Is grad school a good time to have a baby?


I have no clear answer and I had my daughter just after finishing my fourth year…

A post on having kids in grad school has been on my roster basically since I started blogging. I sometimes get asked this question because I had a baby in grad school. While contemplating what to write, I realised I actually know quite a few mothers who started their families in grad school. Some have gone on to continue their careers in academia while others made the decision to leave. Although motherhood plays a part of their personal stories, the mothers I know are not unlike the general population of grad students I came through with, who are all also trying to find their way and decide what to do with their lives and careers.

So last year, I decided that to ask all the people I knew who had babies in grad school about their experiences and what advice they would give to the question “Is grad school a good time to have a baby?”. The one thing that these parents all have in common is an enthusiasm for the idea and a lack of follow through (including me!). I posed the question but then got caught up with other things as I’m wont to, just like I’m sure all the other parents who said they’d like to contribute but ended up being far too busy to write about it. Instead of pestering them after having dropped the ball before, I thought I would write my own perspective first.

What follows is a modified email that I sent to a female grad student who directly asked me for advice on whether grad school was a good time to have a baby. One thing that did come to mind when thinking about this question is that I come from a supportive department in this respect and it clearly shows in the number of grad school babies that born there. So my answer to the question is coloured with the privilege of support, both from my advisor and department. Many are not so lucky.

My advice and perspective is also skewed towards mothers, although I know grad school dads as well. Part of the challenge of having a baby during grad school for a woman is, well, having the baby. Although parenting can be a lot more equal pretty quickly as long as both parents make an effort for it to be, the burden of pregnancy and breastfeeding (if you can/do breastfeed) falls squarely on the mother. There are real physical aspects of this time that means extra support and consideration for mothers that I think shouldn’t be ignored. You’ll see some of that perspective in what follows.

Here is my advice from a couple of years ago to a fellow grad student* pondering having a baby before finishing:

I seriously feel unqualified to offer advice–somehow I managed to make it through but I’m still not sure how. So I’m not sure I have wisdom but here are a few thoughts. First, they always say there is never a good time to have kids and although its true, you should never let that stop you. It is a tough thing to plan and it is always more of a crazy disruptive thing then you imagine it will be. But it is also amazing so if you want it I would say give it a try–you will always make it work somehow–sometimes things go a little slower than planned or differently than planned but that is all part of it. I think you will make your priorities happen–if you want the baby and want the PhD, you will make it work. My story was that I did manage to have a double TA at the end and that helped a lot. But I did it in the opposite direction from (another grad student)–I took off a semester (‘writing’)/had Maiken and then double TAed. Somehow I managed to come back, double TA and finish. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that my committee was very forgiving—I am still working through publishing my chapters and sometimes I am amazed they let me go**. And of course, having a supportive spouse is huge–I couldn’t have done it without my partner’s help.

I think everyone’s situation is unique though. I thought I would do some writing when I was off but I did next to nothing those first few months. The birth was a lot harder than I had hoped (I had to have an emergency c-section). The recovery took more out of me than I thought–emergency means bigger cut and it was a while before I could even get out of bed normally. I also did not do well with the sleep deprivation so that made it tough to think and function–the hormones also can make you a little crazy and seriously effect your brain function. No one told me that I would be more forgetful once I became pregnant, for example…. Not to scare you but things can go in unexpected ways and although it is totally doable, pregnancy/breast feeding, etc is definitely a draining experience–but you will roll with those things as they come and they shouldn’t stop you. And many people have it much easier than me and hopefully you will too!

Ultimately, the decision should be up to you and your partner, so in some ways, I don’t think you need to talk to anyone officially until it is certain you are having a baby. Then the logistics can be worked out as they need to be and my experience with the department is that they are pretty supportive. My opinion is that it is your right to have a baby so they need to deal with it and they want you to graduate so they’re going to work with you to make that happen. When I passed 3 months, I went to my advisor and then my committee and the department chair. I basically started by saying I was pregnant and I had a rough outline of a plan of how to finish up. My biggest request was the double TA*** and they were good enough to give me that. I think they thought I was a little crazy and that I would not manage moving to Sweden, having a baby, coming back and defending but they were definitely supportive. I did lose one committee member because they wasn’t around when I needed to defend but everyone was fine with that and since I had four members I didn’t need to replace them. I guess you just should be prepared to be a little flexible and figure out what is feasible but I think it is definitely possible to manage it.

Having a baby is always going to be a huge disruption of everything else in your life and they only continue to be that. But grad school isn’t a bad time to start. You’re time is actually pretty flexible. So even though it was crazy busy, I’d do it again. The writing/stress of finishing always seems about the same to me, whether or not you have a baby (at least from watching other people). You basically fill up the time. When you have something else so huge going on, you are forced to work more efficiently and not worry about it so much. Revisions can always go on forever, when you don’t have forever, you basically have to stop. Part of the reason I am still working on things from my PhD is because I am trying for good journals so that is also a choice…

Anyway, personally, I wouldn’t ask permission/talk to anyone that I thought would try to dissuade me from doing it, at least if they were in a position of power. If they try to say it isn’t for the best and then you do get pregnant you’re possibly creating unnecessary tension. But once you are pregnant, it isn’t like they can advise you not to be. So the discussion will hopefully be more productive and positive about how to make it work.

I hope this ramble makes some sense. Follow your hearts, do what feels right and it will work out.****

So in short, is grad school a good time to have a baby? It was for me.***** I have a wonderful/stubborn/imaginative/annoying/beautiful/challenging/creative daughter and so far a career in science that I love. I wouldn’t change any of it. But having a baby is a deeply personal choice and I don’t think anyone can truly answer for another whether any particular time is ‘good’ or not.


*I’m happy to say said grad student now has a lovely daughter and PhD degree.

**Impostor syndrome alert: I had one published chapter and three manuscripts at the time of my defence. Not such an uncommon combination…but I had high expectations of myself and was disappointed that I hadn’t submitted more at that point.

***My salary support was through TAships and doing all my teaching duties in one semester instead of spread across two meant that I could come to Sweden and be with my partner during the first few months of my daughters life (her due date coincided with the start of the fall semester)

****I tend to live by this philosophy, although the ‘working out’ might not be how you first imagined.

*****A recent twitter conversation about grad school stipends directly relates to the finances of being a parent in grad school. I didn’t have to support my family on my stipend, nor was I a single parent, important distinctions.

5 thoughts on “Is grad school a good time to have a baby?

  1. I didn’t go to grad school, but I did have a somewhat nontraditional path to parenthood –

    1) Baby #1 was born when I was 20 while I was a newly-wed stay-at-home mom
    2) Baby #2 was born when I was 23 while I was finishing my undergrad degree. I had no partner at this time.
    3) Baby #3 was born when I was 30 while I was (am!) working full time as the family breadwinner while my husband is a stay-at-home dad.

    So hopefully my experience can help someone.

    First of all, I was surprised at how much more difficult pregnancy is at 30 as compared to my early 20’s. Also, for baby #1 and baby #2, I had the energy level that people in their early 20’s have right when my life was at its most stressful (a toddler AND a baby AND college). I was not prepared for how chronically exhausted I was at 30 with a baby and a career (even with the best husband a woman could ask for). I also was not prepared for how comparatively inflexible my workplace is (as compared to my college). When I was in college, I had a lot of flexibility – if the kids are sick or if they just need you that day (mother’s intuition), just don’t show up to class. No asking for permission, no accountability. Now, you can’t do this TOO too often, but a couple times a semester won’t kill you. With my job, if a blah day coincides with a time-sensitive project, we all just kinda have to suck it up.

    Because I wanted to hurtle through college as quickly as possible, and because I’ve always been good at school, I took anywhere from 18-27 credits a semester (except for the semester after I had the baby – I attempted 11 credits and finished 4 of them (I think)). In order to avoid being overwhelmed, I let go of my former perfectionist self. I would actually do a cost-benefit analysis in my head to maximize the marginal benefit of any particular available hour of study time. (For example, I could use this hour bringing my Business Law grade from a B- to a B, or I could bring my Corporate Tax grade from a C to a B. Corporate Tax it is!). No more straight A’s for me! But I got through and I learned a lot of really awesome things. Except government accounting – I should have failed that class, but I batted my eyes and passed. Not proud of this, but I kept my eye on the prize – gainful employment and self-sufficiency.

    Financially, during college, I had my GI Bill, student loans, and public assistance for daycare and food. I don’t think there’s any shame in accepting public assistance to get through that phase of life, because: 1) that’s what the programs are there for; and 2) as a present-day gainfully employed homeowner, I’m putting back more in taxes than I ever received in benefits over those few years.

    Overall, I think the message we get that “responsible people” wait until all their ducks are in a row to even THINK about having a baby is well-intentioned but ultimately harmful. From my experience, having a baby is more difficult the later you start; I would hate for someone to miss out on their dream of parenthood because they spend their fertile years thinking “I shouldn’t have kids yet because my life isn’t perfect.” So I get excited when I see more and more people starting to consider throwing caution to the wind and having children when they’re young and have the energy levels to just make it all work.

  2. Thanks for posting your thoughts on this. My wife (not an academic) and I had our son while I was in grad school… and I thought about this quite a bit. For us, the biggest concern was financial. She was making good money, so we felt confident that we could support a family presently… and importantly in the future if things didn’t pan out in terms of a postdoc/faculty position. I was in the 4th year of my PhD program and I landed an EPA STAR Fellowship the year before, so I knew that I had guaranteed funding for another year and I could, in theory, make a case to the university that had 3 years of unused TA money that my fellowship freed up. We felt comfortable with the scenario and went for it.

    I was most surprised at how awesome this time was to have a child. Grad programs (good ones) have a tight community of friends that share so many experiences with you. They were thrilled to also be a part of our personal lives and loved the fact that we had a child. They showered us with food, care, support, love, etc. during our final years in my PhD. This “second family” didn’t quit with grad school — we had a similar experience during my postdoc. Our son has many fond memories of the grad students in the lab I was a postdoc in… and I wouldn’t trade those for anything.

    It worked great for us and the timing was perfect.

  3. I became a father for the first time about 12 months into my PhD and came very close to quitting because I felt I needed to get a “proper” job and have done with this research lark. However I was actually being paid quite well as a teaching assistant and had flexibility to work from home a lot, so on balance it made sense to stick with it. Three kids and an interesting career later, I’m very glad that I did! It won’t suit everyone and being a single parent presents a lot of issues, of course, but having kids early can have a lot of advantages. And academic careers, more than perhaps any other, have so much flexibility in work patterns that can make up for relatively modest salaries.

  4. You know, if a graduate stipend isn’t enough to support a family, we’ve got a pretty severe issue in the US considering our income distribution. And I am quite willing to say we have a severe problem. Check out I’m starting grad school this fall and am getting a stipend of $24,000 which puts me, if I was single, at the 58th percentile.

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