Not a Contradiction

You can raise a family at MIT
OCT 2018
Eric
L.
Biological Engineering

“You know,” my wife said, “For our kids, MIT won’t be this abstract place they hear about sometimes in the news. It’ll be home: where they learned to ride their bikes and to read. They’ll think of it as the place where they grew up.”

My wife – who deserves more credit than I could ever give her – supported my choice to leave a productive job and start a PhD program in the fall of 2016, despite the fact that we had a two-year old and an eight-month old to raise. Since then, we’ve lived on-campus in the Westgate community, one of two residential complexes set aside for grad student couples and family housing (the other, on the opposite end of campus, is Eastgate).

I think the conventional wisdom is that MIT is so difficult and demanding that it’s irresponsible, if not downright impossible, to raise children and to complete a thesis at the same time. But what we’ve found is that raising kids at MIT is not only possible, but rewarding in its own way.

Living on campus, working on campus, and benefitting from the Tech Shuttle that connects those two spots, I get to interact with my family throughout the day. Today, we’re having a picnic lunch on the garden roof of the Stata Center, sandwiched between my morning of materials synthesis and afternoon of characterization and mild mid-twenties crisis. Spending time with my family gives me valuable perspective: there are many parts of life that are so much bigger and more important than the transient PhD.

Raising children is never easy, but there are many reasons why having kids in grad school makes sense:

1)    Moms and dads have significantly more flexible schedules than at maybe any other time in their careers.

2)    You’re already awake at odd times, and have the energy for it now.

3)    MIT Medical does pediatrics and OB/GYN on-campus for next to zero dollars (once you pay for the health insurance premiums).

4)    You can live in a community like Westgate or Eastgate where all of your neighbors know what you’re going through, so you can help each other out.

5)    Everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning and come home from lab at night. My son jumping on me while I’m laying in bed, and everyone’s smiles and hugs when I come home, are mine.

Don’t get me wrong: being a parent in graduate school – or a parent in general – is an exercise in trade-offs. But as engineers, this is something we know how to handle.

No, I can’t afford a daily Starbucks coffee, but my fair trade coffee beans are hand-ground by my children every morning.

No, I don’t have the luxury to stay out late every night of the week. But if we host, we can still have dinner with the kids, put them to bed, and enjoy the rest of the evening with my unattached classmates. When we do go out, we swap babysitting with other parents who live in our complex.

No, I haven’t kept up with Game of Thrones since my daughter was born four seasons ago (I have read all the books, so I feel somewhat better about this?), but I get to play with Legos for several hours every week. It’s awesome. You’d be surprised the skills you develop when your kids ask you to make things for them. Together, we just modeled a to-scale bathroom, complete with a tub, sink, toilet with moving seat, and checkerboard tiling on the floor, all so that we could display my son’s favorite Lego hairbrush on a shelf.

“Dad, make me a bathroom so I can put this hairbrush on the shelf!”

Being a parent and a grad student drives focus. When I’m at lab, I have to be immersed in important work and make sure critical things get done first, because there’s a high cost if I start my experiments late in the day and miss dinner. When I’m at home, I put the laptop away and the phone down while my kids are still awake, because those few hours each day are the most important ones I spend.

My home department, Biological Engineering, made us feel welcome from the beginning. Department faculty and staff encouraged me to bring my wife and children to social events, and their network got my wife her first job in the area. When I started bringing my kids to our student-run monthly social hours, juice boxes appeared in addition to the wine and beer. We perform together in the annual department talent show, and my kids are never short of friends among my peer group when they want to play, or draw, or watch a Disney movie in our student lounge.

I think what you will find at MIT is that the unexpected is frequently routine. Our diverse population supports many different communities, including those whose downtime activities are coloring and Play-Doh. Yes, it’s a little strange that home = MIT in a very literal sense, but someday soon, I will graduate and we will find a new place to call our own. Until then, we are grateful for the community here that we share.