Graduate school is challenging. Between navigating new coursework, new teaching responsibilities, and conducting independent research projects, it can be an overwhelming endeavor for anyone. But doing all that with a family? Is that even possible?
After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience, I worked for a couple of years as a technician in a research lab. My wife and I wanted to start a family sooner rather than later, so when I started grad school, I had a 1-year-old daughter and a son on the way. I never get tired of the look of surprise that people give me when they find out about my family situation.
Balancing a Neuroscience PhD program and family life with young children is difficult, but also incredibly rewarding. During work hours, I wrestle with intellectually difficult concepts as I try to ask and answer questions about the neurobiology of anxiety, depression, and opioid addiction. In the mornings and evenings, I try my best to take an active role as a parent and help my family as much as I can. I’m not perfect at balancing my home life and school life (no one is), but I try as best as I can. One of the things that I’ve tried to apply is intentionally separating ‘school time’ from ‘home time,’ which is difficult.
And now, a day in the life of a PhD student parent:
I try to wake up before the kids, because I take a little while to get going in the morning. I typically try to take the dog for a run (or slow death march, depending on the weather and how tired I am) or do some stretching/meditating. This helps me get centered, check in on how I’m doing mentally and physically, and gets me ready for the day.
Usually my 2-year-old son gets up first, and as soon as he starts playing or doing something interesting, his 4-year-old sister rolls out of bed to join the allure of a quick morning play session while I’m getting their breakfast ready. Once everyone’s had some food, I dash upstairs, thinking that I’ll have enough time to shower and still get my 4-year-old to preschool on time. How naïve of me.
I’m done getting ready, but I need to convince my daughter to get dressed and go to school, which has been a bit challenging as of late. While she generally enjoys school, she often says she wants to ‘end school’ so she can stay home and play cars with her brother. Although they haven’t had as many social experiences as I would have liked due to the pandemic, they’ve become very close and get along fairly well.
After saying goodbye to my son and wife, we head off to my daughter’s school, which is mercifully close. She gets her mask on, and I drop her off at her preschool. I’m late again for the 8:30 a.m. start time. Still need to work on that.
I arrive at the lab. My days are quite variable in terms of what I do during the time that I’m on campus, because my work is mostly project-driven. I’ve already completed my coursework and am mostly just working on publishing papers, writing a grant application, and my thesis. Usually, my activities fall into one of these categories:
- Perform experiment/collect data
- Analyze the data
- Plan/coordinate projects
- Write grant applications/papers/blog posts
- Mentor undergrads
- Build/fix equipment for experiments
4:00 – 5:00 p.m.
If the day hasn’t been too crazy, I try to make it home in time for dinner around 5 p.m. After eating, I typically take over kid duty. If there’s time, I’ll play a game with the kids for a few minutes or play piano while they dance around — they’ve been into that lately, which is fun.
Get the kids ready for bed. Bath if there’s enough time. Brush teeth. Convince them to get into their pajamas.
Lately, I’ve been letting the kids each pick a book as their bedtime story. This might be a book I grew up with, a biography of an important woman, Dr. Seuss, or a book about science for kids. I sing them a song and tuck them into their beds. After closing the door to the room that they share, my son usually immediately comes out saying he needs to go to the bathroom. If it’s a good night, he’ll go right back to bed after a bathroom trip. If not, we’ll exasperatedly bring him back to his room several times before he finally stays in his room.
Kids are finally down. My wife and I usually plop down and check in about our days. We plan, talk about the kids, and try to relax. Sometimes nachos are involved.
I plop into bed.
12:00 – 6:00 a.m.
These hours have been variable during parenthood. When the kids were newborns, there was lots of getting up to help with feedings/changings during these hours. Right now, we’ve once again reached a point where everyone is sleeping through the night (knock on wood).
Grad school involves a great deal of uncertainty about experiments/research directions and my future career path. Regardless of these factors, having a family has helped to keep me anchored in many ways. I know even if my current experiment doesn’t turn out like I want it to, I’ll still be getting my kids in bed that night. Despite not knowing exactly where we’ll be in two years, I know that tomorrow morning at 7:00 a.m., I’ll be making oatmeal. While there’s an infinite ‘to-do’ list for me at school, I’ve learned that I (and the family) are much happier when I turn it off at 5 p.m. so that I can be more present while at home. Even if I have a crummy week, I get to enjoy some time listening to my kids sing a silly song or exploring a new corner of a park on the weekend. Family life is a strange mixture of intense stress and frustration punctuated by moments of intense pride, happiness, and joy. Through the ups and downs, they’re here with me on my journey as a PhDad.