47

The essential gist of my question relates to what the real, unvarnished realities are of graduate, post-graduate, research, fellowship, and professorship attainment - when you aren't a single person with no pressing demands other than feeding yourself.

[EDIT: I am humbled by the incredibly helpful and thoughtful responses so far, all of which are +1 from me. I'll leave the question open a few more days before clicking 'accept' on any one, but you all have my gratitude and I hope others will benefit anywhere near as much as I have. ]

What I don't know is what succeeding in this path truly requires in time committment and family support.

Right now I can handle a 12-14 credit course schedule with 3.7-4.0 GPA (in the top 5-10% for college and program, dean's list, etc), work part-time, and still have time to be home and not have a burn-out/breakdown - and the academics are the easy part by far! I could do more, but I need to work more too.

What I really need to know is how sharply different is the time/dedication curve of graduate work and above. I realize each step is a filter that removes most of the entrants (most people don't get a degree, most who do don't attend/finish graduate school, most who do don't seek a PhD, most who do don't seek/gain professorship...and on and on). But I don't know how severe the stepping is - I'm not talking "tenured professor at MIT or bust" - I realize that bar is many orders of magnitude higher.

Background Details: As an "adult, returning" undergraduate student with a (disabled) wife and kids, I'm halfway through a bachelor degree now. I've located a field of study (in a focus of Industrial Engineering) that has made me very interested in altering my life path to include seeking a Masters and maybe even a PhD/professorship (my father was a professor, so its not a purely novel concept to me). I've met and spoken with my advisor and 2 other professors with experience in related fields, and all is encouraging; I have a graduate school in mind, I've received lots of great advice on preparing for school (on this forum and in person), I test well (no GRE fears remain), good grades/class rank, good prospects for future strong referal letters, etc - a comparitively charmed existence for which I am very grateful! I just have to investigate whether I can make it through with an intact, cared for family!

Any guidance you could provide me, and other aspiring "non-traditional" students alike, would be appreciated immensely - thank you!

51

I feel for once I am somewhat qualified to give an answer here.

A bit of background to know where I am coming from and hopefully give some insight to my situation. I am currently finishing my second year in a MA Mathematics program and beginning my first year of my Ph.D. in Mathematics in the fall. I am married with two children(a 3 year old and an 8 month old). I had my first child during undergrad and my second child came two weeks before the current school year started. I attend a smaller department that is most certainly less intensive in regards to the expectations that another school would have(such as a top tier research university). I've been a Research Assistant for the past two years doing active and successful research with an amazing supervisor. This past year has been the most stressful since I decided to take three core year long sequences, which is a great deal of work to keep up with.

Above all, put your family first.

I would hope this goes without saying, but it can be easy to lose sight of this when you're up to your neck in homework/deadlines. When something comes up with my family, I drop my schoolwork to deal with it. I make it a point to always put my family before school. I'm sure there are professors out there who would argue otherwise, but I'm grateful that my professors seem to (hopefully) understand the situation and that I just can't put in the hours that other students can. I generally score lower on average than other students but I think I do fairly well. Could I do better? Absolutely...if I were to put in the hours and sacrifice time with my family I could score better on my tests and homework, but that isn't what really matters in the long term to me. Of course I want to do well in school(and I generally do!), but sometimes I have to make a choice and school gets the axe.

In the end, you choose your own priorities, and I would suggest opting for spending time with your family over finishing that HW. You just can't get those moments back.

Having a Strong Support System

I would absolutely not be able to do this without the support of my wife, family, and friends. Without my wife to help out with the kids and pick up some extra housework when studying for tests/finals/my oral MA exam, I would certainly have dropped out or (worse) ruined my marriage or become a terrible father. I make sure to try and do extra work whenever the stressful times pass and try to make it up to her as I can.

We are lucky to have family close that can help out with childcare and babysitting when I need to go in on an off day or want to stay late for a seminar. Without the support system we have in place, I'm not sure I could physically do it. If you have a similar support system, then it will be a huge relief to your stressed.

I should also mention that without some amazing people at my department, I wouldn't be able to succeed. Professors have been amazing with deadlines if the time just wasn't there for me some week. My RA supervisor has been absolutely amazing as well. She's extremely understanding with the kids and even being cool with me bringing the little one to meetings if everything just fell apart for that day. If I had a less understanding supervisor, I probably wouldn't have made it.

Time Management

This is probably the trickiest part. Time management is always important, but it's extremely important to successful manage school and family. You just don't have all the time that other students do so when it's time to work you need to remove all distractions and get as much done as possible. I arrive at school between 8-9am and in between classes I work nonstop on homework or studying until I leave at 3-4pm. I have a computer in my office, but I purposely keep it off unless I absolutely need it on. I disable the wifi on my smartphone and removed nearly all the time wasting apps(facebook, games, etc..). I check my e-mail probably twice, once near the beginning of the day and once around the time I'm getting ready to leave for the day.

I do take small breaks from work to socialize with other students or check in with professors as needed, but I strive to make sure that I don't waste an hour doing absolutely nothing in someone else's office. Socializing is an important part of graduate school, so don't neglect it but don't let it consume all your precious time.

When I come home after school I shut off school mode. I spend the rest of the night with my family, eat dinner, and help get the kids into bed. Once the kids are in bed then I'm free to do homework. I don't always go straight into homework though because it's important to me to spend time with my wife relaxing and watching an episode or two of TV shows to wind down. It doesn't happen every night, but I usually make an effort to take it easy on weeknights when I don't have school the next day. The "school nights" I usually retire upstairs to work on homework. I'll work until midnight or later depending on how early I have to get up and I'll average around 6 hours of sleep. It's not great, but sacrifices have to be made somewhere.

Finally, in my opinion, give yourself the weekend. Once I leave school on Friday, I'm done with math until at least Sunday night. The weekends are prime family time and we spend every weekend visiting the zoo, science center, art museum, the park, or virtually anything else the kids would enjoy. I initially thought it would be impossible to take the entire weekend off schoolwork and still succeed, but I've been doing it for 2 years. This past year was the worst, but I stuck to it and I can safely say I managed to survive it and do just fine in my courses.

Dealing with Stress

Let's face it, you'll be stressed. Grad school is stressful as all hell to begin with, but then you go and toss kids into the mix? It's insanity, and you have to handle it somehow. I'm a fan of exercise, which takes up that precious time but is totally worth it. You have to feel as good as you can and any sort of activity is a great way to relieve stress. You could also do another hobby, or something that you do to relax. I'm also an avid reader, so losing myself into a book every now and then is great. The time I have to read varies, but it's one of my top hobbies. Find something you enjoy and do it frequently to relax.

Sometimes it just can't be helped. If you find yourself really freaking out, you really should seek out the school's counseling center. They are no doubt used to overworked students and having a place to lay all your problems on the table and have a trained therapist help you sort it out is probably exactly what you need.


To sum it up, I put my family before everything else. School takes a high priority but there are far more important things in my life than getting an A in every course. Schedule your time wisely, remove distractions, and work when it's time to work. Do something relaxing for yourself on a regular basis. Give your family the attention and time they deserve. You can't get those moments back and no letter grade in the world is worth that sacrifice.

Above all, make sure you are happy. It's such a small thing but I've seen students absolutely miserable hating what they are doing. Don't be that person! Life is too short to waste it being miserable. I suggest every 6 months or so, take a step back and evaluate how you feel about your situation(this should apply to anyone, not just graduate students). For instance, I vow to myself that if there ever comes a time when I begin to genuinely dislike what I'm doing, I will quit and find something else.

Good luck and don't forget what's really important. Grad school has a way of giving you tunnel vision and destroying you emotionally...just don't let it do it too often. :)

  • 4
    +1 for exercise. If your wife/kids can participate, even better. – Chris Gregg May 2 '13 at 6:58
  • Another +1 for all parts! The added perspective and warnings are very helpful. Question: Do you feel as though there have been major advantages other students without outside responsibilities have that leaves you passed-up for significant opportunities, or have you found your advantages (direction, dedication, discipline, time 'clocked out', etc) make up for them? Do people you work with/under care that you do 'family' instead of other extra-curricular activities? – vector_unknown May 2 '13 at 21:18
  • 3
    I think that conferences are a bit easier to attend without the outside responsibilities but I've been able to do just as many extra-curricular things as other students...even more than most I think. The local math circle, running a graduate student seminar, helped run an REU, published a paper. It all amounts to how much ambition you have and how efficiently you work...plus a lot of luck. I just wouldn't be able to do nearly as much had I not been as lucky with funding/colleagues/professors. – Kyle S. May 3 '13 at 0:49
  • That makes sense, thank you for your perspective and advice Kyle! – vector_unknown May 3 '13 at 16:48
24

I cannot resist the urge to answer this question or at least provide some insights based on my experience.

I am an adult and married with two kids, both of them born during my candidature. I work full-time in a high pressure advocacy company. I have been in my adopted country for less than 10 years (so that brings the question of settling in, finding your way around etc.) To cap it all, English is my fourth language.

I completed my PhD on a part-time basis and I have now graduated. The key is to enjoy what you do, so choose a topic that grabs your attention. There are long and lonely periods of solitary work and unless you like what you do, you will never get through.

Look after your family and fit your studies around their needs. This may mean not starting your study until after 9 pm when the kids are in bed.

Enjoy the little things in life, like going to the park and spending some quality time with your family. You still have a life even if you are studying.

If your study relates to your work, it makes things a lot easier as you can continually think about what you need to do and when it comes down to studying, you can start with a bang.

Adapt. Go to your work an hour early and leave an hour late so that you can use that time for studying. If you have one hour lunch, take a nap to compensate for your sleepless nights!

Have a supportive supervisor. Do not be afraid to make non-traditioanl arrangements. Instead of going to the university (which was 3 hours drive from my workplace), I found that my supervisor made weekly visits to a place near my home (to visit a relative). So I offered to have coffee with him every now and then.

Be kind to your self and careful of your self talk. Give yourself a break or a reward or whatever motivates you. If you don't feel like studying, make a conscious decision and spend the same time with the family. In this way, you will not have regrets.

Finally, don't lose sight of your end goal which is completion of your study.

So yes, it is possible and even though the reality is harsh, it is worth it!

  • +1 for... everything! Especially helpful take-aways: balance, daily routine/schedule tips, ensuring supervisor support in advance, self-talk, goal-awareness. You also helped me realize I have lots of times I just can't really focus or study, yet I waste the time instead of spending it on other important things like family. Question: I didn't even know you could do PhD part-time- how do you feel that has effected your options after completion? Did you seek faculty, research, a private industry job? – vector_unknown May 2 '13 at 21:09
  • 1
    I am employed in the industry so did not have to go out looking for a job. Additionally, there is no distinction between a part-time and a full-time PhD. Its just a PhD in the end! – Javeer Baker May 3 '13 at 5:03
10

Javeer has provided a great answer. I did a little searching around for any studies that might address pursuing an advanced graduate degree while supporting a family, but I was unsuccessful (and if there aren't any, it sounds like low-lying fruit for a budding social scientist!).

You might consider checking out the lively discussion on the Chronicle of Higher Education Forums: Having a baby while in a PhD program.

When I was in graduate school, one of my Electrical Engineering professors with a wife and three children had a strict 9am-5pm policy, which he had apparently also kept during his PhD studies at MIT (though I do recall him telling stories about all-nighters the day tape-outs were due, so it couldn't have been set in concrete!). Bear in mind, he is also the most efficient person I have ever met, and when he was at work he was at work. I never once saw him dilly-dallying around, and for every hour that us graduate students put into real work, he probably put in three times as much.

So, I know it is doable for the right person, but it almost certainly takes an extremely high level of concentration while at work to pull it off successfully.

p.s. To address your actual question, I found that graduate school work comes in stages (at least in the U.S., and for me):

  • First, you have a number of hard classes, which takes most of your time, but not more than undergraduate school (except for the projects...). If you get an advisor early, you may start research immediately, or at least have other duties such as reviewing papers, and, of course you may have TA responsibilities. You're definitely busier than in undergraduate school altogether.

  • Once you finish your classes, research really takes over, and the work can come in spurts, especially around the time conference and journal submissions are due. I've seen graduate students disappear for weeks at a time, and they don't seem too harmed by it in the end. Keep in mind that summers will be taken up by research or internships, too, so you don't have much of a break (although academia definitely slows down to some extent during summer, with lots of people out of the office).

  • The spurts continue until you really get down to writing your dissertation, which is a constant weight that you could spend every hour working on. I got some reprieve when I sent my advisor chapter updates (and you have to take breaks for sanity), but there is always that next chapter to work on, or the bibliography to fix up, or the figures to modify, or the defense presentation to practice. It can be a rough time for many students, just because your dissertation can seem like the Eye of Sauron looming in the distance. This is probably the time where you need to tell your family that Dad might be more stressed than normal.

  • The few (possibly longer) weeks after you graduate are some of the most relaxing days of your life. :)

  • Thank you for checking on the studies, as I was also able to find nothing terribly applicable. The ones I found were mostly of the "why are so many non-trad students dropping out when so much has been made of getting them to join in the first place?" And they are almost entirely anecdotal, only undergraduate, and truly "more research is needed." I did, however, find that thread you found very useful, as it relates to something I would actually think more demanding than my task - which is perfect! – vector_unknown May 3 '13 at 17:19
  • Also, +1 for the rest as well. It makes sense that if you work less hours you have to get more done in them, which is not impossible - which is the sort of thing the The Mythical Man Month deals with, for instance. The outline of work flow and fluctuations of graduate life is very helpful as well! – vector_unknown May 3 '13 at 17:22
6

I can share my personal experience as it relates to your question. I am 42 years old and hav decided to return to the world of academia to pursue a PhD in Computational Science part-time after earning my BS twenty years ago in Computer Science and Math. My wife and I have been married twenty years and we have four children ranging in age from six to eighteen (the oldest is actually starting college in the fall at the same college I am attending). Oh yeah, I have a full time management job.

As the other posters have commented, time management is a must. It takes a lot of planning; we had to work out a schedule of who is going to bathe at what time, what time dinner is, what time each child gets help with homework, and so on. And as one person mentioned, it means not starting your class work until the family tasks are dealt with - even if it is 10 PM!

I am still in graduate school, but have a few real world bits of advice to share.

  1. Research your program's requirements on completion time and lay out your class schedule ahead of time. We had to submit a proposed course of study at the beginning. Our program had a time limit of ten years, and I paced myself to finish in seven. This leaves a few years of breathing room.
  2. Look for any residency requirements. The program I am in requires two consecutive semesters "in residency". Basically you have to take a full course load (nine hours) for two semesters. My plan is to do those with my Dissertation hours.
  3. Find a good advisor who has a schedule that works with yours.
  4. Honestly I have found the coursework easier overall. This might be a maturity factor and not procrastinating as much as I did as an undergrad.
  5. Talk to your employer. My boss is pretty understanding, and I can deal with a lot of work-related tasks in the evening. This gives me the freedom to go to campus to deal with homework and projects.
  6. Don't forget your family! Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, and it is easy to cut family time in order to finish an assignment. This is okay every once in a while but do not make it a habit! Don't forget to bring your wife flowers and tell her thank you for putting up with your late nights.
  7. Talk to your instructors. Tell them about your situation. I was pleasantly surprised by how understanding they are when I needed to turn an assignment in late because I had to go out of town for business or when I skipped class to take a child to the doctor.
  8. Involve your family! There are numerous family oriented activities on our campus, and the kids enjoy going to campus and seeing where you go to class, do research, etc. Let them meet some of your professors. Our campus has a movie theater and a Dunkin Donuts - two instant wins for my kids! My wife enjoys walking around campus and reminiscing about our years as undergrads and showing the kids where we went when we lived there.
  9. Take advantage of every second of spare time. Going on a trip? Take a paper to read or notes to study. My two youngest kids love going to McDonald's to play on the indoor playground when the weather is bad outside. I carry my laptop and work on homework or research. Sometimes you also need to find a few minutes just to relax!

I hope this bit of insight helps! Good luck!

5

Getting excited about a field of study is a great intrinsic motivator. But, as a grown-up, you know that the things that get your children excited (ice cream?) may have side effects (sugar rush that the parents have to manage? longer-term obesity risks?). So unlike a 20-something out of undergrad who can afford spending a few more years in school, you have a different perspective on what works in your life, and how things should work. While it may be true that Ph.D.s pay better, if you are say in your mid-40s, it is not entirely clear if the 5-7 years you will spend on the program with an income of $15-20K (losing $50-60K opportunities) are worth the gain from $50K to $80K that you will only enjoy for about 15 years. Having a better mid-age income may be especially important to get your kids through college (unless you really get a professor job with accompanying discounts; that's probably 10-15 years down the road for you, and may be worth factoring in.) You must realize that few research schools will hire Ph.D.s of age to tenure-track positions -- by being burdened with a family, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage of not being able to put 100+ hour work weeks like single fresh Ph.D.s in their late 20s would be able to (or ship your kids to China to be brought up by grandparents, as some married profs can do). An example of an MIT grad with a strict schedule that Chris gave is terrific, but is likely to be an exception; in some places, if you try to pull something like this, you will be asked to correct your work ethics.

Talking to professors is all fine -- they all will be very happy to see you go in grad school, get a Ph.D. and become one more professor (more so important if we are talking about a country native working on an STEM field; you have seen all sorts of discussions of how bad the shortage of STEM qualified personnel is in the US -- I assume we are talking about US here by your references to MIT :) ). To put it differently, they will want you to become one of them, and frankly I would not expect any different answer. Keep in mind that they are the success stories, at least in the sense of academia. To balance things out, find a few Ph.D. working in industry in your designated field (industrial engineering, heh?), and ask them (i) if the degree really helps in their jobs; (ii) if the degree was necessary to propel them to where they are (things are changing here: you must have a Ph.D. to hold some of the higher positions, and you hit a glass ceiling at some point with lower degrees); (iii) why they went to industry rather than academia.

When I taught at a university, I used to have a much greater respect for adult learners in my classes than for the "mainstream" students. These students are way more focused and have a much better idea of why they are in college, to begin with, and what they are going to do with their degree. They obviously have better social skills, which is important in every walk of life, and more so in engineering which is traditionally considered a nerdish discipline. You would want to play to these advantages that you have over the teenagers surrounding you in your classes.

As a matter of qualifications for this particular question: my wife and I came to do our Ph.D. programs with a 1-year old son, and we had another daughter the year before the job market. My wifeis a tenured professor now, I work in industry, and have a great degree of skepticism about academia, as you can easily tell :).

  • +1 I especially appreciate your link and and warnings. Like a wet - but warm - blanket :) I recall once working for a Very Big Company in the US at a dollar or two above minimum wage, and requesting two days off for a family vacation - and it being granted. As I was on the rode out of town the manager called and wanted me to cancel the vacation and come to work because a cashier called in sick. -1 on a staff of 12 out of 30+ employees on a regular business day. We had a closed door meeting expressing his disappointment in my behavior (I didn't do it). ... – vector_unknown May 3 '13 at 17:58
  • So what I must be aware of is this isn't restricted to private industries, but is a human universal that some abuse/drain/enslave others for personal benefit or out of a mental illness (sociopathy, narcissism, et al), corruption by power, thinking their own poor past treatment is a tradition worthy of continuation, or simply demanding others to have the same schedule and life they have. It seems inescapable and just must be dealt with directly or working extra hard to find just the right place and people to work with. Thank you for pointing out this difficult reality! – vector_unknown May 3 '13 at 18:04

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