Yet another "Should I stay in grad school?" question...
June 9, 2013 11:04 AM   Subscribe

...but this time there is a newborn baby! This fall I will begin my 5th year in an English PhD program. I have been ambivalent about staying in my program pretty much since the first year, but have always come down on the side of staying in, even though I long ago decided I don't want to even try to become an English professor. Three weeks ago my husband and I had a baby, and that is making me less confident I want to continue. I need some help sorting this out.

My husband thinks it's just two or three more years, and that's a small amount of time to invest and have a PhD forever. I'm not convinced a PhD would help me get a job, and am unsure that I have the fortitude to write a dissertation. I have been reading for my exams and trying to draft a prospectus, but I feel like I don't have any good ideas, or at least not any that can be sustained through a dissertation.

I did earn my Masters along the way, so I at least have that. I plan on doing my exams in the fall and will then be ABD.

The good things about staying in are we have excellent health insurance that covers the whole family for very little money, the schedule is flexible which will help with the baby, I make just enough money for us to live on without incurring any debt, and I have two to three more years of funding left. We also really like the area we live in.

The bad things about staying are my husband, the MFA in poetry (I know, I know), is not currently employed and having trouble finding work in our college town (and is depressed about not finding work, making it harder), our families live across the country from us and my mom can't afford to visit, my dad has physical and financial problems too lengthy to list here so he can't visit either and is also a source of stress, and I am pretty much just sick of being a 34 year old woman living in a crappy apartment, driving a 15 year old car, making less than $20k a year, seeing our families for a week once a year, and relying on my in-laws to pay for our plane tickets to visit them. My husband is a little more complacent and less ambitious and isn't so bothered by our situation. (That is, perhaps, a whole other question.) He is on unemployment, which will last a few more months. He was working as an adjunct when I got pregnant, but was not hired on again for the spring semester.

Part of the problem is I'm not sure what I would do after leaving, or where we would go. Our families live in California, if that matters. Before going back to school I worked in admin and bookkeeping positions for about 7 years, so I have those skills and history to fall back on. I have some teaching experience, but most of my work in grad school has been as an editorial assistant for a journal. I would really like to work in a humanities institute, for a press, or some other "academic adjacent" field but am not certain about that. I do plan on going to my university's career services office later in the summer.

Finally, the questions: For those of you who have written humanities dissertations, will I be able to write one in two years? Even if I feel like a terrible writer with no ideas? I have one seminar paper I can use, but the rest would be from scratch. We are committed to staying for this next academic year, so does anyone have any suggestions on what I can do during this time to make myself more marketable if I do leave? Or ideas about what kinds of jobs I could go for? Since I'm staying for this next year, should we just stay one more year beyond that so I can finish? Another option is to leave ABD, which would allow me to finish eventually. This is what I'm leaning toward right now. What do I dooooooooo??? Can anyone think of aspects I haven't considered?
posted by apricot to Education (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Congrats. Don't make any decisions right now. New baby hormones and lack of sleep and just newness makes this a terrible time to make important decisions.

Moreover, the health care, stipend, etc is something you need for little apricot.

I don't have any ideas for you, but check the alt-ac movement for some ideas perhaps. Administration might be a good path.
posted by k8t at 11:21 AM on June 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you don't really want to do the English Ph.D, it probably won't happen. Finishing a Ph.D is hard for people that really really want to do it, and it's hard for people in fields where a Ph.D is a much better career move. Listen to your gut on this, and it's not like having the English Ph.D is going to dramatically increase your job prospects. Start thinking about an exit strategy that will allow you to not have gaps in health insurance. Also, what exactly is your commitment for the next year? Can it be broken?

If your parents or your husband's parents can help with childcare, my advice would be to start applying for jobs in your family's town, possibly using a family address on your resume. Possibly fly out there for a small stay with family if you get some interviews and see if you can pick up a job. I would assume that your work is somewhat transportable, so you don't necessarily need to take leave while you do this. Worry about moving your house and husband later. Look for jobs that would give you health insurance, pay the bills better than grad school and probably not make you too miserable at the same time.
posted by permiechickie at 11:40 AM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Questions to think about:

1. Is finishing the PhD going to help you?
2. Is it going to be possible to finish in a reasonable amount of time?
3. Are there other palatable alternatives?

(For reference, I'm ABD, working on my dissertation while working full time, and I dramatically underestimated how challenging it would be.)

From what you've said here, the answer to #1 is "not really." From what I've seen in the regular business world, you get a career bump from having a graduate degree, but the increased marginal utility of an English PhD just isn't there, compared to a plain MA. This might be different for university administration or journal jobs, however. That being said, reach out to people who have jobs you are interested in, and find out from directly if the PhD would be helpful. JUST as important, find out from them what other things they would recommend as you switch from the professor track to the non-professor track. I would not rely on the advice of your university's career services, or even on your advisors. University services are nearly uniformly geared towards undergraduates, and the advice from your advisors or other professors is likely to be a) out of date, and b) geared towards getting a tenure-track job, which you've said you don't want.

For #2, it looks like the answer is "no." You're entering your fifth year, without a specific project or a clear idea for what you would do for a dissertation, you haven't taken your comprehensive exams yet, and you don't seem to have a clear understanding with your advisor of what your path through the dissertation would be. I am confident that you could finish, if you wanted to, but it will be a loooong road if you are 4 years in without a specific project. It's not for nothing that most English PhDs take about 8-9 years. I think 2 years to a completed, defended dissertation, starting from nearly scratch, it unrealistic. Seeing as how you've been ambivalent about finishing from year 1, without some clear career benefits to finishing, I would not bet on you being able to finish at all.

Given #1 and #2, it doesn't seem like finishing is going to help you, even if you were closer to the end.

Which brings us to #3 - what are the alternatives?

Luckily, you are actually in a pretty good position to make some other plans. You have a supportive partner who should be in a position to take on the majority of childcare, and who should be open to re-locating without taking a career hit. You have funding and relatively affordable insurance and housing.

My advice would be to do whatever you need to to remain enrolled in the program for now, in order to maintain your funding and insurance benefits. If this means studying for your comps, that's great. Maybe take your seminar paper and turn it into a publication.

Beyond that, I would do the bare minimum and concentrate your efforts on finding a job near family, or somewhere else you have a support network and career options. Put together a non-academic resume and start networking in fields that interest you. Do a bunch of informational interviews - they have been by far the most helpful tool in both finding a job and building a network of people whose advice and experience you can draw on. Start thinking about how to package your academic experience outside of the academic bubble. For example, your editorial experience is great, and can be spun as a whole lot of skills that apply outside of academic. Given your administration, bookkeeping, and editing experience, you might be well-suited for some kind of project manager role. Use this time as a transition period to pivot out of academia and into a good employment situation, using your funding and current benefits as a safety net.

If you had a clear plan and were closer to finishing, or if there would be a clear non-academic career benefit to getting the PhD, my advice might be different. But given your stated ambivalence and lack of a clear plan to finish, it seems two years from now, you will be in much the same position as now, only without any more funding and the luxury of a little breathing room to figure out an alternative career path. Staying is tempting, given that there's no impending doom, you have good insurance and you're managing to scrape by. But, it's not going to help you advance your longer-term goals. Good luck!
posted by foodmapper at 12:33 PM on June 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

One thing to think about is that if you don't want an academic job, some departments/committees/advisors will let you graduate with a much lighter diss. You might talk to your advisor about this.

If that's an option, it may be possible to either bang out the good-enough dissertation in a year, or, alternatively, remain ABD and take a job somewhere else, and then slowly produce a good-enough dissertation over a couple of years.
posted by paultopia at 12:43 PM on June 9, 2013

Look at it this way - you are in an excellent situation for a year of maternity leave! Don't quit now - do what you need to do to stay afloat for a year while you consider your options.
posted by yarly at 12:45 PM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was in a somewhat similar situation but way way further along when I had a kid (post comps, prospectus defended, research done, two chapters written) and I decided to finish even though I wasn't interested in the tenure track anymore. Even so, it took me a long time to finish and was very difficult post-kid, partly because I also started working full-time in some pretty demanding jobs.

I suggest you sit tight and ride out your funding/health insurance package for the first year or so of your kid's life and think about what you want to be doing in a few years. Does the PhD help you accomplish that? If so, keep at it. If not, bail. There aren't many jobs outside of the tenure track where an English Ph.D. would be an asset, and plenty where it will be a liability. Definitely try to talk to people who are doing jobs you might be interested in and find out how they got there. Good luck!
posted by agent99 at 2:37 PM on June 9, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone. I have been going over and over this in my head and it really helped to have some outside perspective. It sounds like the best thing to do is sit tight for this year and work on getting myself situated to transition into another job next year. I really like the idea of doing some informational interviews.

Just to clarify, foodmapper, I do have a project generally, uh, mapped out. By "no ideas" I meant no specific argument or approach beyond "look at how interesting this is!", which is a problem but maybe not as dire as you are thinking. :) Your advice still holds, I think. Thank you for writing all that out so clearly.
posted by apricot at 10:15 AM on June 11, 2013

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