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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

Mom, grad student

Olivia Wilkins

I was applying to grad school about the same time Alex and I found out we were pregnant. We were ecstatic at the news, eager to welcome kleines Liebling Günther into the world to share in our adventures. While I was elated, confident that I had the best, most supportive partner and to-be-co-parent, I admit that there was some doubt dwelling in the back of my mind.

There was a moment when I questioned the timing of our having a baby. I was about to come into motherhood at 23 years old without either of us having established professional careers. Just months before, we were (rather, mostly I was) determined to have a baby after the nomadic grad school and post-doc epoch of my academic career. These feelings were temporary, lasting maybe five minutes.

Once the grad school applications were submitted and it was time to make decisions about where I was going to pursue a PhD as well as where my young family would live for five or six years, new fears emerged. I had no doubt that Alex and I were up to the challenge of being parents, but I had doubts about how my future graduate institution would feel about my situation.

In undergrad, I remember several occasions where I tuned into the discussion around family in academia, the tone of the conversation suggesting that it was irresponsible or unwise for an un-tenured woman to have children. Opinion pieces argued that women couldn't "have it all," that they are forced to choose between career and family (unless they are superhuman or wealthy). Casual analyses suggested that young parents in academia were more likely to be men than women, and it has even been suggested that having children is a "career advantage" for men but "for women, it is a career killer." I stumbled upon discussion boards giving advice to graduate students who were soon-to-be mothers about how and when to tell their grad advisors they were pregnant. Ultimately, I was given the impression that, despite my own beliefs and the supportive reception I had at the Universität zu Köln and from the Fulbright Kommission regarding my pregnancy, I was going to be a burden to my graduate advisor, to my institution, and to myself upon returning to the U.S. The sentiment on many social media sites and blogs is that you can't have an academic career, have a family, and be happy... you can pick one, or—if you are lucky—two. But three out of three? Impossible.

Despite being under the impression that the world was pessimistic about my odds—except for echoes of "if anyone can do it..." from family and undergraduate mentors—I was determined to pursue all three: an academic career, a family, and happiness. Although my graduate career is still in its early stages, I feel as if I have a good beginning to achieving all three in a career. Much of this is the result of a support network in graduate school, but it is also the result of reflecting on realistic expectations for myself. And, while I am not superhuman or anything, there are situational factors that are imperative to my ability to be a grad student and mom and wife: no debt after receiving tuition remission by attending the same undergraduate institution where my mom works; a husband who has delayed his own professional goals, certain that graduate school would be in my future; a you-can-do-anything attitude fostered by my parents. Yet even with having the fortune of a supportive home environment, I was struggling to remain unconvinced that having a baby just before grad school would be an early career killer.

The family at the start of Caltech's first term

The family at the start of Caltech's first term

It is no secret that grad school is tough, and it is important that you are at an institution that supports you as a person (rather than as cheap labor for producing research). This includes being a parent. I don't know what the usual support is for grad parents, but Caltech has exceeded my expectations, and I want to share this with you, either if you are a parent yourself looking for some of the resources that might be available to you or if you need some hope that the portrayal of parents and specifically mothers I shared before doesn't have to be the norm.

The first piece of support in grad school, beyond the base or at-home network, is my advisor. He is flexible and fairly hands-off, meaning he isn't one of those advisors who has students on a 24-hour schedule or expects you to come in every weekend. (Even without a family, I couldn't work for someone who wouldn't challenge me to grow at least somewhat on my own or for someone who'd expect me to work until 10 p.m., which is bedtime for me.) Being able to eat dinner with my family, spend weekends with them, see Günther's pre-school play in a few years makes me happy. Being a firm believer that happy workers are more productive workers, I think this will make me a much better grad student than I would have been otherwise.

When I met with my (at the time, prospective) advisor before the start of term in September, I nervously mentioned that I lived in family housing before drapping what-I-hoped-would-not-be-a-bombshell that I had an infant. The nervousness was the result of reading an article titled "Should You have a Baby in Grad School?"; while the piece encourages you to do what you think is best for you, it opens with a tale of graduate culture in which having a baby in grad school more-or-less requires the permission of your thesis advisor. I was relieved to find that my advisor was supportive of grad students having children should they desire it. While I am fortunate to have an advisor is concerned with supervising my research rather than my entire life, academia is not always so sensible (to put it lightly). The aforementioned article describes the harsh reality that

[the author] know[s] a few women who hurt their academic careers by having a baby. This is not the fault of the women, but the fault of a system which penalizes women for being mothers.
As far as I can tell, Caltech generally is not part of this system.

Another piece of support is the long list of nursing rooms available on campus. There are two such rooms in South Mudd, the location of my office, and the room just down the hall has a futon where I can comfortably nurse or pump. The GPS administrative office even put in a power strip so I don't have to crawl on the floor to find the electrical outlet. The bathroom has a changing table complete with disposable changing ats; I can't go to a "family-friendly" coffee shop in California that has a changing table or even a counter, so the fact that Caltech has these facilities is especially remarkable to me.

Of course, there is a financial burden associated with having children, especially on a grad student budget. Caltech understands this, motivated heavily it seems by the Graduate Student Council, providing support such as $100 per month per dependent supplements for health insurance and several thousand dollars annually to help offset childcare costs such as daycare or education.

Caltech certainly hasn't made being a grad mom harder, and they have even made it easier than what I anticipated. While there are many great resources available, there have been what many would call sacrifices: Alex putting off his career aspirations, my inbox getting out of control, more interruptions when trying to complete problem sets at home. Ultimately, it isn't realistic to think that we can have "it all," and all at the same time. Alex cannot run a business full-time and be a stay-at-home parent. I cannot be a happy grad mom who also has a cleaned-up inbox and can finish assignments long before the deadline every time. But, at least in my situation, I've modified my expectations and my priorities, setting challenging but achievable goals for what I define as "it all." Starting a problem set more than two days before the deadline is no longer a priority for me; having a generally happy and stress-free school- and home-life is.

The views in this post are entirely those of O. H. Wilkins and are not endorsed by the California Institute of Technology.