Five tips on completing a post graduate degree from a mother who took on a PhD after staying at home for 6 years.
Contributor Anne Priestly
To be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure getting a PhD was the right choice for me. I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do for a career. But then the opportunity came along that gave me the chance to pursue a postgraduate degree in biology and I couldn’t pass it up.
I was 30 years old and I already held a master’s degree in environmental science. I also had two wonderful kids and was fully involved in raising them.
My youngest child had started primary school a few weeks before and there I was at an induction session for new postgraduates. That’s right, starting a PhD when I was already busy (and sometimes overwhelmed) raising a family. I had been an at-home mom for almost six years and it felt strange to be standing there with a bunch of students fresh out of university. But it also felt like it was the right time for me to take some steps to reach my own career goals.
I hadn’t quite worked out how I was going to manage being both a student and a mother. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be as smart as the other new postgraduates; that my brain would have turned to mush from reading The Gruffalo too many times; that my research would fail because I wouldn’t be able to spend every single minute of my life in the lab. I was worried my kids and husband would suffer; that we would be eating unhealthy dinners and the school uniforms would not be clean when needed. And that I would be scorned at the school gate for bringing packaged cakes to the monthly cake sale.
At first, my friends gave me a half smirk/half smile when I told them I was planning on going back to school. I can’t tell you how many times I answered the question “how are you going to do that?” Fast forward four years – my dissertation has been submitted, and my viva is weeks away. My house has not succumbed to cobwebs, my kids still eat their vegetables and I feel incredibly proud of myself. In my kids’ eyes, I am no longer just the ‘cooker and the cleaner’. I am a scientist. I am proof that it is possible to achieve a postgraduate degree after having kids.
In some ways, a PhD course fits in well with raising a family. I am not saying it was always easy but being a student comes with a little bit of flexibility and I was lucky to have a supportive husband and a good network of friends willing to help out in a pinch. Being a student often means you can set your own working hours as long as the work gets done. I arranged my study hours so I could still be there for school pick-up a few days a week and able to attend the important school functions. Of course there is a price to pay for that flexibility and most nights after the kids were in bed, I was either back in the lab or working at home. Being a mom, and running a household, taught me many transferable skills that were useful in my PhD.
Based on my own experience, here are some things to consider if you’re looking to become a PhD student whilst being a mother.
Believe in yourself – If you don’t believe you can do this, than no one else will.
Be organised – As life will be very full and very busy, being organised can help you avoid feeling like it is all spiralling out of control. Small things such as menu planning and keeping a family calendar can be really useful.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help – Things will get tough and there will be times when you need to lean on other people.
Stay focused on the goal – Your PhD programme only lasts a finite amount of time but the benefit of finishing lasts a lifetime.
Your PhD journey will be unique – Don’t compare yourself to others.
Anne Priestly is now working in the public sector. Instead of spending weekends in the lab, she is training for a half marathon and thoroughly enjoying not having to work in the evenings.