Parenting your way to a PhD



PhD study while also parenting can’t be described as easy. Of course I never really expected it to be, but it’s difficult in ways I never anticipated.

As my youngest child approached primary school age I realised that I was going to be bored when he went to school. Already I was spending far too much time at the gym and obsessing about things that shouldn’t really matter, like keeping windows clean and bedrooms tidy. If I was going to be obsessive about something perhaps it should be something that would benefit future generations, like the creation of some new knowledge.

I carefully thought through my week. If I dropped out of my various school volunteer roles, cycled to university instead of visiting the gym, and took a study break each day between 3pm and 8pm then I could just about manage a full-time PhD program, or close to it, and continue to manage our household.

Surely, I thought, all my years of work experience and juggling the daily needs of the family had made me vastly more efficient than most people, and I would be able to achieve the equivalent of a 40 hour PhD week in about 32 hours. I planned to work 4-6 hours each day during the week (4-5 hours during school hours and another 1-2 hours after everyone had gone to bed) and another 4 hours on the weekend. It could be managed for 3-4 years.

It was a surprise to find how integral I was to my children’s lives.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but I had never realised how much time was taken up managing the children’s daily routines. Dentist appointments, cricket registration, emails about who can wash the rugby jerseys this week, re-organising missed music lessons, signing the piles of school notes that come home from the local public school . . . these things all take time.

Last weekend I wanted to make a good start on a manuscript I’m writing. It’s a tricky piece of work as I’m hoping to publish my Literature Review as a stand-alone paper. Having no empirical demonstration within the manuscript to aid with understanding and clarity requires a lot of writing and re-writing, crafting paragraphs that draw from several academic disciplines to justify why a particular line of research should be followed (by me).

It takes concentration.

Over the weekend it seemed that every time I wrote a sentence or two I would be required to down tools and deliver someone to play rehearsals, rugby or soccer. Then the family needed to eat, so there were meals to prepare and questions every 30 minutes all day about what snacks they could eat. I probably got four hours work done, but it was in blocks of time that ranged from 15 to 45 minutes. There’s no consistency and no flow of thought, no chance of “getting on a roll.”

Of course I have put some efficiency measures in place at my house.

All children have been taught to cook, but they still need supervision around sharp knives and hot ovens. Every time they ask “what can I have to eat” I respond with “a piece of fruit”, but that doesn’t stop them asking just in case I might have a rush of blood to my PhD-addled brain and respond with “Oh, help yourself to the ice cream.”

They know how to sort and deliver the washing, one of them irons the school uniforms, one of them washes my car and another one feeds the cat. Even so, getting them to actually do these and other chores without nagging (a further break in concentration) is a pipe dream. In addition there are constant interruptions when someone needs help with maths homework or wants to know if he can play MineCraft or a friend calls up and wants to come over.

Anyone reading this who doesn’t have children (or who hasn’t tried to combine parenting with study) might wonder how on earth I get anything done at all, and why I would even bother trying. I think all of us who are studying and parenting simultaneously know why we bother. We do it because we have a passion for something in addition to our love for our children. We do it because we like it more than we like cleaning windows or volunteering at the school canteen. We do it because, despite the immense challenges, there are important benefits.

My boys are growing up seeing me doing something special. A PhD is special. Not many people have one, something we forget when we become immersed in academia where PhD’s are a dime a dozen. It’s a rare and special achievement, and something I’ll be proud to receive on a stage with my boys watching from the audience (a fantasy I imagine when things all seem too much).

I think I’m also getting great training for the time when my PhD is over and I’m juggling family and work. By then I should be so brilliantly productive that no one will even notice that I wrote a report for the CEO while attending my son’s athletics carnival, or reviewed a performance appraisal while supervising music practice. I think that if I can pull off a successful PhD in the midst of family life with three sons I can do pretty much anything.

It’s a negotiation point I plan to perfect for those job interviews one day in the future.

In the meantime I still need to finish that tricky manuscript in which I convince the reviewers and editor that I have a complete grasp of the literature across two disciplines and a convincing argument for linking them. I’ll get onto that now, or at least I’ll get onto it just as soon as I’ve taken my son to his soccer coaching, cooked dinner, paid the athletics coach, made an appointment for a haircut and supervised piano practice…

Author Bio: Susan Stewart Loane, is a PhD student at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Susan left a career as a management consultant when her first child was born and now juggles family life with research and a little adjunct teaching.