16

Good day.

I'm currently a PhD student in computer science. I was married and have a daughter with my former wife. There is a probability that our daughter will live with me. Could you please tell me is it possible to be successful in academia and to raise a child alone? By "to be successful in academia" I mean eventually to receive a professor position. Could you please share your experience?

Additional details: my university has a kindergarten and I live in Germany. My concerns are more about is it enough to have 9 working hours per day for writing the PhD thesis.

  • 6
    I know people who did it, so it is certainly possible. The chances and the commitment needed, however, depend a lot on the age of your child, where you live, whether your university has supporting structures, etc. And, of course, your resilience to a stressful life. With the details you provided we cannot tell anything but: yes, but who knows? Therefore, I have to vote to close. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 4 '17 at 16:44
  • Sara Seager at MIT lost her husband and has a daughter. She is certainly a success story. – user67075 Feb 4 '17 at 18:28
  • Your question is very relevant and asks for research-based answers instead of anecdotal evidence. Where do you want to become a professor, Germany or would be another country also possible? If you want to stay in Germany, do you consider FHs as well? – non-numeric_argument Feb 10 '17 at 9:35
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Summary: The older your child is, the easier it is. But by no means it will be easy. Personally, I don't even think it is possible. I present my own observations to support my claim.


I am an early career researcher myself, having just graduated with a PhD in a STEM field. I also got married a year before my dissertation defense and became a parent literally a month before I was to defend and graduate.

First, of course, anything is possible. While I may not personally know of any such success stories, I am sure others here do and I am sure you can google and find a few success stories.

But I will describe what I think is the average case instead of the extreme case, resulting from my own experiences and what I saw around me; friends, colleagues, lab partners, advisors, coauthors, other professors, people I met and got to know in meetings and conferences, people with whom I have interacted during my career...a sample size of 30-ish people.

Grad school is hard. Grad school in a STEM field is really really hard. It is very consuming. It consumes your time, eats into your social life, takes up your mental energy, your physical energy, and your emotional energy. It always has an adverse effect on your mental and physical health unless you are very disciplined and exercise, eat, and sleep regularly.

Likewise, being a parent is hard. Being a good parent is really really hard. Kids demand so much energy and they need so much love and attention. Raising a child is more demanding than going through grad school. If there are two of you, sure it helps. But both parents have to put in a lot in raising a child. Being a single parent is even harder because in a way, you are filling in for both parents.

Now on to hard data! Master's is easier so we will only consider doctoral students and above. These are all in STEM fields. I only know of two cases where they had children before starting doctoral studies. One had three kids, another had one kid. One had already made quite a lot of money on wall street and wanted to come back to school to get a PhD so he didn't worry too much about TAing or financial aid. The other was a typical student. They both did finish successfully but it took them about a year longer than was average in their respective fields. And I want to emphasize that they were both with their partners who were both full-time stay-at-home parents.

Next, I only know of myself and one another student, who had children while in grad school. We both had children very late in our studies, when most of our work was done, a paper or two was published, a paper or two was submitted, the thesis was being written or half done. Every single other person that I know of who wanted to have children, were waiting to graduate or even later to have kids.

I have never known nor heard of (a friend of a friend of a friend) a single case, a single parent who has wanted to start a PhD, or has started a PhD, was/in in a PhD, or has successfully finished a PhD.

In all honestly, I don't think that in your case, you can put up hard boundaries between your personal life and your professional life. How can you separate raising a child as a single parent and work on your computer science PhD? It doesn't matter what hours you decide, nine hours a day or 4 days a week. You will come home and think about your dissertation problem. You will think of your thesis. You will think of the comp sci question you are trying to answer. You will think about big and small inevitable conflicts with your advisor, your lab colleagues, your coauthors, your thesis committee, and whether you'll get a TAship next semester or not. Similarly, how can you stop thinking of your child when at work? What happens when the child is fussy or upset and doesn't want to stay with the babysitter or go to daycare? What if the child gets sick or there is another emergency? You'll run out of your lab without even thinking and there goes your rest of the nine-hour-planned-day out the window.

Furthermore, let's say a miracle happens and you get your nine-hours-a-day workdays. From a 24 hour day, taking out the time for sleep, how much time will you have for yourself? When will you decompress? When will you destress? When will you have time for your physical exercise and mental wanderings and distractions such as your hobbies? How often will you be able to just sit in front of the TV and eat cereal the whole day? When will you relax with your own alone me-time? Without hobbies, exercise, relaxation time, grad school will absolutely kill you. Every single person I know who tried this either dropped out or was an absolute wreck by the time they graduated. And these people were not even parents, much less single parents.

In conclusion, the statistics are against you. Sure, your child's age is a factor which makes it easier the older your child is...but it will still be very hard. You are taking two things which are notoriously difficult and intrude upon every aspect of life, and you want to try them both simultaneously, and hope you can keep them separate and succeed in both. I really wish you the best. Good luck!

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It certainly is possible. I know a lot of professors who are single parents and they are very successful. At least in the US, it is illegal to discriminate against someone seeking employment based on whether or not they have children, or their marital status (among other categories). You will have to find the balance between your work and personal life.

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    -1 Professors who are single parents doesn't quite work here unless you know for a fact that all those people went through grad school, graduated, went through postdocs, assistant professorships, and then got tenured while being single parents. The might have been single themselves, or had no children while they climbed the academic ladder and became single parents much later in their careers. – Fixed Point Feb 4 '17 at 20:58
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Summary: Although it is possible to succeed in academia as single parent/father, it is rather unlikely.
Nonetheless, if you are single parent, then it is probably a good idea to:
1. Build networks with other parents (not exclusively in academia).
2. Make strategic use of institutional support, like kindergartens, parent-and-child offices or parental leave, which facilitates your work-family balance.
3. Read and learn about the experience of other single parent academics.


As there is empirical research about the impact of parenting on academic careers of mostly women, there is no need to stick only to anecdotal evidence. I think that much of this research can be generalized to the situation of fathers who actively (and sometimes equally) engage in care work for children. Qualitative research by Sallee (2014) shows that the problems of these more engaged fathers resemble the well-known problems of mother's work-family balance.

Overall, most studies have shown that care for young children lowers women's productivity in terms of publications (Hunter/Leahey 2010). Note that results for the selective group of women engineers and scientists seem more complex. There is no consistent evidence for a motherhood penalty in academia, but there seems to be a fatherhood premium (Kelly/Grant 2012). The latter is likely the result of fathers who work more (to earn more) and take over less child care. Mothers, especially of younger children, show higher levels of family-to-work conflict (Fox/Fonseca/Bao 2011).
Thus, parenting in academia comes with a significant cost. This research applies to careers in academia in general. If you would leave academia after your PhD or a first Postdoc, the productivity loss would be possibly not so problematic. However, it would make it much harder to attain a professorship (especially the hierarchical German system). Single mothers often show up as an especially disadvantaged group in the studies. Probably, single fathers face a similar situation. As a caring father you experience similar constraints as mothers in academia but you would get no equivalent institutional support in form of women's representatives and special funding opportunities.

If you are single parent, then it is probably a good idea to:
1. Build networks with other parents (not exclusively in academia).
2. Make strategic use of institutional support, like kindergartens, parent-and-child offices or parental leave, which facilitates your work-family balance.
3. Read about and learn from the experience of other single parent academics (use e.g. Ward/Wolf-Wendel 2012 as a starter).


Literature about parenting in academia:
Fox, Mary Frank; Fonseca, Carolyn; Bao, Jinghui (2011): Work and family conflict in academic science: Patterns and predictors among women and men in research universities. In Social Studies of Science 41 (5), pp. 715–735.
Hunter, Laura A.; Leahey, Erin (2010): Parenting and research productivity: New evidence and methods. In Social Studies of Science 40 (3), pp. 433–451.
Kelly, Kimberly; Grant, Linda (2012): Penalties and premiums: The impact of gender, marriage, and parenthood on faculty salaries in science, engineering and mathematics (SEM) and non-SEM fields. In Social Studies of Science 42 (6), pp. 869–896.
Mason, Mary Ann; Goulden, Marc; Wolfinger, Nicholas H. (2013): Do Babies Matter? Explorations of Place and Belonging. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press.
Sallee, Margaret (2014): Faculty fathers. Toward a new ideal in the research university. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Literature with actual tips:
Ward, Kelly; Wolf-Wendel, Lisa (2012): Academic Motherhood. How Faculty Manage Work and Family. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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Certainly, the responsibility of being a custodial or sole parent might take away some hours of your research and writing time. On the flip side, raising a child is extremely rewarding and can actually improve one's discipline and focus. Caring for a child can have a civilizing influence!

I will now back up a step and try to imagine what might be going on. Perhaps your daughter's mother is not able to care for her at this time, and your daughter is in need of a different living situation, and perhaps you feel a responsibility to step up and create a home for your daughter, as an alternative to... I'm not sure what, perhaps going to another relative such as a grandparent, or going into foster care. Maybe you are wondering how much of a personal sacrifice would be involved if you were to step forward, in other words, maybe you are wondering whether you would have to choose between taking responsibility for your daughter vs. finishing your PhD.

The only part of this I would be able to answer is that last part. In general, people do not find it necessary to abandon their PhD studies because of childrearing commitments.

As to whether it would be the right choice for you, and for your daughter, I can't say.

Tip: Parenting is always easier when one has a good support network, regardless of how many adults the child lives with. (I do not mean to suggest that you can't do it without a good support network.) If you are seriously considering taking this step, it could be helpful to start building up your support network now. Ways to do that include:

  • talking to your relatives and close friends about the project: as you talk this over with them, they may suggest ways they would like to help
  • lining up a primary care provider (doctor or pediatrician), and finding out practical things like, do the doctor and nurse have a special phone hour?
  • getting recommendations of private babysitters in case you need extra hours beyond the kindergarten hours
  • find out which parks and play areas give you a good vibe
  • looking for a weekend playgroup where you can interact with other families; you can start to attend already, and start to form relationships with the other parents

Note, my experience with such playgroups is that even if most of the parents who attend are women, men are always welcome. (I say that having attended playgroups in Denmark, Germany, France and the United States.)

A book you might enjoy reading: Commando Dad: How to be an Elite Dad or Carer, From Birth to Three Years. You can safely ignore the quasi-military theme, and you can skip the early chapters about baby care. But the general attitude of this book could be helpful for your self-confidence -- which is really the key to parenting.

Please note that there are many ways of being a responsible parent. Being the sole custodial parent is not the only way. I lived in Mexico for a number of years, and saw a huge variety of ways. For example:

  • An acquaintance, a mother, sent her child to live with her parents in the countryside for his first five years; and then she brought him to live with her in the city, where she managed a small store. Her son played in the store outside school hours. She felt that the store wouldn't have been the right place for him when he was a baby, toddler and pre-schooler.
  • Another acquaintance, a young man, was in high school when his child was born. During his college years, he traveled to his parents' place whenever he had more than three days off school, to spend time with his daughter.

In short, even if you decide that your daughter's primary residence should be somewhere other than with you... I hope you can still find a way to maintain, or build, a relationship with your daughter, even if she is living primarily with someone else -- even a foster parent.

Personal note: I met my father three times before he died, which happened when I was in my early teens. I am very glad I had those three opportunities.

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