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CAREER ADVICE

A guide to birthing a dissertation, post-baby

A few tips that can help PhD mothers complete some of the major dissertation milestones.

By REBECCA PERO | OCT 24 2017

You’ve heard the old adage, “a good dissertation is a done dissertation,” but how does one complete a dissertation post-baby? As a parent, caring for a child or children can sometimes feel all-consuming, making it difficult to achieve substantial progress on major writing milestones. This can add significant pressure in an environment where merit is often measured by output. As a graduate student and a mother, I have certainly felt the weight of my multiple roles and responsibilities, and I would like to highlight some of the challenges of birthing a dissertation post-baby. I would also like to identify some useful tips to help other graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and professors “birth” major written work post-baby.

In July 2015, before heading off on a four-month maternity leave, I had completed full drafts of six of the seven chapters that comprise my dissertation. I thought, “this will set me up for success,” but was I wrong. Since returning to full-time graduate-studies in November 2015, I have submitted and edited multiple drafts of my dissertation. I was finally able to submit what I expect to be the last draft of my dissertation for review by my two supervisors in December 2016. In all likelihood, with minimal edits, this will be the copy that is forwarded to my examination committee for a March 2017 defence.

Although my goal is to pursue an alternative academic career, I can certainly appreciate the challenges of women working toward, or who are in, academic positions. I myself am a full-time stay-at-home mom (my daughter attends daycare one day a week), a full-time PhD student, and work two part-time jobs, while completing other tasks and assuming the lion’s share of the household responsibilities. Life can be busy and tough. I’ve definitely felt additional work and home stresses since having my daughter, and I have felt frustrated by the slow progress on my dissertation, given the number and quality of the edits.

While it is important to identify and acknowledge the challenges for myself and other parents completing major work, I have also “discovered” a few tips that have helped me to complete dissertation milestones post-baby.

  1. First and foremost, write regularly. Write when you can, for as long as you can. You may find that your focus is rather elusive these days, so don’t be hard on yourself if you sit down and don’t write anything at all. Trust me, the act of regularly returning to your computer will be rewarded. When my baby was four months old I went back to school, registered as a full-time student, and worked one day a week on my dissertation (the day I also used to fit in my teaching assistant responsibilities). In addition to my one day, I attempted to write at least one hour every day. Writing regularly kept me in touch with my research and the writing process, so do whatever you need to and keep writing. Use a stop clock and write through timed intervals, or write in the same, secluded space in your home; and avoid cleaning up the kitchen, play space, or putting in a load of laundry.
  2. Be kind to yourself. If you are worn down and feel stressed, take time for yourself. Take a nap, take a bath, or plan an outing. Pursue what gives you pleasure, what fuels your passion. Perhaps attending a lecture on a subject of interest will help you refocus and get back to the business of writing. Be present in each and every moment, and attempt to dial in when you finally do get to the privilege of writing. I am certainly no master of this tip, but I find that when I take the time to love and treat myself (which is easier now that my daughter is in the toddler stage), I find that I have more energy for all tasks including dissertation writing.
  3. Let go! You can’t and won’t be able to do it all, at least not at the same time. Your dissertation, or that major piece of work, (as well as that bit of cleaning) will get done. Yes, you heard me; it will all get done. Laughter goes a long way in remedying difficult days and negotiating stressful times. If you can’t laugh in the moment, simply take a deep breath in and on your exhale, let it all go. You can save that laugh for another day. One time my 16 month old daughter projectile vomited 10 minutes before an important telephone call with a potential employer. I felt frustrated that I was thinking about the huge mess I had to clean up while trying to comfort her. I had to let that one go, including the laugh, while I proceeded with my phone conversation. When you make a conscious choice to not get bogged down by the to-dos of the day, you and your child will be much better off.

Remember: your baby will grow quickly, and holding her as she falls asleep every once in a while should be considered as much of a success as writing that introduction!

Rebecca Pero is a PhD candidate in the department of geography and planning at Queen’s University, and is the mother of one tremendous toddler.

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  1. Micheline / November 1, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    well done Becky! All too often, women (and some men) put far too much pressure on themselves to a point where all the seemingly manageable stresses become one colossal deep hole that seems very difficult to crawl out of. This advice can be used for any mother. Thanks for your insight.

  2. Carla Sarrouy Kay / November 6, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Hello Rebecca,
    I’m a mother-to-be and reading your post was comforting! I am a long way away from writing up my PhD but your advice definitely applies to my situation too so thank you for sharing your insights. Personally I’m finding that prioritisation (such a simple word yet so hard to achieve sometimes!) is the way forward and there’s no point in having both parents-to-be racing and rushing… as you say it’s vital to appreciate and enjoy these precious moments too!
    Good luck!
    Carla

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