Saturday, January 06, 2007

Academic Crossroads

I'm getting close to being done with my M.A. degree and so I need to decide whether to continue on in the PhD program. I very conflicted about this. It's difficult to get any honest advice from faculty. I shouldn't really say that they lack honesty, it's just that they are trying to be nice and not get too involved in my decision. I can understand. So far I have talked with three different professors but I don't feel any closer to a decision.

My adviser was the most honest I think. In our field there are lots of jobs at the moment, so she encouraged me to take a break and work in an office for a while to see if I like it. She thinks I can always come back for the PhD. Unfortunately, I got some less than perfect advice when I started grad school and so despite having a graduate degree in my field, I don't have a "professional" degree and as a result my ability to get a job in an office and eventually get a professional certification is in doubt. Basically, despite having taken the classes and gained the skills, the university won't give me the piece of paper. Theoretically I could reapply to the university as an undergrad and spend a year and $20,000 to get the correct piece of paper, but I don't have $20,000 and I'm not at all sure that I could get financial aid for a second bachelor's degree. Right now, since Beorn is an undergrad, our main source of income is my salary from research assistant/teaching assistant positions.

On the other hand, the graduate degree adviser told me that I should be able to finish my PhD in two more years, since I'm taking three years to finish my MA. In his opinion that schedule would put me "back on track," academically. Sounds great, except would I be able to find a job? At that point Beorn would be starting grad school and I would be starting an academic job search. How realistic would that be? Although I have been able to constantly find RA/TA work, I don't have any funding for my research and it seems doubtful that I'll get much help getting funding, so how much time am I going to have in the next few years to concentrate on getting published?

Professor #3, who gave me the bad advice at the beginning of my grad program, seemed convinced that I should pursue a PhD, but was totally clueless about the financial difficulties/sacrifices that this might entail. He said things like, "you do a PhD because you have a burning desire to find out something about the world." Great, I know that I have lots of intellectual curiosity and that I can work hard, but I also want things like kids and a house and a decent standard of living. He also seemed to think that I should go elsewhere for my PhD because I have already gotten the benefit of the experience/knowledge of the professors at this U. and so I could go to another U. and learn more from other profs. If I had unlimited time and money I could spend the rest of my life in school, bowing at the feet of these intellectual giants. When I pointed out the difficulty of a household with dual academic careers he said, "what's the problem, I know lots of people that have done that." So because you know some people who have done it, it must be no problem? What about all the people that struggle and have trouble?

My problem with getting advice from these people is that they all have cushy jobs at a R1 university. They are the lucky ones. In fact, until recently professors in my field didn't get PhDs, so two of these people don't have PhDs. The other one has a PhD in a vaguely related field and had a professorship at Big Ag U. in that field. He decided that he liked this field better and managed to get his professorship transfered into this department. So he actually has a lot less practical/professional experience in this field than I do (he's very well respected and productive on the theoretical side though.) Also, these professors come from privileged backgrounds, so I think they have little idea about struggling financially, or balancing work for money with school and family life.


StyleyGeek said...

I hate it when profs just don't *get it*. When I finished up my MA in Germany, my supervisor was trying to persuade me to stay on and do a PhD with him as supervisor. We had so many conversations where I explained patiently that Geekman needed to find a job in physics within commuting distance of where ever I did a PhD, and that he was trying all the nearby unis but I couldn't commit myself to anything unless he found work.

The prof just kept saying, "Sometimes you have to put your own needs first" and "I'm sure he can make some sacrifices for you."

He didn't get that (1) if we could find a place where Geekman could work and I could do a PhD, he wouldn't HAVE to make sacrifices, so surely that had to be our first option, and (2) what he described as "putting my own needs first" was hardly a small thing, but asking Geekman to either do NOTHING for three years (destroying his own career in the process) while we lived off a PhD scholarship in the most expensive city in the country, or working in a dead-end non-physics job, also destroying his own career.


Anyway, sorry about hijacking your comments for my own little rant.

I hope you are able to come to a decision about the PhD that you feel comfortable with.

Breena Ronan said...

Styley, your rant is completely appropriate. Sometimes I feel like a lot of older faculty members are just so self-absorbed that they don't notice how their choices affect others. In the earlier part of the century male academics could just expect their wives to follow them throughout their careers, but I would think that men who were in college/grad school in the late 60's and early 70's would have experienced some "consciousness raising." Maybe ivy league schools weren't that affected by the cultural turmoil?

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I completely get it... both hubby and I have had issues like this with our dissertation supervisors... his was trying to get him to give up a job that is leading to a tenure-track job to come back to MN -- at the same time that the department was cutting funding for people in his cohort!

Why not go for the office job for a year or two (don't tell them that), and see if you really want to do the PhD? I don't know your field, but I can't see that a year or two off between MA and PhD would hurt your PhD chances and the experience might help getting an academic job.

On the other hand, if you can finish a PhD fast and avoid having two of you in grad school at the same time, it might be worth a shot.... if you really want an acaemic career. The problem with having two academics in the family is that you often have to spend a few years living apart before you can get jobs in the same city.

BlondebutBright said...

I completely understand your struggle! I would recommend hearing from others that have advanced degrees and haven't found the perfect academic job - unfortunately, they're in the majority. You could check out the WRK4US listserve - lots of great info and advice. Good luck!

Dharma said...

Quite the dilemma. Given that rather than doing the proscribed and supposedly doable accelerated 4 semester masters, I am doing it in seven the prospects of pursuing a PhD - kinda murky. Privilege does impact the advice given, important to recognize that.