Balancing Grad School And Motherhood

grad school and motherhood

It’s funny how something you work so hard for can arrive so unceremoniously in your inbox… In fact, I nearly missed it. But, Purdue made it real last night! The registrar confirmed – yes – my diploma is in the mail. I now hold a master’s degree in strategic communications. Cue the happy dancing! If you had told me a few years ago I would be balancing grad school and motherhood, I’d have told you you’re off your rocker. I never planned to pursue an advanced degree in my mid-30s—and certainly not as a working parent. However, I’m sure glad I did! A graduate degree increases your earning potential, opens up new career opportunities, and allows you to invest in an intellectual side of yourself that easily gets buried by mom duties.

Are you thinking of going back to school as a mom? Consider this post your survival guide.

As a mother, you are likely a master multi-tasker already. You got this! A woman who can brush her teeth, dress a child, stop a tantrum, and give instructions to a spouse all at once can certainly handle the rigors of grad school! However, let’s be honest…”doing it all” will challenge you. In fact, grad school is a challenge for the entire family.

Here are 5 sure-fire ways to smooth the process…

Balancing Grad School and Motherhood – 5 Keys to Success


1. Choose Your Program Format Carefully

Before you get started on this journey, you need to be brutally honest with yourself. Don’t allow wishful thinking to cloud your judgement. Think hard about your current situation and what will fit your lifestyle.

  • How much time can you truly allocate for learning?
  • Do you like an online format or crave in-person learning?
  • Can your “mom-life” accommodate a synchronous program?
  • How much support can you expect from family members?
  • What does your child care situation look like?

I would definitely have preferred to do my master’s degree in-person. In fact, I had a few people nudging me in that direction. Why? I feel I learn more efficiently in classroom settings. Plus, many graduate programs offer funding for those willing to serve as teaching assistants. However, for our family, flexibility was the most important factor.

My husband works full-time, while I work part-time (mostly remotely) to stay home with our son. We have no childcare or family members in town. Making it to campus—at a set hour—several times a week was impossible. So I chose Purdue’s online Master of Science in Strategic Communication program. It allowed me to study at home, slipping course work into my day whenever I could. That often meant hitting the books after midnight… and lots of coffee.

balancing grad school and motherhoodMy Dress (Chicwish) | Wedges (Amazon)| Hudson’s Jeans (Bloom)| Similar Boy’s T-Shirt (Old Navy)

2. Ask for Help – and Ask Often!

Don’t try to be a hero and shoulder the entire burden yourself. Balancing grad school and motherhood requires support! Talk openly with your family members about your time needs. If you are married, this is particularly true for your spouse. You need to manage their expectations about what life will look like while you study. Help them understand the demands of your program, so they can help you. Grad school will inevitably disrupt your “normal” routine as a couple.

You can—and probably will—do much of your work when your family is sleeping. However, it’s unrealistic to think you can complete complex projects and research papers without ever getting a babysitter, husband/wife, or other family member to watch your little one from time to time. For instance, my husband and I worked out a system where I’d get a full 8-hour work day to finish the final project for each course. Knowing I could count on that day, really helped take the stress/pressure off completing my program.


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balancing grad school and motherhood

3. Link Your Coursework to Real Life 

Time is always at a premium for moms. Consequently, you want to make sure your coursework is worth your time. It has to be valuable! Can you link class projects to your current job, personal life, or interests? You won’t always be able to do this. But when you can, you will feel much more motivated. It’s easy to feel engaged with the process and material if you can see utility.  You’re basically getting more bang for your buck.

In fact, this is one of the things I loved most about Purdue’s online MS in Communication. The university and faculty members designed much of the coursework to be practical, fitting the students it serves. About 86 percent of my cohort worked full time and 49 percent held managerial roles. From a personal branding course (where I created some of the material featured in this post) to a strategic public relations course (where I analyzed student satisfaction data to craft a PR campaign aimed at increasing student retention), I could actually use the work I created.

balancing grad school and motherhood

Side note: If you have a slender toddler and struggle to find jeans that won’t sag or slip off, Babyface is a brand worth trying. These are the first non-drawstring waist jeans that fit Hudson! Lafayette, Ind. children’s boutique Bloom carries them in-store and online. 

4. Set a Schedule/Don’t Procrastinate

A fairly obvious point, but one that is invaluable for those balancing grad school and motherhood. You will be miserable—and stressed—if you allow yourself to get behind. Since you can’t always predict the demands of mom-life, make sure you control what you can by getting ahead in your work.

I found it helpful to set a reading deadline for myself. I aimed to get my weekly readings done by Monday night at the latest. This way, I could focus on reading during the weekends and allocate the rest of the week to finish up discussion posts or assignments. I also tried to finish all of my papers or final projects the week before they were due. This “pad time” is super important for moms because we never know if/when family life will pull us away from school. Plus, having a full week for last minute edits is wonderful—really reduces the frazzled mama factor! Once you set your schedule, be sure to tell you family about it. Open communication is critical.

5. Find/Create a Dedicated Study Space

My “office” is a tiny desk in the middle of our family room/Hudson’s playroom. The minute mama goes to sit at her computer, little man also heads that direction… He wants to hit the buttons on my keyboard, turn the printer on/off, and rearrange the articles I have carefully ordered and stacked. He’ll sit on my lap and scribble across the journal articles I’m reading. Not exactly a recipe for effective research or writing productivity!

I quickly learned I can’t get anything of importance done in that spot if Hudson is awake. Constant interruptions are the worst, particularly when you’re writing a paper and feeling “in the zone” —with the words/ideas really flowing. So, I would often stay at my work cubicle after hours, taking advantage of the complete quiet and peace.

By slipping away when I needed to, I wound up getting my coursework done more quickly and getting back to my family sooner. It made balancing grad school and motherhood much easier. If you don’t have an office space to utilize, try to set aside some other area in your home with a door you can close. A public library or coffee shop could also serve this function. Mom life comes first, but as a graduate student, you also need an opportunity to focus.

Have you pursued a grad degree with children? Would love to hear your thoughts on completing with sanity intact! Drop a note in the comments below… And feel free to ask me anything if you’re thinking about going back to school!

Do you have tips for juggling it all? 

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