Changing the Attitude and Culture of Parenthood as Graduate Students

By March 2, 2015

On January 22, 2015, the ASU Graduate Women’s Association hosted a panel, ?Having Children in Graduate School,? which included me. During this panel, we discussed issues regarding parenthood among graduate students. As a mother of three children, I was impressed to hear about the experiences of other graduate students facing similar challenges to me. These concerns are real and widespread. I left that gathering empowered and motivated to bring these important issues to the attention of other higher education institutions and scholars. #GWAGradParent

Just this past week, I explained to academic colleagues that having a family is not a barrier to my progress as a graduate student. Rather, my children are my inspiration and motivation to advance in higher education. People often ask me who the audience of my writing is. First, I always want to write something for my posterity. Then, I think of the many other audiences that I hope to reach with my work. Priorities and values center in such discussions about being a parent during graduate school. Mapping out support networks also feature in this dialogue and the experiences of graduate student parents.

During that panel in January, graduate students posed major questions. ?What is the ASU policy about providing paid maternity leave for graduate assistant mothers and/or fathers? Where can we find out this information and make it known to graduate students and our advisors?? Many students and professors are confused about such policies. Few university staff, if any explain these policies during orientation week in graduate school. One student in the panel audience asked if professors could receive some guidance from the institution about how to advise and work with graduate student parents or those planning families. Other participants in the session also struggled to define their program’s policies about maternity leave, and they were not sure how to learn about them. This information should be shared clearly in meetings such as student orientation.

Hopefully, higher education institutions will be transparent and willing to work with graduate assistants concerning their needs as parents and expectant parents. Students should not have to go out of their way to acquire such basic information. I have been pregnant and had three children while working in higher education. Each time, I felt too nervous to ask my supervisors and institutional representatives about possible support for those in my situation. I did not ask, and so I just figured out other ways to address my needs during pregnancy and after childbirth. I wished that I had at least asked, but I can understand why graduate assistants in my past situations would not due to anxieties and concerns of how they would be perceived in higher education.

Major institutions of higher education also need to offer affordable childcare, family health care plans, and near-campus family housing options for their community of scholars (faculty, staff, and students).

Another important part of the panel discussion was the idea to develop a university-wide graduate student parent support network. This network would involve on-campus baby-sitting and parent chats. Graduate students showed interest in setting up childcare by the hour on campus for graduate student parents who need someone to watch their children for an hour or two while they have a meeting or class. Such a service would be affordable, safe, and trustworthy.

Some participants also expressed a desire to have ?parent chats,? a group or network, which could meet regularly to discuss being in graduate school as a parent and parenting issues and concerns. Several students in the panel audience conveyed how they feel alone as graduate student parents.

Most importantly, what I gained from these conversations and the panel is that graduate student parents can be a great strength to each other. Together, we can affect more change and make our presence visible in higher education. As one panelist emphasized, scholars should not have to choose between having a family or a career. Neither should students have to choose between having a family and seeking higher education. We can work towards achieving this balance, as we voice our support of graduate student parents.

Article filed under Women in the Academy


  1. Great post. I’d note that this besets graduate and post-doc programs in general. If anything, the situation in the sciences are far worse where grad students and postdocs are used as ridiculously cheap labor by the system. Child care problems are but one example of a system that is fundamentally broken.

    Comment by Clark — March 3, 2015 @ 10:49 am

  2. Thanks, Farina.

    Comment by Saskia — March 3, 2015 @ 12:44 pm

  3. “If anything, the situation in the sciences are far worse where grad students and postdocs are used as ridiculously cheap labor by the system.”

    I assure you that the exploitation of graduate student labor is a major problem in the humanities, as well, Clark.

    Comment by Patrick — March 3, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

  4. Medical and dental students run into these issues as well. Maternity leave for female medical students are dealt with on a case by case basis, often resulting in delaying graduation by several months to a year in order for them to make up classes/rotations as needed. Paternity leave is nonexistent – dads just try to schedule lighter months around their wives’ due dates. There is no incentive for institutions to provide dependent health insurance for students, especially with the wider availability of health insurance via government exchanges. Institutions of higher ed are already raising costs of tuition due to decreases in funding. Providing childcare options are not cost effective. Programs having trouble attracting good candidates may choose to offer these incentives, but most programs aren’t having difficulty finding qualified candidates.

    When my husband entered med school the students were told upfront that those with families would have more difficulties meeting the rigorous demands of their training, and that they should adjust academic expectations accordingly.

    Comment by Mary Ann — March 3, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

  5. Thank you for the responses that delve into explaining the real challenges. I think the conversation needs to be taken seriously, and there is great power in the unity and collaboration of graduate students and supporters (academic and non-academic). Let’s start thinking and working through these issues together! The ASU GWA, for example, is organizing a Grad Parent Subcommittee to start addressing these issues/concerns.

    Comment by Farina — March 3, 2015 @ 3:29 pm

  6. Patrick (3), I recognize it’s an universal problem. I think grad students left monitoring equipment all night is a bit more pronounced. Although certainly there are horror stories of professors abusing students by making them do tasks unrelated to their thesis. The other problem is that degrees typically take at minimum 4 – 5 years in the sciences plus often an other 4 – 6 years or postdoc with no real confidence in a related job at the end. Again, I recognize that the job issue is a problem in the humanities too – perhaps more pronounced there. The time issue seems to be somewhat different though. (Although perhaps I’m wrong in that – please correct me if I am)

    In any case the real problem is the entire structure of grad school in the university system. It’s not just problematic on its own terms as a kind of house of cards. It’s also particularly problematic for women due to family issues.

    It’s not clear how to solve these, although there are in some sciences at least movements to change how it is done. (Part of the issue in the sciences is how the NIH and NSF gives grants – perhaps there’s a similar problem in the humanities)

    Comment by Clark — March 3, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

  7. The average time for completion of a PhD in history is 8 years – typically 3-4 years of coursework, and then another 3-4 years researching, writing, revising, and defending the dissertation. If they are lucky, that is followed by a 1-2 year postdoc, or perhaps a couple of stops at different schools on visiting professorships. Very, very few land a tenure track job upon completion of the PhD, and the majority adjunct, teaching several classes (often at multiple schools) for a pittance.

    So yeah, you’re right that the time issue is different. Only in the opposite way that you imagined.

    Comment by Patrick — March 3, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

  8. Great article. In 2008, one of the reasons I chose Virginia Tech instead of Purdue for my PhD was that VT offered six weeks paid maternity leave for graduate students. (Interestingly, they had no formal maternity leave for faculty). I used that leave in 2011, and graduated in 2012. Virginia Tech did not offer any family housing, but my department seemed very supportive.

    While working on a MS at BYU, I was a lab TA. Another TA had a pregnant wife, and her induction/c-section (I can’t recall) ended up being scheduled during the time the guy was supposed to teach a lab. Our BYU professor was mad that the guy couldn’t get the doctors to reschedule the delivery!

    Comment by HokieKate — March 4, 2015 @ 6:04 am

  9. Can we admit that this adversely harms mothers more than fathers? Can we look at how this plays out for Mormon grad students? Can we get MHA to arrange childcare for their conferences?

    Comment by sar — March 4, 2015 @ 11:34 pm

  10. I resonated to this post, Farina. I am still paying off the debt I incurred paying for child care while I completed my master’s degree. Would you believe my tuition wasn’t nearly as costly as my childcare?

    Comment by Barbara — March 5, 2015 @ 10:09 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on News from the Mormon: “Congrats to Chris Blythe!”

David G. on Book Review: Colvin and: “Thanks, Charlotte!”

J Stuart on Book Review: Colvin and: “Can't wait to read the rest of the review in JMH. Thanks, Charlotte!”

Ben S on MHA 2020 Networking Materials: “Thanks for this.”

Th. on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “. Just commenting on your first paragraph: Egad.”

Steve Fleming on A note on the: “No but haven't really looked.”