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How to Choose the Right PhD Program for You - Part II: Family Factors

In 2011, some colleagues and I wanted to see what factors might influence someone's choices for going back for a PhD. Our pilot study found some interesting results and you can read about them in our 2014 published study here.

Among our findings, family and financial factors were major concerns. This is a pretty common concern among most women returning for graduate study, and increasingly for men.

Let's take a look at common questions and concerns around family issues that come up among potential PhD applicants.  Most responses are geared toward individuals returning for full time study and modified for part-time study as needed. These responses also apply to the US context. They may not be relevant outside the US.
My family can't afford for me to quit my job for full time study.

Full time PhD study is at least a 4 year commitment and most PhD students work at least one day a week in their clinical roles while doing so for the extra money. Full time PhD study has a lot of benefits, including;
   1) full tuition paid (no loans!)
   2) a living stipend with modified tax deductions (US states vary on this) that ranges from $1500-
       2200 per month
   3) health insurance for your family (many places even include dental)

Depending on where you live, you might be able to make this work. You'll need to discuss with your family about what it would take for you to do a PhD. It will involve sacrifices, but with a nursing faculty shortage you're pretty much guaranteed a job when you're done.

Here's what your family could afford to benefit from when you're done with the PhD:

  • A flexible schedule largely under your control
  • Most major holidays off
  • Weekend work only if you choose it
  • College tuition benefits for your kids (if you have them)
Bet you didn't know about the last one!  If you're employed by a college or university, many of them have tuition agreements where you get deeply discounted tuition if your kids attend the school where you're employed or a school where they have a cooperative tuition agreement. That benefit can make up for foregoing a few years of saving for a college education while you study.
I really want to go to a program in another part of the country because it's got the right match for my interests, but am not sure I can move my family.

Remember: A PhD is a 4 year commitment. If where you want to study is really a good match, it would be worth the move if you spouse can also get employed in that area. Maybe there's a promotion to be had for the spouse too! There might even be financial benefits from the move if your program is located in a less expensive area of the country.  That will reduce your cost of living while you study.

Another thing to remember is that a lot of nursing education is very regional, but nursing programs need to show a faculty coming from a diverse set of schools. It negatively affects their educational accreditation if all their faculty come from the same school.  Students are also more savvy these days.  They want to see faculty from good programs and lots of different places. That makes you, the person coming from another school outside the area, a lot more attractive as a hire.

Above all else, you can always move back when the degree is done. The sacrifice is worth it in the short term because of the long term benefits.
How do I manage the kids while studying? Won't I always be in the library? What if I want to have a baby (or another one)?

To be clear: I don't have kids (yet). Everything I share with you here comes from advice from friends who have actually done it.

I've had a number of friends have kids for the first or second time while doing a PhD. They say it's actually a good time to do it--as long as your studying full time and not working. Why is it a good time? Scheduling flexibility! During the first 2 years, your course hours time commitment is between 9 and 14 hours per week. Then you might be doing a research internship with a flexible 20h arrangement. Some research advisors may even allow you to work from home, depending on the activity.  In years 3 and 4, it's all about your research and getting it done. That's something you schedule with the advice of your dissertation chair.

Other friends have said that when kids are little, the financial impact is less because they aren't as caught up in the more expensive electronic toys. When they're school age, another friend said she'd always do "homework" together with her kids.

Finally, need child care?  Many universities offer the benefit of on site child care to their employees and graduate students. And heck, you're doing your PhD at a nursing school. You've got a veritable army of babysitters at your disposal.

Most important is to learn to manage your energy so you're able to balance study and family. Doing a PhD is a job. Treat it that way.

Oh yeah, you probably won't spend much time in the library. If you have been to school recently, just about everything is online these days and you can get it from home.


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