Monday, July 21, 2014

On (Not) Pursuing a Ph.D...

I have some news to share that I've been meaning to write about for a while. I wanted to wait until things were settled and they just about are now. You know how I said, in February, that was going to attend TWU? Well, I've decided that I'm not going to pursue my Ph.D after all. There're a lot of reasons, which I intend to share, but mostly it comes down to my comfort level with the idea and, moreso, with the idea becoming a reality.

So, after being accepted and feeling that initial rush of excitement, my emotions were all over the place. I couldn't think about it without feeling like I was drowning. Mostly, I chalked it up to being overwhelmed with the idea of pursuing a terminal degree and all that came with it. Oral comps? Written? A doctoral dissertation? A mountain of classwork? It all seemed like a lot... too much, in fact. But, I did the master's degree and everyone had said the doctorate is much the same process with the volume turned up. I could deal with that, even enjoy it.

Then Matt got a promotion. Let me say, right now, before this goes any further that I am so proud of him. Proud doesn't even seem like the right word. I'm ecstatic! He deserves this, he's earned it, and it's what I want for him. But, it came with a little caveat. We have to move, at some point, to another state. Since the Ph.D program I was accepted to isn't an online program that was going to be a problem. I tried not to think too much about it and when that failed I worried myself sick, but couldn't come to any solution.

Also, I don't have enough financial aid to finish it. I went to undergrad for so long, and went to graduate school, and I owe a lot of loan money. The government will only give you a certain amount before it stops forking over loans for education. I could go two semesters, maybe three, before I was going to have to figure out how to pay for it. The thing is, I don't want to take any more loans. I don't want to run deeper in debt to financial aid. Part of my trepidation about going seemed to be that I was about to go deeper in debt to pay for it.

And, however ridiculous this is, I realized I was only doing it to satisfy the sense of intense competition that has managed to grow between a friend and me over the last few years. It's unhealthy and I want it to stop, but I felt like if my friends were going, and I didn't, then I wouldn't matter anymore. That they would be better than me. That's what I told myself, somewhere in my subconscious, and no matter how hard my conscious mind tried to deny it, it never could. I knew it was happening, I just couldn't see how to stop it.

So, I talked to a friend about it, I talk about it with my mom, with Matt, and then finally with my therapist (as I was just beginning therapy). It wasn't until I mentioned it to my therapist, putting it all out there about my anxiety and the fact that we were going to have to move, that I realized the solution was so simple. I realized that, with all things being what they are, trying to go for a semester or two until we have to pack up and move was a waste of time, nerves, and financial aid money that I really don't have to spend. It was also my chance to break this cycle of competition that always has a way of making me feel less than. A cycle that always ends up making me feel like I didn't matter anyway.

This is when I decided I couldn't do it. That I wouldn't do it. However embarrassing it might be to tell people that I've changed my mind, that I was doing it for the wrong reasons, it would spare my sanity to finally do the thing I needed to do. I can't pursue a Ph.D to satisfy others, that makes no sense. So, now I'm trying not to worry that I'm letting anyone down. I'm trying not to worry that my professors who wrote me letters of recommendation won't be disappointed--or upset that they've wasted their time with me. I'm trying not to be concerned about how my FIL will react when he hears, because I have a feeling he's going to be unhappy.

But here's the thing. The state of academia is pretty terrible, too. I was going to pursue the Ph.D to increase my opportunities to teach, but that's foolish. A huge majority of adjuncts, which is what I am right now, have Ph.Ds. Maybe they make more money than me, but not much more. And, however much I enjoy it, I don't know that I want to get an education that will seal me up in academia--I don't think I want to teach forever.

What do you do with a Ph.D in Rhetoric other than to teach? Nothing I can think of and the idea that I was about to be even more over-educated contributed to the factors making me feel sick. It was part of that feeling of suffocation I had every time I thought about it. I don't want to be an adjunct forever, it's a thankless job where I don't know, from semester to semester, how many classes I'll have... or if I'll have any at all. It pays in pennies and the perception of fulfillment, neither of which will make my car payment... but that's really a very long discussion for another time. One I could say a lot about, but probably shouldn't right now.

The point is, there're too many factors playing against me here. So, I'm not going to go and, despite the idea that I should be feeling disappointed or disillusioned, all I can manage to feel is relieved. As my friends prepare to attend in August, and prepare to work out there teaching as part of an assistantship, I'm doing something else with myself and feeling pretty good about my ability to stop the cycle of competition and do something for myself. Even if, in this case, doing something actually means not doing it.


  1. I contemplated going for my PhD, Kristyn. For me, getting this degree would push me up two pay columns at my work, and open up opportunities for teaching at the college (especially over summer). Plus, as you know, my TWIN SISTER has a PhD, and managed to get hers with four kids. So me getting one was a no-brainer. Even Clint expected me to go for it. But the idea of going through the program made me miserable. I thought, "Here I am, finally in a position where life is stable enough for me to write my book, and this other, big, fat detraction wants to take over." Ultimately, I decided I couldn't justify getting a degree just to rise up to my sister's level, or to make my husband happy. I finally told him that my dream was never to get an advanced degree, but to write a book, and that's what I wanted to spend my free time doing. He was, and still is, VERY supportive of that decision, and I've never regretted it.

    Sorry, I didn't mean to ramble on about all that, but I guess what I'm saying is you can't get a degree to meet some kind of expectation you feel like others have on you, or you have on yourself. With your master's degree, you're already on the top-percentile of educated women in our nation, so be proud of what you've already accomplished. If a time comes when you feel a burning itch to get a PhD, then you know the time is right. Until then, life is too short to make decisions that are going to add stress and unhappiness to your days, and your family (even your FIL) will--or should--understand that.

    1. I really appreciate your insight, Jodi. Particularly since it sounds like we're in much the same place (though I have twin sister with which to compete, I do have a friend). Much like you, I decided I couldn't do this for other people. I had to do it for myself or not at all. I chose not at all.

    2. That should say: NO twin sister with which to compete.

  2. Kristyn, I think this is a good decision! I ran out of student loans my last year in the program, and had to fork over $16,000 OUT OF POCKET to finish my degree. And that amount was based on far less units because I was doing my internship. And here's the thing--Ph.Ds don't automatically correlate with more money. At my work, those with doctorate degrees make the exact same as those with their master's, because they all can provide therapy. It was only becoming licensed that got me a big raise. So my degree was useful to me only because it allowed me to sit for licensure (and I still couldn't do that until I had done a year of POST-doc hours!) . But if I had pursued a degree that didn't lead to licensing (like Organizational Psychology), it wouldn't of been much use to me.
    Another thing: That feeling of wanting to keep up with others doesn't go away once you have the degree. I think I have always felt like I have to do MORE, that it was never good enough. Now I am a psychologist, but I STILL feel it. I feel it with my sister, who is an amazing writer, and seems to have such a colorful life. I feel it with my neighbor, who doesn't work, but is the most amazing, energetic mom to her 5 kids. I feel it with my coworker, who is actually in a lower paying job than me, but carries herself with such poise and confidence. No matter where I am in my life, I feel like others are doing this whole life thing better than me. I have gotten to a point of peaceful acceptance of this, but I can still feel it there.
    So good for you for figuring out that you need to work this out emotionally, instead of trying to fix an internal issue with an external solution. You just saved yourself tens of thousands of dollars and a great deal of heartache.

    1. Shannon, thank you. I knew I couldn't be the only one who felt like this, but I can see from you and Jodi that it's not just me. I hadn't quite thought about it in terms of trying to fix an internal problem with external solutions, but you're absolutely right. That's what I was trying to do. Now, I'm trying to stop that. I don't think I'll ever stop feeling completely less than, but I'm trying and therapy is starting to help me.

      I remember talking about this with you and Jodi, over dinner, when I was out there once and your advice then was to really think about it and about not doing it. You had told me about the money issue, which is a big deal for me. I'm already to the point where I wonder what's going to happen when it comes time to pay back the loans I currently owe. Adding to that can only make me feel worse, not better.

      Ultimately, though, I have to do what I think is going to get me to the right place in my life. It's nice to know I'm not alone there. Whether that be Jodi who has written what I'm sure is an AWESOME book, instead of going to grad school again. Or with you, who went and now has the experience to share. And you're absolutely right, education doesn't = money. Particularly in academia, where jobs are scarce and becoming even moreso by the year. The prospects are absolutely terrifying.

  3. I think you made a solid, educated decision that you can and will be happy with in the long run. I am still about 1-2 years from completing my BA in Journalism (should really be only 1 but I'm taking my sweet ass time to prevent anxiety levels from going through the roof) and am already contemplating whether to go to graduate school. Plenty of time to figure that out, thankfully.

    I wish you and your husband all the best.