Pursuing a PhD with young children: Life as a student parent – how I make it work
Support, Planning, Discipline, Forgiveness…and Budgeting
This blog post is a little different than my previous ones but the topic is one I am most asked about: being a student and parent at the same time. I am currently expecting my fourth baby…yes, my fourth! When I first applied to the program I had no children, when I started I had one child, and in the time that has passed since then (five years) I’ve had two more. Now, in my sixth year here in Montreal, I am expecting my fourth child.
Most people respond with shock or awe to my situation. On the one hand, some assume I must not be thinking straight to attempt to have a family and pursue a PhD simultaneously. On the other hand, some assume I have super powers that make this all happen. The truth is that neither perspective is correct and, to some extent, both perspectives are harmful if they hold the person back from pursuing their own passions because of false beliefs. I have thought rationally about my choices and I am not super human. Having a family and pursuing higher education is not only absolutely possible but, in my opinion, can be mutually beneficial. It does require support, planning, discipline, flexibility and forgiveness, but as with any other job, finding a balance that works well for you is incredibly satisfying.
Some people may be holding themselves back from their dreams because they don’t think it is possible. I wanted to address here some of the practical ways I’ve found to help me find this balance in the hopes that some of it may help other student parents or working parents in general.
For me, having children has given me greater focus on what I feel is important in this world and my kids are a huge source of motivation for me. I strive to create work that will make a difference in this world for them and consequently my research investigates sustainability accounting, that is accounting by organizations that track and report its effects on society and the environment. By focusing on something that I feel has meaning for my life and theirs, this has also improved my focus. I aim to ensure that every minute I am away from my children is a productive one.
I talk to my kids all the time about my work and why I feel it’s important. Even though they are young (all age six and under) they understand that Mommy is working to try to help businesses be better so that they have a better world to grow up in. This means helping businesses treat people well and respect the environment. These are values that are important to my family and my work, as such, there really is no line between the two. When I'm done, I'll be working in a career I love and contributing to improving the world around me through my research, teaching and service.
One of the additional benefits for my children is that they see me engaged in work that I find meaningful and that I am passionate about. As a key role model in their life, I believe this gives them an example to follow, to drum up the courage and confidence to pursue their own passions in life and strive to make a difference in the world. Additionally, they see that both moms and dads can work and share household chores which I hope will translate into fewer gender biases in them as they grow.
One cannot embark on such a journey without support. This has been absolutely critical to my success. I have a husband who supports my work, encourages me and we both pitch in wherever possible to get through each day. We also have access to excellent daycare and schooling for our children. This enhances our childrens' lives on a daily basis exposing them to French as a second language, new friends, and amazing new experiences. As such, I can focus on my work daily knowing that I have a partner to share in their care and a wonderful team of early educators working to ensure my children are safe, well-educated, socialized and are having fun at the same time.
Planning & Discipline
The planning portion is the part that takes the most effort by far, but is possible and, I don’t believe, is any more challenging for a PhD than having a traditional job. Lunches must be made, clothing and homes cleaned and arrangements made to transport the kids to daycare, school and extra-curricular activities. I utilize two main calendars to keep me on track.
One is our family calendar that I update weekly. It remains on the wall on a chalkboard and lays out exactly who needs to be where every week and who is in charge of what task. It does not take a lot of time to create but keeps us well organized. I probably spend about 30 minutes a week putting the calendar together but that 30 minutes has saved us many more and reduces the stress and thought that goes into each week by organizing us in advance so that we just need to execute when the time comes.
For my work, I’ve begun utilizing a Focus Matrix. There are a number of products on the market but essentially what this allows me to do is organize my tasks into those that are 'Urgent and Important', 'Urgent but Not Important', 'Not-Urgent but Important' and 'Not-Urgent and Not Important'. For me, anything that relates to my thesis is Important and anything not related to my thesis is Not Important. This doesn’t mean other tasks are not important but it’s a method of organizing my tasks to stay focused and disciplined during the work day on those things I should be focused on. It’s easy to look around at the dishes or baskets of laundry or any other of 100 tasks that need to be done but I promise you, if you don’t focus on your work, it won’t get done.
In our house, there’s always more laundry to be done and always something that could be cleaned so I try to stay focused on my work during working time and family stuff during family time. I usually focus on the Urgent Important tasks first thing in the morning (those with a clear upcoming deadline usually within the month) and then take on any Urgent Not Important tasks later in the day. This keeps my work progressing and helps me control my natural inclination to deal with every other little task that may come up. My program also includes a timer so that you focus for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. I’ve found it to be a very productive method.
I set tangible goals that are small enough to be achievable but that keep me on track. The thought of completing an entire thesis can seem overwhelming at times, but collecting data for 25 companies is something I can achieve because it’s smaller. Over time, I look back at all these little goals and realize how far I’ve come. This helps me to persevere even when the end doesn’t seem like it’s near. Some days I move forward an inch, and some days it’s more. Over time though, those little movements forward add up.
One advantage to being a student is the flexibility I have in my own schedule. But, as with any benefit comes responsibility. I try to work ahead so that I am ready for the inevitable stomach bug that will come for one or more of my children. This helps me to reduce the stress level when something happens because I build a buffer in my timeline.
Sometimes, like many of us, I work in the evenings or on the weekend to catch up or get ahead to meet my deadlines but this allows me to create a schedule that works for my family and I while continuing to do work that I love. I’ve also found that building in extra time to get places reduces the pressure I put on myself and my kids. When I know I have extra time, I’m not as stressed. This does mean sacrificing other things. You simply cannot fit as many things into your day when you need to build in these buffers but it becomes a choice of what is important enough to make the cut.
Forgiveness is really important. I always attempt to adopt an attitude of forgiveness. I don’t always move things forward and I don’t always achieve what I want. Most of the time there is laundry in baskets waiting to either be washed, folded or put away. My home does not look like Martha Stewart’s home. Most importantly though, I forgive myself for not being able to do it all and when I don't live up to my own expectations. No-one can do it all and feeling down about it is definitely not productive. Forgive yourself, address the situation and move on. We order prepared meals sometimes to give ourselves a break. We also pay for housekeeping services when the budget will allow for it. I know these are luxuries on a student budget but, like everything in life, we make other choices to allow these to happen.
Speaking of choices. As an accountant, I had a pretty good income before I gave it up to become a student again. That means we’ve made sacrifices to make this happen. We have two older vehicles and don’t buy new clothes very often. We find as many free activities to do as possible (playing outside, going for a walk or to the park, free activities offered by the city) and we try to stretch every dollar we have. I use money saving apps for all our purchases and I monitor our budget every day.
I’m lucky, I have received scholarships that help greatly and I am forever thankful for this support. Our family income fluctuates due to contract income and the timing of scholarship payments but we work diligently to stretch every dollar we can. We meal plan to avoid wasting both food and money and generally cook for ourselves as opposed to buying more expensive pre-packaged food or going to restaurants. If we do go out to a restaurant, we order water (beverages are so overpriced!). We don’t take lavish vacations and we try to direct our money where it will have value for us and our lives (less takeout means we can hire housekeepers occasionally!) We try to be conscious about where we spend our money so that it adds value to our lives.
Executing all of this can certainly be difficult at times, but when you love something you find a way to make it work. Follow your passion, it's worth it.
About the author
Leanne Keddie is a Concordia Public Scholar, PhD Candidate in Accountancy and also a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA, CMA). She has a Bachelor's degree in Commerce from Mount Allison University and a Master of Business Administration from McMaster University. Her current research investigates why companies use sustainability goals in executive compensation packages, what kinds of firms use these and what impact these incentives have on a firm’s sustainability performance. She came to the PhD program with over ten years of work and teaching experience in accounting and finance.
This blog post first appeared on Concordia's Public Scholars website at https://www.concordia.ca/cunews/offices/vprgs/sgs/public-scholars/2017/10/31/student-parent-PhD-blog-post.html.