Ask An Expert

'Is it time to start a family?'

Kirsty E. Bortnik, PhD

A neuropsychology postdoctoral clinical fellow at the Columbia University Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, is mother of a 4-year-old son.

"Being a parent has promoted balance in my life because it has helped me prioritize things appropriately and ensured that my career and work-related pursuits don't overtake all aspects of my life. In reflecting on my experiences, there were several key aspects that helped me manage the rigors of graduate school, internship, and postdoctoral training while being a parent:

  • I think the general timing was key — I had my son toward the end of graduate school when I had completed all my coursework and had already collected data for my dissertation, so I had a bit more flexibility in my schedule because I was in the process of analyzing data and writing up my dissertation when my son was a newborn.

  • I learned very quickly to maximize the time I had for work and research. I set up a work schedule where I would work in two-hour chunks during the day when my son napped as well as for several hours in the evening after he had gone to sleep. My husband cared for our son one morning or one afternoon each weekend while I wrote my dissertation. We also found a reliable babysitter. I also scheduled in dedicated family time when work was strictly off limits.

  • I sought out support and informal resources by reaching out to my friends who were parents and had already navigated the work/life balancing act.

  • Having the support of my spouse has been crucial. Raising a child is a team effort and we've both been able to step in for the other."

Margaret Crosbie-Burnett, PhD

A counseling psychologist who recently retired after 30 years of being a professor, first at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then at the University of Miami in Florida. She was a program director of a master's program and a doctoral program and a department chair at the University of Miami. Her children are 31, 45 and 48.

"The pros: You have a lot more flexibility in managing your time when you are a student as opposed to when you go to work full time. Of course, you have more flexibility in some work roles than in others. If you are nursing, being a student is much easier than going to work while nursing.

"The cons: For women, there is always the issue of being perceived as 'less of a professional' if you bring your baby or child to work once in a while. You may be perceived by some as 'just a mother.' This is outrageous, of course, but it can happen. While times are changing, this is still an issue in many parts of the work world.

"If you are lesbian, bi or trans, that can add another layer of prejudice against you, so you need to be even more careful about where you take employment. If you are a straight man and you take your baby or child to work once in a while, you are 'such a great dad.' The reaction to gay, bi or trans fathers is probably very situation-specific.

"At any time, you need a support system, whether it is your partner, other family or friends."

Alex Foxwell, PhD

Assistant professor, student wellness and counseling at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center/Children's Medical Center, is the mother of a 2-year-old daughter.

"There really is no 'right' time to start a family. You often think to yourself whether grad school, postdoc or maybe early career may be the best time, but the reality is that you have to plan what is best for your family and realize that if you work hard, your career will fall in place as well.

"It is not easy to be a parent while beginning your career, especially as a woman; however, achieving both is definitely possible. I have been fortunate to have a mother and great mentors who find a great balance between the two.

"The one thing that has worked for me is to remember to take some pressure off and realize that I cannot achieve perfection in both, but I can try my best and still be successful."

Diane Logan, PhD

A postdoctoral research fellow in the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Brown University School of Public Health, has two sons, ages 2 and 3.

"In my first year, someone asked, 'When is the best time to have a baby? Grad school? Postdoc? Faculty?' The answer was honest, simple and absolutely true: There is no good time. Ever. But you'll get through it and make the best of it.

"I had my boys in my fifth and sixth years, and still compare the benefits and challenges of starting postdoc with toddlers. There are always ups and down, pros and cons. Just don't get hung up waiting for the 'best' time. The best time is whenever it happens — at least that's what my cognitive biases tell me."

Jesse D. Matthews, PsyD

A private practitioner at The Center for Psychological Services in Paoli and Ardmore, Pa., who also works for a community mental health organization, Holcomb Behavioral Health Systems, in Kennett Square and Exton, Pa. He has three sons, ages 6, 8 and 14.

"Before you decide to have a child, consider where you are in your life and program, constraints and current or potential stressors, and what your goals are — academic, career and life in general.

"I wouldn't rush to do it all during graduate school — finding a committed relationship, getting married or having children, if you can wait. However, if you truly believe you are ready and life can't wait, go ahead. Life can't always be put on hold, but just be sure you and your partner have considered pros and cons of either decision, and have a realistic idea of how things will change. "Having a family in grad school requires sacrifice — for you and your partner, affecting family dinners or events, social activities, finances, sleep, work hours, and possibly your academic and career path. It's a 24/7 balancing act, so give it a lot of thought."

Gerald E. Nissley Jr., PsyD

Program director of the master of arts in counseling program and assistant professor of psychology at East Texas Baptist University, and a clinical psychologist. He is the father of a three-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

"My wife became pregnant with our first child during my postdoctoral fellowship. In this field, you'll always be busy — whether still in school or as a professional. The key is to determine the 'lay of the land' regarding commitment to parenting and academics, the social support system present and whether one is willing to make the sacrifices on both fronts (and other fronts) to have both and do them well. One will have to do that at any stage of their professional development. "

Katherine S. Salamon, PhD

A pediatric pain psychologist at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Her daughter is 10 months old.

"I worried about when to start a family and what it would do to my career. But a wise mentor helped me make the decision to begin our family and I was pregnant at the end of internship into the beginning of postdoctoral fellowship.

"It was hard, but it's about making the career moves that are truly important for advancement and finally being comfortable saying 'no' and putting family first. Since my daughter's birth, I have accepted my first full-time position, have two publications and am licensed in two states."

Donna M. Sandford, PsyD

Earning postdoc hours working as a clinic manager at the Inglewood, Calif., branch of Aegis Medical Systems Inc., a narcotic treatment program. She has a 3-year-old son and is expecting her second child.

"I struggled with this decision during my doctoral program and did a great deal of research on the topic. I even completed my dissertation on this topic, which was titled 'Women's Knowledge about Postponed Motherhood.'

"I had my first baby during my doctoral program, and now I am earning postdoc hours and expecting my second baby in February. It was not easy for me to get pregnant either time. I would advise all women to understand the medical risks of delaying having children, especially infertility and the struggles associated with it. Most women who put off having babies until after age 35 are not making informed decisions about this. This issue is very important to address, as it has become increasingly popular lately to wait to have children until women are in their late 30s and 40s."

Laura A. Schwent Shultz, PsyD

A clinical neuropsychology postdoctoral fellow at the Memphis VA Medical Center, is pregnant with her first child.

"My husband and I were married shortly after I started graduate school, and he had wanted to have children for a long time. But in graduate school, I did not feel 'ready' at all. I worried having a child during graduate school would hinder my ability to graduate. So, we decided not to discuss it again until after I had successfully defended my dissertation.

"We decided to start trying to have a family shortly thereafter. I was 31 at the time and I'm thankful we did start trying then because we struggled with infertility. It took us nearly two years to conceive.

"Even though we had been trying to have a child for quite some time, when I actually saw that first positive pregnancy test, I was nervous, mostly about how my supervisor would react. Now, those fears have been alleviated. When I told my direct supervisors and clinical training director, the news was received with a general sense of excitement and encouragement.

"Since then, I have been able to relax much more and actually enjoy the pregnancy, knowing that my training site intends to work with me to ensure that I can take the maternity leave I need and still meet my professional and training goals."