Dave Stamps: Attending grad school with a family

By Dave Stamps. Posted November 12, 2013.

Entering graduate school with a family in tow can appear to be a daunting challenge that discourages many from even trying.  But, it doesn’t have to be hugely taxing…at least not all of the time!  Like everything in life, perception is key…and everything is possible if you stay positive and go into the adventure with a good plan in place.

Three years ago, I entered UNL’s newly formed Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Jazz Composition as a “bachelor.”  Having decided to give up a great job in Colorado to pursue further education, I arrived in Lincoln relatively carefree and ready to tackle the rigorous academics.  School was an adjustment, but very manageable.  Before the second semester started however, I was married, became a stepfather to a vivacious three year old, and was coordinating their move across the country.  All of this was planned before arriving in Lincoln, of course, but I was not mentally prepared for the adjustments that would need to take place in order to effectively balance school and family.  It took some getting used to and a few months to reconfigure my schedule.  But since that turning point, all has settled in and I am on pace to graduate this next May…so I can testify that it IS possible to make it work. Included here are a few recommendations that I have for achieving a good balance.

Mutual Understanding
It would be wise to make sure that your family (or soon-to-be family) fully understands what your graduate education will entail.  Detailed discussions on how much time you’ll be away from home, school expenses, and the approximate duration of your degree will help keep the home environment happy and void from too many negative surprises.

Time Management
If you are a good multitasker, this will come much easier.  I am a multitasker and actually feel more comfortable hopping around from activity to activity and from project to project than focusing on one thing at a time, but I am most likely in the minority.  If you are a “single-tasker” only, I would recommend finding a calendar system that you like, entering in EVERY item in your schedule (including classes, study time, family time, child pick-up/drop-off, etc.), and then sticking to it.  Religiously.  Even though I am a multitasker, I do this too.  It has forced me to honor all of my commitments, including family, which is often the first commitment to take the hit.  Even if I have to work on my laptop occasionally, I am always at home in the living room with family during those designated times.  While not fully engaged, it feels like I am part of the family home life, which my wife and son appreciate.  As bachelors, we tend to have more flexibility in when we do activities.  As a parent, everything tends to run on a tighter schedule…so get used to staying focused.

Family Activities
I encourage you to take advantage of Lincoln.  Lincoln is exceptionally family friendly and affordable.  Every weekend, we make it a point to do some activity together as a trio.  Whether it is the Lincoln Children’s Museum, Lincoln Children’s Zoo, Farmer’s Market, Nebraska State Capital, a movie, or a trip to one of the many parks in town, we always have a good time…and it puts life back into perspective for a few hours.

Date Nights
Don’t neglect time with your spouse.  I am fortunate to have a very supportive and understanding spouse, but with a lot of the parenting resting on her shoulders, she needs a break as well.  We try to go do something together every other week or so.  UNL basketball games are affordable, the Lied Center for Performing Arts has great deals on major touring shows and concerts, and the Haymarket District has an ever-expanding array of restaurants and bars that are of very high quality.  Babysitters are important, of course.  If your child will be in daycare, I would recommend asking the daycare center to offer names and phone numbers of babysitters that they support.  We have found a number of great options this way.

Finally, I would urge you to stay vocal about what is on your plate at any given moment.  Whether it’s your spouse, your faculty mentor, friends, support groups, or a combination of all, they are on this journey with you, even though it often times feels like you are isolated in your own little world of study.  I think you will be surprised at how much more enjoyable the experience is with open lines of communication.  Is graduate school challenging?  Yes.  Even more so with family?  I believe so.  But if it will help you achieve your goals and ambitions, make your plans, have your discussions, and go to work!

Stamps family
The Stamps family.