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I am finishing my first year of Masters and have always thought of going for a PhD in North America. I and my girlfriend are going to have a baby which is totally unexpected. The due day will be somewhere this december which I am still half year away from finishing my Masters degree.

I don't know under this circumstance should I still, or am I able to, apply for PhD positions overseas. This would mean I will have to leave them or bringing them together for my study. I am not super rich to afford a family personally and would need to rely on studentships, but I don't think graduate studentships are sufficient to afford the living expense and future education fees of my coming baby.

Taking on a PhD and a research career are definitely my dream and situation seems very difficult for these to come true. Anyone knowing someone carrying kids along grad school, or any suggestion to me? I just don't have a clue how to take care of everything.

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    phdcomics.com/comics/archive/phd101110s.gif :) That said, I defended my dissertation a few months before we had our 3rd. – mikeazo May 22 '15 at 13:17
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    Could you elaborate on why it is so essential for you that the PhD takes place in North America? As you write about applying for PhD positions "overseas", I take it you are not currently based in North America. On the other hand, "[t]aking on a PhD and a research career [being your] dream" in itself does not invariably mean you must go to North America, unless you are in a very specific field that can only be studied there for some reason. It seems to me that quite some of the issues implied in your question (and also raised in ... – O. R. Mapper May 22 '15 at 13:44
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    ... Aymor's answer) just pose a major problem due to the particularities of doing a PhD in North America, or due to the fact that you are in North America while your family is elsewhere, rather than to the general situation of doing a PhD while having a baby. Where I live, starting a family while doing one's PhD is not at all uncommon; it sometimes seems to me like about 1/4 of the doctoral candidates around me have a baby at some point during their doctoral candidacy. – O. R. Mapper May 22 '15 at 13:45
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    +1 on @O.R.Mapper's comment. To have a baby you're now going to need a welfare state, so not the US (and maybe not the UK). I'd also ask which sector you'd graduate in, and which country you're from. In some countries, PhD salaries vary across disciplines a lot — for the case of Germany, see academia.stackexchange.com/questions/42869/… – Blaisorblade May 24 '15 at 8:17
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    Go for it, if you are interested. Graduate life, if ever becomes boring, your kid can give you a change. – motiur Aug 20 '15 at 14:04

10 Answers 10

36

Anecdotes are not usually the right kind of answer on stackexchange, but you have specifically asked for them, so here goes...

My experience

I had two children in graduate school. The first was born during my second year, and the second was born during my fourth year. Most of my fellow students thought I was crazy. I graduated (obtaining both a MS and PhD) in five years, with no debt and certainly no regrets. Surprisingly, I found that graduate school allowed me to be more involved in my children's life than if I'd had a regular job.

Advantages

Some important and perhaps unusual factors worked in my favor. First, and most importantly, my wife had already decided that after we had children she wanted to be a full-time homemaker. Her support allowed me to focus on my studies, although I did change hundreds of diapers, stay up a lot of nights, and after the birth of the first I didn't get any research done for about three months (I did continue passing my courses).

The second important advantage I had was generous funding from the US DOE's computational science graduate fellowship (CSGF). It is (or at least was) the highest-paid government fellowship in the US, at about $33K/year. That was still officially below the poverty line for a family of four where I lived, and half my income went to rent, but by careful budgeting we had no problem getting by on only that income. Could I have done it with less income? Yes, though I would possibly have needed student loans, and the added load of being a teaching assistant would have been a challenge.

Finally, I found that I could get a lot of high-quality research done by focusing intensely for a few hours per day. For me, that was (and is) a more productive strategy than trying to focus on research 24/7. This made it possible to complete my thesis and care for my family simultaneously. I was home by 5-6 p.m. almost every evening and spent most of my weekend time with my wife and children. I did often do research for an hour or two after my kids were in bed. I know that many grad students tend to spend a lot more time each day on research, which might make things more difficult.

Assessment

Having children during graduate school was a good decision for me. The time I was able to spend with them as babies and then toddlers is precious to me. After I graduated and became an assistant professor, I found that the time I could spend with my children was much more limited, due to the added demands of teaching, advising, service, and administration. Indeed, with my third child (born 2 years after I got a permanent position) I changed a lot fewer diapers and really spent a lot less time with her early on. I've reached a better balance since then, but it took years.

In short: with the right setup, having kids in grad school can work out very well.

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    +1 and I'd like to add that the right setup can come in very different flavors. Among my wider acquaintances is a couple who had their first child while they were both in the middle of their PhDs. They both graduated only one year late. The right setup included use of the universities childcare facilities, taking work home and the Prof organizing TA positions for an extra year for both, and this was in a country with "automatic" public health insurance. In my experience, while you might work more during a PhD, you're much more flexible with scheduling than later in your career. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica May 22 '15 at 22:05
  • I also had 2 children during graduate school, and my wife is also a graduate student. The flexibility really does help, however daycare costs are very high in the US, and are not affordable on two student salaries...I ended up having to take on some debt, and also consult on the side (delaying my graduation a bit) to pay the bills. I agree with you, however, that the best time to have children for an academic career is likely during graduate school, since time becomes more limited later, especially on the tenure clock. – daaxix Sep 3 '15 at 5:09
19

Children are the purpose of life for millions if not billions of people. They are wonderful. A PhD degree is also a wonderful privilege, available to less than 1% of the population (at least in the US). However, a combination of these two experiences is a very significant challenge, both for the family (your relationship with your wife and child) and for the PhD study, or the chances of having a satisfying, engaging, and overall positive experience in the program.

I do not have kids yet but will share what I do know. I am aware of several peers in grad school who had to manage graduate study and a small child. Even with an older (say, school-age) child it is a difficult task. But with a baby the time commitment, unexpected as well as everyday expenses (diapers, food, clothes, medical care) present substantial added 'overhead' for a family. Perhaps the greatest demand a baby will impose is the demand for constant attention and time, which must be provided NOW, and cannot be postponed for a time and day that works best with your class schedule.

I don't know if you have a working spouse whose income can sustain a baby (including babysitting), or if you are thinking of studying and sustaining a family on a graduate assistantship (formally a 20hr/wk commitment, which in reality is often a 30-60hr/wk commitment, if done right). Add to that a 24/7 commitment to a baby...

Bottom line, yes, it probably can be done. But the odds are going to be against you. It will require immense time management, discipline, flexibility, lots of sleepless nights (both for the baby and for writing papers for classes), constant stress, and non-existent time for yourself and thus declining physical and mental health.

How is this different from having a baby with a regular job? A couple things.

First, the time commitment is different. Many jobs allow a fairly predictable 8-5 schedule. When you walk out of the building, you are DONE for the day. Not so with grad school. When you get home from the university, homework awaits! Budget 4-6 hours daily just on catching up on reading and writing for class, and either grading and preparing for lectures (if you are a TA) or doing research-related analysis/writing (if you are an RA). During my first 3-4 years of PhD study I rarely recall a less than 12-hr workday.

Second, finances. A full-time job that pays at least $50K a year, plus additional income from the spouse, can allow to raise a baby. It will not be a smooth process and will require sacrifices and trade-offs, but at least it is feasible, and the money can be stretched to cover some basic expenses for a baby (with frequent trips to the Dollar Store, Goodwill, and Salvation Army stores).

If you end up in a large university in a large city with high cost of living, you might make around $1400-2000/month for a 20hr/wk assistantship. The exact amount often depends on discipline (engineering/medical vs. business vs. social sciences vs. humanities). This is just around the official subsistence level (i.e. poverty line) income for a household in the U.S.

If you do something relatively unrelated to your program (e.g. an assistantship in a Writing Center or Career Center, etc.) then count on standard university assistantship. In a high cost of living large city, count on around $1500/mo. The figure is much lower if you end up in the middle-of-nowhere, small college town - think not much over $1000/mo. Usually, graduate students struggle throughout their time in school. I mean, carefully budget food and clothes, not to even dream of living in decent, clean, apartments with no roommates or having cars (insurance? gas?) or even considering pricey entertainment or travel. Those who afford these things usually have savings or rely on some other financial assistance ("free money" like scholarships/fellowships) or regular financial support from the parents.

Unless your wife plans to work and bring in substantial income (in the U.S., I would say at least $50-60K/yr), it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible and destructive to family financial situation, to try to raise a baby on a single graduate stipend. I strongly advise against even considering this as an option. A small medical emergency that is not covered by graduate insurance (which is often seriously lacking for dependent care) can put you in debt for years if not decades. This is before mentioning all the human cost of living below subsistence level. If you think the loving, caring, gentle relationship with a spouse will be unaffected by persistent financial hardship, this perception is incorrect.

I already mentioned the high demand on time and attention associated with raising a child. Well, graduate school by itself is like having a child. Your thesis, if you will 'survive' through the preliminary exams and enter the dissertation stage, will be just like another child that needs constant nurture and attention. It will be on your mind day and night, it will cause some stress and it will cause late nights. Many late nights.

Bottom line. Babies are wonderful. Doctoral study is wonderful. But in combination, they will require trade-offs and impose a substantially higher level of stress, and reduced quality of life, than if attended to separately. Since a baby is guaranteed for you at this point, my personal advice would be to focus on raising your child at least until school age (5-6), and revisiting the idea of PhD at that point. You will have a much more pleasant life as a parent with a baby, rather than a baby PLUS a thesis, to come home to every day. The PhD will be there and you can do it later in life, no problem. So, enjoy your baby, it's a wonderful gift. The rest is trivial in comparison. If an academic career is in your future, you will find a way to pursue it sooner or later. AT the end of your life, you will not wish you had spent more time in the lab or submitting grant proposals or conference papers. You will wish you had spent more time with your family. And I hope you do. Good luck!

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    +1 Fantastic answer, except that bit at the end. Family is great, but some of us genuinely do wish for more research time :D – Tim May 22 '15 at 18:47
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    Another important point to consider is that health insurance can be insanely expensive for a family. My university gives grad students health insurance for free. But to add a spouse/kid is close to $1k/month more. And... babies will require healthcare costs. – enderland May 22 '15 at 19:17
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    School can be a regular 9-to-5 too. The trick is to never, ever bring "homework" home, and stick like glue to a work schedule. Do it in a library or some other location, and don't ever spend that time period doing anything else. If you finish your work before the end of the time you allotted, then study your textbooks. Then when the end of the allotted workday comes, stop whether or not you are done – AJMansfield May 23 '15 at 20:34
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Having children while at graduate school is not very common, but is not very rare either (in particular for Asians like me).

My experience

I'm a CS student in the UK, and my baby was born at the beginning of my third (and final) year of PhD. This did not affect the progress of my PhD at all.

Now, at the middle of my 4th year, I'm waiting for my viva in a couple of weeks, and the delay is just due to my internship in Silicon Valley (when I brought both my wife and my baby to the US with me). I will go there again soon for a post doc.

Sure, my working time has been significantly shortened. However, the pressure also makes me much more motivated. Thinking that my family are waiting for me at home has helped me to eliminate (nearly) all the procrastinations.

I'm also much much happier. Just by holding my baby in my arms, I can forget all the depressions, paper rejections, disappointments.

I'm in London, so everything is expensive, and my scholarship is only less than 16k per year. However, heath service is totally free in the UK, so we still can manage it.

  • Great point about a child as a motivator. I really accelerated my abilities in life after I had a child. – user50021 Oct 6 '16 at 15:48
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Well, certainly you are able to apply for PhD programs (which typically start in the Fall in the US). As for what you decide to do, that will require a long thoughtful conversation with your girlfriend, but if both of you are open to the possibility, then you may as well send out a few applications and see what kind of offers you get.

It seems like your main question is about financial aspects. Both as a grad student and faculty member in the US, I knew many people with kids during their PhD. With international students, it can be harder when your significant other does not have a work visa, as indeed you will not be making a lot of money. However, people get by, and if you want to come to the US with your girlfriend and baby and support them on a graduate stipend, you can too if you are frugal. There are often opportunities for extra teaching/tutoring, particularly in the summer, to get a little extra money, and this is something you can ask about when you check out PhD programs.

Another aspect, which you may or may not be concerned about is that it may be harder to get family to help out with the baby if all of you are overseas.

By the way, if you start considering this, you should look into visa issues for your girlfriend, which will likely be more complicated than if you were married. Oh, and congratulations!

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After having been in an infertility program for three years, I found out I was pregnant two weeks before I started my doctoral program. I had to take some time off during the first year, but I came back starting in summer session and managed to graduate in five years. My son went to daycare on campus and so was near me at all times. It was a real challenge, especially being the mom of an infant (dads are a little bit off the hook at that age). But I made it through, and when I graduated he was four, and they read both our names and we walked across the stage together. Good luck no matter what you decide --

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If the job climate is anti-pregnancy for women, whether that's fair or not, it's your advisor's job to let you know that's the case. I don't think any woman at any time should be punished in any way for the decision to have a baby, but that's not going to change the job climate overnight either. Different women react different to pregnancy too -- lack of sleep may leave them mentally unable to study for six months to a year or more. My wife didn't sleep for more than 2.5 hours or so at a time from about the seventh month of pregnancy to about the baby's fourth or fifth month. Yeah, she had a real hard time focusing. Two other female grad students who had a baby while in coursework had similar problems -- one left the water running in her kitchen sink and caused $400 worth of damage to the downstairs apartment, while the other said she couldn't even read a page of a magazine and stay focused (and this was a very high performing woman). How the advice is framed makes a big difference -- the infantilizing and the feeling that you need "permission" to have a baby is ridiculous. But at the same time, giving someone realistic advice is not the same as telling them what to do. - See more at: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/549-should-you-have-a-baby-in-graduate-school#sthash.4zJlCYwe.dpuf

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Since you asked for personal experience, I'll share mine.

I did the majority of the work for my Master's degree as a part time student while working full time. During that time, my wife and I had two kids. During the first pregnancy, there were some problems and my wife was put on bed rest. I had to withdraw from my classes to care for her over 9 weeks. Then, there was this totally helpless human baby that I had to do my part to care for. I didn't get back to school for a few years. I spent all the time I would have spent on education being a parent instead. When I did get back to classes, it was so much harder to block out the time for classes, studying and doing research. Then we had our second child and time for school was even more scarce. I finally completed my Master's when I was laid off during the financial crisis and no one was hiring. I finally graduated, 9 years after I started. I absolutely don't regret taking the time to focus on my family.

As to the idea that the PhD will always be there, it's true in a sense, but I think you will find that as you live your life and acquire other responsibilities, that your education will move down the priority list and going back will become less and less likely.

I think you should discuss the situation with your girlfriend. How does she feel about you leaving her behind to come to the U.S. for school? How does she feel about coming along? You should also look at what support any school you're considering has for grad students with families. I know that many have on campus apartments, daycare facilities, preschools and other types of support.

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I found a program that offers PhD coursework during the summer, so I will only be away from my family for 2 months for the next 3 summers (with a week vacation when I'll return home). I'll be doing my clinical internship, reserach, and disseration at home. I wonder if that's an option for your career field? I'm in social work, and Smith College only has graduate work during the summer. I have been thinking about what to do while I'm away from her and I wrote a post about it: https://phdincoming.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/how-to-be-away-from-your-kid-while-in-grad-school/ Make the best decision for you and your family :)

  • I find the applicability of this answer quite limited. Most science Ph.D. program I'm aware of are full-time and involves course work all year around (for the first one or two years). Can you elaborate more on the structure of such part-time Ph.D. programs and how common they are? – Drecate Mar 29 '16 at 17:34
  • This is a full time program. There are two semesters each summer, five classes each semester, for two and one half summers. My clinical placement runs from September to April. So I'm engaged in PhD coursework and knoweldge year round. No, it's not traditional. I do not know how common this structure it. Smith College has had this structure since the 80s. It would be great if more programs offered a program structured in this way to accommodate parents. But I will still dream that academia starts to bend to the needs of it's students. – PhD Incoming Apr 2 '16 at 3:25
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There is no right moment for getting children. You will always have to deal with sleep deprivation, extra costs, less time , etc. The financial costs are easier to handle when you have a "real" job, but when you are younger the sleep deprivation tends to bite less, and gradschool can be more flexible than a real job. An important aspect is how family friendly your institution is. So, depending on your circumstances, gradschool could actually be the right moment for getting children, rather then a problem. Since the child is already on its way, viewing the situation from this perspectives, is probably the most productive way of dealing with the situation.

I would start with looking at what is offered by your new institution, e.g. childcare, flexible working hours, flexible childcare in case of illness or conference visits, etc. If a lot is offered and your adviser is supportive then you will be fine. If not, you can as a last resort consider looking at different institutions.

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I have been the same situation and here is my suggestion:

Yes you can do it and do your PHD now. But plan to be on yourself for the first year (a year is the most – it can be somewhere from three to eight months). Bring your family after that, because by that time, you will have all the information.

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    With proofreading and elaboration, this could be a very helpful answer. – Ellen Spertus May 5 '16 at 16:19

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