Martín Benavides is a PhD student in Marine Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill. His research focuses on the variability of coastal shark communities in both time and space. He is also interested in the movement ecology of sharks in estuarine systems. Martín is a proud father of two boys and provides a unique prospective to navigating graduate school with 2 children under the age of 5.
It isn’t often that I have the opportunity to socialize with other graduate students (or other adults for that matter), and when I do, it can be short-lived as the demands of parenting don’t quite allow for the types of conversations most adults are accustomed to, pre-kids. That said, these opportunities do present themselves from time to time and when they do I feel like I almost always generate a sense of incredulity, which is either directly expressed to me or sometimes it’s something I just pick up on. When it is directly expressed to me, I often hear something along the lines of: “I don’t think I could handle having kids while in graduate school.” While I definitely understand the logic behind these statements and am starting to be more and more convinced of it, I feel like I have to begin this discussion by flipping that logic on its head (somewhat) and saying that I don’t think I would be in graduate school right now if it weren’t for having kids. As crazy as that sounds, I don’t think anybody can deny that having kids is a transformative life event and so I hope you will hear me out as I try to convey what grad school life is like with kids. I would also like to give a disclaimer that my kids are toddlers (1 & 3 yo), therefore much of what I say may be specific to that age group, or perhaps having multiple kids.
The first thing I think any parent would say about anything involving kids is it’s just flat out exhausting. I find myself barely able to make it to the kids’ bedtimes without falling asleep and often my wife and I just collapse once the kids are asleep. As much as one might complain about not having a social life, the exhaustion that comes with parenting makes it near physically impossible to maintain healthy relationships, even with your spouse. My wife and I are fortunate to be able to afford having a babysitter look after our kids periodically so that we can get away from the kids and reconnect. We are also fortunate to have family in the same state we live in, to increase these “date nights,” whenever we visit them or they visit us. I realize that some graduate students may not be this fortunate, however even finding ways to maximize opportunities to be without kids for a brief time can be extremely helpful. For example, my wife and I will often plan to discuss things or even just rest together while the kids are napping in the middle of the day.
Somewhat related to the first point, having kids makes it increasingly difficult to maintain the elusive “work-life balance.” Conflicts are inevitable and navigating them can lead to some serious questions about values. While I don’t expect them to be something everyone would agree on, suffice it to say that there will be some occasions where you will be forced to choose between your research and your family and these decisions aren’t easy. Even maintaining a consistent work schedule can be extremely challenging, if not impossible, when you have kids. Fortunately, I live about 5 minutes away from the Institute, which means I am able to ride my bike to/from work and also come home around lunchtime. I generally try to keep a regular ~40 hour work week, however when considering time spent dropping off/picking up at school or extra-curricular activities, significant chunks can be taken out of my work week. This can often encourage spending overtime hours at the Institute, which just feels like it throws me further off balance.
So at this point, I imagine some are wondering how I could possibly see it as inevitable for me to be in graduate school with kids, which is a reasonable question. I would like to answer that by saying that children have an incredible way of moving us as parents to better ourselves. They give our lives purpose and force us to not only behave more like “adults,” but also to persevere in ways we never imagined possible. Having my first child inspired me to pursue my own dreams to become a better role model for him, which led me to apply for a PhD. The challenges of raising multiple kids has prepared me to deal with the difficult challenges during my PhD. I expect the qualities I have gained being a parent will continue to serve me beyond that as well. Last, but certainly not least, the joy of spending time with family, which is a joy that grows with time as family bonds are formed and strengthened, is too great to put into words. It bears mentioning, however, as it provides some genuinely good times in life, but perhaps more importantly related to graduate school, it provides some relief during the hard times.