Is PhD life hostile to families? (and beyond…)




Jared Oliphint (PhD, Texas A&M) has an interesting substack post up entitled, ‘Why a PhD Program Is a Hostile Environment for a Family‘, which is in a sense less about PhD programs per se than ‘PhD life’ (broadly construed). A few snippets:

So what makes PhD life so hostile to families?

1. The Big One: Lack of Income

…Any philosophy graduate program worth considering will be funded, which means tuition is all or mostly covered, and you get an annual stipend over the life of your program ranging anywhere from $12k-$25k, in exchange for being a teaching assistant, a research assistant, or teaching your own courses. This will put you below the poverty line even if you are single.  It is extremely challenging to cover basic living expenses if that stipend is your sole source of income, even if you’re single, and it’s impossible to do so if you have a spouse and kids. The math doesn’t add up…

2. The Psychological Toll

…the psychological challenges of grad life are real and constant. You’re doing all this work in social isolation while in the back of your mind you know that there is a good chance you will have little or no employment payoff at the end of it.

I’ll give you an example. While I was looking at job listings in my field over this past year, a realization hit me like a ton of bricks: in the mainstream academic world, the skills I have trained for and honed for years are simply not valued, financially speaking. I was perusing philosophy jobs and noticed that Mississippi State University had an opening to teach in their department. It was one of the temporary positions I mentioned above: only 9 months (an academic year), and it paid $36k. Now, MSU is an R1 institution with a lot of financial resources, and a quick google search reveals that they recently set a fundraising record. Another quick google search reveals that the average public school teacher salary in Mississippi is…$48k. So if I was “lucky” enough to land this position at MSU after years of successfully grinding through a PhD, I would be making as much as the average public school teacher, but without the stability of long-term employment

3. Isolated Work

The nature of graduate work is also unique… The level of research you need to achieve to be successful… requires a long-term physical space that is isolated and distraction-free, and such a space can be especially difficult to find with a family…

But the constant isolation is bound to have both short-term and long-term effects on your family and social life, in a way I haven’t yet figured out or processed…

The other unique part is the ever-present, relentless time-limit of your work in the program. You feel the constant pressure of completing the dissertation, of course, but sometimes even more important is the unavoidable, intense pressure to get your papers accepted at conferences, and to publish in a good journal before going on the academic job market…That job cycle can be indescribably tough on a family in many ways: financially, socially, psychologically, etc. In many cases those costs can be too high to be worth whatever the gains are.

Oliphint concludes the piece by making it clear that, ‘I don’t want this post to read as a list of complaints; if it reads that way I’ve done something wrong.’ Rather, as he puts it:

Being in a graduate program is a privilege, and getting accepted happens because of some mysterious proportion of merit and luck. I’m thankfully on the other side of all this, so I no longer have to navigate some of the intense challenges. My primary reasons for writing this post have been to warn those who may be thinking about applying to grad school (particularly in philosophy), and simply to provide a window into the tragically unique trials and challenges that have more to do with daily living than with the academic demands like presenting at conferences, getting published, pleasing an advisory committee, etc., which obviously provide their own unique trials and challenges. I could say quite a bit about the ways a PhD program is unimaginably difficult, academically speaking. I’ll probably say more about that broad topic at some point, but I wanted to focus here on why PhD programs are unavoidably hostile environments for grad students who enter the program with a family, or who start a family at some point during the program. 

I don’t have children of my own yet, but I do have a spouse who suffered with me during the end of graduate school and during my seven years on the job-market–and when it comes to my family as such (including my extended family), Oliphint’s post very much speaks to my experience. Further, now that I think about it, all three of Oliphint’s major sources of hostility to family life seem to me to be hostility to individual and family well-being more broadly, including the well-being of those who don’t have families. After all, financial insecurity, isolated work, and the psychological toll of grad school and the job-market all apply to single individuals too, though perhaps not in the same ways. In fact, some of the things Oliphint discusses–such as the isolating nature of grad work–might be even worse in certain ways for single people (who may have few, if any, loved ones to turn to for daily support). So, perhaps the real issue–or rather, more complete picture–is that grad life is profoundly hostile to individual and family flourishing. That seems very bad, but again, not at all inconsistent with my own experiences over the course of my career, both as a (formerly) single person (and son), and now as a husband.

Anyway, I’m curious. Did Oliphint’s post speak to you, as it did to me? Or, if you had a family in grad school, did you have a very different experience? Finally, to the extent that you may share Oliphint’s experiences, what (if anything) do you think grad programs or the profession more broadly could do to do better and be more supportive–both with respect to family life, but also (for reasons noted above) individual well-being too?

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More