The Academy Has No Room for Us

Posted February 2, 2018 @ 11:45am | by Tripp

Now, many already know this about getting a Ph.D. Most of those “many” happen to be women because, let’s face it, no matter how you slice it, a Ph.D. program was designed for single men. Hell, it was designed for monks, but let’s not confuse things. 

A Ph.D. program in the US is two to three years of coursework, comprehensive examinations of some kind, and then a dissertation. My school, Graduate Theological Union, claims that the average completion time is seven years. By comparison, the University of Chicago is 9.5 years. So, yeah. Anyway, for people keeping track, I’m still scheduled to complete within the window. Who knew?

Here’s what I have always known but have experienced first hand in my program. The quintessential successful student is either single and well-resourced, or is supported by a spouse who is able to pick up the vast majority of the financial and logistical burden so that the student can concentrate on being a student. This does not mean they have it easy. Not at all. It’s hard as hell even with all of the support. Such success still comes at a great price.

Most students don’t have such an experience. Enormous sacrifices are made. Marriages are tested (some fail). Massive financial debt is accrued. Psychological health is put at risk. This is all just so one can finish the degree. I’m not going to even touch the job market. That’s another can of worms entirely. 

As it stands, though I will finish, I will not enjoy all the possible benefits of the program.

If you have other responsibilities like work or family to attend to, a Ph.D. can be almost impossible to achieve. The program isn’t designed for you. It’s not. There’s no time to make dinner or to nurse someone's cold. There’s no money for childcare. There’s no time for romantic dinners and vacations with a spouse (see: monks). None. Not if you wish to make “satisfactory academic progress.” And we have to or we’re done.

Here’s where someone will say, “But single mothers….” Yeah. Do you know what it costs them emotionally? Spiritually? Physically? They may choose it, but it’s damn near criminal that we ask it of them. It’s a sign of society’s depravity that we laud it and praise these women as opposed to apologize and fix the problems. Their success is an act of rebellion against a system that has no desire for their success. Instead, we should be doing all we can to support them. It should cost them nothing. Health insurance should be cheap or free and child care should most certainly be free. 

Instead, accrediting agencies demand such “rigor” of schools who in turn demand it of their students. We call it “formation.”

I whine about my experience all the time. I know. It’s therapeutic for me. But more realistically, here is what I’ve discovered. 

This process assumes my wife is waiting on me hand and foot and that, in the end, she will move wherever the next job is. It assumes that, if there are children, she is the primary caregiver and I, the student, am still in a library every day for eight hours. It does not assume that I, the student, does most of the cooking and other kitchen work, takes a very active role in parenting our child, and cannot afford regular daycare. I do all this because my wife also works and has passions that need her careful and conscious response as well as my active support. I cook not because I am exceptional, but because I’m home to do it. I parent because I’m a parent. 

But, that’s not the deal we signed up for. The deal is that the only thing you do is your doctoral work. It is your only love. It is your only obsession. At student orientation, spouses and partners were told we would spend 70 hours a week on our program. That’s by design. By design.

If it were all I did, then I might stand a chance. If I were single, then I might stand a chance. As it stands, though I will finish, I will not enjoy all the possible benefits of the program. I will complete it. That is all. 

And no one person is to blame. Everyone I speak with sees the problems and wishes it could be different. No one is empowered to change things. No one. It’s astonishing. 

The program is not designed for my success. It is not designed for my failure, either. It’s simply not designed for me at all. Married? Parenting? Nope. Not for me at all. 

Women, of course, know this already.

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