Recently a T&S reader emailed me asking for my advice on the graduate school questions: is graduate education a worthwhile option for a young woman who intends to have children? I wrote back to her (rather astonishing myself at how much I found to say), and I’ve posted here my reply.
A Ph.D. in English had been a long-standing dream and goal for me throughout college (the degree itself—and the process of earning it, of course—was always more attractive to me than the prospect of an actual career in academia). I took the GRE while I was in the MTC, and a few weeks after I returned from my mission I began the process of grad school application. The admission letters began arriving the weekend after I got engaged to my husband, a med student in San Diego, and to my devastation I was admitted almost everywhere except UCSD. My decision to get married seemed, from that perspective, to foreclose the possibility of graduate study for me; it was a real blow, and I felt for a time that it was a sign from God that I was not to pursue graduate education. Fortunately, there was ram in the thicket: in San Diego, I was able to take graduate seminars as an adjunct student while I worked part-time as a nanny, I formed relationships with faculty members and proved that I had the goods, re-applied, and was admitted the following year to the PhD track. I fell pregnant at the end of my second year, when I had completed the most rigorous years of coursework, and took the summer off. When my daughter was about five months old I went back to school; I quit teaching at that point, so my only responsibility away from home was a once-a-week three-hour seminar (there was quite a lot of at-home work, of course, and I took full advantage of naptime!). I completed my qualifying exams at the end of my third year, and I became pregnant with my second child shortly after that. My husband completed his graduate work and transitioned back into medical school then, leaving him with no flexibility and almost no free time, so at that point my daughter began going to a babysitter for about ten hours a week until my son was born. I finished the first two chapters of the dissertation before Jack arrived, leaving only the last chapter to produce afterward. Fortunately, my husband’s schedule was very flexible during his fourth year of med school, so when Jack was about four months old I began working in earnest on that last chapter. To my amazement, everything came together in a few months, and I finished and defended my dissertation before we moved away from San Diego (and before all but one of my cohort of classmates finished, I might add!). At every point along the way, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to continue, but somehow (well, not just somehow–with a lot of work, organization, and support) things always worked out.
Graduate school is hard: PhDs are long (five years minimum), expensive, sometimes unpleasant, and yield uncertain career prospects. You need to be clear about what a graduate education will cost you, and how well it will serve your goals. (I’m taking it for granted here that you want to get married and stay home with your children at some point—I assume that’s why you asked my advice on this issue; if you don’t, then a lot of what follows won’t apply to you.) If you have to pay for graduate school, I’d think twice—and then again—about going: almost all programs worth your time will fund you, and if they won’t you might want to think hard about your prospects. The issue of debt, like it or not, is particularly tricky for women: if you incur a lot of student debt, you may later be forced to work to pay it off when you’d rather be home with your children, or else rely on your husband’s single income to pay off (most likely) two student debt loads. Graduate training is time intensive, generally a five-year minimum, and if it’s important to you to get some time in the workplace before you have kids, you’d probably be better served at business or law school, which will spit you into the professional world sooner. If you think it will be important to you to work part-time outside the home after you have children, then something like nursing or teaching will probably serve you better—unless you like the idea of adjunct work, and some people do (just not me!).
Yeah, graduate school is hard. It was also, for me, exhilarating, enjoyable from day to day, and deeply satisfying. You need to consider the costs, of course, but you also need to be clear on the rewards, which, for me, were great. The intellectual benefits of formal graduate training are real: the exercises I undertook in critical reading, writing and rhetoric profoundly shaped the way I approach intellectual problems and permanently changed (for better or worse, I guess!) the way I read and write, and the sheer brute effort of assimilating and internalizing large amounts of information required a mental discipline I’d never enjoyed before. The sustained effort required to complete my degree fostered concentration and organization, and my supportive relationship with my advisor and colleagues gave me a deep current of confidence in my ability to participate in the professional world. And although I never entered the job market—and never intended to, really—my degree has brought me personal and professional opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered.
I’ve heard it argued that women can derive the same benefits from informal education—night classes at a community college, self-directed readings, etc—as they can from formal training. I strenuously disagree with this, and I feel that it’s unfair to suggest to women that this is so. There are real personal benefits to the kind of informal self-education I describe, to be sure, and it can be a richly rewarding experience. But it simply won’t provide the same intellectual and professional benefits that formal training will: the rigor of deadlines and directed readings, the collegiality of seminars and advisors, and the mental work required to conduct original research and produce significant writing will be absent. Believe me, I’ve done it both ways, and there’s almost no comparison to be made. None of the benefits of formal training are at all important in an eternal moral scheme, of course, and I’m making absolutely no relative judgment between women who pursue informal versus formal educations; I’m just saying that if those things are important to you, you’ll only find them in a rigorous formal program.
Above all, you need to evaluate these costs and benefits by yourself, according to your own desires and objectives; simply smile and disregard those who tell you you’re being selfish, or naive, or whatever (have people really said this to you? sheesh!). Close friends and relatives can be valuable advisors, but you’ll need to learn to ignore unwanted advice or perceived judgements—and the sooner the better. Not so much because you’ll encounter disapproval at church–I experienced very little of this from church members, honestly—but because you’ll undoubtedly encounter it at school. Unless you go to BYU, you’ll almost certainly face criticism and misunderstanding for your faith from colleagues in your program, and you’ve got to learn to soldier on past what people choose to think of your choices.
Let me, then, pose a few questions.
1) Do you really love the process—not just the outcome, in the form of degree or job—of academic research? If you want to combine graduate work and motherhood, there’s a real chance that at some point things won’t work out, and you’ll have to quit school. If that happens, the time and effort you’ve invested won’t be wasted if you’ve really loved what you’ve been doing.
2) Is now the best time to do this? If your goal is to land a tenure-track position, you might want to wait until later in life to earn your degree, because a ten- or fifiteen-year-old degree that’s been put on the shelf while you raise your kids probably won’t be worth much on the job market. Of course, the longer you’re out of the academic world, the more difficult it will be to get back into it: I observed that the older grad students in my program faced some real challenges, no matter how smart and motivated they were.
3) Do you really have what it takes to compete? The best grad school programs are highly competitive, and populated with really, really smart (if often a little lazy and self-indulgent) students. Have you received the kind of feedback from professors and mentors that suggests that you really have the ability and skills? The students in my program who were the most unhappy were those who felt insecure in their abilities, and among these there was a high rate of attrition.
If you do decide to go ahead with graduate school and motherhood—congratulations! Under the right conditions, it’s very doable and a lot of fun. Here’s some advice culled from my experience.
Timing: If at all possible, jump right into a PhD program (unless an MA is the terminal degree in your discipline). MAs are often expensive, unfunded, and, frankly, a waste of time from a professional point of view—and from a biological point of view, if you want to have your kids relatively young (as I did). Don’t tell yourself that you’ll do a master’s just to see if you like academia: if you don’t already know you like it, chances are you won’t. Once you’re in the program, don’t have a baby until you’ve completed the most rigorous years of coursework (generally the first two) and have got a good handle on what your research will entail: putting off kids for a few years will let you be home with them more when you do have them, and will let you get some years of graduate teaching under your belt, which is valuable CV filler. After you have a baby, take some time off (I needed at least four months) but not too much: the longer you’re out of touch with your program and your research, the more difficult it is to step back in.
Childcare: You’re going to need some, and, unless you’re in a really unusual situation, your husband won’t be able to provide all you need. My advice is to pick an upper weekly limit—for me it was ten hours a week—and stick with it: if you exceed your limit, or don’t have an established limit at all, you’ll feel guilty. But don’t feel guilty or negligent for using a reasonable amount of childcare: even non-student SAHMs often use up to ten hours of childcare a week, especially if they’re regular gym goers! It was always important to me to provide all the actual care for my children, so I arranged the schedule so that I would always be the one feeding them meals and putting them to sleep; however, this might not be as important to other moms. And speaking of naps, take full advantage! For many months, my daughter would go to the babysitter’s for two hours in the morning, and then would take a 2-3 hour nap in the afternoon, so if I was disciplined I could put in a full 4-5 hours of work, which rivals (or exceeds!) the time any other grad student has available.
Combining two lives: Do everything that you possibly can with your kids, so that you can save your free hours for real reading and writing. You’d be surprised at how much you can do with the kids: when my babies were small I’d put them in the sling and pick up items from the library (thank heavens for remote access and the “Request” button!), drop off and pick up mail and papers from school, even meet with professors. For this to work, you must be organized, however, and I cannot overstate the importance of organization in combining motherhood and school. Fortunately, I found that motherhood made me more organized: I learned to live by and love schedules and routine, I learned to manage and organize many different items and pieces of information, and I found that the scarcity of my time forced me to use it more efficiently. Parenthood, that is, made me a better scholar; I firmly believe this, and it’s not at all surprising to me that my only other colleague (also LDS) who, with me, graduated in normative time, also had two kids during graduate school, while none of our other colleague had small children. Unfortunately, I have not found that the converse is true: graduate school has not made me a better mother, except for providing me with a sanity-preserving outlet. There’s just too little overlap between the kind of specialized knowledge and skills I acquired in graduate school and the mundane, general tasks that constitute day-to-day mothering. There are lot of good reasons to go to graduate school, but its effect on your parenting skills is not one of them (except, as I mentioned, as an outlet).
Above all, of course, be sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit, if they’re forthcoming. I have a sister who broke nearly all the “rules” I’ve outlined here in response to a persistent prompting from the Spirit, and she’s had a spectacularly successful experience in her graduate program.