Hello, Mama Ph.D.,
I love your blog and have found it to be quite helpful as I consider a career in academia. I am 28 years old with a family and a house, but I am fairly disenchanted with the "real world" despite the financial stability that it offers for my family. I have not found the proverbial passion in the corporate world that career counselors would encourage me to follow, and the one thing that I do truly love is higher education. I am considering a career change to either become a higher education administrator or to pursue a faculty position following a Ph.D. program (my preference would be for the latter).
Given all of the negative information concerning the pursuit of tenure track faculty careers and the number of people leaving the ivory tower because they are fed up, am I crazy to even consider this? It is very important to me that I maintain a work/life balance in whatever I do, but I am not sure that that will be possible while chasing a tenure track position.
First, thanks for writing, and for your kind words.
Since you don’t mention a particular discipline, it’s even harder than it would ordinarily be to evaluate what your chances for success (in this case defined as the ability to support yourself in a career that inspires you) might be. I will tell you, though, about the experience of my friend Judy Gorman,  who decided to throw over her “safe” teaching career to become a full-time singer-songwriter.
“People kept telling me I was crazy to give up a known for an unknown, especially in such a difficult field,” she told me. “Finally, I said, ‘Yes, I am crazy — but right now, I’m crazy and miserable. I want to be crazy and happy for a change.’”
She is a wonderful writer and singer, and she managed to make a living doing concerts, fundraisers, and the college circuit for years. It wasn’t easy; she needed to cut her expenses to the bone and spend more energy than she liked traveling and doing her own publicity. But she was pursuing her passion, and she was alive and engaged.
Recently she’s decided she doesn’t want to perform full-time anymore. It’s exhausting, and she feels ready for more balance in her life. So she has returned to teaching, and continues to pursue her singing and writing on weekends and school vacations.
She doesn’t have kids, though, and her husband is also a talented artist who is used to doing without, so she can afford to indulge herself in the Spartan way artists do. Your situation seems to be different — you mention a family, so presumably you have kids; and a house, so probably a mortgage, too.
How does your significant other feel about the inevitable insecurity that would ensue from the change you’re considering? How will you feed your children and hang on to your home if the worst happens, and you find yourself saddled with student loans and no reasonable job prospects?
If your answer to these questions is “I don’t know,” I would suggest that you do some serious thinking, perhaps with the aid of a career counselor, about less radical ways to make your work life more fulfilling. You may wish to start out by taking graduate classes at night, for example, to discover whether this is a real vocation or a fantasy based on some exciting undergraduate experiences. Or you might look at whether some of the skills you already have could be transferred to an administrative position in a college or university, and work on acquiring those credentials you lack for such a position. Many institutions offer free or reduced tuition for employees, so this could be a relatively risk-free step toward a Ph.D. (I got my first master’s degree while writing speeches for the university president. It’s not easy to juggle coursework and the demands of a full-time job, but it’s certainly not impossible.)
In any case, I wish you the best of luck, and if you’d like to write again with more specifics, or keep us posted generally, I’d be delighted to hear more from you.