Thursday, February 05, 2004

Two weeks ago (a long time in the land of ejournals), I promised over at Sya's to get to this eventually, and finally, I am.

Two writers shared different perspectives on the following question asked by prospective students:

"Should I get a PhD?"

The original comes from an English professor, who believes the response is in three parts; the follow up is from a biology professor. Both agree that the first part of the answer is "probably not."

I say, the answer is completely individual, and you shouldn't let anyone extinguish your dreams. You can consider the source of this perspective; I'm a former academic administrator, currently an adjunct in the education field, and in that role one of my duties (besides a significant teaching load) is advising prospective and new graduate students. Once I finished my bachelor's degree, I knew that someday, I would get a master's degree. Then, after that degree was in hand, my new goal became a doctorate - eventually.

Did I link that up with some sort of economic calculus? Only in the most general way. I do encounter students for whom that is the only consideration, the "I must get an A or my future is ruined because I won't be able to go to the best graduate school, which means I won't get the job I want," type, and I shake my head. (I understand in some places such a calculation is taking place at the nursery school level. Sad.) I think it's great to get an A, if it is a gauge of your level of learning. Otherwise, what is the point?

Now, this is not to say that graduate school - and the dissertation stage of getting a doctorate - is easy, or always pleasant. Sometimes it is awful, mostly it is tiring, and it seems endless. There will be years of missing television programs (not a bad thing, actually), social events (including important ones), and pleasure reading. Holidays arrive, and instead of being enjoyable, they are one more task to get through. Laundry and dishes pile up, and money is often scarce. But you know what? Eventually it becomes a pleasant memory. It takes a while, but it happens.

On the next part of the answer, there was some disagreement. The first professor believes "before you get yourself into a PhD program, go get a job for a year or two." The second professor has mixed feelings, among them the thought that "it takes a long time to get where you're going [in academe], and putting it off for another year or two to work on something else just means you'll be a year or two closer to geezerhood..."

Hmm. I guess I have mixed feelings about this too. It is another personal decision, there is only so much a mentor can tell you. Some people are able to breeze through undergraduate, to graduate, and be done in a remarkably short time. Others don't have that inclination - or that financial support (or desire to shoulder that level of loan burden, or that much delay in the accumulation of material possessions). On the other hand, life is a process, and a journey, not a destination. So what's the hurry? (A geezer or a sprout, who cares?)

I think it is always a good idea to get a job for a while, but unlike the first professor's view, whether that job requires a college degree doesn't matter so much. I think nonprofessional jobs can have important lessons to teach, as well. And I don't think it is necessary to take time off from school to do it. Working while going to school at the same time is valuable. It raises the appreciation for the luxury of just working, or just going to school. It makes me think of something my father said to me when I complained about a fairly good job I had years ago: "it's not a bad way to make a living." I remembered waitressing in a bowling alley, and working as a temp secretary in an insurance company, and a stint at Burger King (yes, I did all three and more), and I knew what he said was true. Juggling translates to the development of wonderful time management and organizational skills. I've done school part-time and full-time, I worked between my bachelor's degree and master's degree, and I worked full-time while in the Ph.D. program, until I was at the dissertation stage. Twenty-two years after I stepped on a college campus as a freshman I walked across a stage and received my doctorate. Was it worth it? Yes.

For the third part of the answer, the first professor admonishes to "remember the laws of supply and demand," while the second professor warns about having to yank up roots while wandering around the country for jobs.

Both of those things are true. Most academics do nationwide job searches, worried about finding a position at all, and land in places they may not have chosen if the market was more open. I have deep roots in upstate New York, and I am not leaving here. That decision - well, I guess it wasn't a decision, because it was never on the table - but that life choice did not stand in the way of me doing what I want. I have never found a shortage of opportunity. You just need to know what is important to you, and how to get it. That long 22 year journey, from 16 year old college freshman to Dr. Gina clarified a lot of things for me. I'm simply not willing to rip up my roots. There is such a thing as "enough money." At the same time, I have not had to resort to working in a job I did not want, or that did not require a doctorate, to stay here. And believe me, I have plenty of material things - actually, much more than I really need.

I love learning. I love teaching, and I really, really like college students. I like to wear many hats, and I like not being too tied down to a position. I did that, as an administrator, and it was enjoyable for a while. Then I got tenure, and shortly afterwards, I resigned! Now I am an adjunct, somewhat, but not completely invisible. And guess what? I love it!

So that was my take, for what it is worth (about three cents).

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