Parenting & PhDs

By: Laura Thompson
Earlier this month, we spoke to Sivee Chawla, a graduate student who wanted tips on how to balance work with family responsibilities. In response to her query, we tapped into the collective wisdom of the Twitterverse, asking for tips on how to successfully navigate a graduate degree as a parent. Thanks to the great feedback we received from PhD students and academics around the world, today we provide a run down of inspiration and advice. If you are short on time, then check out the infographic which summarises the key information. Thank you to the Centre for Marine Socioecology for sponsoring the infographic.

“Challenges are what make life interesting. Overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” Anon

Being a parent is incredibly challenging – it tests your patience, ability to multi-task, and capacity to function on little sleep. Doing a graduate degree can be equally challenging – it tests your resilience and ability to pick yourself up and move forward when things don’t go to plan.

So, what happens if you are combining parenting and study? There is no denying it, life can be pretty tough at times, but you are not alone. Many other people have been through it and survived; many have even thrived. Here at aKIDemic Life, we wanted to find out how they did it, so we could pass on their tips and tricks to help you through this demanding time.

Ten inspiring academics from Australia, Canada, Greece, The Netherlands, South Africa, Switzerland and the US answered our call for help providing an essential list of tips and tricks for navigating study and home life.

First, things first, what are the challenges parents face when they undertake a graduate degree? We don’t want to put you off by starting on a negative, but we believe a really important part of effective planning, is understanding the challenges you are planning for. Our interviewees identified 9 core issues:

  1. Financial security – having children is expensive and it can be hard to care for a family on a small income.
  2. Time management – children suck time, as does research, so it can be a struggle to juggle responsibilities, particularly at a time when you may be getting little sleep due to middle of the night feeds.
  3. Access to childcare – finding daycare that is affordable and convenient isn’t always straightforward and can put pressure on your capacity to find time to study.
  4. Travel – graduate degrees, particularly research often requires travelling for fieldwork or to conferences. Going away when you have family to take care of, can put a strain on your family and your finances.
  5. Lack of understanding from family and friends – your support network at home may not understand the demands of doing a research degree and can cause of conflict.
  6. Isolation at work – with so many demands on your time, it can be difficult to find space to socialise with your peers, leading to a feeling of alienation at work.
  7. Managing expectations – you may have expectations about your role as a parent or your role as a student. Managing these expectations so that they spur you on but don’t lead to a feeling of failure can be a challenging task.
  8. Commandeering of parental leave – leave entitlements vary among countries, but regardless of location, graduate students often feel they should be working on their PhD while they are on parental leave, leading to a loss of time with your new family member.
  9. Uncertainty about the future – worrying about what comes next is a constant problem in academia, where short-term contracts are increasingly the norm. As a parent, this lack of stability can be frightening.
So now we know the challenges faced by parents at graduate school, how can we address these issues? Here are 10 tips and tricks to get you on track:

  1. Build a support network – even if you ignore all the other tips, please don’t ignore this one! If you don’t have a support network, then now is the time to build one, either on campus, at home, or virtually on social media via academic parenting groups and hashtags (e.g. #academicmother) Check out the where to find help section below for more information.
  2. Lose the pride – it can be so hard to ask for help when you want to present a successful and capable front. But, you are not alone and you will only make your life harder if you try to fly solo. Remember, accepting support is not a sign of weakness!
  3. You are not a failure – parenting while doing a PhD or Masters is a big challenge and it will require some compromises along the way, so don’t despair if you aren’t attaining perfection on all (or indeed any) fronts.
  4. Relax and enjoy – presumably you started your course for a reason, maybe you were excited by the topic or the chance to learn new skills. It is important to keep in mind why you started your studies so on the tough days, you keep your eye on the goal.
  5. Play the long game – there is no right or wrong time to do a graduate degree. The experience might change as you get older, but the opportunity doesn’t disappear. So, if being a student doesn’t gel with family life just now, remember you can do your degree at any age.
  6. Develop time management skills – time management will keep you on track but how your manage your time may differ from your pre-child days: break tasks down into small, manageable chucks that you can fit in around your parenting responsibilities. It is also critical to learn how to say no!
  7. Let the flexibility work for you – on those weeks when you need to focus more on being a parent, feel safe in the knowledge that you can catch up in those weeks when you have more time to be a student.
  8. Work hard, play hard – taking time for yourself is not optional. Self-care is critical for your endurance both as a parent and as a student, so don’t put it at the bottom of your priority list.
  9. Be pro-active – while it would be nice to live in a world where organisations made it easy to be a parent and a graduate student, this isn’t likely to happen any time soon, so it is important to know your rights and plan ahead to access any entitlements.Outsource – being a parent and a graduate student is very time consuming, so where possible, get help on tasks you don’t have to do yourself, for example, doing the housework or having your groceries delivered.

Where to find help
Knowing you need help is one thing, finding someone who can provide that help is another challenge. So where does our expert panel suggest you look for support?


  1. Social security – if this is available to you, don’t be scared to use it.
  2. Partner – it is important to actively discuss with your partner what you need from them to ensure you reach your work and family goals.
    Family/friends – use them to provide both practical help and moral support.
    Parents groups – local community groups can support you and provide a break from academic chatter for a while.
  3. Childcare staff – carers working at childcare are an excellent source of knowledge and practical help, so pick their brains for information or advice.
  4. Health professionals – these are the people who are tapped into support services in your area, so don’t be afraid to ask about the help you can access.

    1. Supervisors – these people are there to help you achieve your academic goals, so use them!
    2. Mentors – if your supervisor isn’t helpful, seek out other academics with families who can coach you through juggling work and home life. And if you feel self-conscious about asking someone to be your mentor, remember that being asked to be a mentor is flattering!
    3. Peers with kids – other grad students with kids are your tribe and their support, either in person or on social media, can be invaluable.
    4. Student support service – most universities have pastoral care services you can access with counselors and student advisers. This service can be especially useful if you move to a new city for your graduate studies and have little knowledge of the area.
    5. On campus graduate & family housing – if available, this can be the perfect place to build your community as you will be surrounded by a group of other people facing the same challenges. This housing can also be more affordable than off-campus options.

Want to know where these pearls of wisdom came from, or want to follow other parents working in academia? Then check out these graduate students and academics on social media and the web:

Julia Schroeder, a senior lecturer at Imperial College London, UK, did her PhD at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. She had two children during her PhD, and a third child during her post-doc. Julia says:

“I love being able to “have it all” – a wonderful family, and an, at times, challenging but overall satisfying career. I feel reasonably well supported in my institution, and I find that as time goes by and my children become more independent, I do not need that support any longer.”

Sofia van Moorsel, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University, Canada, did her PhD at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. She had her son during her PhD and her daughter during her postdoc. Sofia says:

“It is true what they say: it takes a village to raise a kid. But it also takes a village to finish a PhD, and I was lucky to have one.”

Charlotte Mummery is a PhD student in her 4th year at the University of Hull, UK. She has two teenage children and has been a single parent while studying. Charlotte says:

“Don’t be afraid to say no to things, we are expected to do a lot of conferences and departmental events; these can require a lot of prep as well as attending the event. If it doesn’t further your work then say no!”

Konstantina Agiadi is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Athens, Greece. She has two children, one before and one during her Masters degree. She is a single mum. Konstantina says:

Julie Vecchio is about to finish her PhD at the University of South Florida, USA. She had her son in the second year of her PhD, presenting her research proposal to her committee three weeks before he was born. Julie says:

“Don’t give in to the pressure to work all the time. Family time is extremely important. Take as much as you need. During your PhD you have a very low number of actual expectations. Take advantage of this to spend time with your family. Even if it means completing the dissertation a little bit slower.”

Tory Clarke, a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian National University, did her PhD at the University of Sydney, Australia. She has three young kids, the oldest born during her PhD – she finished her experiments the day she went into hospital. Tory says:

“Try not to compare yourself to others in your cohort that haven’t had caring responsibilities. It can feel like you’re so far behind and that you’ll never catch up. The reality is that you do have less time at work, but you can account for this in your job and grant applications so you shouldn’t be at a disadvantage.”

Sophie von der Heyden, an Associate Professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, did her PhD at the University of Oxford, UK. She has three children, the first born just after she handed in her PhD. In fact, she went into labour as she was printing the final copy of her thesis! Sophie says: