Posts tagged "life"


At present, I write here infrequently. You can find my current, regular blogging over at The Deliberate Owl.

graduates at an outside commencement throwing their hats in the air, with pine trees in the background

Considering applying to graduate school? Or enrolled already, but second guessing your decision?

I was talking with another mom at the park last week. Her husband had a PhD, but wasn't using it much in his career. He hadn't gone into academia, or even into research. That's frequently the case for PhDs. Sure, having the credential could be helpful in landing gigs. But … "Is going to grad school worth it?" she asked me.

No, graduate school is not always worth it. The key is deciding whether it is worth it for you, right now. Many factors go into your decision: personal, practical, financial.

Can you afford grad school?

Graduate school is a notoriously expensive investment. The expected payoff is that you will earn a higher income and attain a more desirable career as a result. But is this actually true?

It depends entirely on your field and your personal career goals.

Many students end up in debt. You're more likely to pay for your degree and take on debt if you are pursuing a degree in the social sciences or humanities, or for a professional degree such as an MD or JD. In STEM fields, and some social sciences, you are more likely to find funding, such as a scholarship or fellowship, for your studies—but it's not guaranteed!

Consider your finances carefully before jumping into grad school.

Does a graduate degree help you?

Going to grad school can help you achieve your career goals… but it can also hurt. Many PhDs don't become professors or go into research—like my friend's husband. That means they've trained for a job they don't have. What do they do instead? All kinds of things. But when you choose a career path that doesn't require a graduate degree, the people who started that path before you—without attending grad school—may be seen as more qualified and may be hired or promoted over you.

Think carefully about your potential career paths up front. Revisit your plans regularly and consider your options.

(Read: [How I Built a Career from Strengths and Interests—and How Your Kids Can, Too](

Do your career goals require a graduate degree?

If your career goals require a graduate degree, then you should carefully evaluate whether a graduate degree is the only possible path to that career.

Professional degrees can often be required for a particular career path—such as a JD for lawyers.

If you're in the humanities, and some social sciences, grad school is less likely to be worth it. You're more likely to end up in debt, because there's as not much funding available for advanced humanities degrees, at either the Master's or PhD level. An advanced humanities degree is not required for many careers. If you want to be a professor, sure; but there are few tenure-track positions available, and the adjunct life is only appealing in certain cases.

In STEM fields, and some social sciences, grad school can be a useful stepping stone to a wider variety of careers—professorships, government research, and industry research. Many higher up positions in research-heavy fields require a Master's or PhD. Some, however, may just as easily accept an equivalent number of years of experience. Do your career goals require a graduate degree?

Do your personal goals allow for a graduate degree?

Even if your career requires a graduate degree, your broader life goals may not. Grad school takes a long time. Master's programs are generally one or two years. A PhD can take up to a decade, depending on the program and your field. A decade is a long time.

What else are you putting on hold while you're in school? What are your other personal goals for your life? Do you want to live in a particular place? Do you want a family? You may already have roots in a particular place, or a family, or a spouse's career to consider. These factors impact your decision to attend grad school—or not. What do you have to give up? What else could you be doing?

(Read: [Why I Went To Graduate School](

Does going to grad school help you?

Ask yourself these questions:

    What do I value? How do I live out my values? What career do I want? Why? What are the different ways I could pursue this career? Is graduate school absolutely necessary, or can I learn what is needed in another way? Are there similar careers equally appealing that require less schooling? What are my financial goals? Does graduate school help me reach them? Can I afford more school? Is it worth it? Can I trade time and money for the future payout of a more desirable career? What's the opportunity cost? What could I be doing instead? What am I giving up to attend graduate school? Think about where you want to be in five years, or ten years. If you were at the end of your life looking back, what would you wish you had done more of—or less of? Who would you wish you had spent more time with?

Make sure your plans line up with your priorities. Don't go to grad school by default. Only go if it's the best option for you and helps you learn and achieve what you want to learn and achieve.

Like this post? You'll find even more detailed advice about managing grad school and life in my new book, Grad School Life: Surviving and Thriving Beyond Coursework and Research. Order it today!


close up of a hand wearing a silver and black MIT ring

I've officially finished at MIT!

I've even got a ring to prove it. And some cool letters to tack on to my name.

I defended my dissertation in December. I finished all the revisions my committee had requested in February. The official graduation was in June.

My grad school admissions essay started off with the line, "I'm going to grad school because it'll be fun." I was right. At the MIT Media Lab, I worked on fluffy robots that helped young kids learn language skills through storytelling and play, an endeavor that included forays into art, robot voice acting, philosophy and ethics, psychology, child development, cognitive science, programming, electronics, statistics, and not a small amount of writing. It was a wonderful opportunity to both dabble and dive deeply.

Reaching this milestone wouldn't have been possible without the help and support of a great many people, most of whom I hope I remembered to add to the acknowledgements section of my dissertation. (If I forgot someone, there is written in the final document a promise of compensatory cupcakes.) You can find a pdf copy of my dissertation here.

As for what's next...


Why is having kids, moving out of the city, and following an unusual path a waste?

Randy, Elian at 8 months (sporting his lab t-shirt!, and I

"She's worried you'll waste your degree."

My friend (let's call her Anna) relays this message to me as coming from another friend, but I can tell from her tone of voice that she's clearly worrying about the same potential waste. That makes the question doubly irritating. As if pretending to be merely the messenger could disguise the passive-aggressive way of questioning my life decisions. Decisions which, I might add, I'm pretty darn happy with.

The primary decisions in question are these:

First, I had a baby in grad school. I'm growing another tiny human now, in fact—I gave my defense talk while 6 month pregnant! Evidently, instead of seeing this as a badass feat of time management and life balance, Anna took it as ultra-clear proof that childbearing, not science, is my ultimate goal in life, since the two clearly aren't compatible. As if there aren't amazing examples to the contrary, like two of my committee members, who are inspiring women with three kids apiece.

Second, while finishing my last semester of writing, I moved to a town that Anna has frequently referred to as "the middle of nowhere," despite it having a regional population in the 200,000's, as well as a branch of a state university. Maybe she thinks "middle of nowhere" really refers to how far you are from a large number of appropriately ethnic restaurants? Being out west, up in the skinny part of Idaho with the abundance of beautiful clear lakes, pine-filled mountainsides, and a peaceful pace of life has been wonderful. Less stressful. It's a nice place for writing, and a nice place for families.

And then, there's the somewhat non-traditional plan for my post-MIT life. It's not perfectly mapped out, but it will certainly involve my husband and I homeschooling/unschooling our kids, coming up with flexible work arrangements so we can travel more and spend more time with family, and having a high degree of independence. My husband's current software-as-a-service company is a good start. We have some other ideas, too—after all, leaving MIT and Boston doesn't mean I'm leaving research or a creative, intellectual life.

Given those decisions, well, of course! Getting a degree is a waste! If my life plan does not follow the norm, if it does not include seeking out a high-paying industry job in a big city or a prestigious professorship at an R1 school while placing my kids in daycare and coercive schooling for upwards of 14000 hours, then of course, I'm wasting my degree.

But isn't a big part of the point of grad school learning? Learning about project management. Developing writing skills. Doing independent research. Asking interesting questions. Pursuing ideas. Managing time, balancing multiple commitments, and being involved in many activities I care about. Whether or not I then use those skills to pursue any of the most common paths out of grad school isn't the point. What I learned will still serve me well in future endeavors—writing papers and essays, consulting, hiking in the mountains, self-funding our startups, blogging, gardening, reading philosophy, advocating for self-directed education, or spending time with the people who really matter to me.

The implicit assumption Anna had that "wasting my degree" is even possible is, frankly, an insult. She identifies as a feminist. Isn't feminism supposed to be about empowering and supporting women in making life choices that are right for them?

Grad school was one step that was right for me. Having kids I actually spent time with, moving out of the city, pursuing whatever creative, intellectual, maternal, or domestic activities I happen to want to do next...? Also right for me. Sorry to disappoint, Anna.

This article originally appeared on the MIT Graduate Student Blog, March 2019


A poem to celebrate my year

2018: A year defined by a PhD,
A study, analyses, and a writing spree.
A kid who’s growing; a family, moving.
Always learning, ever improving.

In January, I was glued to a laptop,
Programming robots and testing nonstop.
I recorded dialogue; recruited schools;
Prepped assessments; built software tools.

snow-covered front steps of a house

February is a wild, snowy blur
Of consent forms, paperwork, and red and blue fur.
Kids signed up!
The robot was ready!
All this made me happy, since progress was steady.

the robot tega's face

As March snow melted, the study began!
I drove to schools and followed my plan.
Eight sessions each, plus pre and post;
The robot was keeping the kids engrossed.

In April, one kid, who wasn’t too shy,
Told me he was “actually part robot, so I can fly!”
(Tega, our robot, it’s worth pointing out,
Just talks, and sits, and looks about.)

By May, I was glad if the robots didn’t break,
But why oh why did I choose this headache?
Long-term studies will be my demise
Why oh why do I do this, you guys?

Oh wait, it’s June, long-term studies are the best!
Look, I have data, totally worth being stressed!
Learning with robots over time—this is nice!
Awesome research, look: data! Worth the price.

sunny blue couer d alene lake

In July, let’s mix it up and buy a home,
Way out west where there’s space to roam,
More lakes, more space, and bonus, it’s cheap!
Less traffic, more mountains; more yard upkeep.

In a haze of boxes and packing tape,
The month of August and ggplot graphs take shape.
Let’s leave the humidity and Boston’s heat:
Analyze data; start writing; retreat.

light coming through leaves

September is data, papers, and writing.
And writing, revising, and then some rewriting.
I find getting three great professors to be
In the same place at the same time isn’t all that easy.

yellow leaves on a maple tree

I like watching the colored October leaves from my chair.
They dance and they spin, red and yellow in the air.
Oh wait, I’m still writing. I need a new graph…
Add to this chapter; fix that paragraph….

me hugging little Elian in front of evergreens

My baby is two! He’s as tall as a table!
He’s finally stopped trying to eat all our cables!
I’m still writing. Time to start my talk prep.
Defense Day is looming on the doorstep.

my PhD committee and me, post-defense!

Now here’s a day that I’ll remember!
Dissertation defense on the 12th of December.
Crazy year it’s been, that and then some…
But hey: Dr. Jackie, here I come!

This article originally appeared on, January 2019