by Melissa Williams | November 6, 2012
Looking back on the graduate school period of my life now (almost the first decade of this century), I’m reminded of a great line in a song by the Indigo Girls: “Every five years or so I look back on my life, and I have a good laugh.” The song is called “Watershed,” and you may already know that a watershed is a ridge that separates the flow of water into two different directions. If rain falls on one side, it may end up on one side of a continent, and if it falls just a few feet away, it may end up thousands of miles in the opposite direction. It’s a pretty obvious analogy for the decisions we have to make during the course of a PhD program.
My PhD program took me so long to complete that my personal and professional priorities had completely changed by the time I reached the end. I made many watershed decisions, and while many of them panned out, some of them took me down paths that in retrospect were absolutely not the best for me. I can only have a sense of humor about some of them. My favorite example: my mantra at the beginning of the program was, “No husbands, children, or pets.” As I look around at my three furry family members, my toddler, and my partner and love of the past decade, I’m really glad I threw that one out of the window! Other decisions…well, I can’t turn back time. I have to choose to make steps in the right direction for who I am NOW, even if that means retracing the path I traveled in the past. I learned some very valuable things during that time period:
1. Avoiding tough decisions just makes things worse. Make the best decision you can for who you are that day and based on what information is available to you now. Every time I put off decisions or ignored my instincts, that choice harmed me. Every time I took a deep breath and faced the problem, I reaped the benefits.
2. DO get a second opinion. Talk to people who love you and also people who know the world in which you’re operating. It’s hard to get perspective when you’re down in the trenches.
3. Be kind to yourself when a decision you’ve made hasn’t turned out as you hoped. You didn’t deliberately put yourself on the wrong road! But you can be honest with yourself about whether it’s time to turn around.
I write about this topic because I’ve been speaking with a lot of learners lately who face big decisions. These choices range from having to change dissertation topics after years of effort in a particular area, to making mentor changes, to reconsidering the viability of their original professional goals in pursuing a PhD, to leaving their PhD programs. Nobody else, including me as their advisor, really knows what the right decision is for them…but sometime the decision that was “right” five years ago isn’t the decision that’s “right” now. And having the courage to face the tough decision that’s nevertheless the “right” one is a brave act—one that I applaud.
Check out a few resources that might help you make momentous decisions along the spectrum of what I described above:
* Phinished: “A dissertation and support group for people trying to finish their PhDs and those who’ve been there.” http://www.phinished.org
* Megan Pincus Kajitani , “Should You Finish?” Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/10/2005. http://chronicle.com/article/Should-You-Finish-/45003
* Versatile PhD: a website designed “to help humanities and social science graduate students, ABDs and PhDs identify, prepare for and excel in non-academic careers” ). http://versatilephd.com/about/