completing your PhD when you have kids

Top tips for completing your PhD when you have kids (from the PhD parent community)

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(Last updated on: 05/04/2020)

Completing your PhD when you have kids can most certainly be a challenge BUT it is not impossible! There are plenty of PhD parents amongst the research community. Yes, it may be difficult to manage your time sometimes. Yes, you will probably be VERY busy. But also- yes- it can be done!

Fortunately I completed my PhD just a few days before my first baby’s arrival into this world- see PhD and pregnant: The race against biology. Whilst surviving a PhD while pregnant certainly has its difficulties, completing your PhD when you have kids is a whole other ball game!

If you are considering completing your PhD when you have kids or if you are already part way through your PhD and are considering starting a family, I recommend that you join a support group. There are a couple of facebook groups that are brilliant- they are a really supportive bunch who are there to offer a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on during the tough moments and will congratulate and appreciate your successes during the highs.

The two groups that I am a member of are PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents and PhD and Early Career Teacher/Researcher Parents. In these Facebook groups I have made friends for life. Some are from other countries and some are from completely different disciplines. But all have been through the same journey- the PhD journey.

It can be difficult to find people who really understand what you are going through whilst you are completing your PhD, because most people have never done it themselves. There are some brilliant books that can REALLY help, like Finish Your Dissertation, Don’t Let It Finish You! and The Research Student’s Guide To Success, though there is nothing quite like having a chat with somebody who has been through what you have.

So, in this vain, I thought it would be helpful to collate a list of tips from the experts themselves-the PhD parents. In this post I will outline 30 tips for completing your PhD when you have kids. All of the following tips listed were provided to me from members of the two Facebook groups that I mentioned earlier- thanks again guys!

Top tips for completing your PhD when you have kids

completing your PhD when you have kids

PhD parent tip #1: Dictate

My top tip is dictate don’t type. You can cuddle / feed baby at the same time. It’s also much quicker to get ideas down.

There are a range of products on the market that can help you to do this. You may wish to invest in voice recorder, such as this Sony ICD-PX370 which can then be plugged into your computer via USB. You may prefer to invest in a whole dictation kit. This dictation and transcription starter kit from Olympus is great as it includes everything you need to undertake your transcription. It will be a bit of a financial outlay at the beginning but it will save you many hours of time (and money if you opt to pay somebody to transcribe) in the future!

PhD parent tip #2: Learn the software

For your transcription you will need adequate software. The most popular amongst the PhD parents was Apple and Dragon.

There was, however, a general consensus that it could be a bit difficult to get your head around this initially. Dragon for Dummies is a great book that walks you through it and will teach you the basics.

PhD parent tip #3: Manage your time wisely

My tip for completing your PhD when you have kids is to manage your time wisely. Work on your PhD from 9 to 5 but remember to dedicate the rest of your time to your family.

Find ways to work effectively. What works for somebody else won’t necessarily work for you, so you will need to find your own ways. Have you read the 4 hour work week? It was a lifesaver for me and helped me to work so much more productively!

PhD parent tip #4: Investigate funding options

The real challenge I’ve found is there being no time at all available for me. No funding to live off, no funding for childcare. I think many of us ended up like this and there feels like no way through it at times.

Depending on your circumstances, the topic of your research and where you live, there may or may not be funding available. Raising children is expensive so I would recommend that you investigate any funding options that might be available to you- every little helps!

You might also be interested in my postHow to Win the Three Minute Thesis Competition

PhD parent tip #5: Make sure that you have suitable conditions

Honestly I wouldn’t do a PhD without suitable conditions. It is a large amount of work and dedication and it requires time and financial security. Especially with kids.

Make sure that you are confident that you are in a secure position to commit to a PhD before you start. If you’re not, it’s likely that you either won’t finish it or that you will be tearing your hair out with worry and stress- which isn’t good for anyone!

PhD parent tip #6: Remember that life can change

Many people start their PhD without children and do not expect to have them during their candidature. Life can change dramatically over the course of several years, or more if you’re part time or need to take a break. Then your choice is to either quit or to make it work.

Remember that life moves on and that things change. You can’t predict what will happen throughout the duration of your research and so there will be times when you need to adapt and go with the flow.

PhD parent tip #7: Focus on family first

Remember that the tough weeks in the 1st yr of a baby’s life pass quickly, so focus on your baby and your health and save writing for the easier moments. That will stop you burning out (for more on how to avoid or manage burnout- this is a great book to read-Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle).

PhD parent tip #8: Use ‘thinking time’

My supervisor gave me a top tip when I started, as within a few weeks I commented that I thought I’d have to withdraw as I could NOT get 8 hours a day while wrangling 3 kids. He said “never underestimate the thinking/processing that you do while you are doing other things like laundry or cooking or driving – that’s all part of the PhD process too”.

Having said that, I am not yet finished and have had 2 x 6 month extensions, so perhaps my advice isn’t that good! At least it’s helped me get this far – considerably further than the first 6 weeks!!

PhD parent tip #9: Take your time

My tip is to remember that it’s ok to take the maximum time allowed, if that’s what you need. Completing your PhD when you have kids might take longer than you expect or there might be bumps in the road.

But remember, every bad day comes to an end.

PhD parent tip #10: Keep notes

Keep notes – your future self will love you for it!

Personally I like to keep notes on an app on my phone, but carrying around a good old fashioned notebook works well too!

PhD parent tip #11: Take time out

Most institutions allow you to interrupt for up to 2 years. Sometimes, when things get too much, a chunk of time away to focus on family and paid work can help to reinspire the research and remind you why you wanted to do it in the first place.

PhD parent tip #12: Don’t stress

My advice is to not stress! Keep calm and remember that if you put the work in, you will get there in the end.

If stress is a problem for you then try exercise, yoga or meditation as these can really help. How to Keep Calm & Carry on: Inspiring Ways to Worry Less & Live a Happier Life is a helpful book in this regard that makes for some great bedtime reading.

PhD parent tip #13: Do short stints

If you don’t have whole or even half days to write – do 20-30 minute stints wherever you can- treat it like pomodoros.

You might also be interested in my post- Should I do a PhD? 5 Reasons for and Against

PhD parent tip #14: Exercise

When you get stuck, walk and think while you walk. Or take a run- I like to run. I find that a bit of exercise helps to rejuvenate me. It helps me to think clearer and to calm my mind. Exercise has become a daily ritual for me after a long day of writing and it really helped.

PhD parent tip #15: Treat your PhD like a job

If possible, treat your PhD like paid employment, not a side hustle. Make sure your partner treats it the same way too, but if you can’t, you can’t. This way you will both take it more seriously and help to regain focus.

PhD parent tip #16: Get the words down

If you’re completing your PhD when you have kids it can be difficult to get words down. But just do it, even crap words can more easily be revised than no words at all.

If you have short blocks try to set a word count sometimes to say I will do x number of words during that time.

PhD parent tip #17: Clarify what your supervisor wants

Before writing each chapter talk to your supervisors and try to get a clear sense of expected structure and style of writing for each chapter (maybe submit a few pages as a draft)- I wasted a lot of time having to completely change the tone and structure of some of my chapters when really they are quite formulaic. It’s a marathon so every baby step counts.

PhD parent tip #18: Use the Pomodoro Technique

I use pomodoro for writing and LOVE it.

It’s super helpful, and allows me to stay on top of everything, and take brain breaks when needed to do other mundane stuff (like formatting references).

I’ve also had to get used to ‘just getting something down on paper’ and make myself not care about the end outcome until I get to the editing stage.

PhD parent tip #19: Differentiate between writing and editing

A game changer for me was learning that writing and editing are two different processes – I used to try and write a perfect end draft up front, which resulted in a lot of unfinished papers.

So now, good enough is good enough, and I can always go back and make it better.

PhD parent tip #20: Use referencing software

My tip would be to purchase reference manager software and use it, such as Endnote. I used to do all of my references manually but Endnote saves me so much time now- and time is precious when you have children at home!

PhD and pregnant

PhD parent tip #21: Soldier on during the tough days

Write every day no matter if it’s only 200 words and when the tough days come, as they will, do lighter tasks like formatting, or title/contents page etc or draft up the skeleton of your next chapter! All worthy jobs when your brain just needs a break!

PhD parent tip #22: Be organised

Be organised. Set yourself targets- big and small. Don’t waste time.

I like to use the calendar on my phone to organise what I will do each day. Because if something is in the calendar then it MUST happen! That’s how my mind works psychologically anyway…

PhD parent tip #23: Don’t always listen to others

Don’t listen to other PhD’s early on, ESPECIALLY if they don’t have children themselves.

People speculate about how ‘hard’ and ‘tiring’ a PhD is. It’s relative though, they have not had kids- they don’t know what tired really means!

You might also be interested in my postHow you can write your PhD faster

PhD parent tip #24: Be assertive

Be damn assertive. Don’t apologise. You need time for your PhD, anything that impinges on that needs shutting down. Don’t take any prisoners (except maybe your children…!).

PhD parent tip #25: Don’t be afraid of failure

Don’t be scared to fail. You will fail little and often. You will spend most of the time feeling like a big failure. You’re not. You just have a big project that you only half-understand and have no way of communicating properly, so to everybody else it may look like a shambles until the very last minute.

Remember that it’s all a journey and it will come together eventually.

PhD parent tip #26: Take a break

Completing your PhD when you have kids can be tiring. Take breaks. Big and small. We all need a break.

PhD parent tip #27: Take a modular approach

Learn how to use heading styles in Word, and break these down into lots of sub-sub-sub-sections. You won’t need them when you’re writing up, but you can do a 200 word sub-sub-sub section while the kids are in softplay and walk away feeling like it’s an achievement. Modular. It leads to a step-by-step style argument.

PhD parent tip #28: Just get on with it

Don’t get sucked into which software will transcribe/write-up/analyse best. Don’t spend hours perfecting each and every sentence. Don’t talk about it- do it!

You’ll waste hours procrastinating if you do these things, just get on with it instead. 

PhD parent tip #29: Value yourself

Value yourself. Whether you self-fund or have funding, the money you bring in is worth more than you’ll ever get back. Culturally too, what you contribute to academia is often more than you’ll ever get back – you may even see your best ideas being nabbed by senior academics. It happens. Juts remember why you’re doing this PhD and value the work that you have done/are doing.

PhD parent tip #30: Make time for ‘deep thinking’

My top tip is to organise uninterrupted deep thinking time for the end stretch of the last 2-3 months or so – that very deep thinking of what it all means doesn’t happen in lots of small chunks of time.

completing your PhD when you have kids

Top tips for completing your PhD when you have kids

Thank you so much to all of the PhD parents who contributed to this post- what a great list of tips! These guys prove that completing your PhD when you have kids CAN be done… and you never know, you might actually enjoy it too!

Do you have any other tips for completing your PhD when you have kids? I’d love to hear them- drop them in the comments box below!

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