surgical residency at Duke.

  3. Those comics are so funny… and sad!

    I do think it’s different being in the hard sciences vs the “softer.” Mostly because, at least in my dept, we don’t have labs or anything, and we work wherever whenever. We don’t think of our advisers as “bosses” the way you all do. There are pros and cons to both sides, I think, but for the family part, I think it would be easier to do it if you’re getting a humanities/social sciences degree.

    And ugh to your pay cut. Isn’t this adviser the same woman who warned you about not waiting too long to have children?

  4. It may just be the college that I attended, but I have never before heard anything good about women having children in grad school or academia before tenure.

    The idea was that men could have children in grad school (and while getting tenure if staying in academics) because they have wives to pick up the domestic slack. But it would slice a woman in half and make everything next-to-impossible if she tried to have children during the 15-year window when it makes the most sense to do so! So there were a few (two?) 30ish female professors in the econ dept that were having children, but I think that they both waited until toward the end of the tenure process (which could happen in 4 years!). My other female professors who had children before receiving tenure were unlikely to ever get it. And no one had children in grad school! The only woman who I know who did so managed to complete her PhD but never worked outside the home once she got her degree.

    Anyway, I am surprisingly passionate about this issue and really, really think that we need to reform the process. Women can have very long careers, so why not allow them to take a year or two or four longer with grad school in order to both have children and complete their degrees?

    • I am EXTREMELY passionate about it as well. I have many more thoughts on this that I wouldn’t like my mother-in-law reading, however. Dr. Morse has talked a lot about how we should amend the tenure process or have women go back to school to start their careers after they’re done with the birthing process. It all just disgusts me right now.

  5. yeah… I was hoping to not have to mix grad school and kids, but that’s no longer an option! My husband’s last year of grad school and my grad school will be with our little boy in tow. At first we’ll try trading parenting back and forth – he in school while I’m at home, him at home while I’m at work. We’ll see how that goes…

    • hopefully you’re not planning on a science degree! that lab work is what will kill you. and if anything, it helps if your adviser already has tenure…mine doesn’t. people with tenure tend to be more accommodating.

  6. From what I’ve seen of you and Mike, it looks like you work pretty crazy hours getting your phd. Throw a baby in the mix and I honestly don’t know when you would EVER sleep! But as you may have heard people say… there is never a convenient time to have a baby. Whenever it happens, whatever is going on in your life, you will make it work.

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