Published: Tues., March 20, 2018
For many students, graduate school coincides with a time during which several major life milestones are achieved. One such milestone – starting a family – can be a daunting prospect for female students, who worry that having a child in graduate school may result in an unfinished degree. Although starting a family while in graduate school can be challenging, it’s not an impossible feat, and with adequate preparation and support, pregnant and parenting students can be successful. In this article, Educational Psychology doctoral student Markeya Peteranetz shares her experiences as a new mother and offers advice for students planning to start a family in graduate school.
For those students managing pregnancy or parenting with graduate school, there can be some unique concerns or challenges that you might experience. Markeya shares some of her challenges below.
For Markeya, one of the most difficult challenges of being pregnant in graduate school was dealing with fatigue, especially during the first trimester – before she was able to publicly announce her pregnancy. The fatigue was often exacerbated by efforts to keep up with her research responsibilities. Markeya noted that the combination of “trying to get enough sleep while managing my workload as a student and as a research assistant, [and] … trying to not show my colleagues how tired I was all the time” was at times difficult.
Work responsibilities/personal expectations
Managing deadlines and responsibilities in the months leading up to her due date was also a concern. Although her mentors and research group colleagues were understanding of her situation and willing to accommodate her time off, Markeya wanted to complete as much as she could prior to her baby’s arrival. Since she knew she could go into labor at any time, it was difficult to plan for when she might have to step away from her projects, so she sought to reach reasonable stopping points for her projects rather than pass off incomplete projects to her colleagues.
Since her son’s birth, Markeya’s biggest struggle has been getting enough sleep (a frequent complaint of new parents!). Dealing with sleep deprivation has been challenging, but since her assistantship allows for flexible hours and working from home, she’s been able to catch up on sleep while her son is napping. Childcare has also been an issue that Markeya has struggled with, although the flexibility in her assistantship duties has helped: “Since I'm mostly working from home and full-time childcare can be expensive, our son is home with me most of the time. We have a couple different regular babysitters that we love, but there have been a couple times when something happens so that we suddenly don't have anyone who can watch him when I have a meeting or need to collect data or something. It's only caused problems a few times; so far the people I work with have been very understanding.”
For those considering starting a family in graduate school, Markeya recommends planning – and lots of it. If you can, before becoming pregnant, Markeya suggests thinking through the typical progression of your program and your career plans to determine the best time for you to have a child. One thing to consider is when you think you might have a more flexible schedule. For some, this might mean thinking about when you might have fewer classes or responsibilities or more support at home to help. Markeya noted that she and her husband “both felt that it would be best for us if I was at the dissertation-only stage when we had our first baby, and I feel like it was a good choice for us.” Although she would have liked to have had the baby in the summer when she had fewer research responsibilities, the flexibility of being dissertation-only allowed her to start a family now.
Markeya also notes that planning and working ahead before the baby arrives is highly beneficial. With deadlines for conferences and manuscript revisions falling within a couple weeks of her due date, she imposed a timeline to complete those projects well in advance, so that if the baby came early, she would have taken care of the work she needed to do and the rest of her team wouldn’t be blindsided by last minute duties. By working ahead, she was also able to avoid the stress of meeting project deadlines adding to the stress of preparing for the baby’s arrival.
Finally, Markeya advises communicating with your mentors and colleagues early and often, so that they’re aware of your plans and can accommodate your needs. Although she had a plan for how she was going to keep up with her work and how long she was going to take off after the baby was born, she recognizes that she didn’t share her plans with the faculty members she worked with until late in her pregnancy. If faculty members and colleagues are aware of your plans earlier in your pregnancy, they can help you set goals and anticipate obstacles, as well as accommodate any needs you may have during the course of your pregnancy (e.g., Skyping into meetings, adjusting assignment due dates, etc.).
On-campus resources are available for pregnant and parenting students. For nursing mothers, the University provides a number of lactation rooms spread across both City and East Campuses. Small refrigerators can also be borrowed free of charge from University Housing for the purpose of milk storage. On-campus, full-time childcare for children 6 weeks to five years old is available at the UNL Children’s Center, while the Ruth Staples Child Development Lab offers educational programs for children 18 months through five years old.
Pregnant and parenting students often have difficulty balancing academic or research duties with family responsibilities. The University encourages faculty members and supervisors to be flexible and accommodating for these students, so it’s important that you let your mentors and colleagues know that family responsibilities may keep you from attending class or working in lab during certain times. It may also be beneficial to ask professors for a schedule of assignments, so that you can work ahead or otherwise integrate them into your busy schedule. Time management skills are essential for new moms and parenting students; Graduate Studies provides tips on how to more effectively manage your time on our website.