5 lessons from Stanford’s ‘PhD Momma’

Stanford doctoral student Fatimah Al-Ismail writes about life as a Stanford student-parent for her blog “PhD Momma.” With the new year underway, she shares five lessons to maintain a healthy balance between school and family.

Being a full-time graduate student is no easy task. Throw in a kid (or two or three) and life can get really complicated, really fast.

PhD student Fatimah Al-Ismail writes about life as a Stanford student-parent for her blog, “PhD Momma.” (Image credit: Shannon Passama)

Fatimah Al-Ismail knows the challenges well. When she’s not being a doting parent to her young son, Hadi, she can be found in her campus office working toward a PhD in geophysics.

“I’ve received a lot of questions from my colleagues about how I manage my life as a grad student and as a mom,” she said. “So I thought a blog would be a good way to answer them.”

On her blog, “PhD Momma,” Al­-Ismail writes about the ups and downs and lessons learned from juggling a young family and a career. In her latest post, she shares the biggest lessons she learned from 2019 and how they’re helping her make 2020 a successful year.

Here are five lessons from Stanford’s “PhD Momma”:

Prioritize Self-Care
“This was essential to me, especially during stressful periods. It’s normal, and often necessary, to postpone doing the things we love in order to finish more urgent, perhaps less enjoyable tasks. Taking time off can be the last thing on our minds when we have a pressing deadline. But I think it’s important to take a step back between now and then to quiet our minds and do something for ourselves. This blog is one way for me to make sure that I do that. Other ways include spending time outside, reading and my daily favorite – afternoon black tea with a square of dark chocolate. Yum!”

Embrace ‘Good Enough’
“This was such a liberating lesson. I first heard of this concept from Barry Schwartz’s TED talk titled ‘On the Paradox of Choice,’ which was recommended to me by a friend. I later got the book, and it changed the way I related to different decisions in my life. I have a whole post about this idea, so I won’t get into much detail, but I highly recommend the book and the talk.”

Always Make Time for Friends and Socials
“With the hustle of everyday life, it sometimes slipped my mind to plan for hangouts with my friends, especially after I became a mom. My time was divided between school and home, and it sometimes felt like too much work to plan ahead or get our place ready to have people over after a long week. But I found that it was such a small price to pay compared to the joy I got out of it. I became more intentional about setting some time aside to do that.”

“I’ve always been a hoarder. I love collecting things, especially items that I feel emotionally attached to. I had the hardest time donating some of my son’s old clothes because every piece felt special to me. But living in a small Bay Area apartment forced me to change this habit. At first, it was more out of necessity than willingness. But with time, I got bit by the minimalism bug and I began to actively get rid of stuff we didn’t need anymore, either by donating or selling them. I found it very freeing, and it made me more mindful of the things that I owned. It also made me think twice before purchasing something new.”

“Don’t just listen, but ACTIVELY listen, especially to those I care about. We sometimes think we’re listening, when in fact we’re thinking about how to respond to the person talking, or are distracted by something else. I think this is one of the hardest skills to master. But even a small step in the right direction can make a big change to the relationships we have.”