Heather Pellett recalls the project vividly: She had to design a study for her graduate-level class. She remembers the hypothesis, the research design, and how she collected her data. But more than anything else, she remembers the presentation.
“My daughter was only three or four months old, and no one could watch her for me that day,” Pellett describes. “So, I did the presentation with my baby loaded up in a front carrier.”
Single parenthood while pursuing a graduate degree comes with challenges, but stories like Pellett’s prove they’re not insurmountable. (And in case you’re wondering, she got an A on her presentation.) Many parents think that it’s simply impossible to earn a master’s as a single parent, but the reward of putting in a few years of hard work is worth way more than the struggle.
Rocking single parenthood while in grad school (with or without a baby strapped to you during a presentation) is absolutely possible, and this guide is here to help. Check out the tools, strategies, scholarships, and resources provided to bolster your confidence so you can get started.
Grad School Support Needs for Single Parents
Here’s a fun fact: Did you know that college students who are parents actually get better grades than their nonparent peers? While a single parent’s motivation is obviously strong, tackling single parenthood plus a graduate degree is no walk in the park. You probably have more challenges and fewer resources than your peers. That’s why organizations such as the Wellesley Centers for Women are launching data campaigns to track the challenges and successes experienced by single parents so organizations can become better advocates. Let’s outline some of the support you’ll need to thrive during your master’s study.
You may feel you have the financial weight of the world on your shoulders as a single parent, and graduate school is yet another hefty expense. That’s why you’ll need financial support — often in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study jobs, gifts from family, and stipends — to help you make graduate school more accessible. Before committing to any program, make sure you exhaust all financial opportunities available to you, including funds offered by federal, state, private, and school sources. A recent study showed the rates of single parents returning to school more than doubled between 1999 and 2012. With more single parents in college, more financial opportunities are opening for this deserving audience.
As a single parent, you know the rarity of time — to devote to sleep, catching up on paperwork, or even getting a shower! So, the bottom line is that as a single parent getting a master’s degree, you’ll likely need a flexible schedule that allows you to balance your academic and parenting responsibilities. Do some research to find a graduate program with flexible scheduling, which often includes hybrid or online study as well as part-time options. Any program that affords you the opportunity to complete work asynchronously (when you don’t have to show up either in person or online at a specific time) will undoubtedly help you achieve balance.
If you’re a single parent with small kids, childcare can be a major obstacle as you enter graduate school. Fortunately, some colleges offer on-campus childcare or have partnerships with local daycare providers to help make childcare more accessible and affordable. Another option: You may have family who can help or a friend who can share childcare duties with you. But keep in mind that sickness happens (and let’s not even talk about lice outbreaks!), and a last-minute scheduling hiccup can throw you off. Try to create back-up childcare options, just in case.
Parenting is hard enough; being a single parent doesn’t just double the work, it exponentially increases it. When everything begins and ends with you, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. This is why emotional support is such an important resource to take advantage of when you’re returning to graduate school. You’ll be facing some unique emotional challenges from a stressful situation, which means you’ll want to avail yourself of any support offered in the form of counseling services, mentorship programs, and peer support groups designed for single parents navigating the challenges of graduate school.
If you’re a single parent pursuing a master’s degree, there’s a good chance you’re also working. This means you’ll likely have even LESS time to network and make solid professional connections for your post-degree life. This is one of the reasons single parents may face additional challenges in launching their careers after graduate school. To thrive in grad school, try to connect with any job placement opportunities, networking groups, or professional development workshops that can help you achieve your career goals. Bonus points if these services are offered online, meaning you can access them while also hanging with the kids (and without the need to commute).
Access to Resources
Succeeding in graduate school means thinking of the specific resources you need for your individual situation. Almost all colleges offer academic advising, disability services, student support services, and library resources; programs that prioritize access to these resources can help single parents overcome barriers to success. If you’re just planning your graduate career, look for the programs that offer robust student resources — especially those that cater to nontraditional student populations. If you’re already in a program, research the resources that are available to you, and take advantage of them.
Resources & Support for Single Parents
For many students, the key to success as a single parent in grad school is finding resources. But where do you start? Here, as a matter of fact. Below you’ll find blogs, podcasts, websites, organizations, and more that will make the road to earning your graduate degree as a single parent just a little less bumpy.
Blackboard App: Use this tool to become the master planner and organizer you’ll need to be as a successful single parent in grad school. Set reminders for online class times, assignments, quizzes, tests, and more.
Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program: This program from the U.S. Department of Education supports the participation of low-income parents in postsecondary education through the provision of campus-based childcare services.
11 Feel-Good Podcasts for Grad Students: This round-up from the University of the Cumberlands offers 11 informative, feel-good podcasts to help you escape. Download a few for the next time you’re driving, folding laundry, or other multitasking you’re tackling as a busy single parent.
GoConqr.com: Try the free version of this amazing student resource. Membership is only $1.08 per month for students and allows you to customize flow charts, mind maps, notes, quizzes, flashcards, and more.
Grants for Single Mothers: Check out this list of grants designed specifically for single moms. The best thing about grants: You don’t have to pay them back as long as you fulfill the requirements.
How I Conquered Graduate School as a New Single Mom: This blog post, on the Modern Parenting Solutions website, offers specific insight from a mom who’s been there. The entire website offers good information, including a podcast and free worksheets.
The Imperative to Support Single Mothers in College: This report by the Center for American Progress — an independent, nonpartisan policy institute dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans — offers a list of needs, resources, and research for single parents in college.
Institute for Women’s Policy Research: This national think tank has a goal of growing women’s power and influence, closing inequality gaps, and improving the economic well-being of families. Check out the group’s research, such as this report on student mothers and fathers who struggle with college loans.
Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: While the entire podcast places a helpful frame around the concept of paying for graduate education, this specific episode is about a single parent who makes use of every single resource at her disposal.
Project Self-Sufficiency: Based in Orange County, California, Project Self-Sufficiency provides financial and psychosocial resources to support single parents on a path toward a successful academic journey and economic self-reliance.
Quizlet.com: Studying will be an important part of your grad school journey, making Quizlet an invaluable resource. You input questions and answers, and this website generates digital flashcards you can use at your convenience.
Single Father Financial Help: Government & Organizations: Single fathers sometimes don’t qualify for financial help when resources are gender specific. This comprehensive listing provides grant opportunities and a list of organizations that support single dads.
Single Parents Alliance of America: Get matched with benefits available exclusively to single parents on this website. Once you register, you’ll see funding resources, cash grants — even links to free COVID tests.
Surviving the Insanity of Grad School as a Single Mom: Authored by Kara Romick on Huffington Post, this first-person essay offers success strategies — including the idea of trying to start your program with a fellow student who will hold you accountable and provide help when needed.
10 Best Apps for Grad Students: This list, available on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Graduate School blog, includes ideas for apps to keep you on track and apps for disconnecting — which may be especially important for single parents!
10 of the Best Family Calendars and Apps to Help Keep Everyone on the Same Page: When you’re a single parent in grad school, you’ll NEED a good calendar — whether that’s one to hang on the fridge or a digital version. This list on Mother.ly offers a review of both versions.
University of Houston’s Students with Children Guide: University of Houston is an example of a college that takes the idea of offering resources to nontraditional students seriously. Check out the resources available to single parents, which offers a model of comparison as you’re researching school options.
U.S. Department of Education Federal Student Aid: A must-visit resource for all college students (especially single parents!), this link has all the information you need about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
Grad School Success Strategies for Single Parents
As a single parent, you’re likely a practical person in search of specific strategies for success. That’s the goal of the following section, which provides ideas that — when implemented — can help you thrive as a single parent in grad school.
Learn to Manage Your Time Well
Perhaps no one knows more about the value of time than a single parent. And to master grad school, you’ll need to adopt master-level time management techniques, which may be just as important as what you’re learning about your specific field. Use calendars, apps, and whatever techniques you can to prioritize your tasks and create a schedule that works for you and your children. Need inspiration? Check out this list of nine proven time-management tools/techniques from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences.
Lean on Your Support Network (or Build One)
Never have you needed “your people” more than during this season of your life. While some people find it hard to lean on others, pursuing your master’s degree as a single parent will be almost impossible without a healthy support network, which can include family, friends, and colleagues who can help you with childcare, transportation, and other responsibilities. You’ll also want to explore the support services available on campus or in your specific community.
Learn to be Flexible & Adaptable
You encourage your kids to roll with the punches and be creative — it’s time to take your own advice. Being a single parent in grad school requires a ton of flexibility and adaptability, and you may need to creatively identify solutions to unexpected challenges that pop up along the way. Keep your mind open, bounce ideas off that aforementioned support system, and be willing to adjust your plans as needed.
Find the Right Balance
Going to school and being a single parent will often feel like it requires superhuman strength, but the key is finding balance that works for you and your children. Remember that grad school will one day be in the rearview mirror, so you don’t need to commit to everything — like, for example, all the playdates or extracurricular activities — now. You’ll have more time once you have your degree. Think of ways to incorporate your kids in this search for balance — like doing your homework together if they’re also in school or having them quiz you on your studies.
Burnout in grad school is real; burnout for single parents in grad school is even more real. Make time for exercise, healthy eating, and stress-reducing activities such as meditation or yoga. You should also find ways to make time for yourself and your interests. Check out these tips from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing that are specifically targeted at college students.
Improve Your Communication Skills
Proactive communication can be a lifesaver when you’re a single parent because there will be plenty of times when you’ll need to communicate your needs and limitations to your professors and advisors. Your best strategy is honest and upfront communication about your situation so you can work together to find solutions that work for everyone. Establishing positive relationships from the beginning built on trusting exchanges can lead to optimal outcomes.
Take Advantage of Resources and Opportunities Available to You
As a master’s or doctoral student, you’ll have many resources and opportunities available, such as professional development workshops and networking events. It’s important to take advantage of these opportunities when possible so you can enhance your skills and build your professional network. Even in online programs, you’ll be able to grow your personal and professional relationships; check out these networking tips for graduate students from the New Jersey Institute of Technology for ideas.
Celebrate Milestones and Achievements
You’ve celebrated first haircuts and lost teeth and sports participation for your kids — it’s time to do the same for yourself. And while sadly, you won’t be getting a participation medal for every class (though you should!), you’ll have major projects, semester-best GPAs, and so much more to celebrate. Grad school is a challenging but rewarding experience, so acknowledge every milestone. And remember to share these special times with your family and friends who have supported you along the way — especially the kids who have a front-row seat to all your effort.
10 Graduate Scholarships for Single Parents
You’re facing a ton of legit challenges as a single parent in grad school — so you might as well be rewarded for what you’ve accomplished so far! Check out these 10 scholarship opportunities to see if you can earn some well-deserved financial assistance.
“Be Bold” No-Essay Scholarship
- Award amount: $25,046
- Deadline: Rolling monthly deadlines through December 1
- Eligibility: The scholarship is open to students with any education level and GPA and in any state or field of study. The scholarship will be awarded to the student whose bold.org profile is “boldest” — and what’s bolder than a single-parent grad student? The site affirms, “To us, boldest does not mean ‘best’ or ‘most accomplished.’ Being bold means being earnest, determined, moving.”
- Apply here
Custody X Change Single Parent Scholarship
- Award amount: $500 to $1,000
- Deadline: Rolling
- Eligibility: The scholarship is open to full-time students at an accredited college or university who have a minimum 3.0 GPA. You’ll submit a 400- to 500-word essay answering the question “How will you use your education to improve your family?” along with a brief description of your custody arrangement.
- Apply here
Doña Lupita Immigrant Scholarship
- Award amount: $2,000
- Deadline: November 12
- Eligibility: Current students of any educational level are eligible to apply if they are an immigrant single parent or the child of an immigrant single parent. Applicants submit an essay about the values they associate with single parenthood.
- Apply here
Executive Women International Adult Students in Scholastic Transition (ASIST) Scholarship
- Award amount: $2,000 to $10,000 (corporate-level scholarships)
- Deadline: March
- Eligibility: EWI offers the ASIST scholarship for adults who are facing economic, social, or physical challenges and are looking to improve their lives through education. Students must first apply through local chapters; chapter winners then will be entered to win at the corporate level.
- Apply here
Helping Hands for Single Moms – Dallas
- Award amount: Varies
- Deadline: Rolling
- Eligibility: The scholarship is open to legally single/divorced moms with at least one child under 11 who live in Dallas, Collin, Tarrant, or Denton County, Texas. Online students can apply but must live in one of these counties. Undergraduate or graduate students can apply if they’re enrolled in at least nine credits with a minimum GPA of 2.8. Recipients commit to participating in six Single Mom College Community meetings per year.
- Apply here
Helping Hands for Single Moms – Phoenix
- Award amount: Varies
- Deadline: Rolling
- Eligibility: The scholarship is open to legally single/divorced moms with at least one child under the age of 11 who live in the Phoenix area or surrounding cities. Online students can apply but must live in Maricopa County. Undergraduate or graduate students can apply if they’re enrolled in at least nine credits with a minimum GPA of 2.8. Recipients commit to participating in Single Mom College Community meetings.
- Apply here
Job-Applications.com Working Parent College Scholarship Award
- Award amount: $1,000
- Deadline: TBA late summer/early fall
- Eligibility: The scholarship is open to anyone who is a full-time or part-time student at an accredited post-secondary educational institution (undergraduate or graduate level), currently employed, and a parent to at least one minor child. You’ll submit an essay outlining three keys to success in balancing parenthood, work, and excellence in school.
- Apply here
The Little Bundle Supermom Scholarship
- Award amount: $1,000–$2,000 plus a $1,000 gift certificate for Little Bundle organic baby formula (can be deferred or donated per recipient’s preference)
- Deadline: June 30 and December 1
- Eligibility: Applicant must be a single mom, the child of a single mom, or have had your life impacted positively by a single mom; additionally, you must be enrolled in an undergraduate, graduate, vocational, or technical program. To be considered, applicants write an essay detailing their experiences with single parenthood.
- Apply here
Patsy Takemoto Mink Foundation Education Support Awards
- Award amount: Up to $5,000 each
- Deadline: August 1
- Eligibility: Women 17 or older who are considered low-income with minor children may apply. Applicants must be pursuing a bachelor’s or advanced degree at a not-for-profit, accredited institution or program in the U.S that does not discriminate based on sex/gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+ status/identity, religion, disability, or immigration status.
- Apply here
Women’s Independence Scholarship
- Award amount: $500 to $2,000 per semester or quarter for undergraduate studies. For master’s degrees, the awards average $1,000 per semester or quarter.
- Deadline: March 1 (first application period), November 1 (second application period)
- Eligibility: The scholarship is designed to help women who identify as survivors of intimate partner abuse. Preference is given to applications from single women with young children with the greatest barriers to completing their education, including childcare needs. Applicants must have been living separately from the abuser for at least a year and demonstrate financial need.
- Apply here
A Single Parent Shares Their Grad School Experience
Heather Pellett earned a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on early childhood from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2015. She’ll be returning to the same school in 2023 to pursue her master’s degree in speech pathology. She currently works for the State of Nevada’s Early Intervention Services as a developmental specialist, helping kids under age three who have disabilities. And she’s doing this all as a single parent with three kids – who are now 9, 11, and 13 years old.
Q: What challenges did you face as a single parent while pursuing your graduate degree, and how did you overcome them?
My first master’s program was hybrid, so a lot of work was done online. We would meet once a month on a Saturday. This was nice because I had small kids – by the time I was getting going in the program, I was pregnant, then she was a newborn – so it was nice not having to go to class all the time because I had small kids. When I did have to go to class, I’d have grandma watch them. I really learned to lean on my family to help me with watching the kids while I was in class or doing homework.
The next degree will be a bit trickier – it’s not online, so I’ll go to school Monday through Thursday all day. I think it’s going to be easier in some ways because the kids are older and more independent but also harder in a way because now they’re doing so many more things – we’re a bigtime sports family, for example. I can’t just be a “normal parent,” meaning I’m on the board for football and cheer and right now coaching my daughter’s softball team. I’ll need to figure out how to juggle all of this.
Q: Were there any resources, such as childcare or financial assistance, that you found particularly helpful in supporting you as a single parent in graduate school?
I was lucky enough during the first program to get a grant that paid for my degree — basically, there was an agreement in taking the grant that for every year of grant money I received, I’d do two years of service (working in the field or being a teacher). So taking advantage of that grant opportunity was extremely helpful. My teacher, who was basically the head of my department, connected her students with the grant opportunity as an incentive to get more qualified people out there working with kids. I wouldn’t have heard about it otherwise, so I consider myself so lucky.
What I’m trying to figure out is how to pay for the next degree. There’s another grant opportunity, but they only accept 10, and it’s extremely competitive. If I don’t get that grant, then I’ll have to go with student loans – though I haven’t had to use student loans yet.
Just a few days ago I was Googling scholarships for single parents; I’ll take whatever help I can get! I also plan to call the financial aid office to see if they know of other grants or opportunities. You just never know until you ask.
Q: How did you balance the demands of parenting and graduate school, and what strategies did you find most helpful?
It’s all about time management. I’m pretty crazy with my calendar – I put everything in my calendar, from work stuff to kids’ appointments to kids’ sports schedules, and I line out when assignments and tests are due. Being organized and prepared is so important. You have to be able to look ahead and go, “Oh, that assignment is due Wednesday, and Monday and Tuesday at work are crazy, so I’ll need to do it this weekend.” And this is not something I was great at when I was younger or during my bachelor’s degree, when I’d usually wait until the last minute. It’s definitely a skill that takes time to develop.
This speech program coming up is intense – we’re enrolled in 15 credits during the first semester, when usually nine credits is considered full time for a master’s program – so they have us working hard. I’m going to need to manage my time better than ever!
I honestly think students with kids have an advantage when it comes to time management. You tend to make the most out of what time you have, because you know you’re not going to get any more – like if you have one hour available, you’re going to cram what you can into it!
Q: Did you find it difficult to network and build relationships with other graduate students as a single parent, and how did you address any potential barriers?
I would say it’s a little more difficult to network, especially when your coursework is hybrid or online. You’re just not in class all the time, which is usually where you form relationships with other students and your professors. But the community for my program is small, and a lot of people I work with have gone through the same program, so I ended up knowing people anyway because it’s such a small world. But specific to being a single parent, when the other students were getting together to study at Starbucks, I couldn’t do that. I was already spending enough time away from my kids, so I didn’t take advantage of that kind of group time. That just meant I had to work extra hard to make those connections when we did get together.
I did meet people and form relationships, but it’s just more difficult. You have to really be proactive.
Q: How did being a single parent impact your relationship with the faculty during graduate school?
I had my daughter, my third child, just one or two weeks before one of my semesters was scheduled to start. In the fall semester when I was pregnant, I knew I wanted to take a research class the following spring, but I didn’t know the professor – and he was a male, which was relatively unusual for this field. So, I met with him in the fall semester and I told him I wanted to take the class, but I’m pregnant and going to have this baby at some point. I just asked if he could be flexible with me, and he joked in response: “You better not have that baby in my class!” But then he told me it was cool, and thanks for talking with him, definitely take the class, and that he’d work with me. I ended up having her early, so I let him know (and told him I didn’t want to leave my newborn with anyone else). He told me to bring her. So the first day of class, she’s in a stroller, he’s doing roll call and gets to my name, and then he looked up and said, “It looks like you brought another student with you!” He was so cool with it.
As a parent, I found that I was really able to connect with my teachers – and a lot was actually because of my kids, now that I’m thinking about it. They were all so cool. I don’t know if that goes for all fields – but definitely for my field. A good recommendation for most things in life is to be honest and upfront. Communicate with them about your situation, and they may just be flexible.
Q: What strategies did you use to maintain your mental and emotional well-being while balancing the demands of parenting and graduate school?
Yeah, focusing on my mental health – that’s probably something I could have improved upon! I think it still goes back to that time management piece — not getting backed up and pacing yourself. But self-care, I could do better. My kids get everything they need — they totally come first. But there are things like the fact that I need sleep as I’m getting older, and I can’t function on five hours anymore, so I need to plan things accordingly so I won’t be up until 3 a.m. studying or writing. I do think self-care also involves doing the stuff we like – I make time for my kids to do sports and their things, for example, and that’s fun for me, too. It’s about balance – you can’t just focus on school; it has to be little bit of this and a little of that.
Q: What advice would you give to a single parent who is hesitant to pursue a graduate degree because they are worried about the impact on their children?
I think a lot of single parents are afraid they can’t do it. They come in with this mindset, “I just can’t do it – I have kids.” But I say, just go for it. If this is something you want to do, do it. Lean on the support systems you have – whether that’s friends or family. Take time to develop time management and organizational skills. And keep in mind: Grad school doesn’t last forever. It might be a few hard years, but in the end, you’ll have your degree, and your kids will be so proud. Maybe you’ll get a better job. And you can say, after all that hard work, you really did it.