Proving the Skeptics Wrong: Insights for Grad School Moms

A Mom and Student

A blog post by PhD in Education for Social Justice Ambassador Kelly Leon

I distinctly remember the reactions from my friends and coworkers when I told them I was starting a PhD program. Some congratulated me for my decision, most were supportive and encouraging, but there were more than a few friends and relatives who seemed to question if this was the right time for such a bold decision. I was fifteen years into a career in education, had been instructing courses at a local university, and was, what most people would call, busy. My two oldest step-daughters were in middle and high school and my two youngest daughters were four and six. I had no plans to stop working (that wasn’t really an option!), so I prepared myself for 4+ years of sacrifices. 

Photo of Kelly Leon

Now in my second year of the PhD in Education for Social Justice program, there is no denying that I have missed out on many things I was able to previously fit-in to my life. Along with my four daughters, the initial skeptics have remained front and center in my mind as a source of inspiration as I have figured out how to stay working, be “mom,” and do justice to grad school. Another source of inspiration is knowing I am not the only one trying to balance all of these responsibilities. While it is evident that there are some extraordinary fathers in my cohort who undoubtedly also make sacrifices, research shows that in most heterosexual partnerships, women still pick up more of the unpaid work at home than men. Watching grad school moms go above and beyond even the minimum program requirements by taking on research assistantships, volunteering their time on faculty projects, and/or involving themselves in forms of activism is truly awesome. Given this, I went on a mission to figure out how some of the women in my cohort were finding ways to balance their obligations, raise (and enjoy) their children, and thrive in the program. Here are some insights and suggestions for grad school moms:  

  • Manage your time wisely. Every one of my colleagues mentioned this as critical for their success. One mom braids her daughter’s hair on Sundays to save time during the busier school week. Other moms drag their iPads and/or binders of readings to sports practices and music lessons. Most of us figure out how to use school breaks to advance in other areas of our lives, professional or otherwise, as this allows more time for coursework during the school year. We all seem to follow rigid schedules, plan out our weeks in advance, and we either get up early or stay up late while the kids are asleep.
  • Rely on your village. Some of us are luckier than others to have older children, partners, or extended family around to help. Definitely lean on your cohort (and other moms!); they will be essential for helping you get through. 
  • Encourage your kids to be responsible. Helping your kids learn to take responsibility for themselves and their schoolwork will help you and them.
  • Be present; really present for the time you do have with your family. Kids seem to notice when you are only half-there, so make the time together count.
  • Forgive yourself. There doesn’t seem to be any one formula for success (just do a Google search!). You will likely feel you are failing at something, but you will also find a way to balance and prioritize.  

Remind yourself why you are doing this and how your kid(s) benefit from seeing their mom set and strive for such an ambitious goal. It is possible to be a mom, work, and earn a doctoral degree.  Remember the skeptics and prove them wrong. 

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