How do I Balance Family and Grad School?

balancing family and grad school

Graduate school takes a lot of discipline, energy, and time. There’s no way around it. Graduate students may be advised to wait to have a family until they have graduated with their master’s or doctorate and have more financial stability.

However, some couples may decide, for various reasons, that they would like to have a family while pursuing higher education. It’s a difficult path but it has been forged successfully by others.

For additional tips:

Below are some tips from those who have made it through grad school with a family.

Factor Family In

Because your family will be a big part of your success as a graduate student, making them one of the top priorities before, during, and after a graduate degree, will not only ensure the completion of the degree but also long-term family commitments.

When choosing a grad school with a family, all of the factors that potential students are normally concerned with should also include the family. For example, when considering the location of a school, being near extended family, good schools, or safe environments for the sake of the children will also become part of where to do your graduate degree.

Some schools offer more assistance to families than others. Schools that provide health insurance for the whole family, childcare, or student family housing can be a better choice overall when considering grad school options with family responsibilities. Many schools are beginning to offer considerable assistance to parents as they work through grad school. Lactation rooms, childcare for students, and even an extra $5,000 a year for grad students with children are becoming more common at graduate schools.

Tighten Your Belt

It may not be the most exciting prospect, but living light is probably the first and most fundamental guiding principle of those families who have successfully seen a member through graduate school.

As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” Many Americans are flooded with conveniences from a young age. Purging a few of these conveniences, even temporarily, for a cause such as finishing graduate school may be difficult but also rewarding.

The following list of ways for families who are in graduate school to lighten their financial obligations and load are offered by families who have successfully made it through either a master’s degrees or a doctorate with children:

  • Sell what you don’t need. Not only does the extra cash make a difference (and in grad school, even $50 takes on a whole new meaning) but living a simple lifestyle will keep the family’s minds organized during the busy times ahead. Simplifying one’s lifestyle means less time organizing and cleaning and it also makes things easier to find in a hurry. Time, in graduate school, is almost as valuable as money.
  • Don’t travel. Attending graduate school in person usually takes families away from home. This can mean that children may not live close to their grandparents. Although many parents will be supportive of their children’s higher education, some just may not realize the sacrifice that it takes. Be firm in your desire for family members to visit you, for now, reassuring them that as soon as your family (for all of you are in this together – see below) has accomplished their goal of finishing a graduate degree things will probably change.
  • Be creative about vacations. Because graduate school will often take families to new parts of the country that they haven’t seen before, or even overseas, taking in local sites can be a good alternative to a traditional vacation. On a day set aside for family (also, see below), visit the local parks, museums, zoos, and concert halls as good vacation alternatives. Take advantage of student discounts. One family who loved music, in which the father attained a doctorate with 3 children, thinks fondly of graduate school days in which the family was able to bring their children to all of the local symphony hall concerts for only $5 a ticket.
  • Don’t buy anything. Well, that may be a little extreme, but that motto was the general policy of another family during their graduate degree days. Teaching their children that less is more had unexpectedly good results. Although the mother of the family states that she felt guilty not giving her children what other children had, she sees now that they are older, the minimalist mentality that has taken root and made them less dependent on material goods to provide the basis for their happiness. The family found “not buying anything” to be easier and more effective than budgeting. The presumption was that no money would be spent; anything else was an exception. They also found that they didn’t need as much as they had presumed. Suits for conferences and dinners, clothes for the children, school books, and other items were all bought second hand and most items were discovered to be unnecessary. Ask grandparents to limit Christmas and birthday gifts to items that the children need, like clothes. These parents also explained to the children what the family goals were in order to keep the children in on the “adventure” of graduate school.

Stay on the Same Page

One mistake that graduate students with families can make, according to many grad school attendees’ testimonies and experience, is to presume that they will have the same graduate experience as their single colleagues. This tempts them to neglect their families with some bad results. In fact, the link between graduate school and divorce is notorious. Taking some precautions ahead of time may preserve families’ future happiness and the long-term commitment they hope to have.

Although it was stated above that not spending is one of the fundamental principles to succeeding in graduate school with a family, there is another rule that precedes it. And that is that it is absolutely essential to be on the same page with one’s spouse, especially with a family. Inevitably, one of the partners in a family will be making sacrifices in order for the other to complete his or her graduate degree. It is important to keep in mind, for each adult, the pressures and stress that the other is experiencing in order to keep perspective in the family relationship.

Although the general focus is usually on the difficulty of completing a graduate degree, any spouse of someone with a master’s or doctorate can attest to the difficulty of being the supporting adult. In fact, thinking of the degree as an honor bestowed on the family through one person can help the student and family to feel united during the process. Here are more tips from graduates who have “survived” on how to stay on the same page as a couple or family:

  • Agree at the outset. Before signing on the dotted line, make sure that your partner or spouse is fully on board for the rocky ride. As for inconvenience or adventure, and the adventure is sure to look more like an inconvenience at times, deciding beforehand that the graduate school decision is the best for the family’s future will make the difficult times easier to overcome.
  • Communicate. From the beginning of a graduate program, keep communication with the family the first priority. Many graduate students will counteract the stress of study and deadlines with late nights out with fellow students and extensive conversations at the university after hours. These habits may not work well for family life. Communicating with family presupposes being with family, so make your family your escape from academic stress. Communicating with professors is also important. Faculty are committed to seeing students succeed in grad school and keeping them up to date on personal challenges will help them to understand and assist.
  • Spend one full day a week exclusively with family. Perhaps this doctor was exceptionally bright. He did in fact end up publishing a best-selling book later on in his career, but during graduate school, he employed the policy of treating his academic work just like a 40-hour workweek. All time between classes was spent researching and writing and he began his workday at 8 and ended at 5. All evenings and weekends were spent with family. His dissertation was successfully written with the same method. Another family took his advice and used the same strategy with wonderful results. In fact, the second family boasted being the first in their year with a completed dissertation even with four children.
  • Prioritize. One way in which to ensure a strong relationship with your partner after grad school is to realize that attending graduate school with a spouse and children may look very unique among the experiences and lifestyle of others in the department. It is important to cultivate relationships, attend conferences and have the occasional late-night conversation. Just don’t allow yourself to get dragged into every event the department hosts. Attending every conference, at the expense of family life, may not even be in the best interest of your studies. Decide ahead of time if attending a conference, event, or social time is going to assist you in your long-term goals. Make priorities for your family and clear the extra time with them before you commit to an “after hour” event. Also, consider inviting colleagues (and their families) or professors to your home, if your spouse or partner is up for company, in order to cultivate long-term relationships together.

Find a Quiet Place or Engage while you Work

Some people find it easy to work with noise, as they can just tune it out. Others absolutely must have silence to study. A professor of one grad student with small children gave him some advice: “Just pat them on the head as they run by, it will make all the difference since they will know you are there.” The student took this with him and while reading in the living room made it a practice to reach out and give his kids a hug or “pat them on the head.”

However, when engaged in serious study, efficiency may require a quiet place to study. Students in grad school with children may find this exceptionally difficult. However, distractions abound everywhere, not just at home.

One mother was keenly aware of the focus needed to finish her doctorate in a timely way for the sake of her family. She realized that the discussions of other students at the school were a distraction for her as much as staying at home. She made it a priority to have a study where she could escape both school and family. Her “office” time was wholly uninterrupted – even her phone was turned off. This way she could dedicate uninterrupted hours to efficient research and study. If a spouse of a grad student has the ability to watch the children for even 2 hours of uninterrupted office time every day, it can be worth a full 8 hours of distracted work. Just remember to give your spouse time to themselves as well, and agree beforehand.

Stay Organized

Many graduate students can attest to the assistance that a schedule and organization have granted them. Keep a schedule posted in multiple places: at home, in your study, and at your space at school, or even in your car. The detail level of a schedule may vary from person to person, and every schedule requires a bit of flexibility at times, but having daily, weekly and even yearly goals is an important part of staying on track academically.

Graduate school students have found that keeping a filing system of all classwork, papers (even unfinished ones), and notes can be an immense help when writing their dissertation. Dissertations have a tendency to flow in directions that may include previous research. Hitting a pocket of 20 pages that can be included from a previous paper can do wonders for completing a dissertation in a timely way. Also, a bibliography and resources for the dissertation will be easier to find if a student has kept their previous research in order.

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Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor