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Careers Café

When career planning meets family planning

Liz Koblyk describes how one female academic managed to have children while completing her PhD.


Career planning isn’t always just career planning. Completing grad studies and launching a career often seem to coincide with planning or launching a family.

The challenge of trying to figure out whether to privilege family or career goals was raised by academic mothers I interviewed for an upcoming UA print article. The interviewees shared with me far more information than would fit in that 750-word article.

One of those interviewees is Dr. Tracy Penny Light, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. She has two children, two years apart in age. The first was born the month she started her PhD, which didn’t exactly set her on the fast track to completing her degree and starting her academic job search.

That said, she did finish her degree and land a professorship, while raising young children with her spouse. Here’s her story.

Timing matters

Because Dr. Light gave birth almost immediately after starting her PhD, she didn’t qualify for mat leave. Instead, she took one term off, but would have had more time, had she been eligible for parental leave.

Money matters

Because of that term off, Dr. Light didn’t have grades available when funding applications were due. So, time and money became mutually compounding concerns. As she states, “When you have kids, there are extra expenses, and as a graduate student, you don’t make a tonne of money.” With external funding and mat leave financial support unavailable, Dr. Light took an unconventional approach to financing and scheduling her studies: “When my TA support ran out, I worked full-time for four years” in university administration, and switched to part-time PhD studies. While this led to late-night writing sessions, it also led to financial stability.

The roadblocks she ran into — no mat leave, no early external funding, part-time studies alongside full-time work — might suggest that families and academic careers are oil and water. But Dr. Light feels that having children early in her graduate studies was useful in the long run. As she points out, “When you’re in a tenure track position, you’re on the clock to get certain things done. If you’ve just had a baby, it can be much more constraining” than if your children are older.

Much as having a child one month into doctoral studies might seem like a career derailer, it meant that Dr. Light could spend those crucial pre-tenure years preparing her application package rather than battling chronic sleep deprivation.

While Dr. Light’s story might come with the sort of fine print you’d expect on a weight loss commercial (“results may be atypical”!), it also offers widely applicable suggestions:

  • Timing matters — but even seemingly awkward timing can be turned to your advantage
  • Be willing to explore alternate funding methods for grad school

Her final words speak to needed changes in workplace culture: “For men and women, we need to be more accepting of the fact that parenting duties aren’t an excuse,” but a legitimate part of the lives of working parents.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. Emma Varley / March 15, 2012 at 05:36

    I am the mother of four and had three of my children while pursuing graduate studies – one during my MA and two during my PhD. It’s important to emphasize that having children does not necessarily mean that you will fall behind in your studies or professional development. In my own experience, I was able to continue my studies and post-doctoral research thanks to the support and encouragement of my family, supervisors, other faculty members and, as importantly, fellow students and colleagues.

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