Friday, August 19, 2016

My Career Path (Part 2): Divine Intervention

If you didn't read my last post (Part 1), I recommend you read that first, or parts of this one might not make much sense.

Photo Cred: Josh age 4.5

Besides English teacher, the one other career I briefly considered as a teenager was "writer." After all, I really, really, really enjoyed writing (filled up all sorts of notebooks with my stories and poems and essays, I'm sure it was all just amazing stuff that really deserves to be published... *cough, cough*). But I was far too practical and sensible a person to actually seriously entertain this as a possible career. Because, I mean, what's the career path? How do you "become" a writer? It's not exactly something you can plan: First, I will go to school and get my degree in English, then I will write the next Great American Novel, then I will get paid enough to support myself... yeah, it doesn't work that way. Life is unpredictable, and I wanted to make sure I had some marketable skill that could earn a decently stable income to support myself (I should note, high school Suzanne did NOT expect to get married at the tender age of 21). So "writer" was out (but it does make a fabulous hobby, and I'm not opposed to turning this into a marketable skill that gets financial compensation some day... I'm just never going to rely on it for my bread and butter).

But do you want to know what other career path I rejected as a high-schooler? Academia.

I remember once telling a friend that I wanted to become a high school English teacher, and he responded, "If you become anything less than a college professor, then you are wasting that brain of yours." So, I get that he was paying me a compliment, but at the time I bristled at his comment, thinking all sorts of things: High school kids deserve smart, qualified teachers too! College kids are already smart and motivated, they don't need the type of help I want to give! High school teachers are noble! Brave! Working the trenches! College professors are too absorbed in their own small worlds of super specific research, what do they actually contribute to the world?

Okay, maybe a little harsh (and probably limited to Humanities professors, because some professors are out there researching cures to cancer). But I didn't want to be some professor specializing in the impact of printing technology on the production and consumption of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, because, I mean, what good does that serve humanity? Where's the big fulfilling meaning in that?

This is not to say that I don't love higher education. I do, I really do, which is why I just spent two years of my life getting a master's degree. I loved almost every part of graduate school. It was an amazing experience. But for me, it was always a personal hobby project, a goal for my life bucket list. It was all about personal enrichment, not career advancement, and when people asked what I planned to do with my master's degree, my honest answer was, "Nothing." Really. I planned to graduate, hang that piece of paper up on the wall, and go back to being a full-time mom. And if the opportunity (or necessity) ever presented itself in the future, I would brush up my teaching credentials and go back to the good, meaningful work of teaching high school students. The master's degree was simply about indulging in the world of graduate school for a little bit, a selfish thing really.

But a Ph.D.? No. Never. That was never, ever on the life bucket list. That was never really a thought. Ph.D.s are for people who want to become college professors, and I'd already ruled that out, remember? Also, Ph. D.s are a serious time commitment. You can pop off a master's degree in two years (or less), but a Ph. D.? We're talking four to five years (plus), with tons of rigorous requirements, and that nasty dissertation thing, and a whole bunch of stress. I may have gotten a master's degree "just for fun," but nobody gets a Ph. D. just for fun. Especially not mothers of three young children (with plans for a fourth down the road) who don't even want a career in academia. I mean, that's just crazy talk.

It was the end of September last year when things began to change. I was sitting in a church meeting when I had the thought that I needed to read my patriarchal blessing again (sorry, Mormon terminology, this is just who I am and how the story goes). So I went home, pulled out my blessing and read through it again. There was one sentence in particular that stuck out to me in a new and completely different way, and I had the thought, Wait, does that mean that I should go for a Ph. D.? Because there is definitely a way that line could be interpreted to mean I'm supposed to get a Ph. D. I'd never read this sentence before that way, but it suddenly seemed to very clearly be telling me that I needed to get a Ph. D.

Now, getting the master's degree was a lot of fun for me, and so somewhere in the back of my mind during the process, I'd begun to think, maybe. Maybe someday, when the kids are grown, and if I don't want to go back to teaching, and the opportunity presents itself. Maybe someday I'll go for a Ph. D. But only if all the stars line up. It was not a serious life goal. It was just a little bit of an idea that I decided to be open to, at some later point in my life.

But the impression I got that day, reading through my blessing, was very clear. You should get a Ph. D. now. I did some mental math and realized that my GRE score (which happens to be very, very good) was valid for another two years. And after going through the process once, I knew it would be much easier to get letters of recommendation and writing samples and all the materials for a Ph. D. application together sooner rather than later.

But remember that one small thing? About how I didn't actually want to get a Ph.D? Or what about that other small detail? The one about having two small children (and now a third on the way)? Yeah, beyond the logistics of the application process, absolutely nothing else about the idea made sense. So I did a lot of praying. Are you sure, God? Is this really what you want me to do? Really? And after a few weeks of getting the most alarming, most emphatic spiritual impression of my life (Yes! Yes! Yes! Apply for a Ph. D.!), I figured this feeling was more than a fluke.

I decided to broach the topic with my husband. It was a Saturday night, we were both sitting on the couch, probably after watching a show or something, and I said, "Hey, so, can we have some crazy talk? Wouldn't it be crazy if I applied for a Ph. D. next year?" From his perspective, I was coming out of left field. The last he'd heard, I did NOT WANT a Ph. D. And, not surprisingly, he was a little concerned. After all, we were already planning on this third baby. Did we really want to try to figure out childcare for FIVE MORE YEARS of school? Not to mention, the next step in his own career is a bit wide open and uncertain. We knew he wanted to leave his current firm within the next two to three years, so could we really commit to living in a place long enough for me to meet program requirements when he had no idea what or where his next job would be?

It was crazy talk indeed. But I told him to think about it and pray about it and just see if maybe the idea would start sounding any less crazy to him (or to me, for that matter). In the meantime, I kept up my own prayers, and I made some deals with God. I listed out all the things that would need to happen (some fairly quickly) in order for me to be a competitive Ph. D. candidate. I told God that if He really wanted me to go for a Ph. D., He needed to make these things happen, and I would see it as a sign. Basically, I needed to write a proposal for a Master's Essay (which was optional in my program, but suggested for Ph. D. candidates), which means I needed an idea for a Master's Essay, and then I needed to find a professor to be my adviser for that Master's Essay before the application deadline only a week or two away, and then I needed to build up my (essentially non-existent) C.V. with something like a conference paper, which means I needed to write an abstract and actually have it accepted at a conference.

Within a matter of weeks, every single one of those things happened. I got an idea, wrote a proposal, and got a professor to agree to advise me for a Master's Essay. I submitted an abstract and was accepted to present a paper at a fairly distinguished undergraduate conference happening in my own city (no travel! no expense!). It all just fell into place, and it seemed pretty evident a sign to me.

So I started looking into potential schools and programs I could apply to. Obviously I'm considering all my options in Houston, but neither my husband nor I are excited about the idea of making Houston our long-term home (we've loved our time here, but housing/commutes/elementary schools are all pretty serious issues in the foreseeable future). So I began looking at other programs across the country, places where my husband could feasibly get the type of job he wants, places close to family, places we would actually consider living, schools that would actually accept and fund me (cause yeah, I'm not doing a Ph. D. unless it's funded, I am done, done, done paying for school). And honestly, nothing looked appealing. It just felt like there were no options that met all of our criteria.

So one night I sat down with my husband and we had some more crazy talk. I pulled up a list online of the top 100 English Ph. D. programs in the country and I told him to pick which ones he thought might be feasible. After going through and ruling out nearly every single program, he pointed out a school I'd never given a single thought to before and said, "What about this one?" I honestly didn't even know where this school was located, but he knew it was just forty minutes from the city he grew up in and would love to move back to. So we went to the university's website and looked into the program, and it looked good. Perfect really. It seemed to offer everything I was looking for, and that my numbers would be a good match for. For the first time in this whole process, my husband got excited. If I got accepted to this school, he would have the excuse he wanted to move back to his hometown, even though it will likely mean a pay cut for him. Suddenly, he was very much on board with the idea of me applying for a Ph. D., and he spent the rest of the night looking at real estate listings in possible neighborhoods.

That was the last piece of the puzzle. Neither of us could deny how right this decision felt any more. We were both full steam ahead on my plan to apply for a Ph. D.

And so, this month, I will begin the taxing process of submitting my applications (I'm applying to four different schools, just in case). There are still a lot of things that have to fall into place. I have to get accepted, I have to get funded, my husband has to figure out his job situation, we'll very possibly have to move, find housing, figure out schools and childcare, and oh man, just thinking about all of this overwhelms me. There is still a very real possibility that things won't go according to plan and I won't be starting a Ph. D. next fall. But for right now, this is what feels right, and this is my next step.

I'm still not sure why. I'm still not sure I even want a Ph. D., or what I'll do with it once I have one. Professorships in English are hard to come by these days, and (like I've always said), I'm still not convinced I want to make a career out of academia. So maybe I'll get a Ph. D. and then simply come home again to be a stay-at-home mom. Maybe I'll write that next Great American Novel and become a professional author (ha, ha). Maybe I'll get an office job again and file paperwork for the rest of my life. I have no idea.

But I'm sure I'll figure it out when I get there.


  1. This post seriously gave me chills! I love hearing about people's journeys and decisions. I love that process of just a seed of an idea to feeling completely overwhelmed with options to having things click into place. I'm happy for you (and, I'll admit, I feel just a little bit stressed for you too!). Good luck! I'm so excited for you.

    (You pointedly didn't say which university is your top choice, and now I'm kicking myself because I can't remember where your husband is from! I'm dying of curiosity...because isn't it somewhere out here? Utah? Idaho? Arizona? Remind me!)

    1. Haha, you'll find out in due time (but, spoiler, no, not out west, sorry!).

  2. Suzanne, I love this! The idea that God knows where you'll need to be down the road, and He's preparing you for it now, even though it doesn't seem to make sense. The good thing is--despite all the stress--you can be at peace, because you know you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, and He'll take care of you.

    1. Exactly so. I do feel a lot of peace, even though our future is so completely uncertain. Thanks!

  3. Woah--this is crazy talk! But if anyone can do it, you can. And it is so comforting to know that you have divine confirmations. Good luck!!

  4. So cool! I love when big life changes come up that you didn't plan for, but that feel totally right...that's actually how my mission ended up happening! I'd wanted to serve one right at 21 (before the minimum age changed), but felt the distinctive impression that I definitely should not go. So I wrote it off forever. But then, a year later, out of the blue...a total "YES, GO ON A MISSION NOW" out of left field. And it was one of the best experiences of my life and opened SO many unexpected doors for me (and I suspect that it will continue to!). Anyway, best of luck to you as you start your program :)