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Having a Family in Grad School

The question that many graduate students have is “can I have it all?” A successful, productive PhD and marriage? And kids too? There is no doubt that having a family in grad school takes away your focus for a while especially around the time your baby is born, but it can also increase your productivity. In this article, I’ll tell you how!

One of the first thoughts I had a few weeks postpartum was “what did I do with all my time before I had a baby?!” You simply learn to be more efficient at home, and those skills transfer to work as well, where you can accomplish tasks a lot faster than you would have if you were in no hurry to go home. Something about having an infinite amount of time to spend in the lab makes it very easy to spend 30 minutes chatting, 20 minutes getting coffee, 15 on tumblr, etc.

Secondly, having a family forces you to breaks. Weekends and holidays are less likely to be spent in the lab, and while this may seem like a bad thing for your progress, it’s not. Work-life balance is a hot topic at conferences and seminars for this very reason. Taking breaks is good for your mental health and brings you back to work refreshed and ready to work, or at the very least, frantic to get something done to prove that you’re not a slacker!

Even the challenges of having a family can fuel your motivation to do well. If you find yourself in a situation where your peers and advisor look at your decision to have a family disapprovingly, this is sometimes the very thing that will push you to succeed, if for nothing more than to prove them wrong.

Finally, a sense of purpose outside of the lab puts your life in perspective. Failed western blot? Not the end of the world. Need to repeat your COMPS? You know that you have the support system to do it. You’re not alone, and are unlikely to feel like a failure when your life consists of more than science.

Now, this wouldn’t be an honest account if I didn’t acknowledge a few downsides.

Trips for conferences are a little more complicated with a baby, especially for nursing mothers, and a little more taxing if there’s a significant other left at home. Sleep deprivation is a beast of a thing, and can zap your brain cells faster than your newborn can spit up all over your freshly printed dissertation.

For these and other challenges that arise with a family, here are a few survival skills to make for an easier ride:

Build up a Meal Stash

If you are the dinner-maker at home, having a few meals tucked away in the freezer for days where you have to stay in the lab a bit longer is a sure stress buster, not only for your hungry family, but also you when you get home after a long night. (Family or not, no one wants to start cooking dinner at 10 pm after stumbling out of a day of western blots)

Turn Conferences into Vacation-ishes

Going to San Diego for a long weekend conference? Plan ahead, and get your family to come along with you. If airfare and hotel fees are covered by your institution, that’s one less person you have to pay for on this family vacation. Sure, you’ll spend a significant amount of time away during the day, but steal away for lunches, and explore the sites (or Netflix and chill) in the evening.

Build a Support System

Connect with other graduate students with families! These invaluable friendships can mean a shoulder to cry on or an understanding ear when you’re working on little sleep, or a last minute babysitter (as long as you’re willing to return the favor).
When it comes down to it, it’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons, but having a family in grad school is not only do-able, it has the potential to really enrich your graduate experience.

Image credit: darrenhuang01

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