October 21, 2004
Goals, choices, and other trivial issues
It does't happen often, but every great once in a while, I read a letter in an advice column that I really identify with. Today's question in Salon's "Since You Asked" column is from a woman about my age who, although she is obviously very bright, feels stupid because she didn't attain the level of academic success she expected, planned for, and worked for throughout most of her life.
Having successfully completed only one of the two graduate programs I've undertaken, I know where she's coming from. I have not had the same experiences as the writer, in that I never flunked out of anything (instead, I washed out as a result of my own lack of direction and motivation, not to mention laziness), but the feelings are much the same. Many (if not most) of my friends and acquaintances have completed terminal degrees in their fields of choice; many are now teaching, or pursuing other exciting careers. I always intended to do those things, too, and though I have been mostly successful in letting those dreams go, sometimes I can't help but feel like I just wasn't smart enough to make it happen.
I don't mean to imply that I don't like what I do, or that I have any regrets about pursuing librarianship. It's just that I've always placed such a high value on academic achievement that not having managed to get that Ph.D. is still painful sometimes, even though I'm pretty certain that when it came right down to it, that wasn't really the right path for me.
Of course, I could go back to grad school full-time. I could go back to musicology, or I could start fresh in a new field. I could go on in library and information science, where the job picture is quite a bit rosier than it is for humanities Ph.Ds. But in some inexpressible way, I feel like I've passed a point of no return in my life, beyond which certain things -- like being a grad student again -- are impossible.
At the same time, I long for the constant discovery and palpable sensation of my mind expanding that I felt during my best moments in graduate school. As this blog amply demonstrates, I don't really have the focus or discipline to concentrate on a single area. But grad school forced me to have that focus, and it made my thinking much less lazy and more efficient. I miss that.
This whole thing is also closely tied to the larger truth that non-choices in life rapidly become de facto choices: the longer one puts off a decision, the fewer the options that will be left when the decision is finally made. I more and more often experience a (paranoid?) sense of doors closing behind me, as days, weeks, and years pass and I can't decide whether to go back to school or not. In the end, I'm too content where I am to be goaded into action. But that's a choice, too.
at October 21, 2004 2:10 PM
I came back to school for my doctorate when I was 42. I am one of the oldest students in the program, but by no means the very oldest.
Not everyone has the resources to do this if they want to - but the door may be ajar a bit longer than you think!
And I am 41 and coming back to the University for my Batchelor's degree. Many people however won't share my view on Degrees. Although it can mean something, It means more to me to be learning than it does to achieve a degree. Who says it has to end when we get a Masters or Doctors degree? Those are arbitrary limits set down to measure rank in education. However it doesn't mean a limit to what we will learn in life. It also doesn't mean that is the right choice of what to learn. It seems the higher the degree, the more focused on one area one has to become. For me, I just have a purpose in life, and everything I am learning is a tool to use toward that purpose. My purpose doesn't involve achieving a specific rank, title or level of education. Those things are only tools in the process of carrying out my purpose. Other than their usefulness in serving my purpose in life, these things have no meaning in themselves. They are not the purpose of life. They are things we do while living. Occupations of our time. We should never be made to feel bad about our careers, our degrees, education level or status in life. That's rankism. We often do this to ourselves and others when we lose sight of our purpose in life. I've done it many times before and that's why it took me about 15 years to come back to the University. But now the difference is I'm not really here to earn a BA, I'm here to learn, which is no different than what I've been doing for the last 15 years through other sources. I'm not saying don't set goals to achieve, I'm saying it's good to keep things in perspective and remember that life is a process and how we live our lives is much more important than what status we achieve. And if setting and achieving a goal of a specific degree can help us have a greater impact in this life, according to our purpose for being here, then it doesn't matter what age we are, we will do it anyway.
Wise man, is John.
Best model I can think of to pass on to children is that learning is a lifelong process. It doesn't have to be measured in degrees. Some of the wisest people I know don't hold a degree from any institution but Life Experience.
So what if you are the oldest one in whatever program it is, value of the depth and dimension that you add to a class by being part of it.
As this blog demonstrates, Stacie, you have a gift for making the rest of us expand our thinking because the things you choose write about. I look forward to reading what you have to say, it makes me think outside my usual "box". Caroline
Thanks, Caroline, that's very nice of you to say. I've pretty much run through everything you and John said in your comments over the last couple of years. I'm pretty content for the most part, it's just that sometimes...I still feel like I haven't done something that I'm supposed to do (and that a big part of me wants to do). But as life happens, and other obligations pile up, it becomes harder to see the way clear to that...and I don't even have any kids!
But thank you all for the reminders that it really isn't ever too late. It's easy to forget that.
Stacie, I'll add to these encouraging comments. Not that you or anyone asked (and not that that will stop me from saying!), but I went back to grad school to get my PhD and was the oldest person in my cohort. Then within a month of moving here, my husband and I found out we were pregnant with twins. Then, I took a year and a half off (wish I could go back to my pregnant self that was saying "Oh, I'm planning to take the summer off then come back in the fall" and slap her)--although the "take off" part only applies to grad school... You get the idea. Time, period, has a way of closing doors. Any choice made makes some options less likely than others. There's something (almost everything?) to be said for being "content." All the best to you as you examine this option from all sides. One thing for sure: graduate programs all over need more 'nontraditional' students (e.g., older, w/kids, mid-career, etc)to enrich university culture and challenge business as usual.
kXNuPy Thanks:) Cool topic, write more often! You manage with it perfctly:DD