Having Children in Graduate School: Making the Decision

By December 5, 2012

In a few days, my advisor will be having her biannual end-of-the-semester party.  There will be the usual accouterments of an academic party: cheese, crackers, wine, a sausage wheel, but there will also be two babies.  Last year, two of my advisor?s students had children.  She?s expecting another one of her students to have a baby this year, and at least one of her previous students also had children in graduate school.  Although her students seem to be particularly fecund, she?s not the only the advisor with pregnant graduate students in my department.  In addition to the two babies already mentioned, four other graduate students had children last year.  There are also two women who entered graduate school with elementary students in tow, and several who had children earlier in their graduate school career.  One of my friends commented to me the other day: ?When I entered graduate school, I thought, ?Cool!  Everyone else is going to be single, too.?  Instead, everyone else is having babies.?

Of course, there are several things that people consider when deciding whether or not to have a child in graduate school:

1.  Health Insurance ? One of the things that I think prompts students to have children at Michigan is our awesome health insurance, which covers all prenatal visits, diagnostic testing, and birth without a copay, deductible, or premium.  After the child is born, they are then added to the student?s health insurance and all of their doctor?s visits are covered free of cost.  These benefits are a result of Michigan?s strong graduate student union, which has ensured through strikes and collective bargaining that every graduate student receives health insurance for free regardless of whether or not they are teaching.  The health insurance also extends into the summer months.

For students at schools where the health insurance coverage isn?t so all encompassing or inexpensive, the cost of medical coverage can be prohibitive.  At Midwestern universities, graduate student stipends tend to hover around $15,000 to $16,000.  At Michigan, we get $18,000.  Low-income students with children receive a childcare benefit to help them cover the cost of daycare.  The childcare subsidy combines with our free health insure to make having a baby feasible.  If a stipend had to cover a baby and medical coverage, it might not be possible to do so.

2.  Work Load and Timing ? One of the difficult things about being a historian with a family is that archival work can require a lot of travel.  Because my dissertation isn?t limited to Utah or a single archive, I have done research in London (3 months), New Haven (a week), Boston (a week), and Salt Lake City (7 months total).  This year, I am adding Honolulu (3 weeks) and Pasadena, CA (2 months) to that list.

I simply can?t imagine doing that much archival research with a baby in tow. Although some graduate students are able to take their spouses with them, others have to leave their spouses behind.  In my program, most graduate students wait to have children until they have finished or almost finished their dissertation research.   This timing allows them to give birth while on fellowship and during dissertation writing ? a time when their schedule is more flexible and accommodating to the needs of childcare.

This decision is also gendered.  Although there are support systems in place for women to work and have children at many universities, many women find that they have greater responsibility for childcare than their husbands.  Having a child, then, can slow down their progress to degree.  As a result, the decision to have children or not can be particularly fraught for women.

3.  Religious Faith/Cultural Expectations ? A lot of people?s decision to have children is influenced by their religious faith and/or cultural expectations.  When I was first planning this post, I asked behind the scenes at JI how people decided to have children or not.  One response that frequently came up was that individuals hadn?t really decided to have children; there had been an expectation that they would start having children soon after they got married and so they did.

Although I didn?t feel pressured to have children right away (thanks to a mother who decided that she would only have two children and had her tubes tied while giving birth to kid 2 to ensure that that?s how it would be and an aunt who was married for 7 years decided to get pregnant), I knew I would have children.  The question was just, ?When??  I think for a lot of graduate students, particularly religious ones, they want and expect to have children.

This desire can be at odds with the expectations of other graduate students.  Although many people in my department are married and have children, there are other people who don?t believe in marriage as an institution and have no plans to have children.  So far, there hasn?t been any tension over these differences in belief but I can imagine some growing.

I have only listed a few decisions that go into deciding whether or not to have children graduate school.  I wonder what the experience of different JIers and readers are.  Why did you decide to have children or not?  Would you change anything about your decision?  How did your university support you?

Article filed under Gender


  1. Having children is disruptive and difficult no matter what stage of life one is in. At least in grad school, schedules are more or less flexible – if you need to work at home and deal with children, no one cares (modulo teaching assignments). Additionally, schedules are often forgiving – if you need to take an extra semester, people understand. Unlike after graduation, where tenure clocks and performance reviews are more formal.
    I had three children by the time I filed, and I’m glad about my choice to have them as a student. I was fortunate to have a very understanding advisor who went out of his way to accommodate me. There are never guarantees in life, but things worked out for us.

    Comment by Bryan Catanzaro — December 5, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

  2. I’m approximately halfway through my PhD program in Durham and just had my first child three months ago (in fact, he is sitting here “helping” me write this). My wife also happens to be just past the midpoint of her master’s. Our decision was based on life goals more than anything. We both wanted children, and I had already asked my wife to wait through two years of seminary, two years of master’s work, and a year of doctoral research. I couldn’t ask her to wait any longer. So far, the flexibility of graduate student scheduling has been helpful, but it is still quite difficult and has undoubtedly affected my productivity.

    Comment by Adamjpowell — December 5, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

  3. I’m trying to remember my department’s demographics. There were a number of us with children, but it wasn’t close to a majority. I was the only one married or who had children in my lab, e.g.

    I would also note that the idea of expectations could be complicated a bit. While some might feel an external expectation, another might see examples of possible life choices. If you haven’t seen people successfully negotiate graduate school with children, one might be disinclined to go that route. I had siblings that had had children in grad school and were very successful, so it was a very viable option for me as we began considering it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 5, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

  4. Like Bryan, my wife and I figured we would be in grad school for a while (that was correct) and that there wouldn’t be a convenient time to have kids so we had kids right away.

    Most of the my fellow grad students that had kids during grad school were men (though that was a small number). The one woman that I can think of took a year leave when she had her baby. So it was definitely more disruptive for her than it was for the men. I can think of one other woman that had a kid but I think she had him before she started (not sure though).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 6, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

  5. Gaaaah…I’m finishing my undergrad now, about to send in grad school applications and my wife is expect the first little one in June. I’m way pumped, but terrified but it will be an adventure.

    Comment by Jace — December 6, 2012 @ 10:13 pm

  6. Jace — First off, congratulations! I’m sure it’s scary right now, but what I’ve heard is that parents tend to be more efficient students than other graduate students, so that what used to take them 6 or 7 hours is now done in three with no loss in quality.

    Adam — Congrats! It’s good to hear about people having children in graduate school and still succeeding at their school work.

    Jonathan, good point about expectations. I think one of the reasons that I feel as though it’s possible for women to have careers and be good parents is that none of the women in my family are stay-at-home moms and several female faculty members have children.

    Bryan, I’ve been told a similar thing — that’s it’s easier to have children in graduate school than as a new, tenure-track faculty member. As a result, many people in my program have them as graduate students rather than waiting. That said, I’ve also been told that having students during coursework or prelims is a mistake and that children are best deferred until research is over.

    Steve, interesting… I’ve noticed that many of the people to have children in my department have been men, but not all. I haven’t noticed the same drop-off in productivity. It’s frowned upon in my program to take a year off and so most new parents – whether male or female – don’t.

    Comment by Amanda — December 7, 2012 @ 10:14 am

  7. I got pregnant at the very very end of my Ph D program and worked in my college for a year or so afterwards. Everyone thought I was crazy. None of the other students in my program had kids or were contemplating it. The culture of the university didn’t really account for the fact that future academics might also want to have families.

    Comment by Nickel — December 26, 2012 @ 2:07 pm


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