Monday, August 6, 2018

98. Your family pays a price.

Few people choose to become parents while living the life of relative poverty that graduate school entails. If you go to graduate school, in fact, there is a good chance that you will never have children (see Reason 31). For women, the likelihood of childlessness increases with education. The U.S. Census reported that about 23 percent of women with a graduate or professional degree between the ages of 40 and 50 were childless in 2012. When it comes to securing tenure, women who do not have children enjoy a significant advantage over women who do (see Reason 71). Childless men are hardly uncommon in academe either. Graduate students who have children have described the difficulties of being a parent in graduate school. Likewise, it is difficult to be the child of a graduate student for many of the same reasons that it is difficult to be married to a graduate student (see Reason 58). The demands of graduate school are tough on parents and children alike, not to mention the debt, job insecurity, and relocations that are typically a part of the bargain. When the television personality Dr. Phil McGraw was 12 years old, his father was a full-time graduate student. The family made ends meet by delivering daily newspapers on a 52-mile paper route.

Whether you have children or not, you are still part of a family, and you probably like your family. Your family members like you, too. They may even be encouraging you to go to graduate school. If that is the case, they are doing so with the best intentions, but they likely do not realize that they are nudging you toward a career that will take you (and keep you) far away from them. It doesn’t matter where you live now or where you go to graduate school, because the very few jobs available to you at the end of the graduate-school pipeline will rarely be where your family is (see Reason 16). The enormous time commitment required to earn a PhD (see Reason 4) means that by the time you settle into a permanent faculty position—if you are lucky enough to find one—your parents will be reaching the age when they can most use your help. After years in school, you won’t have much in the way of financial resources to help them. In the worst-case scenario, you will still be dependent on their money (see Reason 12). And because you probably won’t live anywhere near your parents, your children, if you have any, will be far from their grandparents. There is no flexibility in the academic job market, so if you need to give up your job to be closer to people who need you, it will mean giving up your academic career. Contemplate your priorities carefully before you plunge into graduate school. Academic life can be as hard on the people you love as it is on you.


  1. I am happy to be the first to comment on Reason 98, because I speak from sad experience. My husband began his seven years in graduate school a year after our marriage. We postponed having children until he had his doctorate and a full-time teaching position, but when that position turned out not to be as permanent as we'd been led to believe, we were launched on a 14-year trajectory of short-term contracts, frequent moves, chronic financial stress, and constant uncertainty. Our children definitely suffered from the instability. (So did I, profoundly, but at least I was old enough to understand why it was happening.) By the time he finally gained tenure—in his fifth job, at age 55, at a university outside the US—both of our kids were in college. We were too far away to help our aging/dying parents and our newly graduated children when they needed us the most. I was never able to develop a coherent career of my own, because I pretty much had to take whatever paid work I could find in each new place. I adore my husband and can't imagine being married to anyone else, but I would never advise anyone, male or female, to marry a non-established academic. You have far too much to lose.

  2. I spent seven and a quarter years in grad school, six years in postdocs, and a couple of years in temporary jobs; by the time I found a permanent position (outside of academe) and was able to get married, I was 40. Now that I'm at an age when my friends who did not go to grad school are retiring, I still have teenagers at home. I'm living far away from my aged parents and extended family. My children will never know their cousins as well as I knew mine. But you should see my list of publications! If I had it to do over gain I would not go the same route.

  3. It is the time that makes it not worth it. How did 7 years with 2-3post doc become normal? I know PhDs in their 80s who did 3 years and 40 page thesis. Then it became 4-5 and now 7 isn't uncommon. I was able to go back to school after 15 years of work and do it in 3 years. I was self funded and didn't need to spend 2 full years as a T.A. or lab rat. I then went back to industry though I did interview for some full time non tenure openings. If you can't finish in 4 years its not worth it. Even at e years I'm a Doctor doing a job that doesn't require the degree..and that honesty adds to my depression and frustration.

  4. "Life of relative poverty?" No, graduate school puts you on the path of poverty plain and simple. Crunch the numbers- you make as little as 200 dollars a month the months you actually get to teach as an adjunct (which may be only during the summer semester once a year.) Adjuncts turn to living in their car, prostitution, driving for Uber, selling their blood, or living in a homeless shelter, sacrificing everything just to feel at some level like they're still "part of the system." When will these people wake up and realize that the system will never consider THEM to be a part of it?

  5. Another excellent reason, with sound, unimpeachable logic buttressing it. During my grad school days, I was between the ages of 35 and 40, and my mother was almost at her wits' end, even though she supported me in more than one respect. She lay awake nights worrying about my vocational and financial future, and she was deeply ashamed that her adult, Ivy-educated son had no permanent employment, no health insurance, and a broken-down car with scratched paint and a filthy interior.

    Worse still, most of the time I wasn't even enjoying my "studies," for I had fallen into the classic trap of grinding my teeth in the present while hoping that the next stage--whatever it was, another college, another fellowship, the brass ring of the imaginary tenure-track job--was right around the corner. The golden tomorrow never came, of course. At one point in graduate school, I was living out of a vehicle while on a "fellowship" at a large campus about 600 miles from home, and my mother was just beside herself, though there was nothing she could do.

    I didn't have any children (and still don't), so at least I didn't inflict any suffering in that regard, but what I went through was in and of itself far too much. Graduate school...such a mistake. You'd be far better off sitting around the house drinking beer.

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  7. Worst decision of my life, going to graduate school for the PhD. My mother used to say 'why don't you become a real doctor.?' She was wise beyond her years and HS education. Best decision of my life, leaving graduate school after 4 years for a real full time job.