Thursday, July 19, 2007

Identity Crisis

M and B will turn 1 next week. But this isn’t a birthday post. At least, not really. Not yet.

M & B will turn one, and I will start the countdown to the end of my official leave of absence from my life as Grad Student. I don’t talk about that part of my life here much, partially because I can’t talk about my specific research without risk of outing myself, and partially because for a long time, I’ve been ambivalent about being in grad school. Since the first year, actually. And I’m now in my 6th year. (It’s a PhD program. In the social sciences. Normative time in my program is 7 years. It’s not unheard of for people to take longer.) For those of you that know something about the world, here’s where I am: I’m ABD. For those that don’t, that basically means that I’m done taking classes and jumping through hoops in terms of exams, and all I have left (all I have, as if it’s so little) is to write my dissertation. I defended my dissertation prospectus (and you don’t just present, you DEFEND) when I was 9 weeks pregnant and feeling queasy - physically and emotionally. And I’ve done virtually no work on the project since then. I kept busy for a while, and the time after the initial defense is always a bit of a downtime, and then I went on bedrest, and then I delivered, and, well, you sort of know what I’ve been up to since then. I’m entitled to 3 quarters of leave. Unpaid leave, mind you. This is not the cushy land of generous maternity leave plans and universal health care. (Actually, going on leave meant that I lost my university health care, so it’s a good thing that I’m also covered on J’s plan, even if it is with the EvilHMO.)

Anyway. I took a leave of absence and threw myself into parenthood. I didn’t see any other way. Initially, I thought I’d take just part of the year as a leave, then return to school somewhat part-time to get my head back in the game. Except the babies wouldn’t take bottles. And childcare is expensive, and it’s not like I make any money as a grad student. And I didn’t really want to leave. And I didn’t really want to be back in school. So I’ve been home.

I never really envisioned myself as a full-time SAHM. I planned to be home much of the time, but somehow I thought I’d also be working (or, for now, in school) part-time. It seemed so ideal to be in school, actually, because I have a flexible schedule and can do my work in the morning, at night, on weekends, at home, on campus, at a coffee shop, wherever. In theory. Only I can’t. I can’t get anything done at home. Even when we had a sitter coming a few times a week (she’s on summer vacation, sob), that precious time was spent showering, or going grocery shopping alone, or at a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t have enough time or focus to do MORE.

Here’s the thing. I don’t particularly miss my research. I’ve been ambivalent about this program, and my schooling in general, for a long time. I’m not one of those people that just LOVES the thinking and theorizing and jargoning. I’ve stuck with it for varying reasons: I couldn’t judge the program based on the structured first-year curriculum; I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do instead; we moved for me to go to school, so how could I stop; I don’t want people to think I’m a quitter; and now, because I’ve invested so much time in it that it seems silly/lame/pathetic to just quit.

Mostly it’s just that last one, now. Most days I’m sure I don’t want to go into academia, professionally, and this isn’t a field where there are lots of industry jobs just waiting for me. So the degree is somewhat unnecessary. (Though for the kinds of jobs I might someday want, it might lend me a touch of credibility.) I’m no longer excited about my research topic (if I ever really was). The worst part right now is the feeling of limbo, which translates into guilt. If I’m reading blogs, I’m not keeping up with the journals or other academic discussions. If I’m home with the babies, I’m not taking part in colloquia. If I’m keeping the kids happy and healthy and the house running as well as can be expected (if not smoothly, than at least functionally), I’m not doing much else. I can’t. There just isn’t enough of me.

And so it goes. My leave of absence is coming to a close and I have to make this decision, and then stick with it. Come September, will I throw at least a portion of my brain power back into the academic arena, buck up and get to work, or will I say “to hell with this” and move on? I just don’t know.

I’m not sure I’ve even laid out the problem here, but it’ll have to do for now, since I have laundry to move to the dryer and dishes to wash.


  1. I wish I could help you with some insightful words of wisdom from my own experience. I'm about to "start" my thirteenth year of grad school, tenth since going ABD, and while I haven't been working on the dissertation in any meaningful way until this past year (and that, half-heartedly), I'm a mess of contradictory emotions about the whole thing. I'm frankly at the point where I think I'm not going to finish, I don't want to finish, and what's keeping me going is the desire just to have the damn degree (so people can't point to me as yet another mommy drop-out) and to preserve my shot at decent part-time academic work. Also, I don't know what else I want to do.

    All of these strike me as supremely lame reasons to continue. But I'm continuing, at least for now.

    Oh, also, I'm withdrawn from my program, and will have to petition to be re-admitted, but for various reasons, no one recommends I do this until I'm ready to defend and file the dissertation. Which makes it easier to just keep muddling through, but does introduce a pesky element of uncertainty.

    You might try reading some of the essays at phinished

    To see if that helps make anything easier. I don't know how much you want to look for on the internet, though, because this is sort of a bottomless-pit set of questions.

    Good luck. You are definitely NOT alone. No matter what you do next.

  2. Wow, that's a hefty decision. And one that I need to take some time to mull over before really responding. Still, I wanted to go ahead and post to say that that guilt at not doing other things when you're keeping things functional (a monumental task) is useless. We all do it to ourselves and we should all stop! You've done an amazing thing (well, really more like a million and one amazing things) with the last year and nine months or so. Don't rob yourself of pride in that accomplishment.

    My initial thought is that if it were me, I couldn't make a decision (assuming the decision would be final or near-final) to leave a long-term program like that if I didn't have some sense for what it was that I did want to be doing in the long run. I guess I'd worry about what a loss it would be if in the end I did end up wanting to pursue a career for which the degree would have been helpful. Writing a dissertation is no easy business. But it could be a fairly flexible project for you to take on as a way of easing back into part-time work.

    I'll mull this over some more...

  3. I don't know anything about it, but the way I usually approach problems like that is to think, Which decision would leave me with the fewest regrets?

  4. What are the options? Find other work or be a SAHM?

    It's a very tough call. Finishing the program is a bit of a now or never thing, isn't it?

  5. I'm wondering if going back to anything would be making you feel ambivalent, given what you're losing in terms of unconfined time with the babies. Personally although I don't directly use my PhD I'm very glad I have it. But it took me only 3.5 years (standard in the UK as we don't take classes) so it's really not the right comparison. One of my US friends is ABD from Harvard in social sciences. It's 10 years on and she's very happy with her career.

    So there's really no bad option here, in the end you're just going to have to go with your gut and it will be ok either way.

  6. I am right there with you, although mine is finishing up my master's (in computer science) rather than a PhD. If I could go back in time, I wouldn't have started in the first place. I now plan to be a SAHM/freelancer for the foreseeable future, and I'll never see an extra penny of income from the degree. I want so badly to quit, and the only reason I haven't is because I spent so much tuition money pursuing the thing in the first place.

    You could start back up and then drop back out of the program later, couldn't you? That might let you delay making the tough call a bit longer, and maybe even give you some momentum to work on the dissertation.

  7. I've been meaning to comment on this for a day or so now.

    I am sort of jealous because I ended my romp through academia at the MA point, and it's not a terminal MA. Having been rejected by all the schools I could reasonably hope to get a job out of, Medieval Studies not exactly being a growth industry, I turned to high school teaching. Turns out I love teaching high school, though I am home now. However, so many of my friends are on the PhD track I feel like I am missing the intellectual union card. This is to say that I would finish, just to have the PhD.

  8. This is such a tough decision to make. I can't really offer any meaningful advice because I know squat about PhD programs. I'll just be hoping you gain some clarity on the decision and whatever road you choose ends up being fulfilling.

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