Becoming a Master
I had a friend ask last week about going to graduate school with children. It was a good opportunity to reflect on my experience so I thought it might be nice to share a bit of that here since it’s fairly common for Mormon women to need to juggle both.
First, a bit of background: I (finally!) graduated with a Master’s in Public Administration/Policy this past December. It took me 6 years. I suppose my degree would be considered a professional degree and while it was one of the most highly rated programs in the country, it was very much designed to be flexible enough for students already in the workplace. There was no pressure to get done in 2 or 3 years–the professors and administrators expected that it would take most students a little longer to finish the program because they were trying to balance both their careers and school. The school built the program to provide the most flexibility possible and allowed students to take courses either in person or remotely. This was a huge benefit for me because it gave me flexibility to take courses at my own pace, do my school work during nap times but also gave me an escape from stay-at-home-mommyhood when I could fit it in. I ended up doing about half of my coursework in person and half remotely which was a great balance for me.
In terms of motherhood I had a 3 year old, a 2 year old and was 6-months pregnant when I started graduate school and had my 3rd baby at the end of the first semester. I had my 4th baby during my last semester of coursework, about 2 1/2 years later. It was not my intention to add 2 more children to our family when I applied to the program but sometimes life happens and you have to roll with it. Another complicating factor, I went back to full-time work about 4 years into my program so then I was juggling children, school and work.
So with that background, here are my tips, with the usual caveats that this is what worked for me and also acknowledging the huge amount of privilege I had:
- Front load your coursework for your first two semesters. That’s when you’ll be most excited about being back in school and will have the most drive to get things done. Know that it will be hard.
- Invest in childcare. I wasn’t lucky enough to live near family that could watch my children so we put my oldest two children in part-time daycare during my first two semesters when I did the majority of coursework in person. Honestly, most of the student loans I took out went to pay for daycare and I don’t regret it one bit. I needed this to both do well in school and for my mental health. God bless daycare!
- Find an adviser/mentor that has children (or that at least gets what it means to juggle both children and school). I was lucky enough to find a professor my first semester who also had a 2 year old and was endlessly patient and supportive as I struggled to manage all the things.
- Know your village. It is vital to have people you can lean on. For me, it was the women of my ward who offered to babysit, brought us dinners during finals week. One of my people even gave me her parking pass so I could park downtown and walk to campus. (If you live downtown and know about parking you know that it was worth its weight in gold).
- Call in the reserves. Sometimes you need a little more intense help. This is a great time to bring in a family member or close friend who can manage your life while you just deal with school. My sister flew in twice, once during the finals week my first semester and again at the birth of my 4th child while I was trying to finish up my coursework.
- Find a room of your own. I really struggled with being productive at home, there were just too many distractions. When I had a test or a big paper to write I would go somewhere else. Generally this was my husband’s work office but I also used his Bishop’s office at church.
- Take breaks. Take stock of your situation and what’s best for your family. I took an almost two year break after I finished my coursework because I had four really small children, my husband became the bishop, I struggled with anxiety and then I went back to work. Know that this will be a marathon-like experience and that it will take all the endurance you have.
- Be flexible. If I’m being honest, this was not the romantic graduate school experience that I wanted–I wanted to be immersed in classes and research and all the trappings of academia–but that is not how life worked out. I did not get into a program before I had children and I quickly figured out that while my ideal might have looked different, this was my reality and it was up to me to make it the best experience I could. I will also say that the skills I developed from having so many balls in the air are invaluable and I don’t think I would have gained those if I had gone to school before having kids.
Doing graduate school with kids is hard and there were for sure times when I thought I would never finish but I am so grateful for the opportunity. Not only did it open professional doors it also allowed me provide an immediate example to my children of having goals and working hard to achieve them. The title of this post was taken from my youngest son who told everybody he met for months that his mom became a master and while it’s one of those cute things kids say, it helped highlight for me that my graduate school was an invaluable experience for all of us.
I’d love to hear others’ experiences with balancing school, kids and all the things.