Earning a PhD while working full-time and supporting children

Author: Beth Holloway, BSME '92, former EAA board member
Since I’ve started working at Purdue, I’ve noticed what seems to me to be an inordinately large number of Purdue alums that also work here. There is something special about working for your alma mater and being able to contribute to enriching experiences for students.

Being constantly engaged with students also makes you think in “student mode” – in terms of semesters, and summers, in a way that you forget about after you’ve been in the corporate world for awhile. Being surrounded by the opportunities to learn new things and expand your thinking sometimes makes you think about going back to school, or at least it did for me. 

I have a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, earned while working full-time, and it has served me well.  I began to wonder if a PhD would be as helpful. Five years ago, Purdue Engineering started a program in Engineering Education – the study of how people become engineers, how to best educate engineering students, how they form their engineering identities, how educators and other impact who becomes an engineer, and more. These ideas appealed to me in a way that learning more about Navier-Stokes and Newtonian fluids did not, and knowing more about those things would help me do a better job in my current position. 

So I talked to my husband, who was with me through my master’s degree, and I talked to my supervisor, who thought that it was a wonderful idea, and I found a faculty member who was willing to be my advisor, and I applied to the PhD program in Engineering Education. I’ve been taking it pretty slow, just 1 or 2 classes a semester, and I haven’t even calculated how long it’s going to take. People ask me quite often how I do it, have a full-time plus job, be a wife and a mom to 9 year old twins, and pursue a doctorate degree. The answer is simple, and complex: take it one day at a time, know your priorities, and have (and use) a support system. 

People talk all the time about work-life balance, as if your life is either balanced or not, as if the image of your life can be represented by a judicial scale with the same weight on either side. But that’s not the way it works for me. First, I have way more than two things that I’m juggling.   In all reality, sometimes my job requires the lion’s share of my focus and attention. Sometimes, it’s my family. And at times, it’s been my studies.  When that happens, the other parts of my life get less. But I always try to keep in mind that it’s my family that really matters, and it’s my job that pays the bills. 

I’ve been really fortunate so far that when I really need to focus on one, another one doesn’t also need my utmost attention right then. The hardest part is knowing whether or not I am doing a good job being a mom. I certainly get feedback (a grade) every time I take a class, and like all employees, I get feedback on my performance at work. But there’s no easy way to get evaluated on the home front. That’s where it is helpful to have a supportive husband. But like anyone who is doing something like this, I don’t have it all figured out, and I’m open to suggestions!