So how is being a ‘parent’ grad student so different from being a ‘normal’ graduate student? I’m glad you asked, because honestly, some days it’s a struggle to stay focused. From a university perspective, the pressures on a parent grad student are the same as for a ’normal’ grad student. But that’s about where the similarities end. For starters, there is less time. I mean, so much less time for everything. Weekend sports? Family gatherings? Random road trips? No, no, and no. Not anymore. Being a grad student is a full time job on any level. Being a grad student not on a scholarship is hard. Working to get the bills paid, trying to keep your head above water and off the street whilst trying to finish a PhD is almost impossible. But what if you had some kids thrown into the mix? What if somehow you had to manage all of the above at once, on your own? Could you cope? Can I cope? I’m not sure if my vagueness on some days can be called “coping” but I’m trying. I’m there, I show up. Well, mostly.
I’ve been at university for what feels like forever. My youngest son went to kindergarten, and so did I. University kindergarten that is, or Open Foundation, as it is called at the University of Newcastle. That son? He’s now in year 8. That’s 9 years in the Australian school system. My boys have been raised by university assignments, camping, occasional parties, field trips and late night cramming sessions. And the best part? Not one of my university friends cared even a little that occasionally I turned up to something, kids in tow. Nope, it gave some of them the chance to baby them, others the chance to show them how to surf or paint or teach them about plants.
These days, most of the friends I made have graduated and moved on; some of them even have those “exciting” jobs you hear about when you think of marine science. Me? I’m now a 3rd year grad student. I love the work, I love the research and finding out new things that can help the environment and society. But I made my boys a promise an eternity ago, a promise for a better life and its past time to deliver. I just want it to be over (supernatural has a GIF for that – I’m looking at you, Gabriel).
The kids obviously come first. But sometimes it takes them a while to get the message through that they are hungry, especially when I’m diligently (and rudely) working on my PhD at dinner time. Teenagers. They can, of course feed themselves so the “I’m hungry” is a way that they can guarantee I’ll pay attention to them. Eventually. Maybe.
I spend a lot of time on my computer for writing, reading and interacting with my friends. And probably way too much time on Twitter (Twitter got me into #scicomm, so it can’t be all bad). However, do I have to share my computer with my children quite a lot, because inevitably in this age, more and more of their schoolwork needs to be submitted digitally. I mean, we have another laptop but it just doesn’t cut it for the higher tech subjects that they are doing. And because my income is so limited we muddle through. So, when it’s time for assignments and revision, sometimes I have to let my work take the back seat until after they are in bed so that they can get their work done. And that, my new friends, is where it gets really difficult. Have you ever tried to refocus your thoughts at 10pm after a full day of university, work, making dinner, helping with homework, feeding ravenous teenagers and parent-teacher interviews? I suppose it’s just lucky I don’t have exams anymore (PhD’s in Australia are research-based), though it can make preparing for a conference or working to a deadline difficult. I’ve found out the (kind of) hard way that as long as I know my ‘stuff’ and the presentation is ready I can get through a presentation without notes, and I can usually get my audience to laugh at least once. Whether it’s at me or with me remains to be seen.
It hasn’t all been magnanimous inclusions and backyard BBQ’s though, there have been times that I have missed out on research trips because there was no allowance for children (research vessels – who would think they don’t have a playroom?). There were also times where there was ever so slight discrimination because I both have children and was inconsiderate enough to be born female. Who am I kidding, that still happens.
There’s that pesky self-motivation to deal with too. I know, I know, I made a promise Mr Frodo, a promise! But sometimes it’s just so easy to stay at home and tell yourself little lies about working diligently on whatever your supervisor is wanting next. And you might work, for a while. But then you look around and see that giant pile of washing just begging, begging for you to fold it. And that washing wants to be folded so darn much that you can’t help but give into the desire, the need to be distracted and give that laundry what it deserves. A jolly good folding.
What you’re also attempting to do when you’re a parent graduate student playing hooky is grab some much needed time alone to decompress (and if there just happens to be some binge-watching of your favourite TV show, then nobody is around to judge you).
(sorry, Bubba wanted a hug – see what I mean about attention?)
To finish off, the graduate journey is not to be taken lightly. By anyone. And if you just happen to have some little darlings to take care of just make sure that you’re doing something you love, it will help in the dark of night when you can’t sleep because the pressure is creeping in. Make sure you call your nan, and try having an outlet – I am partial to conventions because I love dressing up and hanging out with other geeks. The bonus is that they are only on a couple of times a year so planning time for them is easier.
So yeah, I no longer have playdough in my hair when I turn up to teach the class I used to sit in, however if you look closely there might just be some leftover glitter from the convention I was geeking out at on the weekend with my boys.
Amanda Clarke is a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her PhD project is examining the temporal and spatial variability of seagrass stable isotopes in developed estuaries, with particular focus on anthropogenic impacts and extreme weather events. She is also interested in the bioaccumulation potential of nitrogen stable isotopes in the estuarine food web. In her spare time (midnight) Amanda enjoys dressing up as fictional characters at conventions and raising money for the Random Acts charity as a member of The Lemon Cartel.