Completing a Ph.D. Program While Working and Parenting: Here's Exactly What It Took

By Celeste Spier posted 03-09-2021 08:00


March 9, 2021


Celeste Spier is associate director, career and professional development, at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, where she recently earned her doctorate in educational leadership and higher education.

Last month, my husband posted a heartfelt tribute to me on Facebook celebrating the completion of my Ph.D., which I'd worked on part time for 10 years—working full time and having three kids along the way. While I admittedly reveled in the 300+ likes and 100+ congratulatory comments, I also felt guilty for celebrating. I had so much help along the way, experienced so many emotional ups and downs (and breakdowns), and had to deprioritize so many things in my life. Publicly celebrating without sharing the "other side" felt dishonest.

The most common question I received about my Ph.D. wasn't anything academic-related. (Shockingly, most folks aren’t interested in discussing theory and research.) It was, "How do you do it?"—referring to how I balanced working full time, having three kids, and completing a rigorous degree. I always answered the question honestly but positively, focusing on a good support system and taking things one class or project at a time. Here is the real answer:

1. Supportive Partner. I could not have completed my Ph.D. without the support of my partner, Travis. He completely handled (and still does) all of the household grocery shopping and cooking, including meal prepping for the upcoming week. He's an equal parenting partner and often carried the parenting load when I needed to work late or on the weekends. Most importantly, he was my emotional support person when I didn’t think I could do it. I can still hear his voice my head: "Don't worry about it, babe. I'll take care of it. You got this." He gave me positivity and confidence when I didn't have any left. He did this all while getting his own job done.
Action Step: To those of you thinking about pursing a Ph.D. program, have a serious conversation with your partner about what the commitment would be and what you expect of each other, as well as ongoing conversations throughout your time in school about what's going well and what's not working. Success will take constant renegotiation and adjustment.


2. Extended Support System. At the beginning of each semester, I reviewed my syllabus and calendars. I created three free weekends per semester by identifying one weekend for the kids to go to my mom's house, one weekend for them to go to my mother-in-law's house, and one weekend for my husband to be the primary parent. That gave me one weekend per month completely free to work on larger papers or projects or catch up on readings or assignments (and later dissertation writing). This system support was not only essential in giving me the time I needed to complete my classes and dissertation but, more importantly, it gave me “guilt-free” time. The mindset was different when the kids were with these individuals: School wasn't taking me away from my kids; my kids were spending a weekend with grandma (much to their and grandma's excitement).

Action Step: Identify the individuals who could be your support system. Talk with them about your Ph.D. goals and ask about their interest in supporting you and what their support and commitment would look like.


3. Supportive Boss. I had five different supervisors from the time I started to the time I graduated. Four of them had Ph.D.s themselves. These supervisors approved my requests to flex my schedule to attend in-person classes and vacation requests when I needed extra time to study. But beyond that, and more importantly, they encouraged me, mentored me, and were some of my biggest cheerleaders. It's easy to feel like you're not doing your job well when you're splitting your cognitive energy between multiple responsibilities. Knowing your boss has your back goes a long way in easing that insecurity.
Action Step: Talk with your supervisor about your Ph.D. goals. Be prepared to discuss how it might affect your job, and communicate what your needs might be. If your supervisor has not completed a doctorate, consider identifying a professional mentor who has for additional support.


4. Flexible Degree Program. A program designed to support working adults was a must-have for me. That included evening and online courses, flexibility and course sequencing that allows students to stop and start when needed, and professors who understood and accommodated working adults. When I was pregnant with my first child, my due date was the week before the end of the term. I spoke with my professor at the beginning of the semester, and I was so impressed with her response. Not only did she inform me that she would be flexible with my final project deadline, but she went on to state how much she enjoyed working with nontraditional students, because they brought such interesting lives and backgrounds to the classroom. I was able to record my final 15-minute presentation a week early (at 39 weeks pregnant) and miss the final week of class. (Full disclosure: It wasn't my best performance, but if you've ever tried to talk for 15 minutes when you're nine months pregnant, you understand!)
Action Step: Identify people in your professional circle who have completed their Ph.D. Ask them what programs they attended and what their experiences were like. Talk to faculty in programs of interest, and ask about their experience teaching and advising nontraditional students.


5. Supportive Adviser. "I'm thinking about having a baby." Before I got pregnant each time, I brought up the idea with my adviser. I would explain my timeline for when the baby would be due and how much time (if any) I would take off. I would share my reservations about workload and timeline and question whether or not I could do it. Each time, he responded with encouragement and confidence. "So you take some time off. Family comes first. The Ph.D. program will always be here," he would say. "I know you, Celeste. You have the conviction to finish this." He never made me feel like I had to choose between school and motherhood. I know I disappeared at times without communication. He gave me space but always remembered to check in. There was never any guilt or questioning when I showed up back in his office—just a focus on catching up and identifying next action steps. During the times I was able to move faster, he responded and gave me feedback as fast as I needed it.

Action Step:
You may not have much control over who your adviser is, but you can identify what your needs and expectations are for your adviser and ask to receive the same from them. Build in extra time in your degree completion plan for times when you need committee meetings or feedback. Coordinating faculty schedules and getting feedback will take longer (and more revisions) than you think.

6. Money. There. I said it. Yes, it takes money in a few different forms to do this. First is tuition assistance. My employer paid 100% of my tuition (15 credits per year), which was invaluable and a huge motivator for me to start the program in the first place. Second, each semester I had to pay out-of-pocket for my fees and books, which was usually around $100 to $200 per course. Finally, to give myself additional time, I hired paid services. I had a housekeeper who came every two weeks for four years. I hired babysitters periodically when I needed extra time and my support system couldn't cover. Other small services included getting my car detailed and house painted—tasks I normally would have done myself. (I would like to take a moment here to recognize the privilege I have for being financially able to do this, which I recognize others do not have.) I know other Ph.D. students who paid for services like editing, transcribing, and research consultation to ease the burden or speed up the timeline.

Action Step: Identify what your out-of-pocket expenses would be as well as any tasks you could hire out to free up time. Ask for gift certificates to cleaning or meal services for holiday gifts.

7. De-Prioritization. When people asked me how I did it, how I really wanted to answer was "by lowering my standards significantly," followed by desperate and nervous laughter. I never did, but only because it wasn't socially acceptable, not because it wasn't true. The truth is that, if I was going to prioritize school, I had to de-prioritize something else (many somethings else). The ugly truth is: My house was dirty. Landscaping died. My kids wore jeans pulled out of the dirty clothes pile. Many ponytails were worn. Vending machine dinners occurred. I submitted papers and assignments that weren't my best work. I didn't volunteer for the PTA. And, countless other things I didn't do or didn't do well. I DID prioritize time with my kids and partner, vacations, a social life, sleep, and my health and well-being.

Action Step: Identify the things you feel comfortable lowering your standards on and the things you don't. Build time into your schedule for the things you don't want to compromise on.

8. Emotional Resilience. While I say I prioritized health and well-being, I would be lying if I said completing my Ph.D. didn't negatively affect my emotional well-being. Each semester presented an emotional roller coaster. I did a great job of balancing everything just so, so that life was smooth and manageable most of the time. But, at least twice a semester, something would happen to tip the balance—an illness, an unforeseen problem at work, conflicting schedules, and so forth. Those were the times where the wheels flew off, life became chaotic, and my emotional well-being suffered. During the last two years of my program (after baby number three and once dissertation writing began), I hit my max. I started having panic attacks, which continued for two years until I graduated. Along the way, I also experienced imposter syndrome and feelings of guilt and failure, which negatively affected my emotional well-being throughout. 

Action Step: Identify strategies ahead of time to maintain your well-being and build them into your schedule. Monitor your emotional well-being religiously and act quickly to recorrect. Don't be afraid to ask for help (and more help), slow down, say no, and readjust your plan (multiple times if needed).

Hopefully, this article helps pull back the curtain on the “other side” of those celebratory social media posts. In closing, I will leave you with one final piece of advice: Don't wait for a magical time in the future when you’ll be less busy or more ready. The timing is never going to be perfect. In the Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes, “You cannot do this in the future. You do it now or not at all.”