Grad School, Careers, And Children: One Mom’s Decision

Aaron Weber doesn’t know much about babies, so he asked an expert. Amy K. is a user experience designer and mother of two who faced career issues after starting a family and is thinking about going back to graduate school. After the kids were in bed, she talked with Aaron about the decision.

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How old are the kids now?

My boys are 10 and 6, which means they’re on a more regular school schedule. But at this age, they need me even more than they did when they were younger—I have to manage schedules, coordinate babysitting, make sure they’re safe, make sure their homework is done. Any job I take has to be worth being away from those two kids for at least 40 hours each week. And even with adequate afterschool care, they only have one mom, so if there’s an emergency, I’m the one on call.

It’s a huge commitment, obviously.

That’s part of why I left my previous job, actually; it was just too far away. If something went wrong, or a kid got sick and needed to be picked up and taken home, I was 45 minutes away. Getting them to school on time made me late to work more often than not. I felt like every time there was a childcare problem, I was losing face at work. Even working from home wasn’t much help.

My employer was very understanding, but I didn’t like needing to sacrifice family time for work, or vice versa. I loved that job and the people I worked with, but it wasn’t worth the sacrifice.

The place I work now is just a few minutes away, and it makes all the logistics much simpler. I can take the kids to school and get to work by 9:00 a.m. If there’s an emergency, I can drop everything and come back to the office when it’s resolved. And I’m home for dinner and homework help every day. Cutting down that commute has made a huge change in my family life.

And that’s made it possible to consider graduate school?

Definitely. My employer has an education benefits package, so they’ll pay for a significant part of the cost, which definitely helps.

But even if they didn’t, a master’s degree in human factors would help to fill in the blanks in theory behind the work that I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. Many of the techniques taught today were actually developed by cognitive psychologists and computer scientists at DEC and IBM in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Going to school will help me understand why those methods lasted when other aspects of technology have changed so much.

Some of the topics I already know pretty well, like information architecture or usability testing. But in other areas, like design team management, I really need to improve, and having those skills will definitely be part of moving forward in my career.

How will you balance it with your family?

If I’m able to start next September, I’ll go as the kids head back to school. Most of my classes will be in the evening, so I will be missing some dinners with the kids, but not more than a couple times a week. And we can all do our homework together.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s still hard to balance everything, but I’m going to continue to try.

Do you have any advice for juggling family, work, and education? Share some tips!

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