Ds Scholarship

Challenges of balancing grad school and career with family needs (opinion)

Making decisions about your graduate study and research, along with choosing your career path following a graduate degree, is part of a complicated and rarely straightforward process. But some graduate students and postdoctoral researchers have additional compelling concerns related to their families—whether they involve parents, siblings, their own children or an extended network of relatives—that bring related expectations and pressures to the personal and professional decision-making process. As graduate school deans, we realize these considerations are not widely discussed, and we wanted to share our perspective and thoughts.

Making choices as a graduate student trying to balance your own desires with family responsibilities can invoke feelings of confusion, anxiety and guilt. Family factors that affect graduate students’ decision making can be related to many things, but they often concern geography: choosing to move away from family (or not) and perhaps being the first to make that kind of move, or deciding to study or live in an area with resources that affect your family’s well-being—like schools, affordable health benefits, childcare options, housing or job opportunities for a spouse. Decisions that focus on family may also be firmly rooted in finance: selecting an institution that offers the highest or stipend support for graduate study, or pursuing a high-financial-reward career path in order to be able to support an extended family.

A multitude of situations and reasons can arise, which all center on putting others—not just yourself—into the decision-making process. We have no easy answers but hope that sharing our personal experiences will show graduate students that there are advisors and mentors who understand family factors and can refer you to institutional, community or national resources as well as provide one-on-one support.

Arnaldo’s Experience

In 2002, I decided to move miles away from my family in Puerto Rico to continue my education and training as a scientist. Being the first in my family to take this route was not easy. Feelings of uncertainty and the inevitable self-imposed pressure to not disappoint those I left behind were vividly present as I navigated an unknown path, always with the hope that one day I would return home.

As I continued my training and moved on in my career, the guilt of having left my parents and siblings grew more robust. In addition, the fear of something happening to them while I was too far away to offer immediate help almost pushed me to stop my work many times. During every missed birthday and holiday celebration, the question in my mind was always: Is this worth it? When situations beyond my control, such as natural disasters and family losses, appeared to be on the way, I felt frustrated and many times thought about dropping out and returning home—or, at least, moving closer.

During the aftermath of Hurricane María in 2017, the guilt reached a new high, and I felt powerless, frustrated and selfish for not living with my family through the challenges they were facing. I still remember a specific moment in the aftermath of the hurricane: I was on the phone with my mom when we lost the phone signal, and I didn’t hear back from my family for almost two months. To better manage the situation, I reached out to my network and partnered with other people to advocate for initiatives to help our community. Those actions, in many ways, helped me feel I was at least doing something to contribute.

That experience reinforced a lesson I have learned throughout my career: the importance of building a diverse network for both personal and professional support. Engaging with individuals from around the world helped me realize that I was not the only person experiencing these feelings and understand that building a community brings value to our lives and positively impacts our training and success. I continue to be intentional about finding ways to remain connected with my background by engaging in professional organizations, cultural events and social networks.

It’s been almost 14 years since I graduated and became the first person in my family to earn a doctorate. So much has happened since then, both personally and professionally, and I know my parents and siblings are proud of everything I’ve accomplished. I have accepted that my feelings about being apart from them will never completely disappear, but allowing those emotions to control my journey is not an option. That said, the guilt of being away hasn’t faded. It feels like I’ve never been able to fully embrace and celebrate all the accomplishments I’ve had so far in my career.

Now, as a parent of two, a new set of feelings has emerged. As someone raised close to my grandparents and extended family, I feel at fault for keeping my children from experiencing those crucial relationships. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic has only exacerbated those feelings.

Natalie’s Experience

During the weeks leading up to publication of this article, I have been faced with the sudden rapid illness and death of my father. With a mother who was seriously ill at the same time, it necessitated a significant time away from work for me to care for family and family matters.

And as any of you know who have faced similar circumstances, it doesn’t end there. The next year is going to be challenging and overwhelming. I am constantly worrying about the future for my family, while simultaneously feeling fortunate that my job provides flexibility to manage my work-life balance during this difficult time in ways that help me maintain my own personal health and well-being. I am also aware I should be careful in making professional moves or taking on any new responsibilities because of what I will need to manage in my personal life.

My parents taught me to work hard and promoted the value of education for all their four children (I am the oldest). They sacrificed a lot for me to be able to attend a private university for my undergraduate degree. So of responsibility for my parents, especially feelings as I have gotten older and their health has declined, have always competed with my wanting to be successful in my education and career. I know that their future and mine are intertwined. Just as I know how proud my parents are of all I have accomplished, I am proud that I have been able to provide for them and others in my family, and I would sacrifice anything for them, as they often did for me.

My CV or LinkedIn profile shows a progression of responsibility and success, but I know that behind many of those career moves are family factors—for example, choosing to be in Texas when I returned to the United States after my undertaking Ph.D. overseas so I could be close to a sibling raising children on her own. Earlier in my career, I was able to make some choices just for me, but as I’ve grown older, the choices always include others in my family.

I encourage you, as graduate students, to have conversations with mentors, colleagues and especially with alumni about why they made the career choices they did. You might learn that you are not alone and perhaps even find a new mentor to add to your support circle. Finding others who have struggled with conflicting responsibilities can help us see the different paths that are available. And it has always made me feel less alone to know there are others undertaking a similar balancing act.

Final Thoughts

While the two of us have commented on our own experiences with how family factors affected our career thinking, we know our stories by no means encompassing the many ways family concerns can impact graduate students. The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges of being away from family for months or even years, and we recognize that international students and scholars experience this all the time.

We queried our Twitter network While in the process of writing this article and found so many people in our networks who shared similar stories about the impact of family in their education and career journeys. Giving and getting support is one of the most important aspects of community, so we encourage you to find—whether in person when possible, virtually or even through social media—a community of support in your institution, graduate school or neighborhood.

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