Monday, October 8, 2012

Guest Post: Graduate Student Mom

The below blog post is from guest blogger Hannah Fakhouri, a graduate student in astrophysics at UC Berkeley:

Greetings!  My name is Hannah and I'm guest blogging this week about being a graduate student and a mom:  I am a seventh year PhD student in (astro)physics and I have a three month old son.  

(As an aside, some people say graduate school is a great time to have a baby, but that is highly dependent on other factors in your life.  Not only do I have a supportive advisor, but I am married and my husband has a stable job and a good income.  These considerations make having a baby feasible, though certainly not easy.)

I want to share with you a few lessons that I have learned in my journey thus far; they are things that I have always known, but now know much more fully:

1)  Don't be afraid to ask
At the end of my fifth year of graduate school, I walked into my advisor's office and said, "How about instead of graduating next year I have a baby and tack on an extra easy year?"  (Okay, in truth it was much more awkward and halting than that.)  To my great relief, he said "That sounds great."  (Or something there abouts.)  A few months before that my husband and I had started talking about the possibility of having a baby before I graduated.  I knew that gauging my advisor's support would be critical and although he is friendly and we have a good report, I was very nervous to actually say the words.  My advisor is so supportive, in fact, that I am not taking official maternity leave; he allowed me to stay on as a graduate student with a reduced work load.  (I am sure this is not the case for everyone and I commiserate with you if you find yourself having to choose between a leave of absence or returning to work immediately; there is much to be done to improve maternity leave policies for graduate students.)  In truth I have found much more support from my colleagues than I had expected; so if you're in a similar situation, ask! Your needs and desires are important; they are worth pursing.

2)  Deadlines are motivators
An impending due date is a whole new kind of motivator.  My goal had been to send out a draft of my thesis analysis to my collaborators before going into labor.  The internal review process takes a while in my group, so I was hoping to overlap that with the time I would be least responsive.  About a month before my due date, I didn't have anything written and the analysis was still in flux.  Knowing that contractions could start any day, I became more firm with my colleagues about halting the never-ending investigations and choosing a single result to focus on (a skill that will continue to be useful).  Much to my surprise, I finished the draft and sent it off to my colleagues two days before the contractions started.

3)  Children require sacrifice
I am very thankful to be a mother; but I now know that parenting is not for everyone.  In many ways I knew what to expect, but knowing that you won't get any REM sleep for a month doesn't help when you're staring down the barrel of another sleepless night.  Those weeks do come to an end, and I now have some spare cycles to think about research again.  I'll spend the next while working from home (as the nature of my research allows me to do that) and when my son gets a little older, we'll likely do part time day care while I finish my degree.  I don't know what the future of my career will be; I know I won't have the career I had envisioned in the past, but when I look at my son, I know it is a worthy sacrifice.

In the end, I don't have grand answers to the question of how to balance family life and work as a graduate student.  I've only just started the journey, and all I have is my story.