How I’m surviving grad school as a parent: admitting my privilege

There may be readers here who are student-parents, or who are thinking of going back to school after having a kid. I want to be transparent with my experience, and how it has been so doable for me. There are actually a few ways that my privilege is helping me succeed in a usually adverse, immensely challenging combination of jobs, including having a steadily employed spouse who pays a lot of our expenses, affordable rent in a nice house thanks to my mother, extremely affordable part time daycare, and more. Here I’m going to focus on the story of my PhD advisor, and how having support for your family priorities from the person who decides if you graduate or not can make or break you as a student.

My PhD advisor is the bomb diggity. He says that because he was never a parent, he takes out his “mothering instinct” (as he calls it) on his grad students. He treats his students with compassion, patience, encouragement, genuine belief in us, and he throws research money at us to make our work as efficient and impactful as possible. And right now he is on the cusp of retirement and only has two grad students – me and one of my best friends. His partner is an amazing, kind, supportive, and intelligent woman who also happens to be on my advisory committee. My school-world is as perfect as it possibly could be.

I’ve been working with my PhD advisor for 7 years. He was my undergraduate thesis advisor and my Master’s advisor. He wasn’t taking on new students anymore when he first started working with me – he had transitioned from a faculty position to become Vice President of Academics at the university, and didn’t have time to advise students. But as a 3rd year undergraduate planning my 4th year research project, I marched into his executive office with confidence and all the charm I could muster, and convinced him to take me on as a supervisee. He saw something in me – he says now he knew we would work seemlessly together and that I would be low maintenance, and he made a personal committment to see me through to the end of my studies, no matter how long that might take (he probably never imagined it would be 7 years and counting!).

He is the reason I was accepted into grad school. Admittance to the program required a 90 GPA. I had an 80 GPA. But the most important factor to admittance was having an advisor lined up and willing to pay at least some of your stipend. He backed me up and I was admitted to a program I still feel I wasn’t good enough for.

My advisor and his partner attended my wedding. He visited my home after my daughter was born and gifted her an adorable boutique outfit (and me a fancy bottle of wine). He frequently held advisory meetings over lunch at a restaurant so he could treat his students to a meal (and a drink, if they wanted). When I defended my Master’s thesis, he took me and all of my support people who attended out for a beer.

When my peers have complained about having to pay their research participants compensation out of their own pockets, I know I am privileged to have an advisor who pays all of my research expenses, including my tuition for the past couple of years. When my peers complain about having to pay their own way to conferences, I feel guilty that my advisor begs to send me someplace luxurious like Paris or Lisben for conferences (if only I liked to travel).

I really don’t know how I would have survived grad school without him as my advisor. I probably wouldn’t have completed it.

That’s not to say that you can’t do parenting and studenting successfully at the same time, but it may not be as easy as I make it look as I blog about spending time with my toddler, gardening, and generally not stressing about school.