Academia as a Second Career

Ian T. Adams, PhD student, University of Utah

I am the father of four children – ages 15, 12, 11, and 7 – and they make me look like I know what I’m doing as a dad. They are all brilliant young humans – their teachers adore them, they work relatively hard at their jobs as students, and they smile for their grandmas’ cameras without complaint.

At times it seems like an unearned miracle that they have all risen above the sometimes less than perfect father I’ve been. But, a late entry to the academic life has given me the opportunity to be a more present father- and feel more deserving of the gift my children have been.

I came to academia after spending almost all of my adult life in law enforcement. The costs borne by the families of officers are genuine. I have no doubt that seeing bloody or vomit covered uniforms on the floor of the washroom, being pulled out of school because I shot a man a block from our house, pouring milk for my cereal because my hand broke in a fight, and dealing with an emotionally exhausted father following the deaths of too many friends all affected my children.

I love that, now, the highest risk posed to them through my work in academia is a stack of books collapsing on their toes.

My previous work had other, sometimes less definable costs for my children; losses piled up, not at the violent inflection points, but in the piled rubble of too many valuable moments missed. My children grew up knowing that almost all holidays and most birthdays would be celebrated on days other than the ones they landed on. I worked grave shifts, 6 p.m to 6 a.m.; school events during the daytime were tiring to wake up for, and I missed too many.

December 2016, a month after I left law enforcement, was the first time since my oldest son was born that we spent both Christmas Eve and Christmas together. The July 4th of 2017 was the first we were able to watch fireworks together, or have to find our own seats instead of camping out in front of my patrol truck as I worked the town parade. I love the measure of focused parenting the academic schedule has granted me.

The stresses of being a graduate student are real and rarely objective. Nothing about how I encounter it is meant to minimize the experience of others faced with balancing academia and parenting. While missing a deadline on a paper is unlikely to land me in the ER and roil my children’s lives, I must still float above the whitecaps and steer out of the troughs as they appear. I love the ease of mind granted by realizing academic mistakes and bad luck these days have so little effect on my children.

So, as I sit here warmed by a literal fireplace, working on a manuscript in a coffee shop while three of my kids do homework and drink hot chocolate (and convince the baristas to give them refills on the sly – I see you), I am so grateful that I am able to withstand the financial burden of being a Ph.D. student and enjoy the fact that I no longer work in an environment that was damaging to my children.

Yes, it is a Friday night, and maybe in a more ideal moment we should be out at a bounce house or catching a movie. But the guilt of missing the positive hypotheticals is squared against the realities of Fridays where I lost the whole night with them on mandatory callout, or reporting for another graveyard shift in a decade full of them. I am so grateful that academia has made me a better, more available father.