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The Academic's Connundrum: Studies vs. ?????


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So, like many of you, I've spent most of this past week and weekend commiserating over a really great problem--choosing between two great options for Ph.D study. I've lost a lot of sleep and cried a few times, and now just want to hear some thoughts from other people (kind, please) about my decision making process and the options laid before me. I'm a little older (not THAT old, but not in my 20s anymore), and have a family (SO+two step kids in tow who may, or may not, be with us).

My decision seems to come down to choosing either what I think is best for my family overall at a program where I could achieve my academic goals, or choosing the program I'm most excited about but will be more challenging for my family. My SO is supportive and has said they will relocate wherever I want to go for school, provided that they can choose our next move in 5 years. I am fine with this arrangement.

So, am I being selfish in choosing the program I want? Or am I avoiding unnecessary stress by choosing the one that's better for my family? I've profiled them below, with the program I like more first:

Option 1: A brand new program (I'd be part of the second cohort) at an Ivy school that I never ever thought I'd get into

Things I like:

  • The cohort I'm coming in with
  • The program is really supportive, and the faculty are available
  • I'd be able to nurture my creative side (lots of poetry writing in addition to my studies!)
  • There would be support for me as I navigate family challenges (a question I asked many times)
  • Classes I would really enjoy taking
  • The money is right (5 years guaranteed + 4 summers with a great stipend) and would relieve a lot of stress on my SO
  • Lots of attention because there aren't many graduate students
  • Only have to teach 1 year


    Things less great:
    • Not really the best fit for my family overall, though we could make things work
    • Still figuring out exactly which professors I would work with (this may be a function of the fact that everyone in the department studies something related to what I study, and less about a lack of fit)
    • The "discipline" is new, and interdisciplinary, so will I actually get a job when I'm done?
    • Have to figure out how to relocate while we're super short on funds (which in this economy is like......sigh....)


      Option 2: An established program at an excellent state school (R1) that used to be my dream school a few years back

      Things I like:

      • The cohort I'm coming in with
      • Things will be much easier on the family
      • I could chart out my whole dissertation committee almost and could identify an advisor and a mentor
      • The program has good placement rates
      • The discipline is established
      • We live in the same state as this school so relocation, while still a challenge, isn't a deal breaker

      Things less great:

      [*]The money is barely right the first year, and not right at all in the following years, which adds a lot of stress to my SO

      [*]I would likely take some classes at a nearby private school because the state school doesn't have everything I need (this could also be considered a plus); so it'll be a challenge figuring out how to negotiate family schedules

      [*]Would have to teach for 4 years, but only a 1-1 load (still, again, draw on family time)

      [*]The program is larger, and I get the sense I could sometimes get lost

      [*]I get the sense the school is probably not so accommodating with family challenges (not because they don't care, but because they are a larger institution)

      Does anyone out there have any insight, or are you making similar decisions between family (or something else) and your academic dreams?

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I would seriously consider option number one because of the funding, the small supportive program and that your SO is willing to move. I have recently had the same thoughts about choosing an interdisciplinary program and have been told by respected professors that it will not make a difference as long as I publish, go to conferences and do interesting work. These profs say all PHDs in humanities are problematic because there just are not a lot of jobs out there period and it is best to follow the funding (which a lot of interdisciplinary programs have). Even though option one is interdisciplinary it sounds like you will have a great opportunity to do new and exciting work being that it is a small program, and it sounds like you will be able to build a name for yourself there more so than at a large program that won't guarantee funding/be as supportive.

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Having a chance to go to a school you never thought you would get into is definitely something to keep in mind (something I share with you). But as I'm sure you know, this economy isn't that great and probably won't be for a while to come. I have been thinking a lot about the fact that there just aren't that many jobs in the humanities anymore. I know a few people--well-published people--from top Ivies that have phds in the humanities that don't have tenure track positions and are having less than a good time on the job market and their family situations (due mainly to flying around the country for any and every kind of interview, dealing with debt from undergrad/masters, financial burdens being on one spouse, etc.). I'm not sure if the discipline of your second choice is in the humanities, but if it's not, that choice would look slightly more appealing to me at this point. I would hate to have (which it looks like it might be the case for me right now) 5+ years of a great education and not be so sure what would come of it at the other end--especially if I will be competing with the so many other humanities phds (perhaps from more established fields and programs or respected scholars). Another thing is age. I'm in my mid 20s and unmarried with no kids. I don't know what it's like to have an SO or [step]kids to think about with something so pressing as this. But I do feel if I had the chance to be with my wife and kids and be relatively more sure of what my life would be like 5 years down the road (especially if I would be close to the age you would be when the program is over when chancing things may be more taxing), I would go with the state school that does indeed have a good placement rate and is well-known. I know I would relish the time I could take to spend with my family when things get too hectic or even build more of a strong/healthy life with my partner. Money, of course should be thought about. You say the money isn't right at all for the state school. Is it supplementably comparable to what you are individually earning now to combine with your SO? Will your SO have to work more because funding is lacking? Do they mind since at the end of the day the family will be together in a familiar environment with few(er) life-changing disruptions? Is the stipend (at choice one) enough for the whole family (since they may or may not be with you) while your SO can find a job at the location of choice one if they haven't already acquired one? These are the things I would think about, and of course you are thinking about as well.

Another thing, perhaps not as significant, it's probably not the case that you will end up teaching/researching at an Ivy when your are done. You may very well end up in a state school. What you would face at your option two school may be more similar to what your life will be after the phd. Preparing yourself mentally as well as your family might prove to be an extra benefit.

On the brighter side, you will be getting a phd no matter what your decision, something not many people can say. Good luck!

Edited by Mosabstrakt
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Thanks Mosabstrakt! Your response is really appreciated and obviously carefully thought out. The other discipline for me is Communication, which is arguably an humanities/social science, though the department I am at leans heavily to the humanities, with most of their emphasis on Performance Studies and Cultural Studies.

Your response actually has me checking out the unemployment rates at each place, because I was told my a professor at the state school that the job market is highly saturated for the area for any kind of skilled employment, making it notoriously hard for partners to get jobs. The stipend at the state school doesn't even come close to "my end" of the bargain between my partner and I, so they would definitely be working more and that could pose a problem if they can't find a job in quick order....

Thank you again for your response, and congratulations to you for your own Ph.D accomplishments. I recently talked to one of my mentors, who told me that there is a lot of money behind interdisciplinary programs right now, but that disciplines are trying to dig in as well....and so no one really knows what will happen in the next 5 years with jobs. However, she said the glimmer of hope is that people trained in the interdisciplinary humanities will have more opportunities in the future. I guess we're on the cusp of something new--and it's either going to take off and be amazing, or fizzle out and we may have to reinvent ourselves....and hence, I begin my existential question that comes a little too late: WHY do I want to do this again??!! :)

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Can I ask for more details about your mentor said concerning interdisciplinary programs? I'm debating between a program that is strictly sociology, and another that is considered interdisciplinary (meaning I'm required to take other courses in social sciences areas otuside of soc.) but most of my classes at the interdisciplinary would still be soc. My advisor is really against the inter. program, saying I'll have a hard time finding a job in academia if my degree isn't soc.... Freaks me out a little because I really like the program and my other option (strictly soc) is a poor research fit..

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Personally, the first program seems like a better fit. I am also in my 30s and have kids and a SO, so I can relate. Money is the #1 stressor in relationships. Even if other aspects of the university (location etc) aren't perfect, the money will go a long way to making it ok. Plus you will hopefully have the money to get out of there on occasion.

The real alarm bell for me in your post is this: your SO wants to choose the next place you move to. If you want to go into academia this very well may not be possible, especially in this job market. You might be lucky to even get one job offer when you're done and it could be somewhere undesirable. I'm a faculty spouse and we faced this 5 years ago. Luckily it turned out well for us, but this isn't my first choice of places to live. I know many spouses who moved here with their SO and they loathe it here, yet they stay and bitch and moan about it constantly. IMO, that is no way to live.

So I do think that a conversation with your SO might be in order. The reality for academics is that you go where the job is. And once you have tenure, you're certainly not going anywhere. There is a distinct chance that you might end up living some place neither of you like. Until retirement.

In my SO's cohort, at one of the tip top schools in his field (before that financial crisis), there was only one student who was offered more than one position. The second offer was at a really terrible school and the first offer was at USC. Now there are grads from Yale (top level in his field) who have gone more than 3 years without a single offer. Not even one-years. So please think carefully on this and talk to your SO.

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@arandall--Sure! She was really honest. She basically said that academe is at a tipping point, and we're not really sure which way it is headed. On one hand, she pointed out that there is a lot of institutional support (read, from college presidents, deans, etc) for interdisciplinary programs and scholars. So, there are a lot of jobs for folks who are doing postdoctoral work, want to work in research centers, etc. And, some disciplines (specifically the humanities and the area studies programs such as ethnic studies etc), are headed in the interdisciplinary direction. That being said, with so much emphasis on interdisciplinarity (is that even a WORD?! lol) the actual disciplines are starting to dig in their heals. So the tenure track positions are remaining within the actual departments, and many (but not all) departments who feel threatened are essentially insisting on disciplinarity. So while many departments will give interdisciplinary studies surface praise, they don't always actually know how to include people in their departments that aren't trained within their disciplines. Add to this the fact that many of the areas for underrepresented groups (area studies, women's studies, etc.) are very much on the front lines being cut in the face of the economic downturn, and there are a lot of interdisciplinary scholars in these areas.

Another trend we talked about were centers and institutes, where a lot of Ph.D holders have jobs. The trend as of late has been to try to turn centers and institutes into departments, because departments have tenure lines and stability; centers and institutes can be defunded, combined, and eliminated according to the needs of a larger school. So while many centers are turning into departments and creating tenured positions for interdisciplinary-minded scholars, other centers are losing their funding and disappearing.

She really emphasized that academe is at a turning point, and her sense is that it will go the way of interdisciplinary scholars in the end, because we are generally problem-based, trained in multiple methods, and can come at research from multiple angles. That being said, it will be a fight from those who really want disciplines to rule. She also mentioned that tenure is declining everywhere, and I'm assuming this actually means that for those of us entering Ph.D programs right now, our ultimate goals may or may not be tenure--we may have to reinvent what the professoriate means in the future, which could be both good and bad.

For what it's worth, I choose interdisciplinary programs, even if it's within a discipline (like communication) because I cannot do my research any other way. So I think of my program as training myself to become a scholar who can think flexibly and across different disciplines and methods. As for jobs, I think I could be a professor, but I also am trying to think through what other things I'm training for. So, for example, I am considering training in the public humanities (museums and such), and the digital humanities, digital scholarship and digital technology in classrooms/curriculum (because that is SO POPULAR RIGHT NOW). Neither of these things are my primary area of research, and one of them (the digital stuff) is really more of a "trade" I am learning alongside my academic training--it literally means learning things like how to build WordPress sites, how to contribute to wikis, learning programming languages, etc. I've accomplished learning most of these skills through on-campus employment outside my department. But I'm happy with knowing these extra areas so that in the event a tenured job doesn't pan out, I have other options where I'll be just as happy and be able to teach and be on a college campus.

I hope that's helpful. :) It's like, we're on the cusp of who knows what?!

Edited by fanon_fanatic
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@new_to_kin, thanks for your thoughts. I will revisit the conversation with my SO, though I have prepared mentally for exactly the situations you described, and have started training in a variety of ways so that I can get a job no matter what. I think that I am coming to terms with the fact that I may not be the person who can go to any job in any place, and that means I won't always be an academic the way that many people are. I'm actually ok with that. I've had most of my jobs in higher ed, and really enjoy the variety of things that I've done, so as long as I'm working at a college and have the chance to teach (even as an adjunct on the side while I hold another administrative position), I'm ok with that. I also respect that not everyone feels this way, and that they have to do what they must in order to secure the positions they want. But your advice is well-heeded, and I think that as we get closer to leaving the Ph.D program, we'll be better able to have those conversations. I also know my SO is going to pick a place that is highly populated and has lots of colleges, so hopefully with my additional training I can figure out something. Beyond that, I just plan to publish quality work in my field.

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I had the same thoughts as new_to_kin about locations and your SO selecting your next one - so it's good you thought about that. My second thought is that Option 1 actually seems like a better fit for you and your family, with the simple exception of a bigger short-term problem: relocation. I had the same thought that money is the number one conflict, and that you and your family will be a lot happier if you are not stressing over whether you will have funding for your next year of studies. The second option also has a pretty heavy teaching load - I'm assuming that's TAing 1/1, and not your own class, but never underestimate how time-consuming TAing can be. I did a 1/1 this year and it was a bad decision, IMO, and I am unmarried with no dependents. At Option 2, really it seems the only benefit is that the relocation will be easier, which IMO seems like a short-term gain with a lot of long-term costs.

It seems like you will be happier at the Ivy, and that will in turn make your family happier. Graduate school is a draining and sometimes depressing enterprise, and it will be that much easier if you can at least remember that you are somewhere you love studying interesting, groundbreaking things. Moreover, I don't know your personality style - but you don't want to feel resentful 2-3 years down the road in that you didn't choose your 1st choice with better funding and opportunities for you.

As to the interdisciplinary question: I'm in an interdisciplinary program. It's run rather like a joint program - one department is a very well established traditional field (psychology) whereas the other is an interdisciplinary field in and of itself (public health). I have LOVED it, and I don't care if I never get an academic job with it, I won't regret choosing it. (In fact, if the reason I don't get an academic job is because I am an interdisciplinary thinker with a strong background in two fields...I don't want that job, since this defines a lot of my scholarship.) I love thinking and researching this way, I love conversing with other students whose disciplinary focus is different than mine but whose research questions are similar, I love strategizing with other scholars who have different approaches to the same problems, and I especially love that my program's emphasis (at least on the public health side) has been learning multiple ways to think about a problem, and multiple angles from which a program should be analyzed. It has made me a stronger thinker and scholar, IMO.

But, neither my psychology advisor nor my public health advisor seems to be particularly concerned about my marketability.

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Thank you all so much for your honest and helpful feedback. I'm putting in my "yes" to my #1 option. I'm not sure how relocation will work out, but I do think in the long run it's a better option for me and the family. Thank you again for sharing all your thoughts!!!

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I would have put my vote in for option 1 as well, but I am obviously too late (it's the 15th... duh)! Congrats on your decision, fanon_fantastic! And on all of your admits. And perhaps I will see you at Brown in the fall. I am also an interdisciplinary type -- I accepted an offer from Brown's Theatre and Performance Studies program.

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