I know one thing to be true: you do not want to pursue a Ph.D. if your main objective is to have greater earning potential, to find shelter in an ivory tower for a few years, to put off “real-world” tedium, or just to experience the ego-boosting pleasure of having the title “Dr.” before your name. You want to pursue this degree if you have a serious love-passion,even-of learning, if you have a real commitment to your field, if you have a realistic understanding of the rigorous course of study you’re about to undergo, and if you consider your annual gross income-generally a combination of fellowships, part time jobs, and family support-to be a fact of life, not a reflection of some huge sacrifice you’ve made.
I returned to graduate school in my late 30s, having enjoyed a teaching and administrative career up until that time. Always a voracious reader, I would sometimes mull over a work of literature and ask myself, “What am I missing?” It’s like reading a Shakespearean tragedy in high school: you know there are depths of human behavior that you’ve heard about, read about, but not yet experienced on an adult level. That same play, read a decade or two later, will resonate much more sharply, as life experiences expand your worldview.
I wanted to know what I was missing, and I wanted to teach it to others. So I left my job, and studied in the department of language and literature of a fine university where I knew I’d find some answers. During my tenure there, many students-most, of course, younger than I was-left the program. Some were ABD (all but dissertation). One fellow student explained to me that he was sick of holding down four part-time jobs, and theorizing in class but unable to have a real life for all the demands of the program, and that it was time for him to live life. “You’re already had a life; I’ve just been going to school,” he said.
Maybe one day he’ll return to grad school. All I know is that I, and others who finished the program, had the passion and he, like still others, did not. There were no right or wrong choices here, just different ones based on individual needs and desires. I still don’t know everything about what I was missing in the literature, because by Year One I began to truly understand the old adage that the more you know the more there is to learn; but I do know an awful lot more than I did before I earned my M.A. and Ph.D.
The expansion of my knowledge base; the skills I developed in critical thinking; the ability to share my insights with others, to teach, and to learn; the confidence that I have developed in my field-and elsewhere-are all sources of joy to me, and reason enough for all the hard work.
If you have reasons that speak to you as sharply as mine did, you might want to seriously consider graduate work. It truly is its own reward, if you enter to learn and to become better at what you do. If you’re not sure, then do the work-research schools and programs, take career and educational assessment tests, search your heart and your mind-and you might discover something you didn’t really realize you were looking for.