Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Punctuality and PhDs

My mornings are hectic. Part of this is because I juggle responsibilities as a student, wife, mother, and employee, but a lot of it is just because I'm not a particularly organized person and I hate mornings. Getting out of the house is a delicate balance. I have to leave the house early enough to get to work on time and late enough to avoid getting my daughter to daycare too early (leaving me a 15 minute window between daycare drop off and the start of work). Sometimes my husband does drop-offs so I don't have to worry about it. By navigating the complexities of this balance with various degrees of success, I've learned something.

If I leave my house at 7:35, I will get my daughter to daycare on time and I will get to work on time.
If I leave my house at 7:40 (a mere 5 minute difference), it's anyone's guess. I may arrive at both places on time, or I may arrive 5-10 minutes late to work (in which case I just make up the time over lunch or at the end of the day).
If I leave the house at 7:45 (10 minutes late), I will arrive to work 5-10 minutes late.
If I leave the house at 7:55 (20 minutes late), I will arrive to work 5-10 minutes late.

Do you see what time does there? It cheats.

It's not actually time. It's traffic. But still. That's a lot of calculating so early in the morning.

Traffic jam
From Wyscan
I'm telling you this not-particularly-interesting story to illustrate a point. See, if I leave the house at 7:35, I'm golden. But this is also (for some unknown reason) nearly impossible. When it happens, I am astonished, and pretty much attribute it to magic. Most mornings, I am left with a decision. When I miss the 7:35 mark, I can either rush, rush, rush to try to meet the 7:40 mark (where I might still be on time) or I can accept that I'm likely going to be late and let it slide. If I do that, it doesn't matter if I leave at 7:45 or 7:55 because the impact is the same. I can spend those ten minutes getting stuff together around the house or I can spend them sitting in traffic. I'll still get to work 5-10 minutes late.

Those ten minutes can be glorious. I load the dishwasher, put in laundry, or read a quick book with my daughter. I double check my gym bag and never forget socks on those days. Those ten minutes can be amazing. 

This makes me think about my doctoral program. 

See, I have always been a punctual person. I hate getting to work 5 minutes late. When I tell friends I'll meet them for dinner at 7:00, I will be there at 6:50 and then start to worry that I'm at the wrong place when I don't see them at 6:59. (I know, I know--they're not showing up until 7:10 and that's perfectly normal. Quit judging me.)

This desire for punctuality carried into my academic pursuits. I was 17 when I graduated high school and itching to enroll in college. I did, and I almost graduated in December because I took the maximum number of credits basically every semester (an advisor talked me out of it because she said it was better to apply to graduate school in the fall). Then, I applied for MA/PhD programs and envisioned myself whisking through the next five years, getting my PhD at 27 and driving off into the proverbial sunset. 

I turn 27 this year. I will not be getting a PhD. 

See, what actually happened is that I flew through my MA degree on time, and then I panicked about my life. What was I doing? What was I going to do? What did I want to do? These are still questions I examine often--maybe too often. 

I decided (with great trepidation) that I would stop after my Master's and try to piece together a living until I figured out if a PhD was really for me. 

Then, something amazing happened. A friend told me about a position at the university and she thought I should apply. I did, and I got it, and I loved it. But the position put me in another quandary. One of the benefits of working at the university was tuition remission. I could continue working on my PhD--for free. 

All of that hand-wringing and agony over decided to stop at the Master's was wasted. I had convinced myself I had arrived at the right conclusion, but I threw it aside without a second glance and enrolled in part-time coursework. 

I now take one class a semester. After this semester, I have one class in my field and one class to fulfill a language requirement. Then I have to take exams, write a dissertation, and defend. I'm still working full-time and now I'm also the mother of a toddler. 

I feel like I gave up on trying to get to work on time and now have those ten amazing minutes to get things in order. Because I slowed down from a break-neck pace, I found time to actually analyze what it is I want to study, what it is I should be doing--for me. If I had tried to continue my PhD as a full-time student, I wouldn't have made it. I wasn't sure enough about myself as a scholar or where my passions truly were. It was only by slowing down and taking time to put things in order that I found these things. 

I'm not suggesting that everyone quit working on their degrees and slow down their progress. After all, leaving the house at 7:35 and getting to work on time is still my favored option. I'm just saying that a setback can have its perks, and I'm glad I was running late that day. 


  1. I totally agree. I think that most students finishing a bachelor's degree end up doing something for their masters that may not have been perfect for them, because when did they have the space to really look around and see what their options for research were? And if those same students go straight on to a phd at age 22, well, I think that's often a bad call. In the old days your PhD was the culmination of years of research, often not awarded until you were in your 30s or 40s even if you were part of academia. I personally think that worked better.

  2. I went straight from undergrad into a Master's program. My original plan was to go straight from the Master's program into a PhD. But then my interests changed and I didn't know exactly what to do a PhD in, and I felt myself becoming increasingly frustrated doing theory with no actual on-the-ground work. So I decided to work for a year. But then the fall after graduation came and I still didn't know what I wanted to do and my partner, who very much knows what he wants to do, decided to apply to PhD programs. I decided to put it off another year, so I could figure it out and know where we'd be living before I applied to schools. I've loved my time working and absolutely think I've made the right decision. But sometimes I absolutely freak out over the fact that I'll be two years behind my original plan. I feel like a complete failure!

    All of this rambling has a point- which is to say, thanks for writing this post! It is always comforting to know that other people's lives get off the original schedule, but still work out ok, if not better.

    And as a new reader of your blog, I have no idea how you juggle being a mother, wife, PhD student and employee. You're like superfeminist! It is really admirable.

    1. Hi Shannon, welcome and thanks for reading! I sometimes fall into that thinking of not being "on track," but I have to remind myself it's not a race. I'm the only one living my life, so there's no one I have to compete with to do it right.

      And as for being superfeminist, I'm flattered, but I think that blogging about it gives me the chance to polish it up so that it can look like something other than the chaos it often seems to be.