• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The Career Coach Is In: Whether to Apply to Grad School

I am debating whether to apply to graduate school and could use some advice. I'm currently a corporate attorney in my late twenties, married and hoping to have our first child within the next few years. I went to law school straight after college with the goal of pursuing and teaching international law.

August 11, 2008

I am debating whether to apply to graduate school and could use some advice. I'm currently a corporate attorney in my late twenties, married and hoping to have our first child within the next few years. I went to law school straight after college with the goal of pursuing and teaching international law. $150,000 in debt later, I came to the realization that the jurisprudence methodology behind legal education holds little interest for me - I am much more interested in using economics and political science approaches (my undergraduate areas of study) to find the most effective public policy solution. So, I got a (tolerable, but certainly not enjoyable) job doing corporate law with the idea that I'd pay back my debt and go from there.

Now that my debt is nearly under control, I've been thinking about what comes next and am strongly considering a public policy PhD, with the ultimate goal of teaching or, as a second choice, working at a think tank.

While I have always loved school and think I'll be happiest in my career if I return for a PhD, there are obvious disadvantages to my family if I do so. If I stay home with my children, I'd have no income, but would be there 100% for my children and my husband would have fewer "juggling" issues as he tries to make partner. If I work in law, I wouldn't see my children nearly as much as I would like, but we'd be more financially secure. If I go to school, my family won't have me available full-time AND I won't be contributing financially for at least those five years. Furthermore, it's unlikely that we will be willing/able to move, so I would need to both get accepted to a program and later find a job in this (fortunately, university-rich) area.

Obviously, no one can weigh these trade-offs for me, but I do have a few questions/areas of advice that would help me in my analysis.

1. Will I love it? I think most of my concerns regarding family and finances can be addressed as long as I love both the subject I study and the acts of researching and teaching. Will I be a good teacher? Will I have the discipline to do research when I could otherwise be spending time with my children? I know these are questions only I can answer, but do you have any suggestion as to how I could "practice" using the skills involved in academia?

2. Timing. I have three possible timelines for going back to school, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. First, I could apply this fall, potentially starting fall 2009. If this is the case, I will probably have my first baby in my first or second year of the

program. Second, I could have a baby, stay home for a year or so, and then apply. I find this appealing because I would be home during that first figuring-everything-out year of parenthood, and I could also use that time to try to address the issues raised in my first question. I worry, however, about how this will affect my application. I already feel that my application is weaker now than it would have been if I'd gone straight into a PhD program instead of law school, and I fear that every year I spend doing corporate law (or worse, staying home with a baby) gets me farther and farther away from being a desirable candidate. I also worry that not even starting a program until my thirties will hurt my job prospects down the road. The final option is to wait until my children are in pre-school/school to apply, which presents the same issues as option 2, but on a much larger scale. I guess my question here is - how many second-career academics do you see and how do they present themselves as viable candidates? Do you have any suggestions as to how I could build my resume during this transition period? What will taking time off to stay at home with children do to my admission chances?

Thank you for your help.

Kind regards,


Forgive me if I sound a bit like Salon's Cary Tennis here, but I'm going to question a few of your premises before getting to the specific questions. Doubtless you've already thought about this stuff, but other readers may not have done.

First, you say that what you want to do is use economics and political science to find effective public policy solutions. My immediate response to this is, why do you need a PhD to do this? And do you really want to teach? Because teaching isn't, for the most part, about finding effective solutions to anything other than course design and grading; if you really want to address public policy, then why not pursue jobs in think tanks (as you suggest) or non-profits or government? Presumably you don't need a PhD to do these things -- and even if having the degree in hand would improve your immediate job prospects, well, you're not going to get the degree immediately -- you're going to get it after several more years of study and more debt. Presumably actually working through some entry-level type jobs (as entry-level as someone with a law degree and legal experience is likely to start with, which is to say, not all that entry-level) would put you in a better position five or ten years down the road than being fresh out of a graduate program with your legal experience a decade old.

Second, you sound like you think that pursuing the PhD = "staying home with the children." Au contraire. Now, it does mean that your time will be a lot more flexible than it will in corporate law, for sure, and by comparison it might very well be a form of staying home, so what I'm about to say might not apply in your particular case. But for what it's worth, graduate work does involve going to classes and conferences and finding time to research and write; even if you squeeze in the latter during "free time" . . . .

As I type, my son came in to share the Calvin and Hobbes book he's reading with me, which derailed my train of thought and now I forget what I was going to say as a follow-up to that "even if." Let's consider the point made.

So on to the specific questions you want to ask. Will you love it? I recommend the course of action I, personally, pursued, which was getting a terminal MA before applying to a PhD program. In your own case, the MA might well be credential enough anyway, so why not go the cheap and fast route? You could also, of course, look into possibly teaching adult ed courses at a community college or through an extension program. You have a law degree, you're practicing law: offer a course in something like "The Legal Issues Involved in Starting Your Own Business" or "Law and Politics." That'll get you some teaching experience and help you figure out if you like it or loathe it. As to research, well, if you have the patience and stamina to do the research required to practice law, you've got it for academia, so no worries there -- unless you find yourself hating your job in part *because* of having to research fiddly details about stupid shit, in which case you have to figure out if it's merely that you don't care about corporate law specifically, or if it's that the patience required to do the fact-checking irritates you.

"How viable are second-career academics?" I think the answer to that really, really depends on who you're asking. I've heard it said that second-career academics "are obviously not serious about academia"; I've also heard the opposite, that second-career academics, especially if their former career was in some way relevant to their academic field, are far better teachers and researchers. I think that this is one of those questions you can go endlessly around and around on, when the upshot is that you can't predict what people will think of you, other than by just doing good work. You already have the JD and some legal experience, and you can't change that. So quit worrying about it.

When to do it? This, too, is one of those on-one-hand-but-on-the-other questions that is more of an issue in the worrying than in the actual event. My advice on any and all concerns related to timing children and graduate work is very simple. Fuck it. Life is life, and you can't control every aspect of it. If you really want children but find that academia isn't compatible with your vision of family life, then screw academia; there are other good jobs out there. If you really want an academic career, then the kid or kids isn't going to present an insurmountable problem. Other people's prejudices might, and you might find yourself working at a "lower" level than you otherwise might have done -- and both of those things are worth being pissed off about--but you can't control the world you live in. With regard to your own personal life, well, it's your life: if you know you want children, plural, and you feel ready to get started, then go ahead. The options you're weighing -- apply immediately and then juggle baby with early graduate school? Or apply in a year and then have to explain about having taken a year off? -- are pretty much a wash. You can't perfectly time pregnancy, and you can't predict how committees are going to judge your application. In any case, if your statement of purpose is sound and intelligent, a year one way or the other isn't going to make a difference to an application committee.

Now, what might make a little bit of a difference would be if, say, you had taught a course or two and could talk about having done so in terms of your decision to go to graduate school. That is, if you can say "I taught a course about Law and Politics at the community college this spring and really loved it, which makes me more certain than ever that preparing for an academic career is right for me," well, that's certainly not going to hurt anything. On the other hand, if you decide (quite reasonably) that doing a ton of leg-work before even applying seems silly and kind of endlessly procrastinating, then either go for an MA program or just decide to go as far as you can pursuing the work you want without getting overly hung up on credentialism. Hell, maybe at some point you'll actually have an employer who's willing to foot the bill for you to get the degree.

In short, I'm saying that if the point of the PhD is to help you do the work you want, and that work isn't necessarily "be a college professor," then go do the work first and worry about getting the PhD later. And even then, only if someone tells you you really need it and ideally if the person saying that is willing to give you time off and/or foot the bill.


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