Guest Post: Grad school with big kids

Like many of my classmates, I entered graduate school right after I got my undergraduate degree. Unlike many of my classmates, I took 15 years off between high school and college. My graduate experience is not just happening to me. Instead my husband and 3 children are along for the ride. While some of my classmates grapple with whether to have a baby during graduate school, or where to find the best preschool close to campus, I started this graduate school journey with elementary and middle school children in tow. Now, 4 years in, they are in middle and high school. I found little advice or feedback on going to grad school while parenting big kids. Therefore, I am here to dish the dirt. Whether you are a parent contemplating going to graduate school, or are simply curious, I would like to provide you with some insight on advantages and disadvantages of the situation.

First there are definite advantages of having big kids along for the ride. For instance, my kids know technology so much better than I do. When I run into a computer issue, I don’t need to wait for the IT person to get back to me. I simply turn the machine over to my son, who can fix it and talk me through the issue so that it doesn’t happen again.

My kids are teenagers, and like many teens, they know pop culture. I never have to feel embarrassed because I don’t know what my students are talking about. Instead, I get to engage with my students about some of the most culturally relevant (to that age group) stuff out there, thanks to conversations and links sent from my kiddos. Hip-ness points go way up, while some of my 24-year old colleagues are starting to feel a bit old, irrelevant, and like screaming, “Get off my lawn.”

Looking at this issue from another angle, I have found that there are also some advantages of being in grad school while parenting older kids. For example, thanks to conversations with undergraduates. I know what weird and bizarre party games and websites are coming down the pike, soon to trickle down to high school. My students keep me informed and I am able to keep a closer eye on the youngsters. Also, I get to be the cool mom who has an entire university campus at my disposal. Concerts, game rooms, rec centers, events are all at our front door, ready to be explored. Although I have lots and lots of work, my hours can be flexible. My kids are older, but they still need me—even if only as a shuttle! I can juggle my schedule much more than I would be able to at a 9 to 5 job.

I wish I could say that graduate student with teens is all roses and sunshine. There are definite downsides. Big kids are more expensive than little kids, and that stipend does not stretch very far. The wants are greater, and when they are this close to adulthood, it is a lot harder to say, “Well, we can get that for him when he is older.” While my own student loans currently loom and grow in deferment, my boys’ need for college tuition is swiftly encroaching!!

Moving is tough on anyone, and it is really hard for kids. My boys were all settled in nicely to their schools and neighborhoods when we uprooted them to go to graduate school. After getting comfortable there, we moved again for me to do research. I hope to get a tenure-track position, which means I may very well need to move to for a job when two of my kids are in high school.

Whether you are the parent of a teenager or a toddler, one thing seems to remain consistent, and it is doubly true in graduate school. I constantly feel like I am stretched too thin on everything, and never get enough sleep. I know this is true for graduate students in general, and for student and working parents in general, but as I noted, the years to “make it up to them” are fleeting.

And finally, the worst part of all: Most of my students were born after I graduated high school. And many of my colleagues are closer to my kids’ age than to my age!!

My advice to people pondering graduate school? If you don’t have children yet, it is probably best to start before you have them. However, if you are in my position and already have kids, even teens, and are trying to decide whether or not to embark on this adventure, I say go for it! There are ups and downs for sure. However, life is full of ups and downs. Your children will survive and will learn valuable lessons about time management, perseverance, and education. And you will survive and come out of the experience with tons more knowledge, abilities you didn’t know you possessed, and a degree. And hopefully, a good job and not too much debt!

This guest post was contributed by Acadelic, a 4th year graduate student in the Social Sciences.

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Grad school with big kids

  1. Congratulations on being very brave and uprooting yourself and family to follow your dreams. Well done. I also did my PhD while my kids were that age, though had done my undergrad at the conventional time followed by some research. Even so, the PhD took twice as long as anticipated, and involved much more angst than I imagined – but i was also working as a senior lecturer (would be professor in the US) in the same Dept where I was enrolled. I agree with all those advantages you mentioned, and agree that the process is much better suited to younger people, but possible at any age.

    Isn’t it great that we live in places where we can go ahead with our education (or change pathways) at a mature age? (I have also taught mature age students in undergrad and research classes, and they are among the BEST students because they know they want to be there).

    However, i would also like to point out advantages to your own kids. Mine learnt that learning never stops, and passion for science never stops. They learnt that one can be a learner and a teacher at the same time, and we shared stories about being students and observing other students and teachers and teaching strategies. They learnt to be a bit more independent and to accept that responsibilities are part of life (we have a small farm, and part of the time hubby wasn’t home during the week, so there were only the kids and I to do the chores – there could be no argument or discussion, everything needed to be done, including homework and dinner and dishes, and there were only the three of them and me to do it all).

    More importantly, we all learnt to work together as a team as well as a family, to share the ups and the downs of all our lives and to ‘give a little’ and be flexible with our own needs when someone else needed more attention than we did at the time.

    And I think and hope that the kids learnt to see their parents as people, not just as “the oldies”.

  2. “And many of my colleagues are closer to my kids’ age than to my age!!”

    As a single parent in graduate school with a teenager, I can say this is a huge bummer for me in more ways than one. The dating pool around here is horrid. Not that I want to date classmates! But the people I see everyday on campus in other disciplines are also much younger than me.

    The biggest bonus, for me, has been that my years in the workforce pre-grad school prepared me well. Non-traditional students, I’ve been told, tend to be more efficient with their time, understand the bureaucracy already, are more persistent, etc. This is anecdotal from faculty I’ve spoken with, of course, and not hard data but has been my experience.

    Having a teen is nice compared with having younger kids (like my son was when I first attended undergrad) because they’re more independent but it all depends on the kid. Mine hated school so much that he skipped a lot, didn’t do the work, got poor grades even though he’s really smart, and just generally made our lives a living hell sometimes. I was getting daily phone calls or texts from his school for awhile which was distracting and ate up time in the lab so I ended up having to work late which meant personal things – like cleaning the house – got put off. I don’t function well without sleep so I just let personal things slide when things get rough.

    “However, i would also like to point out advantages to your own kids. Mine learnt that learning never stops, and passion for science never stops.”

    This sort of backfired in our case. My son has told me that because he sees how stressed out grad school makes me he doesn’t ever want to do it. He appreciates that I love science so much but sees the downsides as well.

    • katiesci I didn’t mean that all my kids wanted to DO science necessarily – only one has continued with a science career, though the others have gone on to things that they are passionate about.

      I think we are saying the same – the benefit is that the kids see that it is possible for someone to follow their passion, whatever that is, and that the downsides can be overcome if you have that passion. And that you have to work together when things get rough. You seem to have done a great job raising your son on your own while continuing to be “you”, I admire you immensely, and I am sure he will make you proud one day, by following his own dreams successfully, whatever they are.

      • Oh yeah, I got that they don’t necessarily want to DO science but, from my son’s perspective, I think he wonders whether continuing has been the right choice because of how miserable I have sometimes been. But it could just be his personality – he’s only 18 and his level of persistence is quite different than mine.

        Thank you so much for the comment. I do think he’ll figure things out and find his passion. He’s so smart and passionate about his interests, he just needs to find the career to apply them to.

  3. Thank you for this article! I am considering going to grad school this year (all my apps are in) with my twin 8 year old boys in tow. I worry about a lot–such as the privilege my boys will encounter in the areas surrounding the schools I applied to and what it will be like to support all of us on my income as a PHD student. We currently live in Oregon and are considering moving to places like Boulder, Austin, and California for my graduate school tenure. I hear you say “Go for it” but why? I am awfully worried that I am being selfish. Perhaps I should wait the 5-7 years for them to graduate first? Where you able to do this without taking out loans?

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