Scientific symmetry: Balancing graduate school and family

Can a scientist start a family during graduate school? This is an interesting question to ponder (as I tap the keys on my keyboard while humming the Doogie Howser, M.D. theme song). The biological answer, of course, is “yes.” Contrary to popular opinion, academia and procreation aren’t mutually exclusive. But as a postdoctoral research fellow with a PhD in molecular biology, I know the practical answer isn’t so simple.

During my time in graduate school, my wife and I had three children. There are a million stories I could tell about my experiences that would span several topics. More specifically, I have just as many heartwarming, feel-good stories about what my kids think I do as I do serious stories about what I actually do at the children’s research hospital where I work. But the underlying thread through all these topics is that everything I do eventually comes home with me. This isn’t unique to me as a scientist. Firefighters, police officers, and professionals in all industries regularly balance career and family while sometimes struggling to separate the two along a blurred line. But I would guess that a very small percentage of this population’s kids learn words such as “hemoglobin, myoglobin, morpholino, and transcription” alongside “dada and momma.”

I got married the month before I started my master’s in biology, and for two years I enjoyed having my wife drop me off at the lab on her way to work. During the process of writing my master’s thesis while preparing my defense and applying for doctoral programs, we decided to have a baby. Long story short, I finished and defended my thesis, and my wife, myself, and our baby-to-be packed our bags, moved out of state, and together we began the process of obtaining a PhD in molecular biology.

Looking back, every major milestone of my PhD journey has a memory I associate and share with my wife and our first daughter—and eventually our second daughter and now our son. When I think of my first semester, the first thing I remember is that that’s when we found out we were having a girl! As the months progressed and the baby arrived, I spoke with my advisor and we agreed that I would take a week or so off. This was a summer baby, so no issues with classes. But I probably returned to the lab too soon and put undue pressure on myself to get back to work. In the grand scheme of things, that extra time in the lab really didn’t matter—especially because I quickly became an early riser and the first to arrive at the lab each day, as our daughter didn’t sleep through the night for more than a year. (It never hurts to arrive at work before the boss!)

I was living the life. I enjoyed what I was doing in the lab, I enjoyed coming home to that baby, and she seemed to enjoy me coming home to her, too. Was it a little unconventional to flip through Dr. Seuss books and then minutes later skim through a biochemistry book and watch my daughter’s eyes light up as she saw the beauty of the DNA double helix or some X-ray crystallography for the first time? Maybe. Did I thoroughly enjoy showing her25290701 - portrait of a zebra danio fish my data as I began learning how to perform some rather complex molecular biology techniques? You bet. Did my wife enjoy taking a break each evening while I did so? Absolutely. I must admit, though: I was rather lucky, seeing as though I worked in a zebrafish lab. Because like Dr. Seuss, I literally had red fish and blue fish, and made sure to bring home neat photos for my daughter as often as possible. I treasured that time with her. I distinctly remember rocking her to sleep and just reciting to her things I needed to memorize for class the next morning: Krebs cycle enzymes, steps of transcription and translation. In fact, I liked it so much that when my wife asked me if I was open to having another baby, I really had no reservations.

Baby No. 2 (another girl) arrived during the semester of my qualifying exams. For most graduate students, this is the make-or-break point, and this is when having a family really helped me keep things in perspective. I began to develop much better time-management skills, especially regarding writing. Most scientifically minded people make lists, set goals, and organize them into priorities. The mistake I typically made was always wanting to start the most important task first, which, in principle, makes sense. However, in practice, this isn’t always possible. You simply cannot plan on opening a laptop and doing a literature search at home when you have a 1-year-old starting to walk and a newborn who wants a fresh bottle. As my now 4-year-old would say, “You gotta be kidding me, right?!” Likewise, it’s probably not a great idea to leave a stack of lab reports that need grading lying around when you leave the room, as children, much like scientists, tend to be curious. With proper planning, however, you can start to develop a balance and learn when and where are ideal to do certain tasks. Realistically knowing that it would be nearly impossible to get writing done while at home actually made it easier for me to be efficient when I was at work. Writing your first research proposal is, by design, meant to be a frustrating process that inherently causes procrastination. My other motivator was my wife. You simply cannot go home and continuously complain about your qualifying exams to a woman who is nine months pregnant and expect sympathy!

I passed my qualifying exams, and we proceeded through grad school as a family of four. During the last year of my PhD—you know, the one when your write your dissertation, defend it, and have to travel around the country to interview for a postdoc position—we decided that having two kids was nice, so why not add a third? This set up an interesting equation: my last semester + my wife’s last trimester. Now the pressure was really on. A common misconception is that kids require less time as they grow. This is not the case. I had a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a pregnant wife who all needed my attention while I was trying to wrap up my dissertation. Of course we were thrilled, especially when we found out we were having a boy—and, oh boy, did that make the pregnancy different. My wife experienced much more morning sickness, and we believe our little man was trying out for the football team in her stomach because he literally broke her ribs with a kick. By contrast, my suffering was merely academic.

Everything eventually worked out. I graduated with a PhD and got a job as a postdoc. The key was creating a timetable that my advisor could work with. We set realistic deadlines for each chapter of the dissertation, set up a practice defense and practice job interview, and made it through—together. These final steps were undoubtedly aided by the groundwork of realistic time-management, organization, prioritization, and mutual support I developed with my family.

Having a family isn’t for everyone, nor is going to graduate school—let alone simultaneously. But I decided both were for me, and the take-home message here is that one needn’t prevent the other. It’s all an experiment in balance. Access to cool fish is just a bonus.

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Dr. Drew

Dr. Drew

Dr. Drew obtained his PhD in molecular biology while building a family of 5 with his lovely wife. Dr. Drew is currently expanding his horizons and working as a postdoctoral research fellow where he studies congenital heart defects. In his spare time he enjoys ball room dancing with his wife.