How do they do it?

The toddler had her first ‘full’ day at nursery on Friday. 9.30 til 5.30 – as long as most people’s work days! Usually we stick to occasional 3-5 hour bursts while I use the workspace. My partner was at work – I did nursery drop-off, he did pick-up (in rush hour, unlucky him!). I was a bit nervous for her spending all day away… I shouldn’t have been, of course: she ran off to play when I dropped her off and didn’t seem that fussed when her dad arrived to collect her. I went to uni to use the library and have a supervision meeting. It was great, like being a ‘real’ student again, (or at least how I rose-tint it perhaps) spending a good stretch of time surrounded by books in a quiet library and being able to focus on what was discussed in our meeting – though the gear-change from breakfast and commute with a toddler to high-falutin’ academic discussion is somewhat huge!

It got me thinking about what being a full-time PhD student entails and how others perceive it. I’m not convinced some people take the ‘student’ part of my life very seriously, especially as I often upload/share photos of the time I spend keeping the toddler entertained. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the urge to upload a photo of me reading, writing notes, writing abstracts, sitting in the library!


I’m also unsure of whether I’m ‘doing it right’. Some days I spent little or no time on PhD work. Most of my hours are spent on childcare. We have a set number of hours per month of formal childcare, plus the help of friends and family where possible. Some days when I potentially have some time to myself (nap time/evenings) I just don’t have the energy to do very much.

But then I wonder how full-time PhD students who don’t have caring responsibilities or part-time work organise their time, and I don’t know if I’m really doing so much less. Maybe they have hobbies that occupy some of their time. Maybe they stay up all night and sleep until midday if they want. Maybe they treat it like a job and go to the library for eight hours a day, only to spend most of those on Facebook and fit in a two hour lunch break. Maybe they treat it like a job and go to the library for eight hours a day, and write 2,000 words a day! Maybe they get time for beneficial side projects which enrich their studying – translation, for example, which I would love to pick up again… in a few years. I genuinely don’t know, and there probably isn’t a ‘typical’ PhD student anyway. I’m just always thinking about whether I could be fitting more in, we only have one fairly contented toddler to keep an eye on, after all!


4 thoughts on “How do they do it?

  1. Hmmm…interesting one….my experience of living with a PhD student while I’m still the primary carer for our children is that he doesn’t treat it much like a normal job at all. I fondly hoped he’d go off and spend 9-5 in the library because it would give me a bit of structure, but in practice he gets up very very late (usually in the afternoon), potters, then does a good few hours of reading starting in the evening before going to bed some time in the small hours. I don’t know how many hours a day it is but I do know he has the luxury of exploring avenues in huge depth if something seems interesting to him – he’ll buy a whole book because he saw one interesting line quoted from it, and will then read it all just in case. I think this is pretty different from how you can do it when you have less available time – if I was trying to do a PhD at the moment (ah, one day, one day) I’d have to be much more ruthless about deciding what exactly was worth my time and attention, and being efficient with following up only things I was sure would be helpful. I suppose it’s the same sort of algorithm as you apply to all areas of your life once you’re a mother – a constant balancing of “is this more important than this?” (or, clean socks vs reading another few pages – I’m ashamed to admit what normally wins here).

    • Sounds quite frustrating for you to witness your partner’s approach to be honest! I suppose I’m both the primary caregiver and the PhD student (‘a PhD mum’). It’s a constant juggling act, even arranging the childcare itself falls to me, so I mostly feel like I don’t have enough time or energy to devote to the PhD, but at the same time I don’t want to take any time/energy away from what I spend on my daughter. You’re right that when student/caregiver time isn’t delineated very clearly, household tasks take priority – the ultimate procrastination technique!

  2. I have began as a normal PhD student and worked a lot in my 1st year (organised a conference, been on editorial board for a journal, went to all the workshops, seminars and conference I could manage). Then I bought a rescue horse who needed a lot of time and care in my 2nd year and gave birth to a child in the middle of my 3rd year…
    The curve of progress does not look very promising, right? Still, I did finish my PhD in 4 years, with just 4 months of maternity leave. My son has just turned 2 when I went for my viva this January, and he did not go to a single day of daycare, which was not available in my home country anyway. Daddy helped, grandma did her best, and I worked during the naps and at nights. The thesis was not very bad, at least my supervisors suggested I publish it…
    And, by the way, I worked part- and full-time to pay for the studies all these years. So I guess I did not spend 8 hours at the library…. Sorry…
    Still, I think a PhD is a serious job, only most of it does not happen in the office. You can think about it while taking a shower (formulating a conference abstract or a proposal), read your material while pushing a pram, make notes for a paper plan while your child is exploring an interesting toy. The last one is a bit risky, though.
    At the moment, I have a ‘real job’, 8 hours at the office 3 days of the week. To be honest, I manage to do the ‘real job’ in half that time and devote the rest of it to blogging and academic research, in the hope I will have an academic post next year :).
    I wonder, are there any ‘typical’ students at all?

    • Well done, it sounds like you did a fantastic job getting your thesis done! I suppose at PhD level there are very few ‘typical’ students, though I don’t know any other student parents personally (only virtually!).

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