Cover Story

Dissertations vs. diapers

Like many successful graduate students, Heather Armstrong is a planner. After enrolling in the clinical psychology PsyD program at the University of Indianapolis, she thought she was ready for the challenges that come with graduate school: an unpredictable schedule, mountains of assignments and long nights studying.

But Armstrong didn't account for one variable: an unplanned pregnancy during her first year. While excited by the thought of starting a family, she had to reassess her priorities at both school and home.

"Having to let go of some control was difficult. I struggled transitioning into my new life," she says.

Her predicament is hardly unusual. New psychology doctorates are, on average, 32 when they finish school and in the midst of their childbearing years — or have partners who are in the midst of theirs. As a result, many students' school and familial aspirations come in direct conflict.

Like many students, Armstrong was concerned that having a baby could derail her doctoral study and subsequent career as a psychologist. Those worries are well founded, research suggests. Although student parents experience similar levels of academic support and research productivity compared with their childless peers, those with children under age 18 are more likely to leave their doctoral programs or take longer to complete their degrees, according to the 2006 book, "Three Magic Letters: Getting to PhD."

Financially speaking, grad school can also be a tough time to have children. Your research stipend probably isn't big enough to feed a family. Adding to the burden: Just 13 percent of universities offer paid maternity leave to doctoral students and only 5 percent provide dependent health care for a student's child, according to an October 2009 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Starting a family can also have ramifications that extend beyond graduation. Interruptions related to childrearing decrease female scientists' lifetime salary and career productivity, says Diane Halpern, PhD, a former APA president and director of psychology at Claremont McKenna College. That's in part why only 22 percent of all full professors are women, according to a report by Halpern published in American Psychologist (Vol. 60, No. 5). In addition, the Center for American Progress's 2009 report Staying Competitive: Patching America's Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences indicates that family formation is the most common reason for women with PhDs to not receive tenure-track positions.

Timing is particularly precarious for budding professors since "tenure clocks and biological clocks run in the same time zone," Halpern says. Aspiring academics have little time to spare given the consecutive tasks of completing coursework, postdoctoral placements and securing an assistant professor position, she says.

The question of when to focus on your career and start a family has no easy solution, says Halpern. "If you have children earlier, you're balancing them along with school," she says. "If you have them later, you're balancing them while you're new on the job market."

It is, however, possible to juggle parenthood and grad school — especially if you have a supportive (and gainfully employed) partner, says Amy Brausch, PhD, a psychology professor at Western Kentucky University.

"My husband is an incredibly hands-on co-parent, which made things more manageable," she says.

Parenting's Pros

Believe it or not, there are some advantages to starting a family during graduate school. For example, Brausch found that the final years of graduate school proved to be an ideal time to have a baby, given the flexibility of her schedule while she wrote her dissertation. She was also able to coordinate child care with her husband, which was less expensive than if had she been working full time.

"We are happy that we didn't wait, since you never really know how long your program will take," says Brausch.

You may also find your professors are more accommodating then you expected, says Miriam Gerber, PsyD, who completed her degree at Loyola University in Maryland in 2009. She took summer courses and proposed her dissertation early — timing her progress so that she defended her dissertation two weeks before delivering her baby.

Other students slow down their graduation timetables to have children. Amber Norwood, a Human Services Psychology PhD student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, pushed through her fears about appearing uncommitted to grad school and reduced her course load after giving birth to her daughter.

"Graduate school can be more adaptable than we think," says Norwood. "Did I take a little longer than I would have? Yes, but I feel more sane because of it."

In addition to seeking flexibility from your graduate program, staying sane as a graduate student parent requires that you stay flexible yourself, says Ryan Landoll, a PhD candidate. His wife had their daughter during the last year of his training in child clinical psychology at the University of Miami. As he wrapped up his coursework, he found the best time for studying and writing was when his new baby was asleep — between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. That made collaborating with professors and colleagues problematic.

Yet, he also found working until the wee hours had an unexpected upside: A heightened sense of focus.

"Before having my daughter, I would send a couple of emails and browse on the Internet," says Norwood. "Now when I step away from my children, I utilize that time to the fullest, which cuts down on procrastination."

New Parent Survival Tips

Though no two situations are the same, discussing what worked for others can help students handle the dual pressures of parenting and grad school, says Gerber. Her best advice: Put together a support system of friends and family members who will babysit when you need to hit the library or run data.

"Find people who are in your corner, and try not get caught up on those who are not," says Norwood.

Keeping one family calendar and requesting syllabi in advance are two strategies Halpern suggests to new parents. Both help harried graduate students plan ahead and organize a schedule that is constantly in flux.

"You no longer have the last-minute luxury of writing a paper the night before it is due," she says.

Most of all, however, student parents should know their whole world is going to change, says Landoll, but that shouldn't discourage them from going for it.

"This process is totally manageable," he says. "I hope people open themselves up to the possibilities, because they are worthwhile."

Matthew Siblo is a writer in Washington, D.C.