In the past months I’ve done a lot of thinking about where I am and where I’m headed. This reflection was sparked by changes to how the university effectively funds its graduate students, which would negatively impact me as an international student employed outside the university. I could likely receive an exception to these requirements, but the move prompted me to reflect on other aspects of what I’m doing and where I’m headed.
One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is what would happen when I finish my PhD. When I started this program I dreamt of landing a tenure-track job at a university. My program has trained me for such a role: that of a research and educator. Over the past year I've realized that I’d rather be a teacher at a small college. Regardless of which type of post-secondary institution I aim for, the likelihood of obtaining a position right out of grad school is relatively slim. More likely, I would have to do at least one post doc to bolster my resume and accrue the necessary experience to be able to put together a competitive application for one of the relatively few jobs out there. And there’s lots of qualified peeps! The other limiting factor for me is geographical. I love where I live, we have family here and deep roots. The more that I thought about it, I’d like to be able to find a way to do meaningful work without re-locating my family.
I was chatting with a family member this spring and they asked about my endgame. I described the possibility of working at a semi-local (~1 hour commute) college and what that might look like. This person listened to my story and then repeated back what I'd said. They noted that, to them, it sounded like the best possible outcome would be me working at a college within the SUNY system to preserve my retirement. My family member pointed out that I’d be driving at least six additional hours every week to make that happen. They then asked me if that something I really wanted to do.
At first I thought that the answer was yes, but the more I reflected on it, I don't want to spend that much time driving and being away from home. So this got me thinking – if completing my PhD is likely to require significant financial hurdles as well as doing lots of difficult (but fulfilling!) work that would require me to carve out time away from my family, and the position I get in the end might not be the best fit for us – why am I doing this?
To me there are two answers. The first response is that I’m interested in the work, I enjoy it, and it needs to be done. The second answer, if I'm being honest with myself, is ego. I’d like to be able to say that I did this really difficult thing and that I contributed to the field in an important way.
The story I've been telling myself for so long is that doing a PhD is important and that it's worth everything I'm putting myself and my family through. I've been questioning that since I talked to my family member. When I mentioned this conversation to my wife, she admitted the same thing: this has been rough. When I voiced my doubts about moving forward, she echoed the exact same sentiments and asked if there were other ways I might be able to effect change.
Two recent developments interactions have shown me that I have the power to do more in my current role. The first revelation came from an exchange with a scholar working at an R1 university who visited my classroom. They were surprised by the depth of the connections that I had with my students. They told me that they don’t have those kind of deep conversations with their students and that they don’t know them that well. In that moment I realized that getting to know my students is something that I really value. From my previous leave of absence, I know that I missed working with students dearly, and somehow never imagined that it might be the norm if I moved to a post-secondary setting. The other significant development is that over the past three years I’ve become involved with the underrepresentation curriculum project (underrep.com), both with my physics students and as an editor. Over the past year I’ve had a couple of opportunities to do work and present on behalf of our collaboration. This has been really powerful – the conversations are never perfect, but being able to make a difference and being recognized for my experience has been a revelation. This makes me feel that being "just" a high school teacher is far from the end of the world, and I’m optimistic that I can find ways to effect change in significant ways without a PhD.
As you can probably get by this point, here is the decision: I’m withdrawing from my PhD program. It’s in the best interest of my family, who have long had to put up with me disappearing for long chunks of time to write and wandering around in a zombie-like state due to staying up late. I can always return to the PhD in the future. Maybe down the road I’ll have more time to devote to it, but for now I'm more than happy to bring all I learned in the PhD program back to my classroom. I’ll be forever thankful for what I learned from my supervisor Allison Gonsalves. I also learned tons from the professors and my fellow graduate students at McGill. Also, thanks to the folks at Saranac Lake Central School District, who have been incredibly accommodating in giving me the space to do this work. Finally, I couldn’t do this without the support my family, I am so excited to have more time to hang out with y’all!
Look for (slightly) more frequent blog posts in the future. Thanks for listening!