Grad school is not my everything


Well, today was the day after I really finished my semester, and I treated myself to not worrying about other responsibilities for the day. So what did I do? I spent many, many hours reading other people’s blogs. Through various blogs, I have been discovering a community of women in science. I am particularly interested in those who are parents, new parents especially, and those who are in the early stages like grad school, post-docs, and young professors. As I mentioned in my last post, I found a blog carnival, the Scientiae Carnival, and it is really cool. There are so many good posts to read about all of these issues that I care about.

Sometime in the past year, as I navigated the first year of grad school and learned a whole lot about the academic research community, I began to have concerns that this place, this world of academia, wasn’t the place for me. First of all, I got married, right in the middle of the first semester, and spent a lot of time planning and organizing the wedding instead of working on coursework. I even went on a honeymoon – I took an entire week off mid-semester. What’s more, I didn’t really feel a drive to be doing more work than I was. Many of my peers put so much effort into the classes, and me? I wanted to learn and expand my knowledge, but I also wanted to balance that with my non-grad school life. And in some ways that felt wrong; I felt like everyone in the department thought that grad school/research were supposed to be your everything, not just your 9-5.

People tell me all the time that I won’t have time for this or that while I’m in grad school, because I’ll be so busy. But I just don’t see it. I mean, I know I’ll be stressed, and tired too. But I’m not the kind of person to devote my everything to one thing. I used to be, back when I was an athlete in high school. I was an overachieving high school student, devoting myself to my sport and to school and letting the rest of my life happen as it may, balanced or not (and mostly not). But I can’t do that anymore. I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was really pretty unhappy. Aside from my debilitating perfectionism, I developed an eating disorder, and had many destructive tendencies. I’ve dealt a lot with my mental issues, which nowadays come in the form of depression and some levels of anxiety. And one thing that I learned, very strongly, is that I need balance in my life. I need to accept that I won’t be the best at everything. To some extent, and this may not be healthy, I’m scared of even striving for mastery of a subject. I’m worried that if I really get into it, if I put enough care into it to do the work, that I will care about it too much, that it will hurt me too much if it doesn’t work or if I don’t succeed. I’m scared that I’ll fall back into old habits of obsessing, of nitpicking myself, my thoughts, and my actions. This may be irrational fear, but I am still learning how much to care, how much is ok and how much I can handle. I am not out of my depression yet, in fact it is very real and very here. So I have learned my limitations and I am learning to work within them, and slowly I am getting better: getting happier, and more stable.

Another reason I sometimes wonder if I belong in academia, at least in the research-intensive universities, is that I think I really enjoy teaching. I know that, particularly at research based universities, new faculty are wise to not spend as much time on lesson plans and teaching as they could, because research is so much more important. In the department where I am a grad student, I see professors who both care little about teaching and have little respect for the teaching abilities of those that are good at it, and it bothers me. I don’t like how people are surprised when I enjoy being a teaching assistant or when I announce that I am not only here to learn to do research, but I am also here to learn to teach. Maybe I belong in a part of academia where teaching is more valued. (A note is that apparently Harvard has announced an intention to work to value teaching more. It’ll be interesting to see if that pans out.) The thing is, I know I don’t want to focus only on teaching to the extent that I don’t research much, as I love research. I want to be able to go somewhere where both are viewed as important and valuable, and where people usually balance teaching and research, doing a significant amount of research but not blowing off their teaching responsibilities as just a nuisance that keeps them out of the lab.

One of the things that makes me feel the most like I don’t belong is my overwhelming desire to become a mother. Especially since I’m married and thus have a prospective and supportive father in mind for such a baby-to-be, it seems as though it’s not far off, and I think about it a lot. Husband and I have agreed it still won’t be for a few years, not in small part because he is following his dream right now and that does not leave us too financially stable. But me? I think about having a baby before I’ve finished grad school (which is supposed to be within 4 years from now), and I don’t have any role models in my department who have done so. My department is small, and there are no mothers among the faculty. I don’t even know if any female grad student has ever become a mother in my department’s history; surely it hasn’t happened recently. It seems like such a taboo subject. I try to find ways to get information about how it might happen – what the procedure would be if I were to become pregnant before I finish. Would I get time off? I don’t even like to dream that it might be paid maternity leave, but I’d at least like a decent 3 month unpaid leave. I know, as a grad student, I wouldn’t be supported by the FMLA, so I’m really not even sure where to go to find out such things, particularly if I want to know before I make the decision to start trying to conceive. My school has an Ombuds office, so I was thinking I might try that out. It’s scary just thinking about trying to get pregnant but not knowing how my degree program and stipend would go. In addition to that, as a very strongly minded feminist I resent that I feel like I should keep quiet about my question, which I feel because I fear that even suggesting I might get pregnant and have a baby before I’m done would change the way colleagues and peers look at me – as a mother-to-be instead of as a great researcher.

Also the demands of going through pregnancy and becoming a mom in science may be somewhat different than the demands of pregnancy and motherhood in another field; I cannot bring my baby to the lab, and there may be some machines and chemicals that I shouldn’t be around when I’m pregnant either. In fact there is a machine that we regularly use in my lab that I might be advised against being near if I was pregnant, and that would mean that even for the whole 9 months before our lives were completely disrupted by baby I still might not be a fully or even moderately functioning research assistant.

I’ve felt that it would be reassuring to know others that have been there, to be able to talk to other women who have had a baby in grad school, or in academia in general. That’s where the time I’ve spent on reading and discovering new blogs has been so helpful. I’ve found a number of blogs of women in science research and teaching, some of whom have very recently gone through pregnancy and childbirth, and many of whom are in the very early stages of their careers as well. I may not be able to find this community at my own school, but it is easier to find it here, on the web. And I am really glad I have found all of these new blogs to read. I hope that these bloggers will welcome me into the community!

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14 thoughts on “Grad school is not my everything

  1. I agree with you that grad school cannot be your everything. I worked 40 hours a week in grad school. Weekends were vital to preserve my sanity. At some point there is a law of diminishing returns, where even if you “work”, you’re not accomplishing anything.

    Since I decided to stay sane during graduate school, it took me longer to get through (seven years). But it was worth it, because I came out with my sanity intact.

    Even now, at my job, I work 40 hours a week. It’s more than enough time to get stuff done. My colleagues are a bit horrified by my “low” hours, but as long as I get stuff done they really have no room to complain.

  2. Welcome Flicka! You cover a lot of ground in this post, and a lot of it sounds like places I visited early in my grad school career (got married 2 weeks before starting my PhD…). I guess one thing to say that might help is that there are places that value teaching and research. The place where I’ll be TT seems to be one of them, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see what it’s like on the ground.

  3. Hi, Flicka! Ah, the first years of grad school. Now there’s a hell on earth I don’t want to revisit.

    As for science not being everything to you, you are so right! It shouldn’t! As far as I’m concerned it’s a myth perpetuated by old men with stay-at-home wives. They can let work be everything because they’ve never had to do anything else. Even the younger *male* grad students now, generally, have home responsibilities.

    What you say about having to hide pregnancy thoughts- it’s true it shouldn’t be like that, but it is, and I think you’re reasonable to consider it. If they’re going to make your life miserable, it’s best to know in advance. And not to rain on your parade (I also would like a baby now now now), but childcare usually runs about 40% of one grad student’s salary. Does your husband earn real money?

    On a final note, I don’t know exactly what you do, but there are surprisingly few chemicals that absolutely cannot be used in pregnancy. Radiation work, for example, is fine (because people no longer use whole Curies of it).

  4. Regarding the machine in the lab, at the moment all I know is that in passing, my adviser said that if anyone were pregnant they probably shouldn’t be involved in the use of that machine. But my adviser may have been just being cautious….it is sort of in this person’s nature to be cautious.

    yeah, um, the whole cost of a baby is the BIGGEST reason we aren’t having kids anytime too soon. I just think about it a lot, but right now, hubby is working on starting his own company, so we are not at all financially stable. We’ve discussed it and we’ve agreed that 2 years from now would be the soonest we might be financially stable enough, but I have at least another 4 years of grad school. Mostly it all depends on how his company works out! But yeah, we won’t be making any babies on my stipend alone, that’s for sure. We can’t even pay the bills and eat on my stipend alone, so a third tummy, cute as it would be, will have to wait until his company stabilizes or he goes back to working for someone else.

  5. Pingback: A blogosphere discussion on work-life balance in academia « A Cat Nap

  6. I would just like to say that I can really relate to your post. I am in grad school, and have a 3 year-old, and a husband. The one difference is that my husband does make a good living, but I feel like you do. I think of having another baby almost daily. i began thinking I could be ready to have another child about a year ago.
    I have about 3 years left. I feel that I went through a HUGE growing/learning phase my first two years, with son and husband. I feel as though I could juggle it. However, I am constantly asking myself if that it is just hormones talking. Being a woman of science, I can not ignore good old-fashioned natue and evolution theory.
    In some regards, I think it is hormones talking. In other regards, I find myself asking when will there be a good/better time to have children. I am a very ambitious person, and I know that I will want to have a career when I get outside of school…I will not want to take the time to have more children….AT 30!!! Atleast being in grad school allows your summers to be open- atleast mine do…to stay home with a new baby.
    This is what the working woman faces. It is the way that it is in this day and age.

    I would like to say that you are right about one thing without a doubt; I’m glad to read that you have realized how imperative it is to strike a balance in ones’ life. I have lived without ANY balance in my life, and now, my circumstances FORCE me to have balance. I am a better mother, wife, and student because of it. I too, have anxiety and depression from time-to-time, and I am certain that there is a correlation between lack of balance and depression/anxiety. So keep that in mind with all of your decision making. I have also experienced eating disorders OCD running 30+ miles a week, and I have been there.
    You sound as if you have a really good head on your shoulders. I am sure that you will make the right decisions. Good Luck.
    PS. I also would like to say that remember that we go through stages in life- some where we are more goal oriented, and some where we are more family/emotionally orientated. So, when you are feeling one way or the other- go with it, and do your best work in both at those times. It sounds deep, but I am really simply talking about, first, being at peace with who you are, and then knowing yourself.
    I will say that doing all that I do take sa lot out of me at times, but there have been many rewards along the way.

  7. Just saw this post while looking at Scientiae–I’m about to start my 4th year in grad school and having a baby soon (hopefully this weekend–but he doesn’t seem to care when I want him to come!) We thought it would be easier to do now because our schedules are so much more flexible than they will be when we have “real” jobs. It is also relatively easy for me to work from home sometimes because I’m a theorist.
    My school has something about 2 weeks of parental leave written in the grad student handbook, but not much else. Princeton and a few other places have nice, clear policies in place, but everywhere else I think people just work things out with their advisers. Mine told me to “play it by ear” this semester–he is very supportive, as I think a lot of advisers are, but the problem is if there’s no school-wide policy you could get screwed with a bad adviser, and sometimes you don’t know your adviser is an ass until you’re already in the group. I have gotten a lot of extra work done in the last few months to keep from losing too much time, we’ll see how much I get done once he is here! Some people say that they work more efficiently when they know they have a baby to come home to, and I think this will be the case with me too (at least after the first few months), because I have always gotten work done much faster when my schedule was very full than when it was only normal.

  8. Wow, I was searching on the web and found your blog. I felt almost I was reading something that I had written. I am just starting my second year of grad school in bioengineering, my husband is a second year medical student, and we have been married 3 years now. I love being in grad school but don’t know how to proceed with the whole motherhood thing. I am starting to get the itch and don’t want to wait until birth defects and other genetic problems are more likely. There are male grad students with families, but no female ones that I know of in our department. This last year, one of the grad students in my lab who had gotten pregnant was more or less forced to graduate before she had the baby. I fear that if I become pregnant, the same thing will happen to me. I don’t know what to do though. It seems like life will only get busier though. Sometimes I wonder if I should just give up on my Ph.D. all together. Seeing other people trying to make the same decisions makes me feel like I am not so alone.

  9. First, I just want to say that I am so glad to hear from those of you who commented. It’s always good to know others are going through similar things, and to hear how they may be handling it.

    To Lisa, I feel like that describes what will happen in my department – it will fall to the adviser, and thus what happens would vary a lot depending on who your adviser is. In my case, that has me in luck, as my adviser is really understanding and supportive. Still, I don’t like the idea that a peer of mine might meet a different fate just because her adviser isn’t so kind.

    I also imagine that I will work more efficiently when I have a baby to go home to.

    It’s been a few weeks since your post – did you baby come into the world yet?!!!!

    To Lindsey, I’m glad you found my page! It sounds like you are feeling just like me. Was the other woman in your lab closer to graduation? I don’t know how that would work if the person didn’t have enough material to write a thesis, unless you mean graduate with the masters and not continue on.

    Anyhow, clearly, none of us is alone. 🙂

  10. I too work a mere 40 hours a week in grad school. I don’t regret this at all. I value my sanity, have many outside interests and am really not all that enthusiastic about bench work. When I started grad school I tried doing 50-60 hour weeks, but I quickly discovered that if you can’t get any descent data in a 40 hour week, adding 20 more hours isn’t going to improve the situation. Its better to stop, figure out whats wrong and correct it. Honestly, I don’t want to be married to science, or any job for that matter. If that means I have to give up chasing the Holy Grail of an academic career, so be it. I’ll be able to make more money doing any other job, so it isn’t all bad.

    Also, teaching gets the shaft. I would love to get into teaching post grad school. There are a number of subjects I could probably teach quite well. Unfortunately, what matters is grants, not your ability to give a coherent lecture.

  11. It’s ironic really…a few months ago I was venting to my fi’ance about how being in graduate school has changed me and made me realize what I truly find important in life. I said at that moment, I should write a book about it and call it ” Everything I need to know about myself I learned in grad school.” Being the guy that he is, he typed the phrase into Google to see if someone had already written a book by that name. One of the first links that showed up was you blog from last year and I must say your experiences paralleled mine so much so that he began to read it out loud and started laughing saying…seriously, you need to know this woman, she sounds lot like you! I finished up last semester but due to a lot of anxiety, depression, and constant pressure to perform, I decided to discontinue the program I was in. When I read the title of your blog..Grad school is not my everything…I connected with it. I know I will go back at some point. Perhaps I was in the wrong program or at the wrong school or maybe it was just the wrong time to shove so much on my plate. I wasn’t even sure what I was doing there anymore. Something just felt wrong..like I need to feel balanced in whatever I’m doing and I felt the road I was taking wasn’t one of balance and “me-time” but of constant time crunches, sleep deprivation and panic attacks. Reading your blog, I really felt like I joined a “grad school support group” or something and I felt like finally someone understood all that I was experiencing. Just wanted to take the time and thank you for that. My fi’ance only wishes he could understand me that well sometimes. At least he loves me regardless. Thanks again. Peace.

  12. Thanks Kristin and Just A Guy for your comments. Kristin, I am so glad that just reading this made you feel better – I definitely have come to view the community of bloggers that I have found as a support network. This post of mine still gets some of the most hits of any of my posts, and I think that really points to the fact that we are not alone – there are lots of people out there for whom grad school is not all-encompassing, but many of them are afraid to come out and say it. So here I am, saying it. 🙂

  13. I really enjoyed reading your post and everyone’s comments. I have been quite concerned lately that my healthy, balanced attitude towards work/family makes me unfit for academia. I have an off switch. I am happy to work from six am, but at 4pm I close my laptop, walk the dogs and enjoy an evening with my husband. I am competitive really only with myself, and have zero interest in departmental politics and back biting, which I just pretend aren’t happening.

    Now I am finishing off my Masters and thinking of taking this rather un-academic attitude into my PhD. I would love to have a kid while doing my PhD, enjoy motherhood, and educate myself into a stimulating and exciting career. But from reading a lot on the internet it seems that to get out of a PhD in four years on has to just about kill oneself working. Is there anyone out there enjoying a relaxed 8-5pm PhD while parenting some happy kids? Inspire us!

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