Each week for the next several weeks, we will feature a doctoral student on the CSAA-D blog to provide a glimpse of the many different experiences and paths of PhD students in our community of practice. This week, we feature Jen Rentschler, mom, casual knitting guru, theory to practice leader, and director of the Center for Leadership and Service at UGA. Thanks, Jen, for sharing part of your story and wisdom to get us started!
When I shared with my family and friends that I had decided to apply to the College Student Affairs Administration doctoral program in the fall of 2015, I got a lot funny looks and comments like, “are you sure?”, “do you really have time?”, and “is now the right time to do this?” Of course, I had asked myself these same questions as I studied for the GRE between working a full-time day job and caring for my two boys, who at the time were 3 years old and 22 months. But after discussing it with my partner, talking to others who were in or had gone through the program, and assessing my own personal and professional needs, I confidently made the decision to take the first steps of the journey.
In taking the time to reflect, I can say that the past year hasn’t always been easy, but it has certainly been rewarding. Each semester I have managed to take three classes while also continuing to work full time and support my family. Balancing these things takes a bit of compromise and negotiation but I’ve found a few ways to manage the chaos.
Communication. When I decided to take on the PhD program I discussed it with those it would impact most, including my partner, my staff, my supervisor, and my close friends. I shared my plan with each stakeholder and asked for their support. I also asked for their feedback and concerns. This conversation is an ongoing one, and one I revisit each semester to ensure I am meeting expectations and not neglecting any of my personal or professional responsibilities.
Build a Schedule. Each semester I take my syllabi and arrange class time, study time, and assignment deadlines alongside work obligations and deadlines, my kids’ school functions and activities (like soccer, scouts, festivals), and school holidays and closings. It may sound cliché to say “use your calendar” but it is the only way I can be sure things are covered. This allows me to share information in a timely fashion with my partner so he can build his work schedule as well as helps me plan with my staff and supervisor for days and evenings I will need to be out of the office. Additionally, I try to establish a routine for my family which helps with expectations and boundaries. I dedicate Sun-Weds nights to reading, writing, and studying after dinner and I “take off” from class Thurs-Sat night to give myself a break and focus my attention on my family and friends.
Get Rid of Guilt. Having been a part-time doc student for almost a year I’ve come to realize that I can’t have it all, all of the time. There are weeks that I give way more attention to my job and am unable to complete all of the assigned reading. There have been whole weekends I’ve spent taking care of a sick child which has resulted in submitting a less-than-perfect paper. And there are certainly afternoons I miss going to the park with my family in order to prepare for class or work on my research. However, I strive to see how each component (family, work, and school) compliments the other and adds value. I am confident that the work I do in my job is enriched by the exposure I have had to articles, discussions, and class assignments. Dedicating time to reading and writing at home sets a good example for my children, who see my commitment to learning. And spending time with my family and friends rejuvenates me and keeps me balanced. Each week has its ups and downs, but overall I feel the integration of these things into my life bring greater personal and professional satisfaction.
Build a Scholarly Community of Support. Working on a PhD is hard, but you don’t have to do it alone. I regularly lean on fellow doc students for support, resources, and feedback. I share my struggles and triumphs – both in the program and in my professional life – with trusted faculty and my advisor. I update my (very supportive) supervisor on what I am learning and how I’m doing in class. And I go to lunch with a few select colleagues who have gone through this program before me who regularly offer advice and support. These relationships and connections have really helped to keep me focused and motivated.
Reward Yourself! The journey through a PhD program is long and hard – especially for someone who works full time. Looking over the list of required courses and all the milestones I will have to complete to earn this degree can be overwhelming. But every time I complete a class or cross-off a requirement, I find a way to celebrate my victory (no matter how small). The best advice I ever received from a former doc student: Reward yourself every step of the way!