What am I doing again? PhD update

POTD #44: Scripture Study Materialsphoto © 2008 Stephanie Hawver | more info (via: Wylio)

There are two questions I hear most about my recent undertaking of a doctoral program: 1) What’s it like? and 2) What are you going to do with that?

First, in case you haven’t known me for very long, a bit about my personality. I’ve always been an academic overachiever: I was my own Tiger Mother. An A- was not good enough.  And then, I learned the freedom of failing.  My High School years were spent alternating between the extremes of overachieving and seeking to please my teachers and breaking all the rules and flunking.  In my college years, I have received University honors for my grades as well as academic probation.  At the end of the day, I can best explain my checkered academic past by recognizing that I will do my own thing no matter what, and I am pleased when it lines up with what is expected of me, but I am okay when it doesn’t, too.  There is no shame in failing, in my opinion, only another opportunity to learn.  That never makes it sting any less, though.  Also, it makes it very hard to explain my transcripts.

All of my past experiences and opinions inform what I experience now: that much is certain.  I am also certain that I am a little bit fuzzy on the details of why I decided to take the leap to the “other side” and begin my doctoral studies. I vaguely remember being very sure about it at the time, that it was a way to enhance and further both my knowledge and career.  At the beginning of my third semester (and hurtling towards prelims), I am less certain.  This post is an attempt to explain why, both for myself and for those who ask me about what is like for me in this situation. Here is what I know:

  1. I am no longer convinced that a PhD will further my career.
  2. I am pretty sure that the typical Academic job (teaching, research, tenure, etc) will not be available for me upon completing my degree due to the Recession, the lack of tenure-track positions (in favor of adjuncts), and my unwillingness to up-root my family.
  3. Despite those things, I love every minute of what I am doing. Every minute.

See, I’ve been reading a lot lately about Higher Education, a realm of our educational system I largely ignored before. After all, it was K-12 I was interested in, and just as many Higher Ed folks look down their noses at the K-12 world (it’s more common than I realized before entring the ivory tower), I just ignored the Higher Ed world.  This myopia led me to stumble into my Higher Ed experience, with no other expectation except that there would be lots of smart people (which there are).

But back to my readings.  Here is a re-cap of what has crossed my feed lately: “The disposable academic: Why doing a Phd is often a waste of time,” and this chilling indictment of how bad it can get in the academe, “because: a manifesto.”  These are just a small sampling of the doom-and-gloom crossing across my internet feeds,  and they are the ones, because of the truths they present, that make me doubt what I am doing.

That being said, I love being in school again. I get to read what I want, explore ideas and issues of my own curiosity because that is what I am expected to do. I know what an unbelievable luxury this is! Not that I haven’t always done this to some degree, but now I can give myself fully to this endeavor without apologizing. I finally have enough room to explore. Additionally, I can even design experiments of my own creation to poke and prod and figure out what it is that’s going on when students learn and write and use technology to do so.  I get pure, unadulterated joy out of this. Every minute is heaven.  And that is why I won’t quit, because even if my career goes nowhere, and the degree is as worthless as The Economist insinuates it is, I know I will be able to say that I had fun getting there.

The ivory tower is a crazy place, but no crazier than any other place I’ve worked. I have heard the horror stories, have known those who’ve adjuncted for little pay and no benefits, and seen grad students crumble and quit from the pressure.  I’ve also seen colleagues thrive, get the perfect job, and are optimistic and fulfilled by their careers.  I can’t account for the differences. What I can do is hope for the best, all the while enjoying the process and doing my best work.  Really, for all this gnashing of teeth, where is the future certain? Where in the world are we guaranteed the path will get us where we need to be? I choose optimism in the face of uncertainty. And coffee. Lots of coffee.

More things to be optimistic about in Higher Ed:


  1. Enjoyed getting the status update on your Ph.D work. Interestingly, as I walked to work today, I composed in my head a post about hope, which I’m planning to compose soon. So I’m right there with you when it comes to taking the optimistic position.

  2. Don’t be disheartened by the article in the economist – it’s hardly likely to paint a picture of something as creative as a Phd in a positive light as the immediate outcomes don’t necessarily equate to financial gain. The key things are … Are you learning? Are you creating something new in the world? Are you enjoying it? Is it making you a better … You?

    1. Thanks for the response, Barry. I agree: I feel pretty happy with what I am doing, and I am completely comfortable looking for both academic and non-academic jobs when I am finished. I love the way the landscape of higher ed is changing: what an exciting time! I realize not everyone feels that way, but I am 100% sure that I am learning, creating new things, enjoying it, and becoming a better Me along the way 🙂

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