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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: Going Back to Grad School
June 8, 2009 - 8:25am

Dear Susan,

Seven years ago I started graduate school, a year after I had gotten married and moved to a brand new city. I commuted 85 miles each way daily (for most semesters) for three years. I loved my program and poured myself into it. My last year of PhD course work, I got pregnant, due the following July. But that summer also ended up including a 1200-mile move to another part of the country and our baby coming a month early and being born profoundly deaf.

Life was spiraling. I loved my work, but I felt adrift. I still had comps to take and a dissertation topic to come up with and to write. I decided to take a terminal master's from my home institution, and wrote the most wretched thesis ever. Two years ago, I defended it, graduated, and closed the books. I haven't done anything since. I feel like I have a useless master's degree. I have few academic connections, and none locally. After the horrible experience of my master's thesis, I feel aimless with research -- not to mention no access to academic libraries. I've had another baby since.

I love my area of study (late medieval cultural history). I miss it. I want to go back. I'm not sure if I want the whole tenure track package; I'm very devoted to my two kids. I keep saying "some day." So here's my question. Do I apply for another PhD program? Go through all that again? I've done the coursework for a PhD. How could I even jump back in with a PhD application with this huge gap of motherhood? Can I jump back into anything with this gap?

Thanks so much,

Dear Jeannette,

First of all, I think you need to let yourself off the hook a bit. You have been dealing with an extremely difficult set of circumstances. Any birth, however welcome, is stressful and disorienting; caring for a child with special needs can be overwhelming, especially after the arrival of a second baby.

In addition, it sounds as though you are managing your life, and your children’s, in relative isolation. You don’t say so, but I imagine that this move was undertaken for the sake of your husband’s career, and that yours became secondary once you became a mother. That may have been a mutual choice, or it may have “just happened” without your noticing it. In any case, it seems that you have gone in a relatively short period from engaged, productive and promising student, with a vibrant intellectual and social life, to overwhelmed mom, cut off from her academic interests and connections by both geography and circumstance. This is a lot to deal with, and the fact that you wrote and defended a thesis at all under these conditions, even if it really was “the most wretched thesis ever,” is phenomenal.

The isolation you are experiencing may make you feel like an outlier, but in fact your struggles are not unique. As Jean-Anne Sutherland, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, points out, “This just breaks my heart to read...because it is so, so, so gendered. Career hopes are just not dashed in this way for men who marry and have children.”

Alissa McElreath, columns editor for Literary Mama and assistant professor of English at St. Augustine’s college, adds, “I can certainly relate to her situation on many levels, especially since my over-half-finished doctoral dissertation is sitting in a box in our crawl space and I took the MA in my program and not the Ph.D. I also made the painful decision to disengage myself from the dissertation not long after our daughter was born with a birth defect requiring some major cranial surgery.”

Of course you want to reconnect with the field you feel passionate about. And of course you don’t want to shortchange your kids. These may seem like competing aims, but as Sutherland reminds us, “Mothers that want to work and then do work are much more present to their kids as they are generally happier. And by "work" here, I mean following her love of cultural history (because she IS working...hard...every day!).”

At the same time, it’s necessary to acknowledge that your time and energy are more limited than they were before you had children, and to make choices based in the reality of your situation.

To begin with, how involved is your husband in your children’s care? If all of the childcare is dumped on you, you can still make this work, but it will be easier if he is an equal partner, or if you can awaken his sense of fairness sufficiently to get him to pitch in.

It may or may not be realistic, given your present circumstances, to pursue the “whole tenure track package” right away.

Look at what it was about graduate school that engaged you the most. Was it the research itself? The rewards of teaching? The opportunity to share ideas with intelligent, thoughtful peers and professors? The stimulation of the academic atmosphere? Listing the conditions you miss, in order of importance, can help you envision a path to fulfillment that may not require complete commitment to school, at least right now. For example, might you be interested in researching and writing a more popular book on your topic, or even a historical novel that makes use of your period expertise?

McElreath suggests, “If she does enjoy teaching, wants to keep her foot in academia, and the flexible schedule it offers--a schedule that would allow her to spend more time with her kids -- she could find a teaching job with an MA, as I did. Then she could be in an academic setting, and pursue her interests in her field through attending conferences, working on articles, etc.”

If you decide you do wish to pursue your PhD, here is Sutherland’s advice: “She needs to find a university -- find a department she likes and wants to be a part of. Perhaps this has to be very local. And she needs to sit down with the chair of the department, or the graduate director, and explain her circumstances. From what I know, in order to grant her a PhD from a university, she has to have x hours of course work from that university. She could potentially take those hours, and in so doing, immerse herself in the profession again -- falling in love with it again. (Some call it a ‘bridge-up’ program, whereby many of the core courses are skipped.) I suspect she is in no shape to jump into comps and dissertation research right away anyway. She could ease back in, taking a few classes, and then feel prepared for comps and dissertation work, her confidence in place again.”

Whatever you decide, remember that your inability to finish the first time is not a sign of personal failure, but of a combination of difficult circumstances and, possibly, unequal gender expectations. You have nothing to be ashamed of or to explain away. As Sutherland comments, “I just can't imagine how a department would have a problem with her ‘gap of motherhood.’ And, if they do, she does not want to be part of that program anyway, right?”

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