On quitting my Ph.D. program

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have wrestled with and done a lot of soul searching on whether or not to continue in my pursuit of doctoral studies. I made a list of pros and cons, I enlisted the wise counsel of several people I really respect, I read just about every other blog post ever written on why you should and shouldn’t quit a Ph.D. program, I prayed about it, I thought about it as I held my daughter sleeping in my arms, and then as Christmas break ended and the start of a new semester began, I went to class last week.

As I sat in my first class last Tuesday night and listened as the professor went over the syllabus and the requirements for the semester, it hit me and I knew the answer to the question I’d been asking myself for the last month. Sure, I was afraid to admit the answer for a couple days, but I knew what I needed to do.

When I applied to graduate school this time last year, I was in an entirely different place in my life. The lovely and talented wife was pregnant, but we didn’t know it yet. And then January 25th rolled around and we got the best news we’d ever received in our married life together when we found out we’d be having a baby. Fast forward a few months and I had been accepted to grad school. Not knowing all that fatherhood would bring into my life, I decided to go ahead and give the Ph.D. program a shot. As August arrived, Annaleise was 8 months pregnant, I destroyed the side door to our home (should have seen that one for the omen that it was), and I began taking classes. I thought to myself, if I can get through these first few months of graduate school while having a baby and making the adjustment to fatherhood, the next five years of studies will be a piece of cake. And so I slogged my way through it.

Despite not being extremely passionate about becoming a scholarly researcher, I managed to enjoy myself and stay pretty well on top of things (reading all of the reading assignments, completing all my written assignments on time, etc) for the first month of the program. That is, until September 23, 2010… the day my life changed forever with the arrival of our beautiful baby girl. She came on a Thursday and I had a paper due the following Tuesday. I did not complete the paper on time, asked for an extension for the first time in my life, and turned it in a week late.

From that point in the semester on, I started but did not complete every single reading assignment and I was lucky to begin working on any of my papers and other assignments more than 24 hours before they were due. In the process, my daughter was growing up before my eyes and I felt like I was missing more and more each day. I managed to finish the semester with an A in one class and a B in another… all in all a pretty good semester considering everything else I had going on.

However, despite what the two grades on my transcript seemed to indicate, I hadn’t given my best to anything in my life since the beginning of the program. My work had suffered, I wasn’t giving my wife and daughter (or the rest of my family & friends for that matter) the attention or time they deserved, I was neglecting all of my civic involvement (sorry fellow Rotarians), and my involvement in our church had plummeted severely. And to make matters worse, I hated the fact that I was enrolled in those classes but not actually pouring myself into the learning.

After the semester was over, I knew in my heart that I would probably not be going back in the spring though I was afraid to admit it to myself for the fear of the stigma of quitting. And then I REALLY enjoyed my time off over Christmas break. I read two books, I spent a lot of time with Annaleise and Izzy, and I did a lot of things that I wanted to do and that were important to me. And I enjoyed it all… a lot.

When it was all over and it was time to go back to class, I knew what I needed to do even though I wasn’t ready to admit it yet. However, after class last week I was finally able to be honest with myself and say that the cost of giving the next five years of my life to a degree that I want but really don’t need just wasn’t worth it to me at this time in my life. And so I made the choice to drop out of the program.

After making that decision, but before actually dropping my classes and emailing my professors, I felt like a hundred pound weight had been lifted off from around my neck. I felt free again. Free to spend my time on things that were important to me as a husband, father, friend, and man not on things that were important to me becoming the best Ph.D. student I could be. And so on Friday afternoon, I logged on to OSU’s website and officially dropped my classes for the semester. Shortly after that, I emailed my professors and let them know. And it was one of the best weekends I’ve had in a long time.

In the end, even though I know I could have pushed through and made it work the next few years, there were just too many other things that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice between now and then. I realize that I will not have a Ph.D. now and there will be career and professional opportunities that will always be just beyond my reach because of that, but (as cliche as it sounds) I am confident that I will not look back at the end of my life and wish I’d had more professional success.

And so here I am, a college dropout, who all of the sudden has a whole lot more time and cognitive surplus on his hands. I don’t know what else 2011 has in store for me, but I know two things for sure: 1) I won’t be writing any more problem statements and 2) APA style is now dead to me… at least for the next 20 years or so.

To quote an email I received over the weekend from another guy in the Ph.D. program who also dropped out this semester for reasons similar to mine, “Sometimes it takes a journey like this to understand we can’t do it all.” Amen sir. Amen.

And with that, I happily cross off #2 from my 30 before 30 list.

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What counts?

Apparently there used to be a sign hanging in Albert Einstein’s office that said,

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

Profound yet simple. Think about it for few minutes. I did and I still don’t have my mind wrapped around it completely but I suspect it has a lot of implications for becoming the man, husband, father, and friend that I want to be.

21.5″, 2 Days, 7 lbs 14 oz

Holding my daughter while she sleeps and contemplating how awesome it is to be a dad. The only thing that would make this moment any better would be if it were almost 7 PM instead of 7 AM because then we could be watching the OU football game together. Throw in a plate of bacon nachos and possibly a lemon chill and I might start flippantly tossing around words like “utopian” and “transcendent” — a man can dream, can’t he?

Positivity is Manly

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar at work on positivity. Though I’m usually pretty cynical about things like that, this one was actually pretty good. One of the things the facilitator had each of us do was write down a list of ten good things that had happened to us in the past year or so.

He then talked about how we all tend to focus too much on the negative things that happen in our lives when, in reality, there is always so much positive stuff happening to us if we only look around and notice it.

Last week wasn’t the best week of my life and it would have been really easy to let the external events that transpired rob me of my positive mojo, but somehow (in large part thanks to this seminar and me taking the time to write down a list of ten positive things in my life) I managed to finish what was a pretty difficult week in pretty good stride.

Below is my list of ten positive things from the last year of my life:

1. I celebrated 8 years of marriage to my high school sweetheart. I don’t know the exact number but the percentage of marriages that end in divorce in the first 7 years is staggering. Having survived the 7 year itch and made it to 8 doesn’t mean we get to give up and stop trying, but it’s certainly something worth celebrating.

2. My wife and I found out she was pregnant with our first child. Our little girl is due in less than a month. I’m pretty ecstatic about this.

3. We were blessed to be able to take vacations to Destin and New York City. We love the beach and the big city. Does it get any better than those two locales? I think not.

4. I took on a new responsibility at work overseeing our fundraising phonathon AND I LOVE IT. Getting to work with, train, and mentor college students as we try to raise money for the university is a lot of fun. Not only does it keep me feeling young, but it also makes me feel old… in a good way. I love the dichotomy.

5. Watching the college ministry at our church blossom from nothing into a really good group of committed, Godly, young people. This time last year, I helped start a college ministry at church. Our first Sunday morning, the group consisted of 2 students and 4 adults. It’s not about numbers, but in less than 12 months, it’s gone from 2 students to between 20 and 40. I’m excited to see what’s in store for us this year.

6. Participating in a mission trip to an orphanage in Mexico in March. I’ve been meaning to write about this experience for a long time, and yet, in many ways it’s still indescribable.

7. New friends. I’ve made a lot of new friends this last year and I’m thankful for them all. Some of them are younger than me, some are older, and some are my peers. All of them encourage me to be a better person in some small way and so that’s been a real blessing.

8. It snowed on Christmas. Sure, my car got stuck in a snow drift as we traveled from one family gathering to the next forcing my wife and I to get out and walk about a quarter mile in snow drifts up to our waste. Sure, we ended up being snowed in at home on Christmas eve with nothing but frozen pizza and sparkling grape juice for our Christmas dinner. And yet, even at 28 years of age, there’s still just something magical about a white Christmas.

9. The lovely and talented wife got her Marriage and Family Therapy license and started her own counseling practice. She’s been working toward this goal for the last 5 years and it’s been really exciting to watch everything finally start to fall into place.

10. I was accepted to and started a doctoral program in the field of Education Leadership and Policy Studies. I work in Higher Education and the saying goes, “If you want to work in Higher Education, they value Higher Education.” I have a long way to go before I finish this degree but it’s something I’ve wanted and needed to do for a long time and it feels really good to have taken the first step.

In many ways, writing a list like this is a really personal experience and so sharing it feels a bit strange and awkward. However, I hope by reading my list, you will be challenged to come up with your own. I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: life can be a grind sometimes and it’s easy to focus too much on the negative. Writing down a list like this forced me to see that despite all the challenges the last year  brought my way, I’ve still had a lot of positive experiences.

What are 10 good things that happened to you in the last year?

Less is More

Though I sometimes fail, I try not to spend too much time on Sunday blogging or doing other things that require mental or physical energy. In that spirit, instead of writing a post today, below is an excerpt from what I consider to be one of the best blogs out there on living a simple life:

a brief guide to life

less TV, more reading
less shopping, more outdoors
less clutter, more space
less rush, more slowness
less consuming, more creating
less junk, more real food
less busywork, more impact
less driving, more walking
less noise, more solitude
less focus on the future, more on the present
less work, more play
less worry, more smiles
breathe

And as always, these rules are meant to be broken. Life wouldn’t be any fun if they weren’t.

This list couldn’t have come at a better time for me. With the exception of the one about driving less, these are all habits I’m trying to cultivate in my life right now with varying degrees of success.

Enjoy your Sunday. Eat good food today. Speend time with friends and family. Take a nap. Be still. Carve out some time to reflect on your life. Go for a walk. Read a book. Play with your kids. Be a man.

-M&M

Real Men and Daily Living

Yesterday was a fairly typical day for me. Woke up at 6:18 (after hitting the snooze five times). Cut my own hair (strongly recommend Wahl clippers). Drove to work (a stop at 7-11 on the way for .69 Big Gulp).

I met my wife at the auto repair place at lunch–one of our cars’ Check Engine light had come on. We picked up lunch and she dropped me back off at work. At the end of the work day, I got a ride home from a colleague who lives relatively close to me.

A bit later, my wife arrived home from work as well. We trekked to the grocery store, picked up what we needed, then came home to prepare dinner. She fixed some delicious chicken burgers, I chopped veggies for the salad, and we sat down to a healthy and tasty dinner. My wife washed the dishes, I dried and put away. I watched my favorite baseball team, the Texas Rangers, lose to the Tampa Bay Rays. My wife flipped through her latest edition of Better Homes and Gardens.

Again, a fairly typical day. That was, until…nothing. Nothing crazy, adventurous, wild, or dangerous happened. Some might even call it a ho-hum or hum-drum day.

But not me. It was a beautiful day, inordinately full of blessings (not the least of which was companionship with my wife).

Still, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the day involved any of the risk or adventure I described a man’s needing last weekNo, the day seemed to offer nothing in the way of affirming my manhood, of testing me, of reminding me that Yes, I Am A Man.

To accept that belief, however, is to accept a myopic view of manhood. See, while I think real men need adventure, risk, and even danger, I also know that real men have to T.C.B. Take Care of Business. Laundry needs to be folded. Diapers need to be changed. Toilets need to be cleaned. Sometimes mowing the lawn isn’t fun, even if you get to use your Poulan Pro PB22H54YT riding mower with 22-hp Briggs & Stratton Intek V-Twin engine, automatic transmission, 54-inch deck, and 16-inch turning radius. Not every chore provides manly glory and the use of Tim Taylor-approved power tools.

No, sometimes life tests manhood in a different way. Sometimes the routines, obligations, and necessities of being a husband, father, and all-around man test our mettle. Allow me a football analogy to illustrate. Occasionally (and, to be honest, not often enough), we can show off our manhood the way a wide receiver shows off in the NFL. We get to leap high in the endzone, snatch the pigskin out of the air, and get both feet in bounds for that game-winning touchdown. In that glorious moment, we prove to the those watching, and more importantly, to ourselves, that we have what it takes. As John Eldredge says, in such a moment, we prove that we can come through.

For much of life (and again, for many of us, too much of life), however, we are more like the offensive linemen in the game. We keep our heads down, firing off the line of scrimmage play after play, but never seeing ourselves on the highlight reels. We slog back and forth from the huddle to the line, a bit tired but still finding redemption in our own understanding that none of the wide receiver’s glory is possible without the dirty work we do every play. And that’s one of the fundamental facts of the job: such work really matters.

Here, then, is another fundamental fact of the job: both the wide receiver and the lineman are still part of the team. And, to polish off this somewhat hokey and contrived (but not too much so, I don’t think) analogy, both the risk-taking, danger-confronting male and the daily-living, routine-finishing male are men.

That realization made me feel, as yesterday ended, as much a man as the day I rafted a Class 5 rapid on the Arkansas River. There’s so much value in being able to stand up to the daily responsibilities of manhood. I hope all my emphasis on the risk, the exceptionality, of manhood doesn’t overshadow that truth.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some shelves to dust.

A Real Man and Work

I called my grandparents yesterday to see how they’re doing. They’re both in their mid-70s, and they live a quiet, calm life in the country. We chat about once a month or so, and I visit them two or three times a year besides holidays. That’s not enough on either count, but such is life.

My grandfather and I talk about all manner of things during our chats, from his time in the military to all the animals he’s owned to his childhood in small-town Arkansas. Yesterday we ended up talking about work. My brother and my only male cousin both work outdoors, and my grandpa said that’s the kind of work he’d always preferred too. But he also acknowledged that he always took what job he could get, outside work or not. He really grabbed my attention, though, when he mentioned that one of the indoor jobs he’d worked went from 7:00 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. After that shift, he went to his second job from 5:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m.

For the first job, he earned $72.80/week. He recalled that off the top of his head. When I asked him what he made for his second job, it took him only a moment to remember that wage: $3.50/hour.

I asked if he was already married to my grandmother when he was working that schedule. Yes, he said, with his five kids plus his younger brother and sister, who are twins. He was providing a living for eight people with those jobs.

At that point in the conversation, as I sat silently, a bit stunned trying to fathom the work ethic of such a man, he volunteered that he just concentrated on what he could control and didn’t worry about things he couldn’t.

I suppose that’s the main way a man can motivate himself to be at work by seven in the morning when he’d left work only six hours earlier. That and knowing he had people depending on him.

**********

I know my grandfather’s story is pretty typical, and not just for men of his generation. And that’s exactly what strikes me about his tale : how matter-of-fact he was toward his experience. It’s just the way things were. He did what it took. There was no entitlement, no martyrdom, no resentment in his voice.

I’m happy to have come from such stock. My grandpa reminds me that I’m fortunate enough not to have to work sixteen hours a day but that I could muster it if I had to, and that, at my best, I could muster his dogged, solid approach to such work as well.