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CAREER ADVICE

Supporting graduate student parents

Regardless of how hard we try, graduate student parents often feel at odds while trying to mend the gap between academia and parenthood.

By BRITTANY A. E. JAKUBIEC | DEC 11 2017

For many, graduate studies is a challenging quest. Students struggle to manage work and personal commitments, while often working multiple jobs, and trying to secure funding for their research. It is not a pursuit for the faint of heart. Having a child while completing your studies can make things even more challenging.

This type of situation struck me when approaching a recent research project: What is the state of academic parenthood for graduate student parents at Canadian universities and institutions? To answer this question, I surveyed over 100 graduate student parents across Canada. What I found was that there are challenges associated with being a graduate student that are widely applicable, such as lack of quality mentoring and funding opportunities. However, many of the shared challenges were specific to being both a parent and a graduate student.

One of the overarching issues is the challenge of role and identity negotiation for graduate student parents. In Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life, contributor and academic Lisa Harper described academia and parenthood as realities existing on opposites sides of a fault line. Graduate student parents often struggle, and fail, to mend this gap. These students often experience role conflict and guilt. The guilt comes from a constant inner battle of trying to be a good parent and good student simultaneously and at all times. Anyone who is in this situation, like myself, knows this is an impossible feat. Something always has to be compromised or sacrificed. Regardless of how hard we try, graduate student parents often feel at odds while trying to mend the gap between academia and parenthood, all while reconciling family and career goals. It is not surprising that many graduate student parents also experience imposter syndrome.

This struggle, coupled with the stressors of graduate studies, results in students who are sleep deprived, stressed, anxious, and depressed. Mental health issues and challenges were shared by all of those who completed the online survey in my study.

I am a doctoral candidate and parent. I have a seven-year-old son who has been along for my graduate studies journey. Hearing about the experiences of the students surveyed told me that I am not alone, and my struggle is more common than I thought. So what can be done? How can university staff, administrators, deans, and department chairs support graduate student parents in reaching their academic goals?

It is clear from what participants shared that there needs to be affordable childcare on campus, as well as family- and child-friendly spaces, including areas to breastfeed without fear of judgement. University staff and faculty must continue providing a campus environment that welcomes graduate student parents to openly share their struggles and challenges, and for these comments to be received and problems remedied.

Finally, and to end on a positive note, supervisors and advisers play a key role in the graduate studies journey and in the success of their students, including student-parents. I am happy to report that graduate student parents rated their supervisors as moderately to extremely supportive because they were compassionate, understanding, flexible, and patient. As supervisors and advisers are a point person for graduate students, their role in providing feedback to department chairs and deans is crucial.

Taken altogether, it is imperative for university staff and administrators to develop a better understanding of the challenges and struggles of graduate student parents so that they may assist in supporting their students as valuable members of the academic community at large. My career goal, after completing a doctoral program at the University of PEI, is to become a faculty member. Having information about student-parent struggles will positively impact my future academic leadership ability and employment goals. I ask that, in the meantime, other leaders take it upon themselves to be change agents. I will join you in the near future in supporting graduate student parents.

Brittany A. E. Jakubiec is a doctoral candidate in the faculty of education at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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  1. c. / December 12, 2017 at 11:42 am

    Thank you for this study and for sharing your results!

  2. S. Thompson / December 15, 2017 at 10:57 am

    My wife gave birth to our son 1.5 years before I finished my PhD thesis. It was certainly an intense period but also good motivation to finish within four years. I cannot imagine trying to do this if I was the mother and in charge of breast feeding etc.

    As a country, we should be encouraging educated citizens to have 2+ children. Unfortunately, people who pursue graduate education will invariably have fewer children later in life. My only advice would be to not wait to have children, especially under the pretense of waiting for economic stability. The ticking biological clock will not wait until you have finished your thesis, things become more difficult as you age, and I have yet to meet someone who wishes they did not have children.

    Have children, cultivate a good social support network, be realistic, and do not let your thesis go on forever!

  3. Alistair Calder / December 18, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    I started my master’s program in June 2016 when my son was just 9 months old. This past August, my daughter was born and I’m still about 7 months from finishing the degree. To say it has been difficult is an immense understatement. This has been, by far, the most challenging period of my 50 years. The pressures of work, studies, and family while trying to juggle the online meetings, the co-work projects and papers, the readings and assignments has been an enormous strain on my family and myself.

    In terms of support from HE institutions, I wonder if your study included students in online environments and what their impressions were. When students are not on campus and do not have the opportunity for in-person communication, are the stresses and engagement levels different, and how are they managed?

  4. Lynn Thomas / December 20, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    I began my master’s when my daughter was a year old. After a year, I had a second child and completed my master’s degree a year after that. I immediately began a PhD, which took me 5 years to complete. I must credit the support I received from my husband and my mother, who were not only very present but also provided encouragement. They convinced me that it was possible to be both a graduate student and a good mother, which was crucial at the time. I agree that supervisors can also make an important difference for graduate students who are parents. I am speaking from the perspective of experience because I have been a professor now for 18 years. Although it was far from easy, I think that I have been a role model for my daughters and that overall, the benefits of completing graduate degrees have outweighed the challenges for the entire family.

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