Graduate school is difficult enough – coursework, comprehensive exams, dissertation or thesis, teaching and research responsibilities – but it is even more complicated when you add a family to the mix. Both of us had children in the final year of our doctoral programs and offer the following advice for navigating a graduate program while having children:
- Have a plan for your continued progress. Students have many routes possible when having children, so make sure you consider all of your options. Do you want to take a leave of absence? Check with your university to see what your options are. If you have a graduate assistantship, it is possible that you qualify for some kind of FMLA benefits. Do you need to take some extra time before you take comprehensive exams or defend your dissertation? Sit down with a calendar and come up with a plan.
- Involve your mentor/advisor. Some advisors do not look kindly on students who decide to have children in graduate school; others are much more supportive; and still others are quasi-indifferent. Regardless of where your mentor falls on the spectrum, you need to have a frank discussion with him or her. Bring your plan with you (whatever that is) and talk through it with your mentor. Seek their advice, but stand up for yourself and be realistic. If your mentor is less than supportive, find someone in your department who is supportive and make that person your ally. They can speak up for you in department meetings and help you manage things if something happens. It is best to talk to them as early as possible, if you’d like them to keep your pregnancy a secret until you decide to announce it, let them know, but discussing your plan soon after you find out you’re expecting is the best way to stay on track and create the most options.
- Be creative/flexible. Graduate student contracts may require you to teach/TA one class a semester or be enrolled in a specific number of credit hours. Ask if you can teach/TA two classes in one semester to have the other semester off. And consider teaching and taking online or intensive courses. If you are in the coursework phase, discuss the option of expediting coursework in semester long classes. Some faculty members will be willing to accommodate you and it doesn’t hurt to ask.
- Remember that everyone handles pregnancy and childbirth differently. The vast majority of members of the DWC are women, so this one is targeted at them. Remember to take care of yourself and prepare for contingencies. Some people follow the traditional format of low energy in the first trimester, a burst of energy in the second trimester, and a tapering of energy (and physical ability) in the third trimester, but others do not. Some have very few physical side effects and others have extreme side effects (illness throughout, pregnancy or labor complications, etc.). At the end of the day, do what you need to do and adjust your plan accordingly.
- Keep to a timeline. Make deadlines for yourself that are realistic but will keep you on track. Take advantage of whatever time you have to work, but know that those opportunities may come in smaller chunks. Pregnancy can be a remarkably motivating and productive time because of that very real “due date” deadline and the inability to e-mail your baby to ask for an extension.
- Revisit your plan and keep your advisor/mentor up to date. Periodically, check in with your advisor and evaluate your progress. This lets your mentor know how you are doing personally and professionally, and allows you to revise your plan of action as needed.
- Lean in… or Lean out. You have to do what is best for you, but know that it is possible to go on the job market while pregnant or breastfeeding. If invited for a campus visit, requesting a 20-minute break every few hours (in a lockable room with electricity) should signal to the department that you are pumping and you can get a feel for their family-friendliness, or lack thereof. One of us started a new job at 35 weeks pregnant and then went on a 12-week maternity leave. Departments (should) want the right candidate for the job, regardless of pregnancy/parenting status. Advocate for the maternity leave and flextime you want and need.
There may never be a “perfect time” to get pregnant, but during graduate school can actually be a great time to start or grow your family. It is important to find people who are supportive of your decision and can offer some advice from their own experiences, or at least some nausea sympathy.
Feel free to e-mail us if you have any questions.