New baby + diss defense, can this math work?
May 28, 2013 10:09 AM   Subscribe

Wrapping up a pregnancy and a dissertation at the same time. Given the inherent badness of this idea, when is the least ill-advised time to schedule my defense?

My second child is due in a few months… which is also about the time when, in the organic flow of things, I would finish writing and revising my (humanities) dissertation. I know that the ideal would be to defend before I give birth; but the norm of my program is to submit the completed dissertation ~1month before the defense date. That means, if I allow a minimal three-week safety buffer before the due-date (and defending at 37 weeks is still cutting things awfully close), that still I’d be trying to crunch so as to finish writing a full 7 weeks ahead of schedule. This option is not absolutely unthinkable, but at this point it falls in the “Nearly Suicidally Impossible” range, particularly with job-market stuff to accomplish as well.

So: the other option is to submit the diss just before the birth of the baby, and to plan on defending soon afterwards. My question for the more experienced, then: just how soon might this be psychologically feasible? I would think 4 weeks post-baby should be the minimum: every week thereafter would make me (with luck) more stable and marginally less sleep-deprived, but also farther from the actual work I’ve done on the dissertation, and thus less capable of defending it. The past defenses I’ve been to didn’t seem overly grueling; but then, of course, I wasn’t the one defending. It’s also been long enough since my first kid that I’ve largely blocked out the stresses of the first months, so I don’t have a great sense of how much of a basketcase I’ll be, and for how long.

Other possible considerations:
--It’s a very good grad program. Thus, while I know the defense is supposed to be a formality, I am fairly anxious about what might happen if I defend poorly. On the other hand, I am also extremely anxious about what might happen if I half-ass the final stages of the dissertation in an effort to make an early defense happen pre-baby.

--I will be primary caretaker for both kids after the birth, but I do have a partner with a flexible 4-day-a-week schedule, plus some family help nearby. So I’m not immediately concerned about getting enough rest the night before the defense or finding someone to watch the baby the day of, etc.

My advisors (while wonderful) are all single, childless men. I haven’t announced the pregnancy yet, and I already feel othered enough having to walk in all bloated and talk to them about birthin’ babies, so I expect only very limited opportunities for useful dialogue and advice from them about this timing. I suspect my best political bet is probably going to be to figure out an acceptable schedule on my own, then propose it as something I can confidently make happen, reproductive considerations be damned. How should I go about thinking through this timing? And does anyone have advice on other important factors I might be missing?
posted by anonymous to Education (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Tell them. I am confident suitable arrangements can be made.
posted by BenPens at 10:13 AM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

My advisors (while wonderful) are all single, childless men.

Does this mean that they are incapable of empathy or understanding?

If nothing else, I suspect they wouldn't want to end up featured in The Chronicle as the advisors who prevented a pregnant woman from defending her dissertation.

Seconding BenPens's advice.
posted by jingzuo at 10:28 AM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

It’s also been long enough since my first kid that I’ve largely blocked out the stresses of the first months, so I don’t have a great sense of how much of a basketcase I’ll be, and for how long.

You might ask your partner to be painfully honest about your mental state just after your first baby. If he or she understands the demands defending your dissertation will place on you, they might be a good resource.

My advisors (while wonderful) are all single, childless men.

I was a single, childless man once. I like to think I was as accommodating as humanly possible to my pregnant co-workers and colleagues. I know it might not be pleasant to talk to your supervisors about intimate private matters, sometimes you have to do it because doing so is in everybody's best interest. You don't think they want you to give anything less than the best possible defense, do you?
posted by Rock Steady at 10:33 AM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

My thesis advisor was only just recently not pregnant when I gave my defense, brought the baby into the room during it, and started breastfeeding right there in front of me and everyone else while I was talking.

I should note that I am 100% pro breastfeeding in public, but she literally lifted up her shirt, was braless, and kept her shirt up, the unsuckled boob dangling free the whole time, so it was a bit distracting.

All of this is to say that it's very, very possible your single, childless men (everyone else in the room was single and childless) are more understanding on the baby issue than you think. Just talk to them about what sort of flexibility you'll need in scheduling, and I imagine they'll be pretty accommodating.
posted by phunniemee at 10:36 AM on May 28, 2013

I would try to schedule it when you feel you will mentally be at your best. There can be so many unknowns (what if the baby is overdue, or you had a c-section) that I would try to schedule the date later if possible. I had a friend in this situation who ended up defending many months later than she had planned, but it was no big deal in the end.
posted by Riverine at 10:50 AM on May 28, 2013

My advisors (while wonderful) are all single, childless men. I haven’t announced the pregnancy yet, and I already feel othered enough having to walk in all bloated and talk to them about birthin’ babies

It sounds like you feel both guilty for daring to have a child while in school, and resentful of your male colleagues and advisers who don't and won't have to go through this. Neither of those attitudes will help you much in this situation. Don't apologize for being pregnant, and don't assume your needs as a pregnant woman will be ignored.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:54 AM on May 28, 2013

"4 weeks...every week thereafter would make me (with luck) more stable and marginally less sleep-deprived"

Your baby might not sleep through the night for several months. Don't count on this. Babies sometimes start crying for hours on end for no reason in the middle of the night when they are a few weeks old.

Before the baby is born would be best if it is possible.
posted by steinwald at 10:58 AM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would think that, given your concerns about quality, you'd either want to try to get the defense done while you're still pregnant (and maybe get some accommodations on the lead-time for submission) or put it off for a couple of months post-baby so that your brain and body are functioning again. Either has scheduling risks (before, and you could go early, esp. with #2, but late and you could have a c-section that won't even let you stand up much for an extra month or two), so people are going to have to be willing to put a rain date in their calendars or reschedule on short notice.

Personally, I wouldn't have been functioning mentally for at least 6 weeks, and at 3 months I made strange mental errors, so if you opt for after, then I'd push it as late as you can. A few months won't mean anything years from now, but you'd hate to have little pleasant to remember from your thesis defense, given that it's the culmination of so many years' work. You're in no danger of forgetting the content, so I'd aim for giving yourself, say, a set chunk of time (measured in months) before you have to start studying and refreshing your talk at all, and then work out from there. If you get the document in, and at least outline your talk, before you deliver, then it won't be so terrible to recall it to mind and get in some practice, but there's no point in rushing, and you may have to work on it in tiny slices per day around the conflicting schedules of two kids. So even 4-6 months out would seem perfectly reasonable from a personal standpoint; whether that works professionally will depend on how pushy your committee is and whether you have a job-search deadline that needs to be met too.

Good luck! I guess everything will only get easier from here! :)
posted by acm at 11:04 AM on May 28, 2013

As an academic and a mother, I say that your priority is making your dissertation as good as it can be. Don't rush to hand in the diss prematurely because you are worried about your defense performance; the actual dissertation will far outlive any stutters and pauses in your defense. I think that having a bit of time between handing in the diss and the defense is the least of the worries here. You are going to be discussing and revising this dissertation for years, and you are going to have to be re-immersing yourself in it again after the baby is born anyway, especially since you are going on the job market. Hand in the dissertation shortly before the baby is born and then defend when the baby is 3 or 4 months, I would say.
posted by third rail at 11:15 AM on May 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, in most departments in the U.S. the actual defense is the easy part. Most advisors should not let a student proceed to the defense until the work is defensible and the defense is just mostly pro forma*. After all, by that point you know more about the material than anyone and so should be able to answer most questions with little preparation. At worst, the defense should illuminate weaknesses that may need work during a final revision. In Departments where there is the talk, there will be work involved in putting that together, but again this will happen after you have written a dissertation and has more to do with organizing your thoughts than new, original thinking. In other words, focus first and foremost on producing a good, defensible dissertation. The defense often gives students more anxiety, but is actually much more straight forward.

I should add that most students overestimate the importance of the defense and underestimate the time and energy it will take to make revisions to their first draft of their work.

Best of luck with both the baby and the doctorate!

*There are exceptions where there is still a question of whether the student will pass on the day of their defense. This has more to do with department cultures and advisors. You should be able to ask around to find out what the culture is in your Department if you do not already know.
posted by Tallguy at 11:50 AM on May 28, 2013

If you're in a position to hand in the dissertation before the baby comes, that would be great but...I intended to complete and defend my dissertation before my son was born, and I ended up writing most of it when he was 2 - 6 months old. It really wasn't too bad -- we would hang out in bed most of the day, he would nap and I would write or nap, he would nurse and I would type one-handed. My point being the birth of your baby isn't necessarily the deadline for dissertation writing -- if anything, the baby becoming mobile (rolling, crawling, walking) is the point of no return. (Mine is now 19 months old and I can barely find time to do any academic work, and it's pretty much been that way since he started walking.) So in hindsight, I wouldn't stress about getting all done before the baby is born -- writing a good quality thesis that will require fewer revisions later is going to be the real lifesaver.
posted by daisystomper at 12:42 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

but also farther from the actual work I’ve done on the dissertation, and thus less capable of defending it.

In my part of the world it is normal for the defence to be three to six months after submission. Mine was five months later (and three months after I stopped writing papers and two months after I stopped looking for a job) and it was fine. I didn't do any more preparation than if it had been straight after I submitted, I hadn't forgotten anything and you won't either. Writing that dissertation is going really stick the understanding in there you know? So if it makes more sense to schedule it for two or even three months afterwards, and assuming that's not going to totally screw up your job search, then do that.
posted by shelleycat at 1:41 PM on May 28, 2013

Just to put my point above into anecdotal perspective: years ago I defended (in the humanities) with a 102 fever and laryngitis. Because my committee was happy with the dissertation it went well, even though I might not have been in peak form. I think I was at about the same mental level that I've been when chronically sleep deprived from having a baby. My grad school friend defended the same day with much of the same committee. She was well-rested for the defense but had rushed to get her dissertation in and they were not happy with it as a document. Her defense did not go well even though she had prepared for it. My point is that I believe the defense is really secondary to the dissertation for everyone involved and that you should not turn in your dissertation before it is ready just to be well-rested for your defense.
posted by third rail at 3:08 PM on May 28, 2013

I (a male) have both defended a Ph.D. dissertation (in physics) and parented a newborn.

Holy jumpin josie, I cannot imagine staging a defense three months post-birth, let alone one month, and I didn't actually go through the physical stress of gestating and birthing a child.

I would push for before, or quite a ways after the due date if you can. I'd work the "accommodations" angle on either a reduced pre-defense lead time, or a delayed defense--maybe even one you can come back for if you can get a job in your field ABD.

Also: I rushed my submission draft due to it being difficult to schedule my entire committee, and finding out quite last minute that it was time to wrap it up. By far the worst part of the defense was the grilling over embarrassing typos and things a good, fresh edit would have fixed. I'd recommend emphasizing the quality of the written over the quality of the defense.
posted by stevis23 at 5:24 PM on May 28, 2013

I would think 4 weeks post-baby should be the minimum: every week thereafter would make me (with luck) more stable and marginally less sleep-deprived

Jumping Jehoshaphat, do not depend on this, I beseech you.

Every baby is different, naturally, and this might be the case with you, but I tell you OP, the opposite was true for us. 1 month or so was, for us, just when it started to get really. frigging. hard.

At under 4 weeks, the baby mostly slept, and - crucially - we still had a little pre-baby change left in the sleep bank, precious precious sleep bank. By one month, however, the baby was bigger, stronger, cry-ier. She was waking more, sleeping shorter, and crying louder, longer. From around three weeks our baby never stayed asleep longer than about three hours, maybe, for many months. And the sleep bank was in overdraft and I had sleep loan sharks threatening to break my sleep legs. I was starting to get like Robert De Niro in "Awakenings" - and not the part where he's conscious and self-aware. More seriously, my memory was shot to shit, and I couldn't have organised a piss-up in a pub at that point. Defending a dissertation would have been about as probable as roller-skating limbo for me at that point.

Your baby experience may not be like that, but it could be, OP. Be prepared to take longer if you need it.
posted by smoke at 6:11 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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