Starting a Family in Graduate School: Are You Ready?

I was recently interviewed for an article, ‘Is it time to start a family?’, published in the January 2014 issue of GradPSYCH, the magazine for psychology graduate students.  Eight other recent graduates and myself were asked about our experiences with having children while in grad school and what we might recommend for current or future students.  We had a variety of different perspectives.  Here is the link to the article.

With regard to having children while in grad school, I will say that it makes things more difficult.  Of course, I don’t have any experience not having kids while in grad school, but this is how I perceived it.  Our oldest son was 2 when I started my master’s degree, and by the time I finished my doctorate we had three sons, ages 13, 7, and 5.  I did take two years off during grad school, but otherwise plowed through, raising a family, working full-time, and sometimes part-time jobs too.  It wasn’t easy, but it’s just how it was.  Seeing a lot of my classmates, who were unmarried or didn’t yet have kids, who worked only one job or none, totally focusing on grad school, I can only guess that they had it a little easier than I did.  They probably had more time to sleep, to watch TV, to hang out with friends, or to go out and do things than me.  But, on the other side of things I was married to a really wonderful woman and we have three beautiful, healthy children.  I did very well in school and even finished on time.  Sure, it would have been easier to wait, but I wouldn’t trade what I do have for the world.

In the article my main point was that sometimes life can’t wait.  It’s not realistic for everyone to save marriage or having kids until they have graduated and are solidly grounded in their careers.  When you’re becoming a psychologist, this can take 9 years or more.  It’s not realistic that you would focus only on school during that time, ignoring potential relationships,  or telling a partner they will have to wait X number of years until you can get married or start having children.  Despite graduate training, life goes on.

My second point was to make a careful evaluation of your situation.  Think about your relationship and if you’re really ready to take those next steps- marriage, children, or buying a house.  Think about finances, what you’ll have to do to live the quality of life you want or to make ends meet.  Think about the sacrifices you’ll have to make- less sleep, less time for friends and family, less time to do school work, and less time for yourself.  Try to get past the fantasy of getting married or having kids.  Sure, both are wonderful, but there is also a lot of real life in there- and it’s not always easy.  Realistically evaluate where you are, where you’re headed, and what you want out of life.  Think about how demanding your program is and how much time you are already dedicating to school, work, and other responsibilities.  Then, if you’re really ready, go for it.  Or if you decide to wait, do that.  And think about how much you can handle.  Some people tolerate stress and a lot of demands very well, while others just aren’t as resilient.  Make a careful self-assessment and be realistic about what you can or want to handle.

And then there are some people who have a family from day one of grad school.  They may not have the option to wait, but there may still be some decisions to be made- more kids, a bigger house, moving, etc.  Having a family might not be the decision being made, but rather, starting grad school or pursuing a different career.

Whatever your situation or what decide, you have to do what’s right for you- and for your partner or family, if you have one.  Listen to others who might have advice for you- friends, family, mentors, advisors, and so on.  Seek out advice from people who are already in this situation.  Don’t let others make decisions for you, though.  And if you feel pressured to make a decision you don’t feel confident about, talk about it and remember to be assertive.  Let your partner, friends, or family know your concerns or fears.  No one wants to bite off more than they can chew, but it can happen if you’re not careful.  With respect to graduate school, you may be the only one who knows what you’re really dealing with, so take opportunities to let others know.  For example, how long you’ll be there; how much debt you’ll have coming out; how available you might be (physically and mentally); what are your chances of getting opportunities like an internship you need for graduation; what your earning potential may be out of school; and so on.

As an adult it’s always useful to take stock of where you stand before you make any major life change.  It’s also helpful to seek support.  Having a child or starting a graduate program are definitely not exceptions, so keep this in mind.  Good luck!

Dr. Jesse Matthews is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Chester Springs, PA.  He helps people of all ages to address many kinds of issues.  You can view his Psychology Today profile here.  For any questions or to arrange an appointment, please contact him at 610-482-4496 or 

Published by Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a practicing psychologist and director of Matthews Counseling & Coaching, a private practice in Chester Springs, PA. I work with clients 18 and older, and my specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's. Our group works with individuals from tween through older adult, helping them with a variety of life issues. Check out the practice website for information on other clinicians and their services: .

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