Stumbling Upon Sociology: A Journey to Graduate School in Midlife
May 2020 | Edited May 2020
'You’re crazy,’ they said. ‘Why on earth would you want to do that?’ they asked. My colleagues were bewildered at my choice to return to school and pursue an undergraduate degree in sociology.
Their bewilderment was fair. I was, after all, mid 40’s, a single parent with 2 teenagers and co-parenting a newish blended family with my partner, who also had 2 teenagers. I was at the top of my career game with a very successful 20+ year run at a big global software company. So, what on earth was I doing, going back to school to get a degree that was, on the surface, seemingly unrelated to my field of work? Many tried to suggest I would be better off doing an MBA, but that just didn’t pique my interest or pull at my heartstrings in any meaningful way. I was hungry to learn new things, step outside of my comfort zone and explore something completely unfamiliar.
I came to sociology purely by accident. My work as a design thinking facilitator and innovation principle had exposed me to ethnography, I was hooked and wanted to know more. But where and how? I did some research and identified both anthropology and sociology as potential disciplines to sink into, without really knowing exactly what these disciplines focused on. Sociology, in the end, ‘felt’ more expansive, seemed to cover many more aspects of life than did anthropology, so I applied to a university located between my work and my home and began taking undergrad courses at night, so I could continue to work full time.
In my second year, I took a course with the nebulous title ‘Social Interaction and Community,’ as the course description suggested I would learn about the sociology of the everyday and how we are all shaped by human group life. By the end of my second year, I knew I had found a passion for qualitative, interpretive sociology, its methods and theoretical perspectives and I became intrigued by the possibility of grad school. My undergrad professors during 3rd and 4th year, were all incredibly supportive, actively pushing me towards grad school, giving me guidance on where to apply, who would be the best supervisors and how best to apply. My age didn’t matter, they assured me, what was important was my capacity to think sociologically.
I quit my job altogether in my 4th year, so that I could devote my attention to my honours thesis, a decision that most people met with horror. How would I pay my bills, provide for my children and maintain my lifestyle? – they wondered. I wasn’t exactly sure myself, but I had a number of skills I could use to do some freelance work. Freelancing would provide me with the flexibility required to focus on school full-time yet bring in some money here and there to maintain a level of debt I would be comfortable with and be able to put my children through their own postsecondary experiences. I also knew I was no longer interested in ‘the lifestyle’ I had once upheld as a marker of success.
My undergrad was not only intellectually stimulating, I also found myself on a personal transformation journey, unlearning many of the beliefs I had constructed my life around and learning to see work, family and social life in new and interesting ways. This enlightening and eye-opening journey afforded me the opportunity to redefine what was important in life, how I would measure success going forward and uncover my love for research. I couldn’t wait for this exciting journey to continue with grad school.
The excitement I had for grad school faded quickly. My life as a master’s student was never-ending drudgery. There was no time to delve deeply into and engage with weekly readings, given the sheer volume of pages to be consumed. The intense competition and frequent power struggles among grad students and even faculty created a rather toxic environment, that made collaboration almost impossible. The year of my cohort was also the year a new grad chair was to be chosen, resulting in troublesome dynamics as interested faculty postured for the position. It became clear which faculty members disliked each other, as cliques formed around the candidates in the running. This status competition also became a slugfest between theoretical lineages with positivist proponents fighting their conflict and constructionist colleagues. It was also no surprise that this contest spilled over into grad students, especially PhD students. The PhD/supervisor relationship is strategically important to PhD students and lines in the sand began to be drawn between them, depending on the alliances their supervisors had to the potential grad chair candidates. This behaviour was oddly reminiscent of high school popularity contests, not something I anticipated in the playground of scholars and intellectuals.
Grad life became more of a ‘keep your head down and your nose to the grindstone’ experience. There was sadly little in the way of intellectual debate and deep substantive learning. From my private sector career, I knew well how to avoid power struggles and how to grind my way through each day, so I was able to navigate the environment. I was, however, not prepared for the intensity of power plays and politics among faculty and students alike, or the lack of trust – a key element in building and maintaining collaborative, generative and productive communities. My grad school experience felt more like a factory churning out degree holders and less like an environment dedicated to helping students unleash their intellectual potential, undertake meaningful research and contribute to the discipline’s body of knowledge. After asking for feedback and input regarding how I might improve my weekly writing assignment for one of my classes, my professor said “oh, I don’t actually read those.” One has to wonder, then, was the assignment necessary and how would grades be cast. Most seminars were organized around students presenting assigned readings for that week, which usually meant the regurgitation of content, while professors sat and ‘listened’. One of my professors frequently nodded off during these presentations. Given the tediousness of them, it is difficult to fault faculty for that. These behaviours, however, collectively created a culture that oozed ‘I don’t care’ and resulted in a disillusioned cohort that couldn’t wait for the nightmare to end.
My supervisor advised me from the outset not to do my PhD at that university (I am not), now I know why. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do a PhD after my MA experience, but my supervisor was adamant that I needed to continue my work as she felt it was both meaningful and creative. I spent a number of weeks reflecting on why even do a PhD in this moment, and now in my mid-50’s. Again, I came back to my deep passion for research, the thrill I get from learning and unpacking dense material to find the nuggets of insight buried in its depths, and the perverse pleasure I derive from the writing process. Further, I am of the mind that embarking on a PhD opens up the possibility for me to help re-design the grad school experience. PhD work is scheduled to commence September 2020. This time my eyes are wide open.