Late night thoughts on getting a Ph.D.

Aquatint of a Doctor of Divinity at the Univer...

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Anthonio. In sooth I know not why I am so sad,
It wearies me: you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuffe ’tis made of, whereof it is borne,
I am to learne: and such a Want-wit sadnesse makes of me,
That I have much ado to know my self.

(Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 1)

OK, OK, it’s not that bad. I dramatize. I soliloquize. But that lament pretty much reflects my state of mind for most of August and into September, where I had a storm in my head as I debated why I was in school and what I wanted out of it. It was all I could think of or talk about, and I look back at myself now and wonder at the mental and emotional fits I was giving myself. I’m sure I became a bit of a bore to my friends as this topic drove other more earthly concerns out of the limited crawlspace that is my head.

Ever since I started grad school, I’ve collected various links in my delicious account tagged gradschool and academic. I’ve been bemused by the number of writers who describe the PhD experience as depressing, dispiriting, a slog, something to be managed rigorously or die, etc. (Maybe only the folks who really hated the experience blogged about it?) At the very least, it’s a serious business. Here are links to what I mean:

Now, to be fair, the advice most of these folks have runs along the same lines and it sounds pretty sensible: Know what you want and why you’re there. You’re on your own. Be focused. The job market is tough and getting tougher. Manage your adviser. Be prepared to be frustrated.

The first person who suggested the idea to me was a professor from Spring 2007, who ended his email with, “Stop laughing! I’m serious!”

My mentor, The Indefatigable Cassidy, makes it a point to bring it up in conversation at least once a semester and she has promised to step up that cycle as time goes on.

And when I mention the idea to peers at the school or even to civilians, their response is very positive. (See my earlier post on hallway conversations.) My social reality is echoing back to me, with a puzzled expression on its face, “I thought you were already a doc student. It suits you.” For whatever reason — my posture, my insane good looks, my carelessly thrown together wardrobe — I give off the doctoral vibe like cheap aftershave. So maybe the folks around me know something about me that I don’t.

But ever since I’ve started grad school, my reply has been a firm “No.” The PhD involves work and activity far beyond what I thought I wanted to or could do, beyond what I thought I wanted out of a degree, and beyond my chosen performance level. Why make life harder by investing immense hours and energies for what may be only marginal value? Why bang my head against an ivory wall for 5 years and then face the cold cruel world of academic careerdom, where my previous 20+ years of workforce experience would add little to my reputation?

Some of my friends and advisers are saying, “You think too much. Just do it.” That’s a valid point. But I do feel I have a little more to lose by doing a PhD now than in, say, my 20s or 30s. Apart from the monetary loss, there is less time to make a course correction if I make the wrong bet.

I have many reasons why I should say “Yes.”

  • My current career has sputtered to its end. My jobs over the last decade carried me away from the latest technologies and trends, so I’m very much out of step technically and methodologically.
  • My current job, though perfectly OK as a job, and was there for us when I really needed work, has not much more to offer me these days. Advancing in the company means selling out more of myself.
  • I think the risk of staying where I am is greater than the risk of trying something new. This is a prime motivator.
  • The professor I would be working with has basically invited me to join her and her team. This is hugely flattering and validating to me. I would still have to apply and compete for a position, of course, but I’m a known quantity and I’m sure I would make a strong candidate.
  • Honestly, I’m in my natural element in a classroom. Also, I’ve acquired very good self-management and other skills that enable me to make the most of my talents and skills without also fighting against myself so much.
  • I’ve always seen myself as a lifelong student. This transition would certainly solidify that image.
  • The friends I’m starting to make and the people I come into contact with are all tremendously supportive of me. So while the PhD is a solo effort, I’m not going into this alone.

Why am I hesitating?

  • Is this the subject area I want to pursue? I’ll know more in the spring, when I take an independent study.
  • Can I picture myself doing professorial/research-y things? I’m having trouble with that. I had hoped to have 6-12 months to settle into the idea (I’m a slow learner).
  • It’s hard for me to decouple the idea of acquiring the degree from how to pay for it. Yes, there’s the fellowship, but I’m not living in an apartment with 3 other roommates. There’s our personal infrastructure (car, house) to maintain.
  • My coach had a great question for me when I started this master’s project. He asked me what my goal was. “To get my master’s degree,” I said. “No,” he said. “That’s what happens on the way to your goal. Who will you be the day after you graduate? What will you be doing? That’s your goal.” I must admit, I never had a clear picture of what the day after would look like until recently, when I’d decided that, yes, the PhD looks better now than it did before.
  • I’d long decided that I’d graduate in May 2010. The robes, the hat, the family pictures, everything. But. Fellowships for this program have been announced that run from 2009-2011. I’ve been advised (and it’s good advice) to skip the master’s, transfer in the hours I’ve already completed, and I’ll be more than halfway done with the course requirements. This means giving up the 2010 plan, which provided us time to get things ready for the day after graduation. The timetable has moved up and my plans have to be shifted, and I’m traditionally ill at ease when things don’t go according to plan or I feel that I’m rushed.

One of my advisors (I have an informal board of advisors — friends who I can talk to about serious decisions and who provide a range of valuable advice on these matters) said to take the opportunity, hide out in academe while the economy sorts itself out, and get started on the next phase of my life.

There is also the feeling that the wave is cresting. I need to ride this wave while it’s building and let its energy sweep me along. I need to trust that the resources I need will be there when I need them.

That said — why do I not feel excited? This scenario is what I was welcoming 18 months from now — why is it not so welcoming today? Because I feel I’m not ready? Because it seems too big of a step? Because because because…

Thinking too much! The curse of the late-night intellectual…

Update: Hill reminds me of something I should add: I have absolutely no illusions that the academy offers a workplace that’s any different from the workplaces I’ve experienced over the last 25 years. There will be different stressors, friendly and difficult personalities, arbitrary authority to answer to, etc. I’ve worked as a staff member at both a small and a large college, and when you pass through the veil from student to staff (and faculty are staff, in my opinion), you start seeing a lot of activity that was hidden from view, rather like the way Disneyworld elves surreptitiously clean up after you on Main Street.

As Hill reminds me, the sooner I kill the romantic illusions that academe fosters, the more I’ll benefit from what the experience can offer.

Update: “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.” Also: “Ride the horse in the direction it’s going.”

Update: (You know, at some point, I should just start a new post…) NCSU (my alma mater — LWE, 1983) offers some juicy graduate programs through its College of Humanities and Social Sciences , especially this one, which looks quite exciting. This is one I should investigate, simply on its own merits.

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