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Ph.D. Program + Family + Kids?

  1. May 28, 2009 #1

    Hi folks,

    After spending a few years in the army, I decided to go back to college and finish up my BS in Physics. As of the time of this writing, I've got about a year left before I graduate. I'm looking at different post-graduate options, including grad school (I'd like to get a Ph.D., teach at the university level, and do research -- I'm particularly interested in the experimental, rather than theoretical, side of things), employment, etc.

    Only caveat: I'm 26 and engaged to be married a month after I graduate next year. I'm older than most of my grad student TAs.

    When we get married, I'll be 27 and my soon-to-be wife will be 30. She's got her Masters in Education and is a high school math teacher. As mentioned above, I'd like to get a Ph.D., but need to balance grad school with the realities of family life: while the grad student stipend would help, money would still be tight (but doable) for both of us (as a math teacher, she doesn't get paid enough to be a "sugar mama" and we'd both like to avoid student loans and other debt). We've also discussed having kids in the next few years, which would fall into the time where I'd still be in graduate school.

    I'm finishing up my BS at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and she lives not far from Arizona State University and owns a nice place there, so I'd likely end up going to grad school at ASU unless something great pops up elsewhere.

    Surely I'm not the first person to be in such a position, and so I seek the advice of other members. Is it possible to successfully handle the rigors of graduate school and starting a new family? If so, any advice would be great.

    Option #1
    My initial thought is based on the assumption (deduced from the pamphlets describing an average physics Ph.D. student's course of study found at the UofA's physics department's Academic Support office) that the first two (or so) years of graduate school consists of regularly-scheduled classes, while the remaining time (3-4 years) consists mostly of research.

    Would it be reasonable to assume that the classes are fairly inflexible as to when they're offered, but that research time is considerably more flexible? If so, does it seem reasonable that I would be able to (with the consent of my research advisor) schedule times when I'd be able to be in the lab doing research, so that my wife and I could work out a practical schedule at home to take care of an infant or two (e.g. she teaches in the mornings and early afternoon while I'm at home taking care of the kid and maybe doing some reading/writing, then we switch places and I head off to the lab for a few hours)?

    Assuming that this would be possible, we'd likely hold off on having kids until after the inflexible classes were done and I've have a bit more flexibility in research time.

    Option #2
    The other major option would be for me to find suitable employment that would provide sufficient income (several of the contacts in my web of networking have indicated that medical physics, specifically using radiation to treat cancer, is in high-demand, pays well, and one can often find a position with a BS [though >=MS is preferred]) such that my wife and I could meet the normal household expenses as well as the expenses required to raise small children while being able to put sufficient money away to go to grad school in a few years (and live off the saved money/grad student stipend and the wife's income).

    As mentioned above, I'm sure I'm not the only person to be in such a situation, and seek the advice and recommendations from others.

    I'm willing to put off some of my major goals (doctoral degree, research, teaching, etc.) for a few years if that's what's needed to start my family on the right track, but ultimately I'd like to pursue those goals. Ideally, I'd be able to pursue my goals while raising a family, but family must come first.

    I welcome any input, recommendations, or advice. Many thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. May 28, 2009 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Research time is flexible. It is also usually considerably more than 40 hours per week. You tend to see grad students in their labs at all hours of the day and night. This may influence your planning.
  4. May 28, 2009 #3
    Hmm. That may well be a big deal. I was hoping it might be a bit less, as I would like to see the wife from time to time. :-D

    I generally don't mind coming in on weekends, if that'd help take a couple hours off during the week.

    During the "research" phase of grad school, how much out-of-lab work is there? Reading, writing, etc.? I think I can handle time in the lab and a reasonable amount of reading/writing on my own time, but if it's going to require considerable amounts of out-of-lab time doing lots of heavy work, that might be a concern.
  5. May 28, 2009 #4
    I don't think that anybody can suggest with a straight face that trying to get a Ph.D. and starting a family at the same time is a good idea.

    It's not impossible... but as someone with both a Ph.D. and a son, I have to say that I shudder to think what I would have missed if I had tried to do both at the same time...

    Graduate school will take every available minute of your day. So will a baby.
  6. May 28, 2009 #5
    Good to know.

    What course did you take? Ph.D. and then a baby, or baby then Ph.D.?

    Are there any other options than "grad school" and "work in industry" that I should be aware of? That's all anyone really seems to talk about in the local community.

    Basically, I'd like to learn from others (be it their successes or their mistakes) and avoid what pitfalls I can while still ending up where I (and my family) would like to be.
  7. May 28, 2009 #6


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    I know of multiple graduate students who have children. Obviously it is not ideal to start a family while in graduate school, but people do it and survive. As for cutting into research time, my experience is that grad students have a lot of freedom to come and go as they please. The catch, is that if you're not putting in the time, it takes longer to finish - and most of the time the stipends aren't endless.

    The other point I wanted to weigh in on is that medical physics isn't generally something you can just do with a B.Sc. You might be able to land a job as a QA tech, but to work as an actual medical physicist these days you need the graduate training. The idea that one could work as a medical physicist to earn money to later put oneself through graduate school is backwards.

    That's like saying you're going to use the B.Sc. to get a job working in theoretical cosmology so you can put yourself through graduate school to become a condensed matter physicist.
  8. May 28, 2009 #7
    Understood. Any advice on getting through grad school with a family without going crazy?

    I'm just going off of what I heard from an MD friend of mine who works at the local cancer center. He said that it's uncommon, but not unheard of, for people with B.S.'s to get an entry-level medical physicist position (usually in underserved areas, and often working under the supervision of someone with an M.S) but that a M.S. is almost universally the degree one needs to pursue such a career.

    At this stage, I'm just trying to figure out what are reasonable options, both for the short and long term. As always, I appreciate the input of others here (even though I've not posted before).
  9. May 28, 2009 #8
    Is there any reason why you can't wait a few years after you're married and graduated to have children? I don't see being married and working on a PhD at the same time being too terrible, but throwing children into the mix will be quite tough.

    Also, is there any help to be had from the Army? I don't know much about the programs they offer, but maybe that's worth looking into.

    Further, there is a good chance you won't have to pay for graduate school if you can get a TA/RA. That TA/RA usually comes with a stipend which, while not tremendous, should be decent. You could also supplement this by private tutoring. You could tutor math, physics, and other sciences (at the elementary and middle school level) which will supplement your stipend nicely.

    However, with kids, that income might not be enough.

    From the ASU website (https://webapp.asu.edu/eadvisor/MajorInfo.external?init=false&sp=SASU00&sp=SLAPHYSIPHD&sp=Sgraduate&nopassive=true) [Broken]:

    "Financial support in the form of teaching or research assistantships is contingent upon satisfactory performance in course work, timely completion of the final examination for the degree, and need and availability of such support."

    So I would start by giving them a call.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  10. May 28, 2009 #9

    My (limited) understanding is that the risks of various pregnancy-related complications rise distinctly when the female is older than ~35 years old. Since my fiancee will be well on her way to 31 by the time we're married, this is a concern. Having kids older than 35 is not an impossibility, but we'd like to keep the risks as low as possible.

    Not much help from the army. I wasn't able to finish up my contract due to getting injured (sufficient to earn an honorable discharge, but not requiring any major changes to my lifestyle after I had some surgery from a personal doctor [I really don't trust army docs for major stuff.]), but the army claims that the injury was due to a pre-existing condition (which I disputed but was overruled). My understanding is that I'm not eligible for any assistance from them, though I've contacted the local VA office for more details.

    Additionally, I have a bit of an...er...allergy to filling out the inevitable piles of government paperwork that's required for pestering the army about anything. The university has a veterans office, so that might be a bit less mind-numbing.

    At my current stage of planning (i.e. a very early stage), I'm counting on the TA/RAship to offset tuition and offer a stipend, as the workload and cost of grad school would likely exceed my ability to work a job sufficient to pay expenses and tuition while still having enough time to study. That said, I should definitely give them a call, as ASU's been having a bunch of financial difficulties as of late, and nothing can be assumed.
  11. May 28, 2009 #10

    I did (almost) exactly what you are wanting to do. I got married after my 2nd year of grad school and had my son the summer before I graduated the following spring.

    I would have to say, things worked out very well for me and I thought everything was fairly ideal. One caveat I was on a research fellowship when my son was born so I was making a little more money than the average grad student. That being said, I was able to take (with my adviser's consent) 2 months after my son was born to help my wife and then I worked (was writing my dissertation) from home 3 days a week to watch my son. I was running a bunch of model simulations, so having a baby on my lap on my computer was not too difficult. I thought (late) grad school was an excellent time to have a kid.

    Once you graduate and move on to a post-doc, I feel things are more demanding. There is a lot of pressure to publish and see results as a post-doc since you are trying to set yourself up for a professorship somewhere and need to establish your credibility as an independent researcher. But you learn to work around that. I just had my second child during the end of my first year as a post-doc and my time is a lot less flexible.

    All in all, I would say it is very manageable. I would wait on the kids until after you have finished the first 2 years, since classes and coursework are very inflexible. I cannot imagine having a sick child during exams or something... that would be a lot to deal with.

    Either way, good luck!
  12. May 28, 2009 #11
    My wife had three children while in medical school and was able to maintain a GPA near the top of her class.
    I'm 30 years old and will be completing a second degree in applied mathematics and physics next year and am planning on entering a PhD program (I suppose hoping is a better term until I'm admitted somewhere) upon completion of the program.

    I'm sure you can pull it off. It's frustrating and you'll have to make sacrifices with your time that won't be optimal for your education, but that's life.

    It may be lame, but whenever I have to get up at 4am or stay up past midnight (I have to study when the kids are sleeping for the most part) to study my coursework and I start to get frustrated knowing that my courses would be so much easier if I could devote as much time and energy to studying as I would like, I just try to realize that there are worse things in life than missing sleep to study....eg; try bitching to someone heading off to the steel mill for a 12 hr day that you hate getting up early to study. lol

    Good luck, I wish more of our military would take opportunities for education when they complete their service.
    Last edited: May 28, 2009
  13. May 28, 2009 #12
    Oh, my wife gave birth to our third child DURING my final exams this semester. She was actually pushing while I was supposed to be in a Physics final. And I drove directly from the hospital to my linear Algebra final. lol

    I was still able to pull off A's on all my finals. I prepared as much as I could in the week or two before her delivery and the nurses were nice enough to give me a table and a reading light to study at night while my wife and baby were sleeping during our postpartum stay.
  14. May 28, 2009 #13
    Lots of thoughts:

    While I was in grad school, I knew many physics graduate students who had kids (perhaps because being in the west, we had a higher than average population of Mormons :biggrin:). These students were, however, all male. Some of their wives worked (full or part time) and some of their wives stayed home. In your situation, with two people working (you on a graduate student TA or RA stipend and your wife on a teachers salary), I think you could count on a combined income of about 50k per year, which is probably sufficient, even including possible child-care for the school year if you don't have family nearby to help)... if you live modestly. I knew families who lived on less.

    Note: I think it's probably infinitely easier on a male student to be in this position than a female.... sorry but this is sadly reality. Bearing a child and parenting a child will probably fall more heavily on your wife's shoulders than yours. Research also generally shows that male tenure track faculty members with children actually have stronger rates of tenure than male or female faculty members without children and that female tenure track faculty members with children have lower tenure rates (see http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2009/MJ/Feat/ross.htm" [Broken] in the recent issue of Academe from the AAUP for some backup of this).

    Note: I also do think personally there's something to be said for having a few years as a couple before having children. I'm 33+ and expecting my first child (who will be born when I'm 34).... we waited about 2 years. Of course things do depend a bit on how many kids you want and any possible physical challenges to having children (we didn't have any; I conceived about 4 months after stopping the pill, and we were not giving special effort to conceiving by monitoring dates, temperatures, etc.).

    Adoption is also a possibility that I support strongly and that could be considered later. My husband and I were considering this a bit. (Many children in adoptive situations have special needs, and we also have custody of my two stepsons, one of whom has very involved delays... so we're already experienced in this realm.) An advantage to adoption would be that you could have been guaranteed a certain gender if desired. In our case we REALLY wanted a girl to help balance out the family. (Fortunately we won the 50/50 bet, at least via the two ultrasound predictions thus far -- and anymore ultrasound prediction is pretty accurate!). I will confess however that I am finding the experience of being pregnant pretty fun (I've had an easy pregnancy for sure!).
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  15. May 28, 2009 #14


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    The people that I know who've done it have very understanding spouses and are very good at time managment. I think the key is just to keep your priorities straight and keep your eye on the ball. Supervisors can vary in their understanding about family committments, so one thing you may wish to bring up when chosing a supervisor is that fact that you're going to be balancing your studies with family life.

    Fair enough. But here's the skinny from a medical physics resident: an M.Sc. is more of a minimum standard these days. The ideal is to have a Ph.D. in the field from a CAMPEP-accredited program if you want to be competative for the good jobs. The days of getting in with a B.Sc. have gone the way of the dinosaur.

    One option if you're interested in this route, would be to pursue a master's degree in medical physics, which you could complete in ~ 2 years and then seek an entry-level position somewhere while starting a family.
  16. May 28, 2009 #15
    I did Ph.D. first, then baby. My wife was pregnant during my last semester of grad school.

    I'd agree with what everyone else said about the importance of having an understanding spouse... doing both at the same time is going to be *very* demanding!

    I hate to generalize on my single data point of experience, but my wife was 34 (and I was 30) when our son was born, and I thought that that was actually a good time of life to have a baby. (I can't get too worked up about the increased risk at 35... I admit that I haven't seen the statistics, but that still seems fairly young to me.)

    The danger of putting off grad school is that as time goes on, it seems less and less attractive. I'd suggest jumping in now, and trying to put off the family for a few years... you still have plenty of time there!
  17. May 28, 2009 #16


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    I was one of those Mormom male PhD students with kids, but in the midwest instead of the west. Got married at the end of my first year of grad school and finished up with 3 kids (wife stayed home). We lived on my stipend comfortably and I tutored physics on the side, but officially we were always right at the poverty line. It did not become difficult until the 3rd one was born (4 months before defense) as simultaneously my stipend was reduced considerably so I had to take on an additional side job (beyond tutoring). That, on top of finishing the research and writing the dissertation, was stressful and probably unsustainable for more than about 6 months, but prior to that it was not really difficult. I was able to balance research, writing, wife, and kids fairly well. It can be done, and I felt like having kids added a lot to my satisfaction with life and my pride in my work.

    Bottom line is that there are examples where it is successful and examples where it is not. Advice is not going to get you far on this, you and your wife really need to have an honest self-evaluation and decide what you and your wife's real priorities are and what your capabilities (physical, mental, emotional, and financial) are. If you have the desire and the ability then you will be able to do it happily. If you decide based on what you think your priorities should be or what you wish your abilities were then you will be unhappy.
  18. May 29, 2009 #17
    This is what I saw fiscally too... families with 2 kids and a stay-at home spouse were generally right above the poverty line, but still ok.

    I'd also agree that parenting seems pretty ok with 2 kids... on big family outings there's 1 adult per kid, and for little outings at least there's (usually) 2 hands even if there's only 1 adult (though when the our boys were younger, M would run in one direction when P decided to take off in the opposite)!

    I think 3 kids is tough both fiscally and physically... It was a big decision for my husband and I to be open to the possibility of a #3... and it was largely because our boys are getting pretty mature (M is 10 and the P is 16 -- and even though P's physically + mentally disabled, he's definitely emotionally mature and cooperative, especially when you're calm and everyone's well rested.) So darn it -- we started noticing that toddlers (especially those little girls!) around town were cute.... and I didn't know the boys when they were at that stage (the youngest was 7 when his dad and I got married). But my original thoughts of looking for a tenure-track position are probably now toast...
  19. May 31, 2009 #18

    Dr Transport

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    We had both of our kids when I was in grad school working on my PhD. It was tough, but we made it, I worked at school and was in the reserves. My wife worked full time. because my schedule was more flexible I was the one to stay home with the kids when they were sick and I took them to the doctors etc.....

    I was not the only one in that situation while I was in school, about 50% of the students were married with kids at the time.
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