As the graduate student population increases in age, so do family responsibilities, such as raising children (whether with a partner or single) or becoming the primary caregiver for elderly parents or relatives. Graduate students who have children or parents who depend on them for support may find that the structure of graduate education in a large research university still presumes an ability to be on campus at any time, which can conflict with other responsibilities.
Students with family responsibilities often are highly organized and intensely focused during the blocks of time they carve out for their graduate work. Unfortunately, students may fear that their professors might misconstrue their attention to other responsibilities as a lack of commitment to scholarship. Emergencies, such as an ill child or parent, occasionally prevent them from attending a class or a meeting and can exacerbate that misperception. Even after a child enters school, childcare demands do not lessen. Other demands arise, such as picking up or dropping off children and attending school functions.
Students with family responsibilities might find it difficult to attend some social, academic, and professional functions. As a result, they may begin to feel isolated from their cohorts and departments, missing out on the "academic business" that takes place in those functions.
Students with family responsibilities often need to be home in the evenings to tend to those in their care. For this reason, study group assignments or research projects that require meeting in the evening can present difficulties, as can evening lectures.
Cultural beliefs influence the ways graduate students deal with family responsibilities. During the mourning for a family member, for example, some students may be expected to spend a considerable amount of time consoling relatives at home. You can ask your mentor to help explain to other faculty the need for participating in family activities different from mainstream practices. On another note, some students enter graduate school without the full support of their families, who might question how graduate study is beneficial to the entire family, particularly if it has been experiencing economic hardships. Your mentors can help all their students communicate how a graduate degree can bring long-term benefits to them and their families.
Suggestions for Students
- Help your mentors and others understand that family responsibilities may take away from class sometimes or mean you are able to work in the department only during certain hours.
- Ask professors to distribute a schedule of assignments in advance so you can integrate them into an already demanding schedule.
- Alert your professors and peers in advance if you use a cell phone or beeper for the purpose of staying connected in case of family emergencies.
- Seek out graduate students and faculty who can share strategies and resources for balancing family and academic life.
- Ask your peers to be flexible with study group times or invite them to meet at your home if you live locally.
- Explore the use of e-mail, listservs, or discussion boards to facilitate group discussions away from the department.
- Be open with others about your family responsibilities. When appropriate, consider bringing your children to your department's social functions or to the office to help your peers and professors understand what your life is like beyond the department.
- Use various means to demonstrate professional commitment and productivity. Be highly focused and productive when you are in the classroom, office, or lab. When you cannot be there, provide advanced notice and use other means, such as e-mail, to stay in touch or contribute your ideas.
Suggestions for Faculty
- Develop accommodations for students with family responsibilities who might need to miss some seminars.
- Distribute assignments well in advance so students can fit them into demanding schedules. Because some students must set aside significant time for their families on weekends, you are not providing enough advance notice if you assign work on Thursday and say it is due on Monday.
- Identify ways to accommodate students' requests to work in groups that meet during the day. Encourage students to explore e-mail, listservs, and discussion boards to facilitate group work.
- Discuss your own family responsibilities with your graduate students. If you have children, bring them to the office or to departmental social events now and then. Doing so reinforces the fact that it is possible to have a family and a successful academic career.
- Plan some departmental, family-friendly social events. Pick a time of day when families can attend, and be sure the invitation states specifically that children are welcome.
- Help students to communicate how a graduate degree can bring long-term benefits to them and their families.