Completing a Ph.D. is a challenge on its own. Completing a Ph.D. while juggling the responsibilities of parenthood? That’s an entirely different set of challenges.
But what about completing a Ph.D. amid a pandemic, one that kept an entire family of five in the same house together indefinitely?
“It was actually impossible,” said Karen Gallagher, who is nevertheless graduating with her doctorate in spatially integrated social sciences in December.
Pandemic-related difficulties were the final obstacle for Gallagher, who began her academic journey at UToledo in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in exercise science with a concentration in athletic training. Intrigued by what she’d learned in her work experience after graduation, Gallagher returned to the University focused on a simple idea.
“I just realized that people had a really difficult time staying healthy, getting outside playing, recreating with their family, things like that” she said. “So I wanted to kind of work on developing a better urban parks system in Detroit and the suburbs of Detroit because that’s where I grew up.”
A master’s degree in recreation led to Gallagher enrolling in UToledo’s spatially integrated social sciences doctoral program in the College of Arts and Letters, but in 2015 her progress toward a Ph.D. slowed dramatically.
“I got pregnant with my first son in 2015, and I tried to continue working after I had him, but … less than a year later, I got pregnant with twins,” she said.
Having moved away from family support, Gallagher and her husband faced a tough question concerning the care of their children, and it fell to Gallagher to make a difficult choice.
“It was extremely difficult to step away, and it was extremely difficult to become immersed in being a mom, especially because I was really active professionally, and that all kind of just dropped off.”
For five long years, she focused exclusively on motherhood, a busy proposition with three children under the age of 2.
“We were going through like 35 diapers a day if that gives you any idea of what life was like.”
To make matters worse, when she finally got the opportunity to resume work on her dissertation five years later, she had to do it amid the still-ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Writing a dissertation under normal circumstances is laborious, time-consuming work. With the entire family house-bound due to COVID-19 restrictions, writing became nearly impossible. But Gallagher found a workaround.
“I would go away for one week each month and a grandma or someone would come here and help my husband take care of the kids,” she said. “They’d watch the kids while my husband was working and then I’d be away at his cousin’s house for about a week just working from morning until night.”
It wasn’t just her family that made her unique writing situation possible. Gallagher leaned heavily on support from The University of Toledo to complete her dissertation, often turning to Dr. Patrick Lawrence, professor and department chair as well as her dissertation advisor, for guidance. Lawrence had been the same faculty member who encouraged Gallagher to step away in the first place, and she says his advice proved useful throughout.
“He told me, ‘You know your kids are only going to be young once, you don’t want to miss it. Your degree is still here, and we’ll be here when you’re ready. I know you’re going to finish,’” Gallagher said.
This month, finishing is exactly what she’ll be doing, not that it’s any surprise to Lawrence.
“She is a perfect example and role model for dedication and persistence in being able to take the huge challenges of raising a family — made even more difficult with young children during the pandemic — while never losing sight of her goal to earn her doctorate,” he said.
Doctorate in hand, Gallagher said she hopes to work with a non-profit or with a government agency, putting to use the degree she spent so much time and energy pursuing. Wherever she ends up, Gallager knows she can overcome whatever challenge is in front of her — because she’s already done it.
“Resilience and passion led to the completion of my doctorate degree,” she said, “and I know those qualities will serve me well in the professional world.”