By Linsey McMillan |

PhDs are hard work. Even when you feel very passionately about your subject and are well supported by colleagues and supervisors, undertaking a research degree can feel like a blind leap of faith. And always looming is the dreaded sense that what you are doing might not be original enough, or that you aren’t doing enough. And what if, on top of those things, you are also trying to raise a child?

Of course, there are many reasons why a person might struggle during the course of their PhD that are entirely unrelated to children or childcare, but it’s my feeling that having a child (or two, three, or more) brings very particular kinds of challenges to the process. In fact, in writing this post, I’ve been interrupted by my spirited three-year-old about a thousand times, spent hours baking, drawing, crafting, and danced around my living room pretending to be various Disney princesses; and all before 11am! In fact, getting any work done with her around is virtually impossible, and balancing research trips, conference attendance, or even networking events with childcare and quality family time can be downright exhausting, if not impossible. With this in mind, I thought I would share some thoughts on balancing being a parent and a PhD…

1. It’s OK to say no

You might not be able to make the talk your supervisor has been raving about all week, or that amazing conference in Paris the week after next, or even the local reading group you promised to help run because your child is sick, or you really don’t want to miss bedtime again tonight. Maybe you haven’t spent real, quality time with your partner this week (or month) and want to go home, order takeaway and settle in for a night of mindless TV with them. Maybe you want to do those things by yourself.

No matter what the reason, remember that you reserve the right to say no to things that your peers or supervisors might be attending. It doesn’t—and here’s the crucial part—make you a bad PhD student. In fact, realising your boundaries and making time for loved ones can actually help you to do your best work.

2. Socialising with your peers might be more difficult, but it’s important to make time to do it

Very soon after starting my PhD, I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to socialise with my peers as often as I might like. I was never going to be able to make the 5pm drinks organised on a whim, or even the Saturday night parties celebrating someone’s return from a long research trip. At first, it felt like I might be destined to go through the programme as a social outcast, as ‘the one they stopped inviting because she never said yes.’ Fairly quickly, however, I came to realise that my peers accepted me despite my incessant absence from quiz night and that even if they couldn’t relate to life with a child, they still wanted to be connected with me socially.

If you find yourself in the same position, put in the effort to make time for your peers. Set up a WhatsApp group, share your experiences, organise coffee dates or invite them to spend time with you and your family. If a reasonable number of you work in the same office or building, make a point of meeting people for lunch at a regular time once or twice a week (or even everyday if you like). No matter how little time you have to give, surrounding yourself with people who know what it’s like to be a PhD student is crucial to your wellbeing, and perhaps even to the development of your research.

3. If you let it, the guilt will overpower you

I don’t know about you, but I tend to carry around a lot of guilt. Guilt about the time I spend away from my daughter, guilt that I can’t spend longer in the archives, guilt that the stress of the PhD might also be having an effect on my partner. Sometimes that guilt drives me to work harder and more efficiently. Other times it makes me feel like a failure. And truly, what use it that to anyone? It certainly isn’t of any use to my three-year-old, who demands my attention and guidance, and it isn’t of use to me when I have deadlines to meet or students to teach.

One method I use to overcome these unhelpful feelings is to make lists; make lists of what you want to achieve, and—even more importantly—make lists of things you have achieved. This can be done on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and might even contain things that appear mundane. While catching up on washing, or organising your work files might not seem noteworthy, when you’re trying to keep all of the plates spinning these things matter!

The truth is, there isn’t a singular approach to managing your research and parenting commitments that works for everyone. It often depends on the level of support you have from those around you, and the type of childcare you have in place. But the exhaustion that you feel, and that sense that you are sometimes swimming against the tide is universal. In moments like that, I find it helpful to remember that everyone’s idea of a successful PhD or a great parent is different; so, set your own markers for measuring your progress.

And lastly, believe it when your friends and loved ones tell you how well you are doing, because you are!


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Linsey McMillan is a History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, researching enslaved health experiences on British Caribbean plantations in the early nineteenth century. She is also a mother to a cheeky, determined three-year-old who loves Disney and making a huge mess. Twitter handle: @LMcMillan90