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How to Finish a PhD while Raising Small Children, and Keep Your Sanity Part 1: Time Management

baby-84626_1280How do you do it? I am often asked, as though I am standing on my head right at that very moment. The question is about how I am managing to do a PhD and raise two small and very cheeky children. Actually, I am convinced that the question should be rephrased as “How is it that you have pants on today and are speaking coherently while you spend time on both your PhD and your kids?” Well dear reader, while I fear I that sometimes I am not really doing “it” at all, most days I do manage to get said pants on and have reasonably coherent conversations that indicate I am retaining a modicum of my sanity. So I decided to procrastinate instead of writing my thesis share some tips with you. This series of posts is to encourage parents to follow their dreams, with a major focus on how to complete a PhD.

There are a few caveats I must state here:

1. I have not yet finished my PhD but I have written more than half of my thesis, have a key findings paper under review, and am putting slides together for my completion seminar, so I’m on the home stretch. I am about to start on my Discussion chapter. I know, where did the time go?!

2. I have a supportive partner who works from home. We do not have any immediate family in town, apart from dear mum who spends a few weeks several times a year with us to let us have a break.

3. My children are pre-schoolers and I do not yet know the joys of primary school, extracurricular activities and the like. We have also been too busy to take them to a multitude of violin and karate lessons decided to let them have unstructured play during their time at home.

4. I write as a mum, GP, and PhD student. But I am not an expert on any of this; think of it as letters from a soldier at the trenches rather than an essay by a military specialist. What works for me certainly won’t work for all. Which is why I’d love to hear how you’ve managed to make it work too.

The other parts of this series include “Getting Organised”, “Taking Breaks”, Self-Care”, “Embracing Imperfection”, “Nurturing Relationships” and “Managing Energy”. But let’s get started on the biggest challenge – Time Management.

Let’s face it now – time is one of the most difficult things to juggle here. Raising kids takes time. So does a PhD. It can often feel like a desperate give-and-take situation, trying to slice off minutes from one to spend on the other, and never feeling like there is enough for either let alone sanity-saving activities like having a shower, and then there are the pesky details of keeping the house in a non-destitute state. And one generally likes to graduate from a PhD with both a floppy hat and an intact relationship with the spouse. All these take an investment of time.

So let’s say you are staring down the long bleak road of three (or more) years of a PhD, with a toddler clinging to your leg and a heavy feeling in your heart. Here are some tips on how to start managing your time. Clearly what works for me may not apply to everyone and I would encourage you to try a few different things to see what does make the days tick over a bit more smoothly.

1. One word. Childcare.

If you have preschool-aged children at home, you need childcare. It doesn’t matter if it’s your spouse, a grandparent, a friend, a nanny, daycare, whatever. You need reliable, loving, nurturing, responsible adults to be you when you can’t be there. Because you simply cannot be there and do your PhD. At times, when you are doing tedious tasks that do not take a lot of brain space (like ethics applications) you can work from home with your children around and nobody else to help you. You can also work at night when they are sleeping, but this can take its toll (see self-care later). But for large parts of your PhD, you will need to be physically removed from your children, in a space where you can work without endless interruptions, pooey nappies needing to be changed, children to be fed, food to be cleaned off the floor, the incessant chatter of a very adorable but increasingly annoying three-year-old, etc etc. Put it this way. You can parent well and do a PhD but not at the same time. As well as this, it’s decidedly unfair for children to spend three years staring at the top of mama’s (or papa’s) head peeking over the laptop. This is especially so in those precious last months “writing up” the beast. In fact, I’m fond of writing retreats, if you can get away to one. Our student group organises a yearly three-night break to write without distraction. It’s become my yearly treat to myself!

2. Divide and conquer.

Your day will be divided into three distinct segments. Time with family. PhD time. Other time. When you are with your family, forget about your PhD. Roll on the floor with your kids, tickle their little toes, sing them to sleep, embrace the freedom of not being a PhD student just for a few hours. They’re only little once. When you return to your PhD, sit your butt down and get the work done. I like to spend the first four hours of my day on the “business” of my PhD. Lately this means writing, and a lot of it, so I set myself a goal of writing 2000 words a day, first thing in the morning. In the afternoon I will do those other bits things like write an unrelated paper, reply emails, write a conference abstract etc. But the work. Gets. Done. No. Matter. What. If you are disciplined with this, it will balance out those inevitable days when you can’t seem to get anything done except drink coffee and wring hands, and you will also feel 100% engaged when you return home. It also creates a valuable “buffer” for those inevitable sick days that you have to take off. In my “other” time I schedule the “daily life” things like balancing our bank accounts, booking doctor’s appointments, and some nice things just for me (the hairdresser, a lunch date with a friend – see self care later). This strict and discrete division of my time helps me cope with the “juggling”. Mum at home. PhD student at the Department. Trying to be a coherent (and coiffed) adult at all times.

3. Batch your tasks.

This is a simple and effective technique that can be used at home or at the office. Write a list of little tasks you have to get done – get reimbursed for conference registration, (other examples). Then, when you have finished with the main business of your PhD for the day, spend an hour or so going through these tasks in a batch. If you can, batch meetings as well, although PhD students tend not to have as much control over this area. It’s also a great way to feel productive when you’ve lost motivation temporarily.

4. Be efficient.

The Pomodoro technique is an excellent way of avoiding having the day disintegrate into a useless mess of procaffeination with naught to show except palpitations and frown lines. Many universities will also run a “Shut Up And Write” session using the Pomodoro technique, and you can run your own sessions with your student group.

5. Outsource.

So you’ve had a productive day and you arrive home with two starving children, and then the reality hits you – laundry, cooking, cleaning, bedtime awaits. It can bring the strongest person to their knees. I am here to tell you you can outsource. Sure, outsourcing to a paid professional like an au pair or housekeeper is a dream come true but not within the reach of too many students. But did you know you could outsource to your (gasp) spouse, or even your kids? And that you can outsource to machines? Those machines include tumble dryers, slow cookers (or Thermomixes if you can afford one!!!), and ovens. You can even outsource to supermarkets by getting a few ready-made meals here and there (vegie pizza and lasagne are some favourites in this household).

6. Embrace imperfection.

I will elaborate on this in another post, but first of all you must accept that “good enough” will be your mantra for the PhD and at home. “It’s a PhD not a Nobel Prize” as the saying goes; a completed journal paper or thesis that is “good enough” is better than aiming for a flawless thesis that never gets finished. Ditto for the home – ditch Pinterest or anything that makes you feel like you should be baking organic muffins for your little one, while lovingly creating exquisite art and craft activities within your sparkling home with its perfectly organised kitchen cabinets (ahem). You are not that parent. You cannot afford to be, time-wise. There are more important things to do with your time including self care and bonding with your children. Also, nobody can be that perfect parent – it’s a myth. The same can be applied with relish to almost everything in your life. Have a list of “nice thought but not right now” things, like running a marathon this year. But do have minimum standards (like never leaving the house without pants on, feeding your children nutritious food, and avoiding vermin infestation of your kitchen). Just kidding. It is entirely possible to have things in relative order at home and with the PhD, and you will have moments of perfection, but they will not last.

Part-time or full-time?

This decision needs to be made after a lot of discussion with your supervisors and your family. It needs to take into account the unique demands of your research and your financial situation as well as your personal preferences. There are pros and cons to both.

Advantages of being part-time, and disadvantages of being full-time.

1. You get to spend time with your kids when they’re little. This is arguably the most compelling reason to be part-time. Your time with your children at this age can never be replaced. Your PhD, on the other hand, almost always can wait. You can balance 2-3 days of PhD work with days at the park, playdates, babycinos, swimming lessons, and just hours and hours of soaking in your babies. I have such precious memories of cooing babies, sitting on the couch with them sleeping on my shoulder, spending cold winter mornings watching Sesame St in our pyjamas, making home-made play dough, and other delightful things. Just delicious.

2. You get to claim this time as a career disruption. Oh so important when you are applying for fellowships, grants and promotions. Your research output will be assessed according to the years you spent on research, and will not include the years you spent rocking babies to sleep, pureeing baby food, and pushing them on a swing. When you are full-time, you do not get this luxury.

3. Childcare will cost less.

4. You have twice as long to finish your PhD. (This can be a con for some people).

5. You can catch up on household tasks on your days off, making the PhD days a bit less hectic (think cooking double batches of food to freeze, etc).

Advantages of being full-time and disadvantages of being part-time.

1. It can get tricky holding on to your “train of thought” in between PhD days. I find that a break of more than three days means I fiddle around for hours trying to figure out where I left off. This is more of a problem at some times than others e.g. during data analysis and writing up, I would have found it challenging to be part-time.

2. You take twice as long to finish your PhD if you are part-time. Which means – living on a scholarship for twice as long, and a “real job” is further away. Also the risk that you are so incredibly sick and tired of your PhD at the end of six years.

3. In Australia, part-time scholarships are taxed but full-time scholarships are not. I know! Makes no sense at all.

4. You have to watch out for the time creep – when you end up spending almost as much time on your part-time PhD as you would if you were full-time. As a friend of mine said “Part time is never part time, and full time is never full time”.

My pearls of wisdom here are to keep it flexible. Do what works for you at that particular time, and you can always change if it’s not working out. Do what you will not regret – I held off from making the decision to go full-time until I worked out a way to spend one day a fortnight with my kids. I couldn’t quite let go of those precious days at home with them just yet.

Some time hacks you might like to try

The tag team

One parent leaves first thing in the morning and comes home earlier to pick the kids up, or one person does the morning shift and gets to come home a bit later. This can work really well, but the stress of getting two kids ready on your own in the morning can negate the advantages of this technique.

The early riser

Wake up at 5am and get a couple of hours of work done before the kids wake (if you’re lucky). Clearly requires discipline to go to bed early, and the strength to get out of bed in the middle of the night. Also leads to crankiness in the evening due to being very tired. Many parents swear by this though.

The night owl

Getting a chunk of a few hours of work done in the evenings once the kids are in bed, instead of watching Netflix or cat videos on Youtube (ahem). Can work well if one gets “on a roll”. I don’t find that I have enough brain energy in the evening to do this but have resorted to it at times of intense grant writing for example.

The weekend warrior

One of the parents works on the weekend so that they can take care of the little ones during the week. This reduces your childcare costs and allows both parents to enjoy time with their children, but it also means you do not have days off together as a family.

When to return from maternity leave?

Again you need to check what the rules are with your institution and with your particular scholarhips and balance this with your personal preferences and your family situation. There is absolutely no “right” or “wrong” answers here but there are a few simple facts that might make your decision easier. Firstly, if you are breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first 4-6 months. Once your baby is well-established on solids, it gets easier to sneak away without having to pull out the old breast-pump or hurry home for a feed. Your baby is also ready at 6 months and onwards to learn how to self-settle at night (if this is important to you) which will make it a little easier to manage the night-time wakings, if teaching them to sleep is what you would like to do. With both my babies I returned to very part-time work/study at 7 months and found this a great time to do so, but it is also such a delightful time in your baby’s life and can be hard to slip away and leave them with grandma, daycare or whatever. So there just isn’t a perfect time but you have to do what works for your family and your PhD.

In the later posts, I will also write about managing guilt, energy, the importance of taking breaks, refreshing yourself, and nurturing relationships.

All in all, your kids need you to be around for a good part of their young lives, and you will want to be there as well, as you simply cannot go back in time. Yet, opportunities will arise regardless of where you are on your parenting journey, and it is not impossible to make the most of these even while staying engaged with your children. To me, there can be few things as satisfying as having two outcomes at the end of a PhD: happy, bright, resilient children as well as a completed PhD  (and for those who are partnered, an intact and thriving relationship with your spouse). To all the PhD/academic parents out there who are enjoying the juggle, here’s to you!

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