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Starting a PhD as a Single Parent

Today, I’m hosting Daniel Sherwin with a guest post. Daniel is a single dad raising two children. At, he aims to provide other single dads with information and resources to help them better equip themselves on the journey that is parenthood.

Tell people you’re considering a PhD as a single parent and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. A PhD is a grueling journey under the best of circumstances; add in a child or two and it looks near impossible. But when there’s something you’re passionate about, not doing it simply isn’t an option. So in true single parent fashion, you buckle down, set your eyes on the prize, and find a way to make it happen. If you’re a single parent considering a PhD, this advice will get you started.

Choosing It
Your experience in a PhD program depends heavily on where you work. As you search for the right graduate program for you, look for schools with family-friendly benefits. Depending on the institution, you might find:

  • Paid health insurance
  • Childcare subsidies
  • On-campus family housing
  • A family resource center
  • Online courses

Also consider your advisor’s attitude toward student parents. Does the advisor appreciate that you won’t be able to say yes to every commitment, or does she expect you to be at her beck and call? You have to be selective with your time when juggling grad school and parenthood, and your journey will be a lot easier with an understanding advisor.

Affording It
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average tuition for a PhD program is just over $16,000 — a number that’s well out of reach for the typical single parent. Thankfully, there’s a good chance you won’t pay ticket price for your doctoral program, especially if you’re in the sciences or engineering.

Even if your PhD is fully-funded, you could still be living shockingly close to the poverty line: While some PhD stipends and assistantships hover around $30,000 per year, many barely break $10,000. For most people that’s not enough to cover living expenses, let alone childcare. So how can you make it work?

  • Wait to start your degree until your kids are in school. Without full-time childcare your limited budget will stretch a lot further.
  • Choose a program that offers a research or teaching assistantship that will cover tuition and pay a monthly stipend.
  • If you’re considering a second job, make sure it won’t put your funding at risk.
  • Make use of public assistance. Qualifying for SNAP or Medicaid is harder for students, but single parents with children under the age of 12 qualify if they meet income thresholds, according to the USDA.

Doing It

Once you’ve chosen a program and secured funding, it’s time to figure out how you’re actually going to do it. Pursuing a PhD is very different from working a nine-to-five job. On the plus side, PhD programs have more flexible schedules, which means it’s easier to pick the kids up from school or stay home when someone’s sick. However, it also means there’s no shutting off work at the end of the day, and universities tend to treat grad students like they have no other demands on their time.

As a single parent, you have to raise your kids while also finding time to commit to research. And unlike doing the dishes or folding laundry, you can’t exactly divide attention between studying and childrearing. That means you need to make use of the time your kids aren’t around. Squeeze in reading before the kids wake up, dig in deep during school hours, and schedule play dates when deadlines loom near. Avoid waiting until the kids are in bed to start the day’s work; both parenting and your PhD require your brain to be functioning at maximum capacity, and it can’t do that if you’re sleep-deprived.

Finally, when your kids are at home, commit yourself fully to parenting. No matter how important your PhD work is, you don’t want your children to feel second to it.

Pursuing a PhD as a single parent is by no means easy. There will be days you question your sanity, but there will be just as many where you’re overcome with inspiration and gratitude. Make time to take care of yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and when things get rough, remind yourself of what it’s all for: A brighter future for you and your children.

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