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I am a 29 year old female. I want to go back to school. I have been told that I have a very good chance at getting into a very good graduate computer science program (machine learning, AI, robotics, theoretical cs, so many algorithms... it's the real deal here, you guys). Due to cost, the fact I need to work full-time and giving myself the best chances for success, I will be doing this at a very slow, part-time pace.

As an undergraduate, I saw woman drop out for family, so my question is:

How common is it for women to drop out of graduate school because they have children?

I'm preferentially looking for answers that draw on personal experience or statistics.


Some additional background you might find relevant:

My boyfriend/fiance/partner of 10+ years died about a year ago. I don't know what I'm doing about all that yet.

I have been out of school for a while. You don't really need a degree in IT and I hadn't really considered going back because it didn't seem manageable or practical with the rest of my life. But... now that life is gone, it's cool because it has to be, and I would have never even dared to dreamed about being able to enroll in this graduate program before.

I don't necessarily care if I have a family and/or kids but I'm fairly positive it will not happen on accident. To me, being with someone or married does not automatically mean having kids, either. For the sake of the question, when I am ready, I feel it will be very logistically easy for me to date again.

Articles like these motivate my question:

Helpful Articles:

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    While I am sympathetic to the OP and the question, I think it's a hard one to answer in this kind of forum, and I am a bit worried that it could engender negative/counterproductive discussions on, um, gender issues. "From your experience... assuming I perform well with both work and school... what are the chances that I actually finish my masters?" In my experience, assuming that you do well in school the chance that you will succeed in school is good! – Pete L. Clark Feb 14 '15 at 15:50
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    "What have you seen happen to woman normally in this situation?" As a feminist this question makes me a bit umcomfortable. Does it really matter that you're a woman rather than a man? Does it matter what's "normal" rather than what you want to do? "Do they finish or do they stop for family (or maybe both somehow)?" Both are possible. "Do I have any chance at a doctorate, too...?" Yes, of course. It is relatively common for doctoral students (male and female) to have children. Also doctoral students in e.g. CS are often/usually fully supported by their programs so don't need outside work. – Pete L. Clark Feb 14 '15 at 15:54
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    @gloomy.penguin: For me, succeeding in a master's program implies finishing the degree. I wonder what nuance I am missing here. Yes, in my experience a large percentage of women in higher education have children and families. I am an advisor and a tenured professor in the mathematics department at a state university in the US. – Pete L. Clark Feb 14 '15 at 15:57
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    Of course it matters that I'm a woman with this question. Even just from looking at it in physical/biological terms of being pregnant and the aftermath. I saw so many woman as an undergrad stop because they got married or something (which is fine). I have never looked into the graduate world before. So... I'm asking... "what is typical?" Do graduate students stop for family at the same rate I saw undergraduate students stopping for family? – gloomy.penguin Feb 14 '15 at 16:01
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    I strongly disagree with the close votes. I believe OP is asking a pertinent in-scope question which has a factual answer: How common is it for women to drop out of graduate school because they have children? (Or perhaps "when" instead of "because".) – JeffE Feb 14 '15 at 16:45
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My wife and I both started graduate school, in STEM fields, in Ph.D. programs, a bit later than most.

Due to this, we decided to have children during graduate school. Note that I am in the USA at the one of the top programs in my field at an RU/VH university.

A few negative points are

  • As a graduate student, you are expected to work full time, but you are not paid enough to afford daycare costs for young children.

  • For the first year of the child's life your research output will be severely limited. Some PIs may not like this.

  • After children, you have to be very focused and disciplined to continue, time scarcity increases a great deal, and time is already scarce even if you are a single graduate student with no life.

  • My wife had severe morning sickness, which decreased her research output. Pregnancy complications can affect your work.

  • After you have children, being poor really starts to become a burden. After all, we want to give our children a good life.

  • Your time in graduate school will be extended.

A few positive points are

  • Due do the nature of research and graduate school, hours are very flexible compared with a typical job. This allows for juggling of schedules when needed, etc. which is very helpful to us.

  • The Ph.D. is less crucial than a post-doc or a tenure track position, so I would posit that there is less risk to have children during graduate school as opposed to other crucial academic career milestones. However, the caveat is that graduate students receive the least money.

  • Many PIs don't care what you do, as long as you make research progress. This makes it easy to work around a young child's needs.

The way that we have dealt with this situation is by

  • Having understanding PIs who also have children, and are flexible.

  • Acquiring some debt (that we wouldn't otherwise incur) and I've done some lucrative consulting on the side. The consulting has however, increased the time to graduate in my program.

  • Being very disciplined in our schedules and having our children in daycare/preschool so that we can work. This is very expensive.

  • Not having a social life (but graduate students aren't supposed have those anyway right?).

To answer your question, for us it is working. However, I do know a few other couples who are doing this, one other couple is like us with both parents in graduate school, but nearly all of the others have only one parent in graduate school.

From my perspective, it appears that women leaving academia due to children is becoming less of a problem, but is still large, and unsolved.

Note : our university does not provide daycare to graduate students. They do provide a $1000 annual subsidy, but our daycare costs are $10,500 per year. These costs decrease for preschool, but are very expensive for the first three years.

Second Note : My graduation time will likely be right around the 6.5-7 year mark, I had my mother die during my time in graduate school, and we have had two children, so the actual time increase wasn't obscene, but I already had an MS in Mathematics coming in and was expecting to finish in 3-4 years. My wife entered her program straight from BS and will probably finish in 5.5-6 years.

I would also like to say that the needs of the child and the lack of sleep disproportionately affect women in this situation, and this is a biological necessity in the first 2 years of the child's life. For this reason, equality for women in academia does not mean equal treatment, it means providing for the ability for women to have children if they so please, without it impacting their career! This necessitates providing more support for women and families to have careers and children.

  • While this is interesting, I don't see how this answers the question. – user9646 Feb 10 '18 at 10:01
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On questions of family, the road is a lot harder for women in academia than men. Some of that is biological, but most of it is cultural: there's still a lot of sexism both within academia and in the larger culture, and numerous studies have shown that women are judged more harshly than men for making the same choices.

This all shows up in a phenomenon known as the "leaky pipeline," which is quantified nicely here. That particular data doesn't quantify graduate school, but it follows similar trends: at any given stage, women are somewhat (but not hugely) less likely than men to progress to the next stage, and this difference is amplified (again, significantly but not hugely) by having a family. Overall, this means that women are badly underrepresented in academia, particularly at the higher ranks. For your own goals of education, however, there is no reason to think that you are unlikely to be able to succeed: most who start, finish.

However, I would question your assumption that the cost of education will mean that you need to work full-time and must go slowly. If you get into a good computer science Ph.D. program, they should be paying you as a full-time job and covering tuition. Some Masters' programs, particularly the really good ones, are the same way. If won't be great wages---typically, you are paid just a stipend that covers the cost of living in your areas---but a good program will generally enable you to dedicate yourself fully to it, which also greatly increases your probability of success.

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    The caveat is that, if you do have a child while in graduate school then the pay is no longer enough to stay in the program. Daycare is not affordable unless you take on debt, and if you choose no daycare you will never finish... – daaxix Feb 17 '15 at 5:52
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    @daaxix Not necessarily... there are also other possibilities, including having a well-paid partner, family who are able to help out, or child-care pools. – jakebeal Feb 17 '15 at 6:18
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    What does this even have to do with sexism? Women willfully choosing family/children over careers isn't sexism or discrimination. – Keith Mar 9 '15 at 14:35
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    @keith Women choosing to have children/family over careers is not sexism (I object to the word 'willful' here); however, women who choose to have children/family are often assumed to be doing so over their careers - as in fact you have done in your comment. When a woman chooses to have children/family, it is often assumed that she is more interested in said children/family compared to her career, the same assumption does not occur for men to the same extent - this is sexism. These assumptions can have far-reaching effects, think funding from department, time and investment of the advisor, ... – Aru Ray Apr 14 '15 at 13:42
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    @AruRay Please don't feed the trolls. – jakebeal Apr 14 '15 at 15:03
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First of all, let me start out by saying that I am sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine what you must have gone through. With regards to your specific question, I cannot provide an answer from the "as a woman" perspective, but I can answer as a father, and as a graduate student. I've successfully completed my Master's Degree and I'm ABD status this week in my PhD.

Graduate school is hard work. Lots of people drop out for a wide variety of reasons. Some people can't hack it mentally or emotionally. Some people get discouraged and give up. Some people have too much going on with their work. And some people do drop out for family reasons. I've been working full time and going to school full time since I started my Bachelor's program. It's tough, but not impossible. The biggest key to success that I've found is maintaining balance and effective time-management. If you become pregnant during your coursework almost every school should have a clause that allows you to take a temporary leave of absence from your program which will give you some time off right after childbirth. My own kids are young, but not babies. I facilitate my family time by working on my homework at night after they go to bed, or on the weekends when they are out playing. Having a set schedule certainly helps you succeed too.

So, the short answer to your question is yes, people (men and women) do drop out of graduate school for family reasons.

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I am not a woman, but I had a PhD student who was, and who was in her mid+ 30s in grad school, and had two kids while in grad school, and finished an excellent thesis in 6 years. Sadly, her (now ex-) husband was not helpful, in fact the opposite, etc., but she wanted both the kids and the mathematics. A very energetic, intelligent, and strong-willed person, yes, not to mention a bit more grown-up and focused than many grad students. She at first thought there was almost a "rule" that she'd have to drop out, but I assured her that there was no such rule, although there was the obvious practical need to figure out how to work things. (Amazingly, there is an almost-reasonable university-subsidized daycare... of course, the waiting list is longer than most people would imagine...)

5

This comment from the OP struck me and I think it's something to keep in mind when answering the question:

I saw so many woman as an undergrad stop because they got married or something (which is fine). I have never looked into the graduate world before. So... I'm asking... "what is typical?" Do graduate students stop for family at the same rate I saw undergraduate students stopping for family?

I don't know the details of your experience but it is certainly quite different from my own (woman in science at elite university). I saw zero undergraduates quit school because they got married or became a parent. There was one man who took a few months off because he knocked up his girl friend but he came back. There was one woman who dropped out for other reasons then later became pregnant. Even so, I believe she'll be returning next year. A few people at my university became engaged as undergrads but (with the exception of the guy that knocked up his girlfriend) none of them got married as undergrads. Even if they had, I can't imagine any of them dropping out because of it. My mom got knocked up with me and still finished her undergrad degree. Perhaps others could weigh in on their experience but from my perspective, I very much doubt graduate students drop out for family reasons at the rate you saw undergrads drop out.

I recently got my undergrad degree and am waiting to hear back from PhD programs so I don't know as many graduate students as others on here might. I have only known one pregnant graduate student - she had her baby and is back to working on her Ph.D. Late-stage pregnancy and getting a tiny human out of your body might make it take a few months longer to get your degree but the length of time for finishing grad school is so varied anyways that I don't think it matters much in the grand scheme of things. I will say it's probably easier if only one parent is a graduate student (and the other has a stable job or works remotely). I also imagine it would be very, very difficult if the other parent is lazy or if one is a single parent but even then, it can still be done. I agree with the the other poster who says don't make choices based on hypothetical children. Also, if you're doing comp sci you will probably be able to make a decent salary later on so if you don't want to give birth at 45 or whatever you will be able to afford adoption or maybe even a surrogate. There are many options for having children.

Due to cost, the fact I need to work full-time and giving myself the best chances for success, I will be doing this at a very slow, part-time pace.

Do look into fellowships and scholarships for women in comp sci because there are many. In biology, it is typical to go bachelors -> PhD and it is typical to receive a stipend (~$30,000/year) during PhD studies. Can anyone comment on what is typical for comp sci at masters and PhD levels? There are also companies that reimburse tuition for higher level degrees.

As an aside, I've looked at data of women in STEM and the rates of grad school graduation for women and men are pretty equal (at least since Title IX laws came into play) - it looks like the leaky pipeline issues happen earlier or later. The raw number of men and women is different but the rates are similar That's just me messing with data though.

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    The part-time thing struck me. In my experience part-time PhDs have a very low success rate. If you're concerned about not finishing your PhD, do not under any circumstance keep working! Any decent CS position, especially in the "hot topics" like ML, is funded. Children are far below that as a reason for concern. – nengel Jan 28 '18 at 5:38
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I would suggest reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. While the book doesn't directly address academia, it talks about this topic more broadly.

Just because you plan to have children in the future, does not mean that you need to make choices based on hypothetical children today. Yes, being pregnant or a mother to young children is hard but it shouldn't deter you from achieving professional goals.

I personally had multiple new mothers in my class when I was in graduate school. While all of them had a very hard time, none of them found motherhood as an obstacle to graduation and they all obtained a PhD. None of the people who dropped out of the program did so because they recently had a child.

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    I love this answer for two reasons. First, it seems like you will have the opportunity to choose a partner with your (broad) goals in mind, and Lean In addresses that. Second, the advice about making choices based on hypothetical children is great. Finally, I will say that several of the women in my program (which is not CS) had children while in graduate school. All had non-academic partners, which helped a lot. Furthermore, I have a partner that makes a decent salary, so we could avoid good day care and "throw money" at other problems which arise because of my demanding schedule. – Dawn Aug 23 '16 at 3:05
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I am not a woman, but I am in a field where women are the majority of graduate students, so I have a non-zero amount of personal experience watching my friends go through this.

It's a harder road than you'd otherwise have - there's no escaping that, and while that's extremely unfortunate, it's also the current culture of academia. However, a large proportion of the women I knew while in graduate school had children, and to the best of my knowledge, this was the cause of exactly none of them dropping out. Several had more than one child.

It is certainly difficult - a baby does not understand "Please go to sleep, this paper is due tomorrow", and several faculty members made not entirely supportive comments when it seemed like a substantial fraction of the department was suddenly pregnant, but I don't know of anyone who dropped out because of it. Of course personal circumstances will vary - but if it's something you want to do, it's certainly doable. One piece of advice I would have is to make sure to find a supportive supervisor - your time to graduation might be slightly longer, and having someone who doesn't view that as a failure is helpful.

As an aside, I'm very sorry for your loss.

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