Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On PhDs, Dreams, and Coulda-Shoulda-Wouldas

Everywhere I look, there are very convincing arguments for not doing the very thing I've been doing for the past five years: getting a PhD in the humanities.

For example, I've been reading the very talented work of Lauren and Jen at Mama Nervosa, "grad school quittas" who frequently write about the problems with academia. In particular, I find Lauren's post on four things she should have done instead of going to grad school intriguing, and she's pretty clear on her advice:
Don’t go to grad school. If you want a “yes” or a “maybe,” talk to someone else. I think more people, including advisers and professors, should actively discourage people from grad school. Even the smart students. That’s what I want to do with this post. I wish someone had said this to me, given me pause, made me reconsider. There were a lot of yeasayers when it came to grad school. I want to be a naysayer.
Don’t go to grad school.
And with The Chronicle pumping out articles about PhD graduates on food stamps and articles titled "The Future of the PhD" that contain passages like this one:
Too few universities are paying attention to the needs of graduate-student parents, or providing mentoring on how to balance family and career in a stressful profession in which, arguably, the most serious stress—obtaining tenure—also occurs during the years when women will have children. Only 13 percent of institutions in the Association of American Universities offer paid maternity leave to doctoral students, and only 5 percent provide dependent health care for a child.
Is the Ph.D. worth saving?
It's certainly not a decision to be taken lightly. 

In fact, through Mama Nervosa, I've found an entire community of those who have left academia (called the post-ac community). I've been reading blogs like A Post-Academic in NYC and the (bluntly titled) 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School

And I can't really say anything to counter the points that come up again and again in these posts. Most graduate programs seem centered on an outdated model. There are too many PhD graduates and not enough jobs. The system requires those seeking tenure to work themselves too hard and completely negates the work/life balance. Parents in graduate programs aren't taken seriously. You're expected to be willing to move across the county to secure a job. There's not enough discussion of alternative career paths. I can't argue with these things. 

So why am I still pursuing a PhD?

From JanneM
I could stop. I've accepted a job offer for the position that I would have been applying for when I finished my PhD anyway, an "alternative" career that I knew from about the first month in the graduate program was where I was headed, not because I'm "settling" for it, but because I love teaching and it's the right fit for me. So, I could stop if I wanted to. 

And I thought about it, especially with all of these very convincing arguments that it's not worth it floating around in my mind. But I didn't. I'm going to keep going. 

Articulating why I made this decision isn't easy, and some of the reasons I don't particularly feel good confessing to, but I think that this is an important conversation to be having. I think we need to talk more about what graduate studies mean, what they should look like in the future, and how fantasy visions of our educations fit with our real lives, so I'm going to add my voice, even the parts that are a little embarrassing. 

To the best of my analytical abilities and in no particular order, here are the reasons I'm staying:

1. I love learning. Yes. I know it sounds cliche and maybe even childish. But this is truly the reason I went to graduate school to begin with. I know that I won't stop learning just because I'm not in a formal degree program, but I love the community of minds that I get to be in touch with as a graduate student. Even though I don't get to hang out with people in my department as often as I'd like (I'm working and raising a kid, life's busy), I thoroughly enjoy knowing these people and getting to engage with them. I enjoy being able to go into a professor's office and chat about a book I'm reading. I like having papers to write and books that I probably wouldn't read without incentive to read. I'm excited (scared, sure, but also excited) about my exam list. It's an intellectual challenge, and it's invigorating. 

2. I'm a first-generation college student. This is one that I'm a little embarrassed to admit. As I've written about before, I'm the first person in my family to go to college. When I got my Master's, I joined a few cousins who have reached that level of education. No one in my family has gotten a doctorate. Ever. Part of me feels like I'd be letting people down if I quit. I don't think that I'd get any actual feedback to that effect, but I'd feel it. 

3. I don't want to close doors. I've always believed in education. I've always thought that learning how to think and communicate clearly were skills that would help me no matter where I was headed. I am very excited about my new career path, and I want to be able to do the best work I can there. I'm going to be working in developmental writing instruction and I can do that with the degree I have, but there are some exciting conversations happening about the future of developmental education. What if I want to be part of those conversations? Will not having a PhD make it harder to be heard? Will writing a dissertation give me the opportunity to do the kind of research I need to be prepared to make a difference in this field? Maybe and maybe not. But I like to believe that finishing this degree will make me a stronger thinker, and I don't see how that can hurt. 

All that said, I'm working on getting funding for this degree. I've been getting tuition covered as a full-time employee at the university where I work. If other funding options fall through and I have to pay to finish out of pocket (around $12,000), I probably won't do it. With all of the statistics, I can't justify taking out more loans (I took out some for my first year of graduate school and my husband has loans from law school). I have to balance my desire to finish this degree with my responsibility to my family's future. 

That cost-benefit analysis is an issue. The job that I've been doing for the past three years is helping underrepresented students get into graduate school. I believe in this job because I believe in my students. They are smart, driven, and they bring diverse perspectives that I believe--believe, with every inch of my being--that we need as an intellectual society. But can I--in good conscience--tell them to go if they don't get funded? Not really. I encourage them to apply to multiple places (and our program grants them fee waivers to make that more affordable). We give them teaching and research opportunities to make them prepared for assistantships. But what about the students who don't get these opportunities? And what about when there aren't enough assistantships to go around, no matter how great the students are? Should I still tell them to go?

And even if I'd been fully funded, I don't think I would have been able to stay on the full-time graduate student path. My husband and I decided to have a baby, and part of that decision depended upon having stable jobs. Also, I like working. I like the structure that having a full-time job gives my life and my schedule. We own a house and cars. I enjoy having the financial and the psychological benefits that come along with working full-time, and while I know that some people can get those benefits while a full-time student, I couldn't. Still, the part-time graduate student path is frowned upon. Advisors want you to finish quickly. I'm behind all of the other students in my cohort. I definitely feel like I veered off into the woods, not just to a lesser traveled path. Now that I'm going to be continuing my degree as a full-time employee and part-time student without having the benefit of being on the same campus, I'm sure I'll still feel a bit lost from the crowd.

Like I said, I think this conversation is important, and I certainly don't have all the answers. 


  1. Go get your Ph.D.! I never regret getting mine. Learning will always be an asset. That said, for me it was good to leave academia. But I'm still glad I got that Ph.D. And tenure and promotion.

  2. Great post. I've felt much the same way at times in the past. I have definitely had the anxiety that not getting a PhD will close doors for me in terms of the kinds of conversations I can participate in (especially since we share a passion for developmental education). If you can swing the time and the funding, I can see why you'd chose to stay in.

  3. Here via Feministe: Thank you for this post. I am also behind in school. I'll be 30 this year, and just starting the 3rd year of working on my bachelors degree. I'm determined to get a PhD if it takes me until I 80 to do it. I have good reasons, but one of my stupid reasons is that I want to be called Doctor. I'm fortunate that my family is willing and able to support me for the next two years of school so I'll only have to work part-time, and I don't have children yet (though we'd like to). But once I move on to grad school I'll be down to part-time school, full-time work and possibly a baby in the mix. It's good to know that someone's been there first, is able to make it work, and doesn't regret it.

    1. Hi, and thanks for reading! One of the main things that I have to remind myself is that it's not a race, it's my life. I'm not trying to get to an arbitrary "finish line." I'm trying to get the experiences that I want throughout my life, and for me that means weaving all of these things that are important to me together. Good luck with your pursuit! One of my students just finished her bachelor's degree this year, and she's near 50. She'll be starting her Master's program in the fall.

  4. I finished my PhD for similar reasons. Although I am doing a total 180 now (although my original passion for my new career stemmed initially from my academic work), I am still glad I did it.

    For me a lot of it came down to this: I wanted to write a book on the subject I was researching. So I wrote a book on the subject I was researching. By the time I started thinking about changing careers, I had already come upon this awesome and under-research area, and I just couldn't let go off those voices. And I got paid to not let go of them. Granted, I barely got paid a living wage. But we made do, I managed to work mostly from home for the first 4 years of my kids' lives, and I wrote the book I wanted to write. Sometimes I cringe when I realize I will be 35 before I finally have a CAREER instead of a job (which is what academia was for me, and I was sort of aware of that all along -- or at least after my first totally naive years -- because I knew we wouldn't leave NYC). But I accomplished something I wanted to accomplish. That's not, as they say, nothing.

    (And I never had to take out a loan, which really would have changed the whole thing for me, I'm sure.)

    1. I think your point about your original passion growing into a new career path is a really important one. I think a lot of the frustrations graduate students face stem from realizing that their programs are very track-minded without leaving the flexibility for other possibilities open. And really, isn't possibility and flexibility what that in-depth level of thought is supposed to be about? Isn't that where we get our best ideas?