“If you quit this program, you’ll become intellectually stagnant,” warned a professor, and fellow mom, who was urging me to finish my art history grad program instead of stay home with my 18-month-old son.
After graduation, almost all of my college friends went on to grad school. I took two years off while my husband Daniel finished his degree and we had our first child. It never really occured to me that we wouldn’t go to grad school. We loved college life. Having a close-knit community of other people who wanted to stay up late talking about books, crafting papers, and discussing ideas was ideal. We just felt at home.
And we were encouraged to pursue grad school by our professors. After all, they were the ones who had made it in academia. They had jobs. They got tenure. It had all worked out for them.
I applied to just one art history program. I got in, was offered a stipend, and spent a semester going to amazing lectures, working on papers at the library, and missing my little boy every second I was away from him.
Although I loved my classes, the pain of being separated from my son for so many hours a week motivated me to re-evaluate why I was in school and what receiving my degree would achieve. I had no choice but to work for the first year of our baby’s life so that Daniel could finish his thesis and wrap up his last few classes. Now that he was employed full-time, the separation was not as necessary. So was it worth it? I started to think it wasn’t.
Due to the Great Recession, everyone was going to grad school. Jobs in the humanities were increasingly difficult to come by. I knew that after completing my program there was no guarantee that I would find a job. We definitely would have to move. And after the rigors of a PhD program, it would take several more years to get tenure, if I was one of the lucky ones to receive it. While this would be difficult while caring for one child, it seemed increasingly difficult if our family continued to grow.
I knew a couple of women from my undergraduate years who managed to balance the demands of motherhood and academia gracefully, but I began to think that my desire to teach art history wouldn’t be enough to motivate me through a decade or more of stressful days and late nights.
But could my desire for a life of the mind be satisfied if I quit and stayed home with my kids instead? Would the days of discussing ideas, reading, and writing be over? Would there be anyone I could relate to in the stay-at-home mom world? Was I throwing away a chance for a good career and would I live to regret it later?
When a professor called me after I had expressed concerns about continuing in the program, it was as if all my subconscious fears were voiced. But bringing them into the light made it obvious how ridiculous they were.
In addition to foretelling an intellectually stagnant future she predicted that my “only friends will be moms” (eww, gross, right?) who will only be able to talk about diapers and kid stuff.” (This is clearly a ridiculous stereotype and false to it’s core, but I will add that there are no boring subjects, only boring people. A discussion of diapers can soon turn into a lively debate about cloth vs. disposable, the environment and stewardship of the earth, fair trade and small businesses, and early childhood development. So there’s that.)
And she explained, “You’ll never have a chance like this again, but your kid will be around forever.” (Last I checked, art history wasn’t going anywhere, but my kid is bigger every day.) I won’t go into the details of her next blow at motherhood when she tried to convince me that my physical presence at home wasn’t remotely necessary since “even a dog could take care of your child.” Not paraphrasing, folks. She really said that.
After the conversation was over, it became clear to me that those statements simply weren’t true. While being wonderful centers of learning, universities don’t have a monopoly on interesting thought. Lively intellectual discussion doesn’t cease because you leave the campus. Grad school is the perfect route for some people and can certainly be necessary to further a career, but it’s not the only way to have a life of the mind.
So I quit. I got a part time job teaching and choreographing for a ballet company. Then I moved on from that as my focus turned to writing. I had two more kids. I haven’t looked back.
Since leaving grad school I have actually read more. And instead of becoming an expert on one subject, I’ve become more well-rounded as I fill in the gaps in my education. Apparently, you can still read books even if you don’t have a student ID to get you into the university library.
I’ve written more than I ever did when I was in school. And I have the freedom to write about anything. Through the magic of the blogosphere, I can send my thoughts out into the world for other people, like-minded or dissenting, to comment, critique, and engage with. I can actually contribute to our income by writing–on my own time, as much or as little as I like and as fits in to our family life.
Now I’m not saying that opting out of grad school is the right choice for everyone. It’s not. And I’m certainly not saying you can’t be a good parent while tackling grad school. By no means. There’s good work being done in academia and there are great people doing it. It’s difficult and demanding work. The moms and dads I see working those early mornings and late nights to do research, teach, and be amazing parents, you’re awesome and I cheer you on. We know one inspiring family in our parish that has three young kids and they both teach and research. They work hard, raise great kids, and know way more about frogs than you do. It’s possible to do it well.
But you don’t have to go to grad school just because you could succeed there. And sadly, even if you do finish grad school, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a wonderful position getting to teach what you love. I’ve seen so many friends desperately searching for jobs after devoting years to a degree they may never get to use. Especially in the humanities there are precious few positions available and so many applicants.
You don’t have to go to grad school just because you love to learn. You won’t forget how to read, write, or think if you choose a different path.
I get emails every so often saying, “I saw you quit grad school a few years ago, do you have any regrets?” I can truthfully say that I have not regretted my decision for one second. I love homeschooling my three kids and we hope for more children to fill our home. My work as a writer continues to grow. Our house is full of books and conversation. And even though I’m not sitting across the table from anyone in a classroom, lively debate happens all the time with friends across the dinner table and across the blogosphere. The world is bigger than the university.
So, how do you nurture a life of the mind outside of academia? Find some good friends who can challenge you with good conversation. Make a reading list of meaty books you want to read and stick to it. Organize a book discussion group. Join a writing group, or just exchange poems or essays with a friend who also loves to write.
Unless your career really requires that degree, you may just find that all the things you loved about academia can also be found outside of the university–perhaps around your dining room table. Just keep thinking, examining, and living life! And even if that life involves no papers to grade, but many diapers to change, I can assure you that you can still cultivate a vibrant life of the mind.