Managing Family and Work: Graduate Student and Mentor Perspectives

Trainee Perspective:

My name is Alison Ermisch and I am a second-year PhD student in the lab of Dr. Jennifer Wood at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The main focus of my research is looking at how obesity and other metabolic dysfunction-induced inflammation affects oocyte and pre-implantation embryo quality. My husband Stephen and I have one son, Ben, who just turned 2. He is the coolest little kid I know. He loves to read books and sing and constantly makes me laugh. We also have another on the way due in March, which will make things even crazier, but even more awesome! Having a young child and starting grad school is definitely a lot to juggle. 

And I have been extremely fortunate to have an amazing support system around me. I would not have made it this far without the tremendous encouragement from my bosses/mentors (special shout out to Dr. Jennifer Wood and Dr. Rebecca Krisher!) who were very understanding and accommodating, and still wanted me to be successful! My lab mates are so willing to help whenever and even babysit from time to time! And my husband is an absolute rock, who uprooted his life to support my dream, inspires me daily, and shoulders the burden whenever things get crazy.I started school when Ben was 5 months old, so trying to find the right balance was a struggle at first, and still is. But despite the challenges, I firmly believe being a mother has made me a more focused and efficient student and researcher. I have had to learn how to be flexible and manage my time to accomplish everything that needs to be done for the day – even if that includes getting everyone ready for the day, studying, writing, carrying out a culture experiment, getting dinner together, doing laundry, and finally putting Ben to sleep! It’s exhausting sometimes, but so rewarding, And it has taught me just how much I am capable of.

I think the biggest thing I want people to know is that it is possible to have a fulfilling career and a family at the same time. Sure, I have to make sacrifices, but I love what I do in the lab and I love getting to come home to my goofy little toddler.  It’s tough some days, but with the right support system to help make it through, it is so worth it. 

Mentor Perspective:

My name is Jennifer Wood and I am a professor at the University of Nebraska.  I have two perspectives to share; one as a parent who had young children while in training and one as a faculty member with a student that has young children.  First, I want to tell you that there is ‘no perfect time’ to have child. You will have challenges whether it occurs during training, as an early career faculty member, or a not so early career faculty member.  As a couple, my husband and I made the decision to have our first child when I was a graduate student. We added to our family when I was a post-doctoral fellow. Much like Alison, I had to make adjustments to my work schedule and learn to be more focused and efficient while doing research.  I had to be flexible as I worked around the needs of my child.  On the flip side, I had a very flexible schedule that afforded me the opportunity to be there whenever my child needed me. It was not easy and extended my graduate program because pregnancy and having a newborn child are exhausting. Actually, having a school aged, teenager, and young adult child is also exhausting but for different reasons. While this seems like a big con, there will be an impact on your productivity no matter what stage of your career. For example, I have some faculty member colleagues who stopped tenure clocks to accommodate having children.

I firmly believe that the reason I was successful as a trainee with children was the support of my mentors.  I had a good relationship with my mentors and they were willing to work with me as changes in my schedule arose. This brings me to my perspective as a faculty member with a student with young children. It is essential that you communicate with your advisor regardless if you already have a child or become pregnant. And the earlier the better. It develops an understanding regarding schedules and expectations. It will also likely relieve any apprehension you may have.  I know I was very nervous to tell my mentors that I was pregnant, but both were very happy for me! 

The last point is regarding life-work balance. Having children is certainly the life part of this balance. However, from my perspective, balance does not mean that you will have 50% life and 50% work every day, week, or month.  Over the course of my career, I discovered that there are times when life is the priority and others when work is the priority. Therefore, your success at both parenthood and research necessitates a good  support system and a good relationship with your mentor. This makes me think of one Notorious RBG quote regarding work-life balance: “You can’t have it all at once. Over my lifespan, I think I have had it all”.  I definitely agree with this statement and would not change anything… I have a wonderful family and career.

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