‘Is the father involved?’ and 3 other phrases uttered to the PhD student mom

When I started my schooling, I knew I needed to be my own cheerleader and champion.  I walked into the classroom purposefully and tried my hardest to excel early on in my grad school career to quell any fears that I was going to be a lesser student due to my outside commitments.  Despite my own confidence, I still heard and overheard many comments that made me absolutely cringe.  If I had not already resigned myself to the existence of anti-mother undertones in academia, some of these comments might have shook me to the core.  I share these thoughts not as a warning but as a shared experience with many other academic moms.  In order to fight the misconceptions, we must face them head on.  Here are just 4 of the comments that changed my view of the academic world, for better or worse:

  • Is the father involved?

When I first visited my current university, I wasn’t exactly forthcoming with my status as a mom.  I would rather be judged on my merits as a potential academic than my unrelated familial status.  I wasn’t trying to deceive, but I look like a fairly typical graduate student and was certain it would not come up.  After I made an offhand comment about my family, a fellow student asked if I had children and I truthfully answered yes.  Later that day at a social event, this same student asked about my daughter in the normal flow of conversation.  A professor in the conversation looked like he almost jumped out of the skin and says (and I will never forget this), “You have a child?!  Is the father involved?  A PhD is very hard and will be nearly impossible without support.  Are your parents around?”  Yes, this insulting string of words came out of a tenured professor’s mouth.  I am a married woman in my late 20’s, not exactly 16 and pregnant.  To answer the questions, yes I have a child, yes the father is around, and no my parents do not support me.  But guess what, none of that was, is, or ever will be his business.

  • How was the … procedure? (referring to the birth of my second child)

This gem came from a male colleague of mine.  As he stumbled to find the right word for baby, I just stood smiling at the uncomfortableness associated with the totally normal situation of greeting a colleague after returning from maternity leave.  I wasn’t sure if he really wanted to know about the procedure, I mean what could he possibly want to know?  How was the labor?  How many stitches?  I spared him the details he asked for and simply said, after a pleasantly pregnant pause, “The baby is great, he’s 2 months old today!  Wanna see a picture?”

  • If I get big like Jaime, can I graduate early?

This statement was part of a story recounted to me by a student.  While TAing for this student’s class, I was visibly pregnant with my third child.  I genuinely like this student and have spoken with her many times.  I felt comfortable discussing things with her, especially something as obvious as a pregnancy.  The conversation moved to the predictable comment about how crazy I am for having all these children and trying to do a PhD (in admiration, I hope).  She recounted a story about how my colleague who works in her lab asked her advisor, “If I get big like Jaime, can I graduate early?”  I think (or hope?) that this comment was not really about me but more generally about the attitude that pregnancy is a career killer in academia.  When I started my PhD, I walked through the door pregnant and obviously did not think I was going to graduate within a year because I was having a baby.  In my cohort, I was the first to pass my candidacy exam and first to publish a paper.  It stung a bit that some might think my accomplishments were not quite earned due to my personal situation.

  • Jaime is like a super grad student.

I had to put at least one nice comment!  Not everyone in graduate school is mean and callous.  I have met more kind and supportive people than at most jobs I have held.  This comment came from a colleague in my cohort as an introduction to the visiting prospective students.  It was great to be recognized by a colleague who I mutually respect even if it was just in front of undergrads.  Obviously not everyone is totally scandalized by my babies.

What are some comments you have heard through your grad school career that perplexed, offended, or surprised you?

 

 

Better presentations without Powerpoint

Powerpoint is the powerhouse of presentation software.  Everyone uses it because for a long time it was the best, most portable tool available to make professional presentations.  In the recent years, several competitors have emerged which produce equivalent or even improved presentations without the hassle of large ppt files or the cost of Microsoft Office.  Here are just 2 free options for clean, powerful presentations without Powerpoint:

1.Beamer 

Anyone who has used LaTex for their documents knows it’s advantages.  Equations in LaTex are about as easy and pretty as they could be.  Formatting is a snap compared to Microsoft Word.  Citations number themselves (now, if only they would search my database for themselves as well).  Beamer is the presentation class of LaTex.  You can use all of the same procedures as in a LaTex document and end up with a presentable PDF that you can flip through like a presentation.  The format is portable to any computer with a PDF reader.

2. Prezi

If you haven’t heard of Prezi yet, you’re missing out.  Prezi is an online presentation builder with all of the bells and whistles.  Presentations are set up on a map of sorts with elements that toggle in and out as you progess the presentation.  The available templates are stunning and include graphics that don’t make you cringe (remember Powerpoint’s starburst transition coupled with the sound of glass breaking? Yeah, not that).  You simply log into the Prezi website and can present straight from the web, no need to bring an extra flash drive or worry about downloading the latest copy of your work.  If you have a .edu email, Prezi is free in the basic capacity including a 4GB private cloud account for your presentations.  If you don’t have a .edu, the software and cloud storage is still free with the caveat that your presentations will be searchable on the web.

What is your favorite presentation tool?

How to tell your advisor you’re knocked up

I started my PhD 3 months pregnant. I already had a child, so being pregnant again was not a surprise to any of our friends or family but it was a shock to my PhD cohort. A pregnant PhD student? What is this blasphemy? Being pregnant and having a child should not be a negative experience.  Many PhD students are in their mid to late 20s, prime child bearing years, and yet having a child while doing a PhD seems unheard of.

I have had the experience of sharing with a boss I was pregnant in my corporate job and it was not at all a negative experience. I spoke extensively with my colleagues about the impending baby and changes I was experiencing. My colleagues seemed interested and excited for me.  I didn’t love the attention given to my huge belly, but it was always in a positive light so I didn’t mind being asked constantly when the baby was coming.

In graduate school, the perception is different. Many students would consider pregnancy at this point in their lives counter to their goals. Most graduate students also do not have the experience with others being excited for a pregnancy and perhaps don’t know how to react. Remember, being pregnant is not something to be ashamed of! Your life plan does not have to align with others and having a baby does not mean the end of your career in academia. If young professors can deal with having a baby and returning to their jobs (which are even more stressful and comprehensive than that of a graduate student), you can do it, too! Before you share your news with your colleagues and advisors, I would recommend making a plan. Consider making a note of the following before breaching the subject with your advisor:

1. How will the birth and recovery effect your class schedule or work commitments?

Are there projects you will have to put on hold? Are there classes which you will not be able to take in the typical progression? Have a timeline of the next year or so for your advisor to address.

2. How will having a child effect your work schedule moving forward?

Will you have full time child care or will you be planning on working different hours? It is important to address how you expect your workflow to change after the baby is born. One of the positives of a grad student schedule is flexibility, but the more you take advantage of this flexibility, the more you need to have the results to show for your efforts. The student that shows their face every day will be able to make an easier case for not having results due to a failed experiment than the student who comes in a couple days a week.

3. What is the maternity policy at your school and how much time do you plan to take?

This is another positive about graduate school, you may be able to take a longer break than otherwise afforded at a full time job. That being said, you may not be paid for this break. Many schools do offer some type of maternity leave so don’t just assume you cannot take time off. Look into this before you see your advisor as they most likely have no knowledge of the policy and may not have been in this situation before.  Due to lack of experience, your advisor may be inclined to incorrectly tell you a maternity leave policy does not exist.

 

Having a full plan for when the baby comes will help convince your advisor you have the maturity and dedication required to do a PhD while raising a family.  Once you have all the planning done on your side, the following tips can help you have a successful meeting with your advisor:

1. Wait until you are ready to share the news.

You do not need to tell the world you are pregnant immediately if you do not want to.  Most women wait until at least 12-16 weeks along to share the news.  The exception would be if you are working with chemicals that could possibly be teratogenic.

2. Be positive!

You are allowed to have a personal life during graduate school. You are allowed to be married, have children, have friends. Getting your PhD doesn’t have to be the only commitment you undertake. I actually found it easier to focus on my studies as a parent as I know I have to get my work done in a timely manner or I don’t have the time to spend with my family.

You can have a family and get a PhD at the same time. You will need to be organized and committed but it is possible!

Baby steps for the pregnant PhD student

So you just found out you are pregnant?  Congratulations, that’s so exciting!  But you are a PhD student?  Don’t panic, it’s not the end of the world.  Everyone reacts to pregnancy differently, especially if it is unexpected. Though it seems as if the world of academia is not suitable for the pregnant woman, you can have a baby and be an academic.  Here are some of the first steps you should take when you find out you’re expecting:

1. Breathe

The first thing you need to do is remain calm.  If the pregnancy was unplanned, you may be in shock or have mixed feelings. This is OK and normal. Wait until you have had time to absorb this exciting news before you move on.

2. Consider your options.

Having a child does not have to be the end of your graduate school experience.  Many women have had children during their PhD studies and even more have children during their early academic careers.  It is possible, but it is not for everyone.  Take a couple days to think about how you would like to proceed with your schooling.

3. Look into your school’s policy on maternity leave for students.

Many schools offer maternity leave for students.  For example, my institution offered 6 weeks of paid leave.  You should be able to find the policy in your student handbook or through contacting your Graduate College.  Locate and study this policy before you discuss your pregnancy with your advisor or colleagues.   You may also have the option to take a leave of absence for an entire semester, though such a leave of absence is typically unpaid.

4. Make a plan.

Start thinking about dates. Scheduling around an impending baby can be difficult; babies do not follow your plan.  Regardless, you have an idea of when the baby will be born, think about how this will effect your studies or research.  Consider how it will effect your colleagues and advisor as well.

5. Don’t forget to make your first doctor’s appointment and start getting excited!

Find a doctor within a reasonable distance to your home or school, you will be making a lot of visits in the next nine months.  While you are researching your insurance for reasonable doctors, consider how your baby will be insured.  If you are covered under your parent’s insurance, it will not cover the baby when they are born, even in the hospital.  If your school offers insurance, particularly for dependents, this is the time to think about enrolling before it is too late.

What were your first thoughts when you found out you were pregnant and what do you wish you had known?

Grad school for all the wrong reasons

I worked a full time job for several years before I decided to go back to grad school.  Some of my reasons for returning to grad school were traditional, including a desire to expand knowledge in my subject and the opportunity to become an academic, while others were less conventional.  I was already a mom when I applied to grad school and welcomed the lifestyle of a grad student.  Here are some of my “bad” reasons to return to school:

1) A flexible schedule

I worked a 9-5 in my “previous life”.  There is something inherently stressful about having to be present at work 8 hours a day 5 days a week regardless of your work load.  In graduate school, I work when I need to.  My work definitely amounts to more than 40 hours a week in corporate time (if you’ve worked corporate, you know what I mean) but in reality, it is quite manageable.  It is also nice to be able to stay home with the children if need be and have the time to do doctor’s appointments and children’s activities during working hours.

2) Ability to travel

My husband and I love to travel.  It was our main hobby before kids and we have been lucky enough to continue traveling relatively frequently with the kids.  Prior to my return to school, my husband was working a job which required a decent amount of travel.  I would regularly be home alone for weeks at a time.  Once I started school, I could pick up my work and travel with my husband.  I would work during the day while the kids napped and played in the hotel room or at a local library and we would explore at night.  It might not sound glorious always being on call but it is much better than 2 weeks of travel time a year.

3) More time with my children

Graduate school is most definitely a full time job.  Despite this, I feel certain that I have more time with my children in graduate school than I did when I worked full time.  Many days I do not have to travel to the office, saving essentially one to two hours of “work” time I can now spend with my children.  I can take days off if I need to in order to unwind and enjoy some valuable family time.  I get to work my schedule around my personal life allowing me to take advantage of more awake time with the little ones.

What were your “bad” reasons to go to grad school?

Three free short outings for kids – or how to get the kids out of the house when you have a thesis to write

If you are home with your kids on a weekday, it may feel as if you need to be writing or researching or studying. Many times these things are almost impossible with the little ones at home. When I first started my PhD, my family was 2 kids lighter. With only one little person running around, I was able to complete a respectable amount of work on the days she stayed home. With 3 kids running around, there are days where I barely get everyone dressed and fed before my husband gets home at 5 o’clock. When these days happen, I try to let go and remember that things will get done.

Pushing myself to work when I know nothing will get done is a recipe for stress and anger. One thing that helps my little ones is getting out of the house in the morning. I find that if we have an outing in the morning, we can come back and have a more peaceful afternoon. They will play with their own toys after spending a bit of time out on the town.  Some examples of free places to take your kids in the morning for a more peaceful afternoon:

1) Park

kids-1869823_1920

Of course this is number one.  The park is a great place for the kids to get out some energy and enjoy a different environment.  Getting to the park always gets my kids napping a little better in the afternoon.  Try to find a park that is occupied, your kids will appreciate having playmates other than their siblings for a bit.

2) Story time at the library

portrayal-89193_1280

This is always a favorite of my kids.  They love hearing the stories and singing songs with the librarian.  It also gets them some much needed social interaction.  If you make a habit of attending the same story time each week, you may also find a mommy friend or two out of it!

3) Go for a walk

alley-1582733_1280

Even a short walk can help the children calm down in a new environment.  The change of pace is important and fresh air can do wonders for the kiddos.

Getting out is one of my biggest tips for getting work done when the children are home.  Use this time to unwind from your own work as well.  I find taking the time to socialize with the other moms or catch up on Facebook when the kids are occupied helps me get more focused in the afternoon.  The most important part is don’t stress!  The work will get done but stressing about it will not get it done any faster.

 

Schedule of a mommy PhD candidate – with the kids at home

Getting work done when the kids are home is never an easy task.  But sometimes, it just needs to get done.  I keep my kids home with me 2 days a week when I am (supposedly) working.  In order to get things done, I need to keep a strict schedule and yet be open to mishaps or changes as necessary.  I never leave important tasks to times when the kids are home, so if something is due Wednesday and the kids are home Tuesday, that task will be done on Monday.  This alleviates some of the stress of working from home as it moves tasks from the “need to do” pile to the “it would be nice to get done” pile.  Here is a typical schedule of my day when the kids are home:

6am-9am I hop on my computer immediately when I wake up.  Typically mornings are the calmest with my children.  If I get on my computer at 6, I can get a solid 3 hours of work done in the morning with a quick break to make breakfast (usually toaster waffles, so very quick).  If I get a lot done during this time period, it makes my day much less stressful because I already accomplished something.  Around 9 is when the kids start getting antsy.

9am-12pm I use this block of time to get the kids out of the house.  I typically take them to either the park or story time.  Then we come back and I make lunch.  I don’t do any work during this time period and try to use the time to relax and have family time.  This seems like a large chunk of time to not work, but remember, I already worked 3 hours.  By noon, I’m probably still ahead of the typical grad student in work hours!

12pm-2pm This is nap/rest time.  Though my older kids don’t nap anymore, I still make them go to their rooms for quiet time.  It typically lasts for 1 to 2 hours.  This block of time is great for getting things done.  I can concentrate in a relatively quiet atmosphere for at least an hour straight.  (In parent time, an hour of concentration is glorious.)

2pm-5pm This time is a grab bag.  Sometimes I can get the kids to remain calm for a good chunk of the afternoon.  I will typically let them watch some TV if they haven’t watched it all day.  I will also serve snack which keeps them occupied for a bit.  Some days, this time is not work time, but I can typically budget for this by staying late in my office the next day.

Based on my schedule, I get at least 5 hours of good work done on days my kids are home but typically closer to 8 hours.  It works out well for us and most weeks I feel like I do a sufficient amount of work.  Remember an hour here and an hour there really adds up.

How do you schedule your day when the kids are around?  Do you get any work done or do you take it as a day off?

Social life as a mom and PhD student

It is not unlikely that you will be the only mom in your PhD cohort. Though being a mom and a PhD candidate is unusual, it is not unheard of and does not mean you are less equipped than your colleagues, but it does mean you may have less in common than you did with your undergraduate classmates.  It is hard to navigate the social world of graduate school knowing your other life waits for you at home.

One thing I found helpful in the beginning of my graduate school journey was not really talking about my family. I liked compartmentalizing my schooling and my home life so I could feel immersed in each. I also already felt different than the other students due to my outside commitments and didn’t want to make myself seem any “weirder”. I know having children is not something to be ashamed of, but I found it cathartic to pretend for a bit that I was just another student.  You can make a choice to divulge as much information about your home life as you would like. If you choose not to talk about your children until you get to know your colleagues, this is OK. There are plenty of other things to talk about.

You also most likely won’t be able to attend as many social outings as your single and childless counterparts. You should try to attend some to get to know your classmates, but don’t feel obligated to attend them all. Many graduate student events occur during the day or early evening, these events are usually the more professional and important events to attend anyway. Try to get to know your classmates, even if you feel as if you have little in common. They can be important resources in the future and may just become good friends.

 

 

Pros of starting graduate school when you already have a child

Graduate school (especially a PhD program) overlaps with many of the child bearing years.  In general, most of your 20’s will go to the pursuit.  For this reason, the debate frequently comes up whether or not a student should have a child during graduate school.  Personally, when I started graduate school, I didn’t need to consider this issue because I already had one child and had concrete plans of having more.  Though many of my fellow students did not understand my decision to go back to school when I already had a busy life, I found that having a child before I started graduate school was the right decision for me.  Here are some of the pros I found to starting graduate school with baby in tow:

1) You already know how to manage your time.

alarm-clock-2116007_1280

Every parent has to have at least minimal time management skills.  We wouldn’t be able to get everything done in the day if we didn’t.  I know my own time management skills sky-rocketed when I had my first child.  Graduate school is one big test in time and stress management.  You have a leg up from the other students before you even start.

2) You have a grasp on your priorities.

diary-2116244_1280

When you have a child, your priorities change.  For some people, this means they would like to stay home with their child full time.  For others, this means they desire the simulation of workplace while raising their child.  You cannot grasp how your priorities will change with parenthood until you make the leap.

3) You already know how you react to parenthood.

baby-165067_1280

Before I had my first child, I could not even imagine what life as a mom would be like.  When I started graduate school, I was already accustomed to the parent life and knew how I dealt with the stress of having a child and working.   I also knew I wanted to maintain a professional life outside of the home.  Parenthood changes you. I have met many moms who insisted they would continue working after having a child and simply had a desire to stay home and vice versa.  You really cannot say how you will respond to being a mom until you are there.  It would be much more difficult to reconcile the desire to stay home with your child if you are already 3 years into a PhD program.

Did you start graduate school with a child or did you have a child during graduate school?  What do you think the pros or cons are?