Valuing the Academy

Obviously I haven't always been a non-student. Up until last May, I had been in school for 22 straight years: Montessori, Kindergarten, Elementary School, Middle School, High School, College--and topped it off with three years of graduate school. For most of those 22 years I liked school. No, I loved school. My mom loves to tell people how I cried on the weekends because I missed school so much. Mind you this was back when I was 3 or 4 and school was comprised of snack time, arts and crafts, and recess, but still I liked the routine of it. I liked being social. I liked being taught.

When I got to graduate school, I hit a wall. Suddenly all of the inspiration and desire I had to pursue academic achievement was gone. I found myself frustrated with the work, not because it was hard but because I was burned out and unmotivated. It didn't take long for me to conclude that a lifetime spent in the academy just wasn't for me. School was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The passion I once felt for school evolved into my commitment to using the knowledge I had to go out and do good in the world.

Student turned idealist. That's where I sit now, and I'm quite comfortable with my it. Where I experience discomfort is understanding why my partner SCL, already incredibly brilliant and degree-ed, wants to pursue another academic endeavor. Obviously I understand the prestige, not to mention the "oo"s and "ah"s, that accompany a doctoral degree. I get that it's helpful in certain fields to have an advanced degree. What I don't understand--and this applies to my own graduate degree as well--is how an academic credential translates to credibility in the workplace and how it could possibly usurp work experience as a qualification for a position.

True, some degree programs are professional and have more direct correlation to one's work--a JD, an MD, in my case, an M.Div. There is specific training involved and also some kind of post-graduation licensing/testing, etc. that ensures some standardization among schools. But, will my degree in divinity help me advance in the field of policy work? Should it?

For me, what I took away from school was the ability to learn a lot of things. Perhaps what those little letters before or after a name indicate is that a person is capable of a high level of learning. This is certainly not something to be devalued, but it also should not signify superiority. When someone looks at my resume, I hope they see my graduate degree as a mark of dedication to a subject area, the ability to persevere, and the willingness at one point or another to learn something in depth. Other than that, that the diploma is just a piece of paper, sitting up in my closet waiting to be framed.

Job Applications vs. Academic Applications

Over the past three months I have filled out at least five times as many job applications as I have school applications. Yes, I recognize that school applications are much more time consuming than job applications, but in my opinion, the process of applying to schools is a far less painful process than applying to jobs.

Research: Learning about an academic institution is generally easier than learning about a prospective workplace. Schools have websites, tours, scheduled visitation days, and admissions offices (of varying levels of friendliness and helpfulness) to answer your questions. Sure, most workplaces have websites, but they cater to their target audiences, not prospective employees. And God forbid you should have a question about a position. Each job listing I've seen is explicit about no phone calls.

Application: As I stated above, the application process for schools is time-consuming, but generally speaking, schools provide some guidance in terms of what they want in an application in the form of essays, personal statements, etc. A lot of jobs require a cover letter, resume, and references. The resume and references an applicant includes may vary slightly, but the cover letter is a totally different story. It's a tricky, awkward dance of attempting to sell oneself as the ideal candidate, explain why it's a fabulous place to work, and how those two are related--all in one page. Oh, and usually they are looking for one person to fill the position unlike schools that have multiple spots and are looking less for the "perfect fit." (I realize that this is not true of PhD programs which may have a single slot for a particular discipline.)

Waiting Period: For both applying to jobs and applying to programs, there is a "Hurry up and wait" element. BUT, schools do have deadlines for announcing one's acceptance or rejection. Jobs? Not so much. Many times the process feels like throwing a precious stone into a deep, dark abyss, hoping someone else will uncover it eventually. Otherwise it's lost forever. Schools are polite enough to let you know you've been rejected. In my experience, employers are not.

Of course, there are some things about job searching that are far better. For one, a job rejection does not mean waiting around another year to apply again. There are new positions each week, though less during this time than, say, last year. Also, jobs come with income whereas in school, students generally pay to do work or at the very least do not make much money. But at the end of the day, I still affirm that job searching is more frustrating of the two.

The question: Is it possible to loathe academia and still love an academic?

And beyond that, is it possible for a couple, one a dedicated social activist and the other a brilliant academic with hopes of eventually leaving the academy, not only to survive a doctoral program, but to grow together and to thrive throughout its duration?

Welcome to the anxiety-ridden, yet hopelessly optimistic thoughts that have been running through my head ever since the love of my life (whom I will refer to as "Summa Cum Laude" or SCL) told me he wanted to apply to a doctoral program. Those thoughts have steadily invaded more and more of my brain ever since SCL was accepted to his program of choice.

This weekend I (aka "The Non Student" or TNS) celebrated with friends and family as SCL graduated from his master's program. Following the emotional waves of pride and joy and the inevitable exhaustion following any such event, I found myself this morning filled with the anxiety of the unknown. Up until now I had been able to focus on SCL finishing this degree, but now I'm facing the fear of what's next. We are facing serious transitions in the coming months.
  • Moving to a new city
  • Moving in together
  • TNS starting a new job
  • SCL starting a doctoral program

These are just the big four, not to mention all of the other smaller transitions involved. And frankly, I'm scared. I'm excited, but I am equally, if not more, scared out of my mind.

When fear and/or anxiety sets in for me, I do what I know other people do. I google things. I have googled "dating a graduate student" which led to a lot of inappropriate conversations about professors and students dating. Not helpful. I tried "relationships and PhD programs" which resulted in conversations about advisors and dissertations. And then I landed on this little bit of despair from the New York Times. Finding out it was written in 1988 only slightly eased my worries.

Besides discovering the questionable morals of some academics and reading a doomsday account of graduate students' divorce rates, I have not uncovered much in terms of resources for couples facing the life of a doctoral program for God knows how many years. What I have found is doctoral students talking about the all-consuming nature of their work and how alienated their significant others feel during the process. But I have found next to nothing for the spouses/partners/significant others of those doctoral candidates. Hence, the new blog.

My vision for this blog is for it to be a place for community and resources for couples, but especially for the non-academic halves like me, going through the hardships of a PhD program. Whether you're dating a grad student or have been married to one for a long time (in which case I would love your insight!), I very much look forward to getting to know you!