lessons learned from graduate school: before and after entering the mother-hood

Very recently (last week), I defended my PhD thesis. For those who aren’t familiar with the process, more than getting your diploma or walking at a graduation ceremony, when you pass your defense, this is the moment when you are magically transfigured into a PhD. During the private portion of the defense one my committee members asked me if I had any wisdom to share having had a child during graduate school AND successfully graduated. Actually, I think the way he phrased it was, “When you told us you were pregnant I didn’t expect you to be able to successfully complete your PhD.” —-! Well, leaving that to marinate on my thoughts, I proceeded to blunder out some clichĂ© platitudes about how you need a good support system and role models. Not that these things aren’t true and essential, but I think that I have more unique wisdom to share. In fact, thinking about that question is what inspired me to start this blog.

I heard on NPR yesterday that Matt Lauer (probably misspelling that) interviewed a motor company executive and asked her first if she thought she was promoted because she is a woman, and second if she is able to both do this difficult job and be a good mother. So pretty much whatever line of work you are in, if you are a mother and working, this comes up. And inherently, this question assumes that it is a zero sum game. You have only so much to give, and since you now have a child you must give your job less. Well, forget that! I am more complicated and amazing than that, and I think most women are too!

So I have a new answer to this endless question. Becoming a mother made me a much better graduate student, and being a mother makes me a better scientist. In my head, I hear people saying, “really! really?… (and with more skepticism) reeeally?” Which are the actual responses I got when I gave a test run of this rant to my some fellow graduate students in my program.

Measure-ables: I was in my program for three years before I got pregnant, and I finished in five. The average time to graduate from my program is 5.5 years. So the numbers alone tell you that having a baby and being a mom didn’t somehow diminish my ability to do my job (well, at least not overall… but we can talk specifics in another post!). I published 1 paper before I gave birth, and two after. I have another manuscript in prep, and almost ready to submit. That will be 4 total for my PhD (four that first author, and two others as a co-author). Which doesn’t make me a graduate student rock star, but it’s respectable.

Ok, now the less tangible measures of success…before I became pregnant I worked all the time. I would get into the office/lab at 8am and stay until 2 or 3 in the morning sometimes. Seriously. The night janitorial staff in the ENVS building knew me by name, and woke me up from being passed out on my keyboard more times than I care to admit. I worked all weekends and all holidays. Why? Well, in your first couple of years of graduate school you are taking classes, doing research in rotations, and planning your dissertation research. But that’s not really why I worked all the time, because some other people do not do this. It’s because I was inefficient. I had the time, so I took it. Where else did I have to be?

Now though, I have a really good answer to that last question. I have to be at home, caring for my toddler son. So everything I do is part of a plan. I pre-plan, and plan, and when I actually get to doing, I do as quickly and efficiently as possible. Wasting time watching funny videos on the internet to “take a break” from doing the thing I didn’t want to do? Nope. Walking all the way across campus to get to Starbucks to get a coffee because it’s 3pm? Not for me thanks. I would much rather finish this task and use those extra 30 minutes to get one half inch closer to the finish line (even if it’s eternally moving away from me!). So part of it is just having a really good reason to exercise some mental discipline and do the annoying stuff that I used to procrastinate and avoid doing.

The second part though is that I have more time to think. I used to spend all my time doing things in the lab – and I didn’t spend enough time planning. When I am at home taking care of Miles I try to be present, I do. But c’mon… he was an infant for most of this time – there isn’t much conversation to be had with an infant. Ok, so now that he’s older there is some babbling to interpret, but even still. I can be present while also letting research-y thoughts go through my head. Miles doesn’t mind when I diagram an experimental design in his coloring book, and he is only slightly miffed if I won’t let him chew on it.

So that’s it for my first post. Thanks for reading! There is plenty more to come!


9 thoughts on “lessons learned from graduate school: before and after entering the mother-hood

  1. Your story is really inspiring Dr. Nelle, and I’m so glad you’re sharing it! I often get freaked out thinking about growing in my career while raising kids one day. Nothing like getting a PhD, but still, I’m not sure how it’s all going to fit. It’s hard for me just to keep up with my own laundry, but I know I could make better use of my time. I am going to start focusing on planning more like you describe, and being disciplined to stick to my plans. Looking forward to following your posts:-)


    • thanks for the comment lauren! and thanks for reading! by the way I still don’t keep up with my laundry…something’s gotta give, right?!


  2. Nelle, you are very right. Efficiency is the key to success. As a father to two kids during his tenure period, I could not agree more. Having less time does not make a person less productive. What it does is to force them to be more effective with the available time. And as for the laundry – well, even kids can sometimes wear the same clothes twice :-). Congrats again on your great thesis.


  3. Pingback: My baby, my taskmaster | the PhD mommy

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  5. Pingback: Stepping out of paralysis: questions on the work/life dichotomy | the phd mommy


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