Surviving (and Thriving) as a Parent in Grad School

Not long after I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I began to get the itch to go back to school. The only problem was that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and for some reason my husband wasn’t on board with spending tens of thousands of dollars without a clear purpose!

Seven years and three children later, I’m finally pursuing an advanced degree, and let’s face it, grad school is no walk in the park. We all face our own challenges. As students with children, however, these challenges are a little more challenging.

Obviously there’s no one-size-fits-all technique for completing a graduate degree while parenting. Each student’s situation is unique. For my part, I occasionally do some freelance writing and proofreading, but my main gig is as a homeschool mom of three destructive darling boys who are at home with me 24/7. With some ADHD and autism added to the mix, our world is rarely boring.

As crazy as our house can get, through trial and error I’ve figured out some strategies over the last two semesters that have helped me not only survive grad school but also thrive while I’m at it. The following are all suggestions that have helped me. Feel free to take whatever works for you and make it your own!

Plan when and where you’ll work.

Have you ever heard the saying “Fail to plan and you plan to fail”? Well I don’t know about you, but it’s very true for me. Sure, I might get the important things done, but I’ll be super stressed about it and probably won’t do it well.

For my part, I require my boys to take a quiet time every afternoon. They think it’s an hour long, but it’s really an hour and a half. (Sidenote: I didn’t lie to them. I just never corrected their assumption!) They are in separate rooms, and I’m on the couch. It’s good for them to have time to play or read independently, but let’s be real. This time is for me. 

After taking care of my basic physical needs (power nap, anyone?) I get to work. This is when I get the bulk of my school work done.

I’ll often do some more work after the kids are in bed, but I’m also careful to reserve an evening or two to spend time with my husband. He’s kind of important to me!

Figure out what helps you focus.

Once you figure out when and where you’ll do your school work, figure out what helps you to focus. I like to make sure I have all of my stuff together at the beginning of a study session. I find it very irritating to get up when I just sat down. 

Some of the things I try to remember are my noise canceling headphones, a cup of water or tea, my Chromebook, and lapdesk. I also keep a sweater or blanket on hand in case I get cold.

I’ve also curated a playlist on Spotify called Study Playlist. I know, the originality of the title is astounding. Only soothing and/or inspiring instrumental pieces are allowed on this exclusive list.

Take the time to make a game plan.

Online classes are the best and the worst. I love the flexibility they offer, but they lack the structure that I desperately need. So I create my own. 

At the beginning of each week, before I tackle any course work, I review and write down all readings, lectures, and assignments for the module. It helps me to visually see in one place everything that needs to happen. I also get a small thrill from crossing things off of my list, but that’s a whole other discussion.

Once I have it all in front of me, I break up the work in chunks. I usually focus Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for reading, Thursday for lectures, and assignments on Friday and Saturday. When everything goes according to plan, that leaves me Sunday to rest and be with my family. It sometimes actually happens!

Take care of yourself.

This really should be the most obvious point, but it unfortunately usually takes the back burner. Between children, work, school, and any other responsibilities you’ve taken on, adding one more thing to the list probably doesn’t sound feasible. The reality, however, is that you can’t afford to not take care of yourself.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep to meet your personal needs. Eat foods that nourish your body and don’t just fill up space or give you a dopamine hit. Move your body to keep the blood flowing. And for the love of all that is holy, lay off the coffee! Caffeine doesn’t actually give you energy, it just blocks your brain from receiving the signal that you’re tired. This often leads to us pushing ourselves beyond our limits which makes us even more tired, creating a vicious cycle.

Graduate school is a daunting task for anyone. Whether you’re parenting a newborn or teenagers, working full-time or job hunting, you can figure out a way to make it work.