Surviving and Thriving in the First Year Out of Graduate School

Robert Holschuh Simmons (University of North Carolina, Greensboro)

Balancing the demands of a new job, a dissertation to complete and defend, a toddler, an infant, a spouse with responsibilities of her own, and home upkeep (all in a new city!) is not an easy task. But it can be done. I found myself in that situation in my first year out of graduate school, and I can happily say that I emerged relatively unscathed. My talk will focus on three main topics: strategies for getting a dissertation (or any major research project) done while also handling one’s other job responsibilities competently; techniques for remaining as productive as possible while also caring for small children; and tips for staying positive when work can seem overwhelming.

Completing a dissertation while also teaching a full schedule requires resourcefulness, discipline, and the ability to withstand sleep deprivation. The first strategy for getting a million tasks done is to delegate as many of them as possible to someone else. The alphabetizing, three-hole punching, duplicating, and library running that student workers do can be the difference between surviving and floundering. The next key is to cut non-essential activities to a minimum—leisure activities have to be reduced to only those without which a person could not imagine living. Even essential activities have to be prioritized and scheduled so that the most demanding duties are reserved for times of day when one is at one’s mentally sharpest. Finally, one needs to learn how to stay up and keep working long after it is no longer healthy to do so.

Dedicating large amounts of time each week to tending to small children and handling household duties while still being a functioning professional calls for many of the same approaches laid out in the previous paragraph. There is one main additional provision, though: as many moments of the children’s waking hours as possible should also be used to accomplish other objectives. Such objectives can almost never be academic. But if a parent/professor can wash dishes, do laundry, cook, run errands, etc. while the tots are awake, the tots’ sleeping hours can be dedicated to teaching, research, and service. The rule has to be never to do something while the kids are asleep that could be done while they are awake.

Finally, while the string of tasks that a professor with small children and a major research project has can seem unending, it is essential to remain positive, and for good reason. A large proportion of what a professor does is stimulating, satisfying, or both; this sets our job apart from the large majority of occupations. The only problem with this career is that it can occupy more time than we might like. In this respect, though, it is no different from many professions. Parenting small children, while at times tedious and unpleasant, can also be enormously gratifying. Those who are privileged enough to be both a professor and a parent need to remember how fortunate they are to be in these roles. In short, it is possible to finish a dissertation, care for small children, and support a spouse’s endeavors while managing a new job. These duties will not all be handled flawlessly, but part of balancing these tasks is learning to accept that “good enough” is sometimes an adequate standard. Most importantly, while these diverse responsibilities are not always comfortable, we don’t have to let those around us know that they aren’t.

This site is maintained by Samuel J. Huskey ( | ©2008 CAMWS