Thinking of doing a Ph.D. as a parent

The first thing I would say is, “Why not?”. It sounds scary, but it is something that’s possible and many individuals have accomplished this feat. Both of my Ph.D. supervisors were parents when they were completing their doctoral degrees. Having said that, I think the reasons for wanting to study again as an HDR student are crucial to success.

I asked some of my fellow students undertaking graduate degrees what they considered the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of the dual role of HDR student and parent to dependent children, and here are some of the things we’ve realized.

Finances. Whether you’re enrolled part-time or full-time, being a student will have an impact on how much money you can make. We’re lucky that most Ph.D. degrees do not cost in terms of tuition fees and granted I am very grateful and lucky to have been awarded a scholarship stipend, it’s not nearly enough to live on nor does it cover any childcare costs. So considering your finances is critical in your decision-making. Is your partner willing to support you financially through your candidature? Who will look after the children? Do you have other family or friends to support you?

Work hours. Student parents of babies, toddlers, and young children have to navigate working in short bursts – that is, in between naps, and other things. Unless they are in childcare or being cared for by other family members, it is an extra barrier navigating having to engage in deep thought and analysis in short bursts of time.

Isolation. Depending on the kind of research you are involved with, for the most part, the years spent as an HDR student might tend to feel isolating. Nevertheless, the university provides many opportunities for graduate students to meet each other, engage in the university community, and form friendships. Some of my enduring friendships were formed in university.

Flexibility. Again, it depends on your research program, but mine has been very flexible which suited me perfectly as a parent.

Independence. Also, as I am working on my own research project, I had substantial independence which again complemented the phase of parenting I am in. The program was free of classes and exams which suited my desire for mastery of knowledge and in-depth immersion into my chosen field of study. I have already completed school and my undergraduate degree and now was wanting to be engaged in deeper study.

Balance and boundaries. The dual role of parent and researcher meant that I could not allow my academic work to take over my entire life. In fact, a lot of my wellbeing as a student came from my family life and being able to spend precious time with my child. At the same time, my research gave me a sense of purpose that was completely mine. As parents, we do not own our children and every day is a step to them learning to be on their own. My Ph.D. endeavor was entirely an investment in myself, a dream I had aspired to, and a meaningful pursuit I believed would equip me with skills and knowledge that would allow me to be a helpful member of my community.

I found a study from the United States, published last year which looked at student parents and motivation. Their results found that there are differences in motivation between student parents and non-student parents and these were:

  • student parents had higher relative autonomous motivation than their counterparts;
  • possess a desire to enhance the family welfare and their children’s success; and
  • graduate student parents are less likely to be driven by external influences, such as praise, rewards, money, or punishment, while more prone to instructions that spark interest and curiosity.

What was interesting to read in this study was their findings that contradicted earlier studies. In terms of mental health and well-being, student parents in this study showed lower levels of stress and higher levels of general life satisfaction, contrary to the prior expectation that student parents would show higher levels of stress and lower levels of satisfaction than childless students. The result of this study contradicts previous studies that the demands of graduate study are difficult to be compatible with the demands of parenthood, which could have a detrimental effect on their mental health” (Yoo & Marshall, 2022). In other words, it’s not always the case that student parents experience more stress than non-student parents (yay). I would have to agree with these findings, in terms of looking at my own experiences as a Ph.D. student parent.

I’ve actually found that yes, the Ph.D. experience is not easy and in fact very challenging. However, so is parenting, but both are extremely meaningful and fulfilling experiences that in many ways complement each other.

“It would be hasty to conclude that the higher levels of satisfaction and low levels of stress found in this study suggest that student parents experience fewer challenges from balancing multiple roles or are provided with adequate support from their institution. In fact, many studies suggest that student parents’ persistence and success are dependent upon institutional flexibility and family-supportive policies.”Yoo & Marshall 2022

 (Yoo & Marshall, 2022)

Tagged in What messes with your head, phd, student parents, study stress, Student life