Higher Education

Shattering the myth: Raising kids is a stumbling block to pursuing a PhD

Lessons I have learned while working towards my PhD with three young children

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Bushra Jamil in the lab at Comsats Institute of Information Technology in Islamabad, Pakistan, where she is pursuing a PhD in nanobiotechnology and microbiologyThe decision to pursue a PhD in science with three little kids was of course a difficult one. When I began my PhD program two years ago, my oldest child was 3 and my youngest just 2 months.

Nonetheless, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Many of us are not audacious enough to take initiative after having kids. We assume that children will be a stumbling block on our way to excel.

However, for many people, children and higher studies are quite manageable simultaneously, though the journey will require more effort, persistence and management. One of the most common reasons people remain reluctant is they believe it would be extremely incommodious. It's very important for us to challenge that perception.

In Pakistan, where gender discrepancy and patriarchal values breathe in every segment – where females are supposed to perform domestic chores even if they are working or pursuing studies – the challenge can be even greater. While married life can be quite demanding, however, being a single mother would be pretty disconcerting as there is low acceptance of single motherhood and single females in general in this society.

Still, despite all odds, the pursuit of higher studies, while simultaneously maintaining a balanced family life, seems viable for many women. Here, I will share my personal experience and some lessons I have learned.

First of all, what actually prompted me to go for higher studies? It was none other than a realization that despite all efforts, I was not meeting the expectations of my in-laws as a sought-after bahu (daughter in-law) for a host of reasons. This realization deepened when I was taunted for my slipshod management of household chores despite all sincere efforts.

Here I realized that for my whole life, I would be judged by standards of societal norms, many of them defined under the influence of a semi-literate and tribal culture.

So I thought to venture into an arena where I can excel and display my real talents.

Still, thinking of how unmanageable it could be to pursue studies with kids was unnerving, and it took me five years to take this initiative. However, after tasting its real joy, I regret the time I had wasted in dilly-dallying. So my personal experience ultimately convinced me of the viability of higher studies, particularly if one has the positive mind to contribute something meaningful to his family and society as well.

Moreover, research also suggests that working women are less vulnerable to depression. Similarly, achieving a career goal and contributing to household income also gives them a sense of empowerment and confidence which some stay-home mums may lack.

Here are the most important things I learned.

Evaluate the options: maids or babysitters vs. daycare centers

Bushra Jamil's children (left to right): Muhammad Hassaan Sarmad, Muhammad Talha Hassan and Fatima SirajAfter deciding to pursue a PhD, the first thing I had to work out was how my children would be looked after in my absence. I had two choices; one, to put them in a day care center, and second, to arrange a maid to stay at home with them.

In considering options for day care centers, I thoroughly evaluated their location, fee structure, pick-up and drop-off options, timing as it would relate to my on-campus engagements and, of course, quality of service. Ultimately, I chucked this option as it was really inopportune to displace a two months old baby keeping in mind weather adversity too.

Ultimately I settled for arranging a maid for my kids at home. Luckily, the amount I would have paid a day care center turned out to be sufficient for the monthly salary of a maid. Most importantly, by managing kids at home, my workload got curtailed to almost half as then I was not displacing my youngest one, as maid was there to look after my infant in my absence and was performing domestic chores too.

Likewise, I was not worried about who would attend to my other two children after school. Fortunately, the availability and affordability of maids was one of the biggest advantages of the Pakistani environment. In fact, here even the average household, employs domestic help of some sort, and with a slight increase in salary, one can promote a babysitter to a full-time servant who is responsible for household chores as well as taking care of your children.

Kids are not an encumbrance; they are the best part of a PhD.

Believe me, kids are not a liability; they have turned out to be my asset, rocking my PhD assignments with them. As a PhD program can be long and very tedious at times, so children are like zephyr in this journey, their smiles and hugs like a panacea. At the end of the day, they act as an anodyne.

Persistence pays.

Nothing in this world can be a substitute for persistence. Persistency has remained the key to my success in all my PhD assignments. Indubitably, a PhD being a long-term project demands it at the highest level. Once you have decided to pursue it, stick to it. Don't let it go while dealing with the trivial daily problems of life. Problems are the part of life you should learn to overcome.

Safeguard against negative people.

Studies with kids made me more conscious of my time management and also taught me a good lesson: Negative people either in family or society are not only the source of demotivation but also veritable time-killers. The best plan is to keep busy. Negative people exude negativity, and your whole energy will be consumed by nullifying their negativity or arguing with them, so please distance yourself and save your precious time.

Pursuing a PhD is far better than doing a job.

It's easier to raise children while pursuing a PhD that while working a typical job. PhD hours tend to be flexible, giving you more space to adjust your activities. In most jobs, you are required to follow a rigid schedule – no excuses. In a PhD program, you have more flexibility to adjust your schedule. Even during coursework, you can opt for those classes that suit your timetable. For me, pursuing a PhD turned out to be a passionate hobby, so I personally felt revitalized when I stepped into this world. The sense of doing something creative was itself highly rejuvenating.

Raising children teaches you to avoid procrastination.

For me, having kids had several benefits. I don't allow myself to be consumed with minor crises and daily drama. It has also dissuaded me from spending hours in chatting about random topics or gossiping. Studies with kids keep you focused on learning, and you get your work done in a limited amount of time.  

It makes you punctual.

Punctuality always put me in good stead and brought discipline to my life. When you have to manage many things simultaneously, nothing can be more rewarding than punctuality. It takes away unnecessary troubles and languor. That is exactly what punctuality is all about, and I personally feel more punctual after venturing into a PhD program while having three little kids. So it has made me realize that when you get up in time and do things at the appointed time, only then will the situation be under good control.

Happy married life is a bulwark against the odds.

"Being married is the nicest thing to be." A positive and healthy marriage will safeguard you against many odds and troubles of life. It provides an environment that is devoid of despondency, deprivation and apprehensions. A good, supportive husband can make your PhD journey wonderful by decorating it with glorious memories. Of course, married life is not always a bed of roses, and at times one feel more burdened by having the responsibility of another adult child – but no doubt it's a blessing.

Don't feel guilty for not being a best mum.

At times, I have felt like failure on both fronts. But when I observed around me, I found the children of working mothers are often more confident and more perceptive. Some psychologists also believe that working mothers are more affectionate with their children, perhaps because they want to make up for the time they spend at work. Truly, it's all the quality time you spend with your child, not the quantity. At times you will feel that your kids are being neglected, but nature gives you lessons at that point; birds leave their nestlings in the nest when there is no one to take care of them but they have to. Otherwise, the nestlings will die of hunger. Likewise, the sacrifice of mums will be a matter of pride for the progeny when they will see their mums with doctoral degrees and contributing something valuable to the family and society at large.

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Elsevier Connect Contributor

Bushra JamilBushra Jamil is pursuing her PhD in Nanobiotechnology and Microbiology at Comsats Institute of Information Technology (CIIT), Islamabad Campus, in Pakistan. Previously, she earned her pharmacy degree from the University of the Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan, and later completed her M.Phil in Microbiology at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

She has more than seven years of practical work experience in various disciplines of pharmacy and has taught at the university level. Her scientific interests include microbiology, antibiotic production, and designing pharmaceutical dosage forms and drug delivery systems. She is particularly interested in nano-delivery of antibiotics as a tool to combat antimicrobial resistance, which is her primary PhD research topic.

She lives with her husband and three children in Islamabad.

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