One of my best friends has been struggling for the last ten years to finish her dissertation. She’s brilliant, has an impeccable academic pedigree, and her graduate papers are charmingly readable. Many times I have urged her to just quit; she has an independent income, and besides, she’s so smart, she doesn’t need a PhD to prove it. Yet a combination of family pressure, guilt, and habit have propelled her onward.
As Matt Groening’s early cartoon illustrates, graduate school asks you to put off your life.
You grow older, but you have nothing to show for it; life gets put on hold until you have no life. Although I finished my own doctorate lickety-split, I regret the extent to which I put my own life on hold during graduate school. I guess I thought that life was a zero-sum game: if I put less into my personal life, I would be more successful in my career. This is true, but only up to a point. There are some activities and relationships that generate energy, that provide balance, and that offer a safe place to fall when your career hits a snag.
Once finished with the doctorate, the tenure process often asks faculty, particularly women, to delay their lives some more. In a recent article, Mary Ann Mason notes that women faculty members have fewer children than women in all other professional fields.
“Among female faculty members who worked between 50-59 hours a week, 41 percent reported children in the household, compared with a robust 67 percent for female doctors.” She goes on to analyze the discrepancy between male and female professors, but I’m left wondering, why is it harder for women to have personal lives in academia than in other professions? I wonder if it has something to do with the all-encompassing nature of the academic life. There is not a strict demarcation between when we’re off and on the clock. In addition, the pathologically competitive job market can foster a hyper workaholism. As I told my husband once, when he was complaining about my working at night, "the really successful academics work on Christmas day."
A few years ago, frustrated that my friend was so palpably unhappy, I gave her some odd advice: I told her to have a baby. “It will either snap everything into focus or you’ll never get anything done for the rest of your life,” I jokingly advised. What I meant was, start living your life. Graduate school (and academia) will not reward your slavish devotion.
In the past few years, she moved across country, met a sexy carpenter, and got pregnant at 42. When I watch her with her boisterous baby, I see a more confident woman, a grounded person whose identity is not tied to academic performance. And now she seems to be nearing the home stretch of her dissertation. The last time we talked, she was thinking about applying for jobs. She wondered about part-time teaching, or whether that would preclude her from ever getting a full-time position. “Just ask yourself,” I told her, “how much of your life are you willing to give to the academy?”