I’ve been a PhD student for two years now. I came into it thinking I knew what to expect, especially regarding the kids and what having kids meant to studying. Obviously I was completely wrong, so here are some things I’ve learned along the way.
It’s not easy, but it’s not doom and gloom. You’re not foolish if you find yourself embarking on a PhD when you have children or are planning to have them soon. In many ways doing a PhD is a job, and there are many working parents in the world. But there are ways in which a PhD is different to a regular job: you largely choose your own hours (aside from teaching), you have supervision and feedback more often, you are poorly paid relative to your role, and there are lots of extra-curricular expectations. All of these make it a slightly different experience.
1: You will constantly question your life choices
Like most working parents and students you will be living between several worlds. Your parenting friends won’t give a hoot about your topic and will tend to respond with ‘I don’t know how you do it’, every time it’s mentioned. Most of your fellow students won’t have a clue what having a child entails, and will also spend a lot of time saying ‘I don’t know how you do it’. You will suffer from the same anxiety as other students and believe your thesis is worthless and your ideas are rubbish, and you will suffer from the same anxiety as other parents and believe you have failed your children. But don’t worry: every now and again your supervisor will tell you they like something you’ve done, and your child will spontaneously brush their teeth without a meltdown, and you will feel like you’re not drowning anymore! Your notebook will still be covered in colourful scrawlings that aren’t your own, though.
2: Childcare is a nightmare
The single biggest kicker and potential barrier to studying is childcare. I cannot stress enough how important it is to formalise some kind of arrangement before you start. I do know people who rely on family, but family are generally not paid and can fall ill or go on holiday or change their mind with short notice. For the first two years of my PhD my husband worked for himself from home, and we were able to be super flexible and fluid about who took responsibility for drop-offs, pick-ups, clubs and dinner.
Now that he’s working for someone else 30 minutes away, unable to do pick-ups in the middle of the day, I have found myself in a reasonably rubbish situation regarding childcare. It is the reason I won’t be going full time until my youngest goes to school next year. Since our childminder became a teacher there is just preschool, offering very short hours. Even getting to university for a day requires juggling of afterschool club for my eldest, someone to pick up and look after my youngest, and my husband to leave work early to be able to pick up the eldest when afterschool club finishes. If our primary school didn’t offer breakfast and afterschool clubs then we’d be up a certain creek without a paddle. My fieldwork, archive visits and teaching, already carefully spaced out, would have to wait a year.
3: Location matters
If I knew then what I knew now, I would have thought twice about moving out of Bristol right as my PhD was starting. However, we did it to raise the children out of the city and for that reason it was worth it despite it being detrimental to my studies. Distance learning is tough. One of the biggest differences between an MA and PhD for me has been how much I miss learning within and being part of a cohort of researchers. I live an hour away from university by car on a good day, I can’t go to research seminars because they are outside childcare hours and I can’t work in the dedicated PGR space because I can’t get there and back and have any meaningful time to work. I work alone, and have very few opportunities to talk to fellow students. I would highly recommend using an on-campus nursery and living near your department! However, it’s not always possible, and in our case a small school, a big garden, and not living next to a motorway were more important to us than how convenient it is for me to work.
Fieldwork is also harder here, as I have no students nearby to help and have to drag the dog and whatever children I have with me out into the cold and wet to to look at sites. They often love it! For about 20 minutes. I do have high hopes for my youngest though, who can already identify clay pipe in ploughed fields from 10 metres away.
4: Age matters, but not in the way you think
Not your age, but the age of the kids. Babies are easy. Babies sleep and eat and want to be close to their caregivers and be warm. I did a lot of my MA with a baby in a sling; Ada came on my field trips and slept through my first graded presentation. You can do an awful lot with a baby and, crucially, people will forgive a baby many more things than they will a toddler. Then there are children. Children who go to school and can have friends over to entertain them and get their own snacks and take themselves to the loo and can work a TV remote. In between, are the real troublemakers. These are the toddlers, who need constant attention and careful management of sleep and snacks to maintain some semblance of balance. Like a house of cards, if one is knocked then the whole thing comes crashing down.
The things you can do, or have to do, when you start a PhD will not be the same as when you end. Just as you settle down into one way of being, things will change. Some of these will be predictable, and you can plan for them. Others will be blindsiding, and I recommend having a way to work through and overcome panic.
5: Your standards will get lower and lower
Your house will be a mess, your children won’t always eat their twenty-a-day, and you will feel like you’re winning if you find more than one pair of matching socks in the drawer. Particularly if your children are on the younger side, you might not achieve the same level of conference-paper-giving, book-deal-signing, internships abroad and extended contemplative trips that your peers are. That’s ok. All that effort that could be going into your future career is probably going into juggling ballet, swimming, and the torture that is reading about Biff, Chip and Kipper over and over again. Anyway, your peers probably don’t get tiny humans seeking them out in the middle of the night for the world’s biggest cuddles, either.
6: A slow cooker is the best thing money can buy
Seriously, get one. And if you can afford it, a weekly veg box. Thinking about several meals for different tastes every day is just one more thing that is incredibly annoying, and having ingredients provided for you to use as the basis for the evening meal is really helpful. Unlike many people, you can’t rely on just finding whatever is in the cupboard and making something up, as the kids will probably reject is as ‘disgusting’. A slab of meat and a load of vegetables chucked into a slow cooker with some pearl barley and some flavouring goes a long way to appeasing the guilt of providing an evening meal of frozen pizza
three times a week every now and again. Stock up on snacks too; children whinge a lot about food.
7: You will be forced into a working routine
Not a routine person? You will soon have a routine so complex it may as well be in Gantt form. Being forced to inhabit specific hours is good and bad at the same time. I think many PhD students find they have to shoehorn in time just for themselves, to do something other than think about their thesis. When I clock off on a Thursday, picking up the kids at 3pm, I know I won’t be doing a whole lot of work again until Monday. Sometimes if I have a chapter due I eat into the evenings and weekends, but honestly I find it exceptionally hard to work at those times nowadays as I’m just so knackered. Having set hours means I don’t feel guilty for not working over the weekend, and that I naturally switch off from it all and can come back if not fresh then at least slightly less stale.
On the flip side it can be frustrating knowing I won’t get much of a chance to work again until Monday. With set hours I also miss a lot of PGR seminars and networking opportunities, impromptu discussion groups in the pub, can rarely volunteer to help out with events and can’t often take advantage of training advertised as short notice.
8: The funding issue is really tough
I have no answer here. I am very lucky that the little money I get through my stipend is topped up heavily by my husband having a decent job. I could not have studied without the funding, and I am in awe of people who make that work. Some people will be eligible for tax credits, even if they are receiving research council funding, and if you work then you are able to claim some childcare costs back. Worrying about money on top of everything else is exceedingly stressful, and there’s enough stress involved in studying as it is. It is doable though, and there are lots of avenues for smaller pots of funding aside from research councils.
There are some caveats to bear in mind with what is written above. I currently study part-time and do not do extra paid work alongside this. I am arts-based, with no formal lab hours to attend. I am fortunate enough to receive AHRC funding for what I do, which pays my fees and a stipend to keep me going. I have a supportive partner who pulls his weight. I have always chosen not to put my children in full-time childcare while they are under school-age because I don’t have to. For some people it is necessary and/or preferable, and it works well for a lot of people. To do that, I’d need to go to a nearby town to find a nursery which, again, would eat into the actual time I have to work.
Biggest takeaway? It’s full of swings and roundabouts my friend, but somewhere in there you will hopefully find a way to make it work and be rewarded in the not-too-distant future with your very own doctorate. I’ll report back if I make it out the other side.