The Circus Ringmaster

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to draw your attention to the center ring. High above the ground, a graduate student attempts a nearly impossible feat. He will walk across the tightrope suspended 100 feet in the air without a safety net–while balancing a part-time job, full-time graduate studies, a wife, and two small children. Quiet please, and the drum roll…

“Honey, guess what? No, my family is not coming for a visit. No, your family is not coming to visit. No, all the bills are paid (mostly). I’m pregnant!” (The next 5 seconds are very important. The husband’s response could spark a celebration or start a firefight.) “Fantastic, what a great surprise” … Not.

To the surprise of many people, we planned our pregnancy. However, the initial decision was a difficult one. Before I started graduate school, we planned to have a baby once I passed my qualifying exams at the end of my second year. But we postponed starting a family, because my research project was in its early stages and it required my full attention. Three years later, the project did a very good imitation of the Titanic, and I had to start over with a totally new experimental system.

During the transition between research projects, I reassessed my personal values and asked myself what things are really important to me. Despite my previous behavior in which my life revolved around the laboratory, I now realized that family was also very important to me. And perhaps this was the worst time to consider starting a family, due to my graduate research responsiblities.

With a nearly 9-month head start, we planned and made as many sacrifices as humanly possible to save money. Part of our plan was for my wife to continue working until the end of the pregnancy. But in the 5th month, we discovered that we had been doubly blessed. Not one but two babies were coming! We met the news with total elation, and our doctor was completely surprised by our joyous response. We immediately changed our initial plans. My wife stopped working, and I began looking for a part-time job that would not interfere with my research. I was doubly motivated to complete my graduate work. I found a job driving the university bus, and my shift started around 5 a.m. and ended around 9 a.m. At $10 an hour and 20 hours per week, we could almost make ends meet. I began driving soon after the twins were discovered. However, the real challenge did not start until after they were born.

Surprise number one–the children were born 3 weeks early. On their birthday, I had to drive the bus, because I did not have time to find someone to cover my shift. After a 10-day stay in the hospital, they came home and the fun began. Surprise number two–no matter how well you prepare, caring for small children is a full-time, nonstop job that is unpredictable. Like most mature, intelligent people, we thought we had the situation under control. Initially we were totally out of control, and our carefully prepared plans did not cover every scenario (e.g., not enough baby socks, diapers, and sleep). So, we reassessed our strategy, made modifications, and set new goals.

How does one regain a sense of balance? First, develop a positive proactive attitude, and strive to be happy knowing that the current crisis will pass. My wife and I adopted a “can-do” attitude early on, and it continues today. I learned to do everything in my home except breast-feeding. I even overcame my color blindness so I could help out with the laundry, and cooking is now a breeze! Because my wife was so busy caring for the children, she would sometimes forget to eat. I was able to help out by preparing multiple meals at one time so that something good to eat was always in the refrigerator. In between driving the bus and going to lab, I would stop by the apartment and cook a big healthy breakfast for my wife, which I made sure she ate. Preparing and eating food are major tasks that should not be neglected. Furthermore, planning and storing meals saves time and money.

Another important key to maintaining balance between education, career, and family is organization. Having a plan is just as essential for success in family matters as in research. Organize routine tasks such as cooking, shopping, and doing laundry. And always know what you want to accomplish before you enter the lab. If possible, have test tubes labeled, solutions made, and cells growing. You can prepare for frequent events like lab meetings and journal clubs ahead of time, because these events are typically announced at least a month in advance. By spending an hour a day reading and preparing for meetings, you can reduce the stress typically associated with these events and avoid the periodic late days and nights that can strain family relationships. Similarly, spending an hour a day on household chores frees up time on the weekend for fun activities. Finally, I would recommend scheduling exercise and downtime for you and your spouse. These periods are critical for proper health and mental balance.

Communication is also essential for balancing family life and graduate school. Currently, my adviser and I have weekly meetings to discuss various topics, including my research results, goals, progress, and strategies to overcome obstacles. Most faculty members have children and understand the time required to maintain a family, but they need and want to know that you’re committed to completing your graduate degree in a timely and efficient manner. So, if you do not have weekly meetings with your adviser, start by e-mailing him or her weekly progress reports and soliciting input. These meetings will keep your adviser informed and keep you focused on completing the next important experiment. This type of “research management” may help you detect potential problems with experiments early on.

Analogous to managing lab work, having a healthy family life requires excellent communication. My wife and I have two business meetings a week, during which we examine our budget, plan outings, and organize shopping trips. We have found that scheduled activities typically get done, and our meeting times allow us to remain closely connected and informed. Initially, we did not schedule meetings, and we rarely communicated before moving on to the next items on the to-do list. Now, we are closer and are both kept informed of any new developments.

Finally, in order to maintain balance between your education and career, you need to put everything into perspective. Perspective is very important, especially when you’re facing a huge new challenge. Balancing family and career are major challenges for anyone, especially graduate students who are typically not earning much money and are equally short on time. But perspective tells us that we are not the first to face the task of balancing family and career. In fact, almost everyone has to manage family and career at some point. So, it is reassuring to know that it has been done before and quite successfully. In addition, becoming a parent while you’re in graduate school programs has some advantages, including a flexible schedule, health care coverage, family housing, and support groups for parenting students. I wish I could that say balancing multiple responsibilities is easy, but I can’t. However, unlike some research projects, children are a challenge that will always love you back.

[email protected]

Inspiring Future Entrepreneurs

Can a White Male Really be an Effective Mentor?