Happy Doc Student Podcast

PhD Pause and Play: Navigating Life, Stopping, and Restarting the Academic Journey with Adam Baldry, MA

February 28, 2024 Heather Frederick, PhD Episode 122
Happy Doc Student Podcast
PhD Pause and Play: Navigating Life, Stopping, and Restarting the Academic Journey with Adam Baldry, MA
Happy Doc Student Podcast
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Show Notes Transcript

On this show I chat with Adam Baldy. Adam holds an MA in East Asian Studies and is a PhD student at the University of Arizona. As a Senior IT Systems Analyst at Pima Community College, he blends his in-person and online teaching experience with ed tech management.


·      Starting a doctoral program is a big decision (perhaps the biggest decision you will ever make). If at any time you feel pressured to start a program, question the motives of that organization.

·      Do your research! Speak with current students, graduates, and faculty. Ask for  time-to-completion statistics and graduation rates. Complete the exercises in Ch. 1 of The Happy Doc Student Handbook. See episodes below.

·      There are unique challenges for first-generation college students and navigating the unfamiliar territory of graduate school can add to an already stressful environment. 

·      Graduate school will happen in the context of your LIFE; there are no easy answers when it comes to deciding how to manage your own mental health, supporting others, building a career, etc.

·      Knowing your core values is key; you will have to let some things go; be honest in terms of your priorities during this season.

·      Embracing a part-time program may allow you to balance work, academia, and family life.

·      Like stepping into a doctoral program, stepping out of one is also a big decision. Be cautious of “reacting."  Instead, responded thoughtfully to these feelings (see the I-Think-I-Want-To-Stop activity in The Happy Doc Student Handbook). 

·      If you do decide to step out (whether forever or for a season), refrain from feelings of guilt/failure and listen to the Good Goodbye episode:  https://www.buzzsprout.com/1547113/8016142 

Connect with Adam

Relevant episodes for when you are researching programs:
#2 The Doc Journey: Things You Need to Know (that they probably won't tell you)
#21 Should I Pursue a Doctoral Degree? with Dr. Chris Cappannelli
#31 Reality Check: Is a Doc Program for You? with Jamie Hillman
#53 Are We Teaching Students To Be Unhappy? with Dr. Leonard Cassuto
#69 Career Diversity & The Doctorate with Dr. Leonard Cassut

Relevant episodes for when you want to STOP:
#7 When You Want to Quit with Dr. Jodie Hemerda
#10 ABD, Limiting Beliefs and Giants with Dr. Scott Burrus

Support the show

Support this free content: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1547113/supporters/new
Get The Happy Doc Student Handbook: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0578333732
Other resources at: http://Expandyourhappy.com
Treat me to a green tea: https://www.buymeacoffee.com/expandyourhappy

Want to make my day? Rate, review, subscribe & share with someone you love.

I'm your host, Dr. Heather Frederick, and today I'm hanging out with Adam Baldry. Adam holds an MA in East Asian Studies and is a higher ed PhD student at the University of Arizona. He is currently a Senior IT Systems Analyst at Pima Community College, where he uses both his in person and online teaching experience to inform his approach to ed tech management and innovation. Adam's work demonstrates core values of simplicity, humanity, and mindfulness. Three things we are sure to touch on in today's conversation. Adam, welcome to the show. Thank you for having me. I'm very excited to be here. Before we started recording, I let you know that you were the first guest that I've had the honor of interviewing who was in a PhD program and chose to step out, make some changes, re evaluate life, and then step back in to a PhD program. And today we're going to talk about your story. I'm looking forward to it. Yeah, it was, it was a journey. So it'll be a, an interesting dive and we'll get vulnerable and real, real fast, I'm sure. So.. Why don't we start with how did you end up in a PhD program? What made you think, Hey, I want to do doctoral studies? That's a great question. So for me, it actually started at the undergraduate level. I, I had served a mission. Faith is a big, a big part of my, uh, my identity and how I understand the world and myself., I served a mission for two years. I lived in Australia working with mostly folks of Chinese origin. I learned Mandarin Chinese as part of that. I ended up doing my undergraduate in Chinese. Um, but I bounced around from different majors and different things and ultimately decided I really enjoy the Chinese language. I enjoy the Chinese culture, Chinese people, and I wanted to be a professor of, , of Chinese poetry is actually what I was set out to do initially. I really enjoyed, Tang Dynasty poetry and wanted to kind of pursue that further in Song Dynasty poetry so I, that was my, my goal, career goal from the start, I guess, after I figured out what I wanted to do was, okay, I want to be a professor and, and why was, I really loved teaching. I learned that when I was a missionary, these aha moments where people make these realizations. And they connect those dots. That was like this dopamine rush for me of like, oh, like they're getting it and they're, they're making these connections and I, I can make a career out of this. And I wanted to, to be able to do that. And so I came to the doctoral program wanting to teach and then was kind of affronted by all the other things that I didn't really know about other than , this is how I get to , be a professor and live the life that I saw other professors living. When I was doing my undergraduate. So what I'd love to stop and point out here to the listeners is you had a clear path. You knew you wanted your doctorate because you wanted to teach, and I'm assuming at the university level, and that's pretty much a requirement, right? So you had a clear reason for needing this degree. But we were also chatting before the show, your first generation college student, as am I, So maybe you go in with a little bit of, um, not really understanding what you're signing up for. Is that, is that fair to say? A hundred percent. Yeah, I feel like I spent the first, , Especially the first year of my master's program, just figuring out what grad school was. I knew what I wanted to accomplish in the end, but I didn't really understand what the path looked like. Um, and so that, that first year was a lot of learning and figuring out what, because all I had experienced was high school and my undergraduate studies, and it was vastly different kind of learning and expectation. Time demand and school had always come fairly easy for me and all of a sudden it was much much harder. A lot of surprises along the way, for sure. You know, I remember when I started college as an undergrad, I thought this is kind of like high school 2. 0., it felt like grade 13, right? Like, you just kept going. I mean, it was different. I got to pick my classes and my teachers, and maybe I only went to school Tuesday and Thursdays or whatever, but it felt very similar. Then you get to graduate school and you're like, whoa, this is not grade 17 or whatever. This is a totally different ball game. Completely different. And, uh, you know, I was a humanities major. I got my degree in Chinese and I kind of felt like, oh, we had some senior level seminars, classes, that's probably what this is going to be like. But no, the, the reading. A book or more a week per class. Um, I went to school. I continued full time. My wife was working at the time as well. And so we had some income, but I was making like 200 a month or something as a graduate assistant. And, um, you know, trying to teach classes and trying to. balance, like making sure I was learning everything I was learning, but also I'd only been married about a year when I'd started grad school, so trying to prioritize my relationship with my wife and making sure that she wasn't just like keeping me alive and only giving and not receiving and trying to balance that was also a difficult. Part of my learning what grad school would mean for my life outside of just like my studies, right? Yeah, and it's not a small thing the divorce rate for doctoral students is huge and I will say, you know it's something you need to pay attention to because you want them to be there at your graduation, right? You don't want to be walking across the stage having alienated all your family and friends because you didn't know how to balance this huge task of doing a PhD while living life. So you found yourself in this PhD program and you say you got burnt out. Yeah, I, um, I hit a real hard wall. So while I was working on my master's degree, um, , uh, my wife has major depression and that had gone largely untreated up until we, uh, relocated for my master's program. It was the first time she had lived out of state from where she was from and her family was suddenly spread across the world. Their parents had moved, uh, to Asia for three years, her brother was in Asia as well for another different thing, and her sister , who's her twin sister, she's very close with, was 800 miles away all of a sudden, and I was her only person, and she was in this place that was different, and she was having a really, really hard time. She had a boss at the time that was just so, kind of emotionally manipulative and abusive and she was working in this hostile environment and her depression and anxiety was just like a huge high level. Um, and so I was supporting her through her journey while trying to get through my own part of this as well as, two weeks before I moved to go to my graduate program, I discovered that my father had had this whole secret life. And I won't get into all the details of that, but I was devastated. I had to sever my relationship with my father, learning that he was this kind of dangerous person that I didn't want to be affiliated with. Um, he had ruined my credit. Um, I had to fight for years afterwards with the, , credit bureaus to rectify my own credit based on things that he had done and some of the addictions that he had fed using. my credit record and different things. So, , I was going through a lot emotionally trying to support my spouse and figure out what grad school was and feeling like a fish out of water and first generation college student, and at the same time, my family being like, why are you trying to do this? You speak Chinese, just do business. You'll make money. You don't need to do all this stuff. But knowing this is what I want. I want to contribute in a meaningful way with my career. And I don't, I don't want to just be a business person, not that there's anything wrong with that, but that's not what I wanted for my life. And so, um, trying to balance my own goals and well being and all these different facets that were going on, I just burned out. Um, I got into the PhD program. It started into that, , after I finished my master's, , And I was really kind of already like, this is, I need to just, I was like head down, I need to just keep going because getting through this is how I'm going to get through this. Like, you just keep your head down and you keep going. And I just kept trying to push myself and push myself and I'd hit walls and I'd be like, okay, I can't finish this class right now because I've over committed myself on all these other areas. So I'm going to take an incomplete on this course. And then I took another incomplete, and then I took another incomplete. And then I took another incomplete, and all of a sudden I got four incompletes sitting over my head, um. My wife and I, we finally have started to find a balance where her depression isn't so great, but now I've developed my own depression. I'm struggling at that point, um, severely., , I got so depressed to the point where I was having suicidal thoughts, and then , when I finally had to confess that and address it, I started, uh, going to therapy. And I realized I just had so many things that were weighing on me and I felt so overwhelmed about trying to address them. And, uh, I started to just, okay, what can I actually do? And I just focused on survival of like, what is the only thing I need to do to get through this next hour, this next day, this next week, and my mantra kind of became , I can do anything for x number of minutes, hours, days, weeks. Um, I was just in a really rough place., my wife and I decided we wanted to start a family, but we had been and have been trying at that point for, I think three or four years or something at that, at that point, unsuccessfully. And, , We were told by doctors that that wasn't gonna be possible. And that was devastating., and so figuring out what that meant, um, we started having a lot of serious conversations. Is this PhD really worth it?, if we continue down this path, what does that mean for our family? I wouldn't feel comfortable adopting or fostering, knowing that we don't really have income, right? We're relying on my wife's income alone, um, which was for the local school district, didn't make very much money, but it had really meaningful work, but just not highly valued work, unfortunately. And, uh, yeah, so it was, a lot of things that were really weighing on me, and I just got to the point where it was either my life or continuing the program, and I decided I needed to live, fortunately, um, and uh, and that we wanted to re figure out other things, like what does this mean if we're going to be fostering adopting? Maybe the PhD isn't really going to work right now, so I ended up taking a leave of absence, , for one year, and one year became two years. Um, and then two years was going to be three years., and, , I lapsed on doing some paperwork and, and said, you know what? This is probably for the best. I don't think I need to, to go back to this. I am gainfully employed. Um, I found a career that I love, that I'm good at, and that I really enjoy. And I had spent a couple of years getting myself into a good place, making major changes , to how I was living and, um, spent that two years really getting a hold of my mental health, getting a hold of my physical health, , and really taking control. But anyways, I've been going for a while now. I'll kind of stop here. Well, first I want to start by saying thank you for being so candid and sharing your story with the audience that I know is resonating with a lot of listeners. We're glad you made the choice to live, Adam. We're glad you made that choice. And you know, as I was talking, I was thinking about why this is such an important conversation, because as a doctoral student, You hear a lot about grit and perseverance and just keep your head down, get it done. And I will hear faculty and other peers , you can do this, you can do this. And that's all great. And I, everyone knows I'm a huge fan of envisioning the future and positive thinking. But we also have to be realistic. And there's a time when things like a leave of absence or stepping out of a program could quite literally save your life. Right? And what you did was a deep dive into your values. What are we valuing as a couple and how does this program fit in? And you came up with, right now, at this time it doesn't fit in. And I know there are so many people out there who struggle with, if I make that choice, am I saying to myself, to my world, to my community, I can't do this, and there's a lot of feelings of, that people have shared, of guilt, of failure, even when it's so clear that stepping out is the right choice. So I'm curious, did you have those feelings and how did you manage them? I 100 percent yeah, I,, like I said, I was a first generation college student and I had to spend a lot of time trying to convince myself that I wasn't a failure for stepping away , or trying to convince myself that I wasn't, uh, I wasn't good enough that I didn't, I didn't have what it took to do it. tHe strange thing is I felt confident in my ability to get a PhD once I understood what that meant. I just understood that I needed to make some changes in order for me to be able to do that. I didn't, it never felt like I wasn't smart enough to make it. I never felt like I was, I just didn't think I had the emotional, mental capacity given everything that was happening for me to do it then., I did have feelings of like guilt in my head. I remember my mentor even saying, this is like a professional sport. You can walk away now, but you'll never be. the same kind of scholar that you were before. So, and it's very rare that somebody in professional sports walks away and comes back and can be what they once were. You really have to just keep going and keep going. He definitely tried to emphasize in his mind if I leave, I'm probably not coming back. Um, and, uh, because he just had seen it so many times of students leaving and just not coming back. And he's right, I didn't go back to that program, , because that program was part of the issue at the time., I was, you know, painfully aware of my white male status in the East Asian program that was predominantly women of color. Um, I was selected again and again and again as a, , As a lead for teaching study abroad for special research programs for special opportunities that other folks were not granted. When I asked, why is it that I keep getting these opportunities I was told that they don't have the kinds of skills that you have, where you can go out and get things done and say what needs to be said and and kind of this racial, kind of misogynist view of Asian women being too quiet spoken to be able to do what needs to be done. And so I was dealing with this own, , conflict of like, I need these opportunities, they're helping me grow and learn, but who else is being denied while I'm getting this privilege? And so dealing with that part of it with everything else that was going on, and then having some of my peers kind of start to Uh, see me as part of the problem and understanding that I probably was part of the problem because I was just ignorant in my own white privilege, and so that became a tension between me and my peers, and there wasn't a lot of camaraderie and support. It was really about like, if somebody else succeeds, I fail. That was kind of the mentality with a lot of the other doctoral students. And that was really, really hard. Um, I had one other person I could really rely on in the program., that was really upset by me leaving because that left him, you know, in a, kind of in a lurch in some ways. Anyways, there was just a lot of. Things I was, I felt like I was falling behind. I couldn't balance my work and my life. I couldn't balance my mental health and any, you know, capacity., I just was, I was at my end and, , and really, really, really, really struggling. You had a lot of valid reasons for stepping away, and so I'm always cautious, uh, when I talk to students about stepping away because your mentor was right. Often when people step away, they don't come back. However, my question always is, but was that the right choice for them? And if it was, we should celebrate that not coming back, right? But Again, you had really clear reasons, personal, um, programmatic, cultural reasons that where it wasn't working with you. Hey, this isn't working for me. And so, dear listeners, I don't care how great your PhD program is or your applied doctoral program is, there's going to be times where there's a struggle. And I'll be curious to hear about the difference between what your life was like then and then your decision to step back in to a PhD program, although a different one, because you don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You don't want to have a bad day or a bad semester and say, this isn't for me, right? You want to have this very thoughtful process of deciding this isn't the right thing for me right now. And I always say, just add now. It's not the right thing for me right now. And then what you found was later, it became the right thing for you. So how many years later before you stepped back in? Yeah. So I, , I started my doctoral program last year., so I'm my third semester officially., I had. I heard about this program through other colleagues and was familiar with it., I, I'd heard about the values, uh, that they, that this program had, and I was working in instructional technology, and I wanted to do something that would be more relevant, right? I, I knew it, it was one of my, my new career aspiration was no longer to , be a professor and teach, but I, I, I still valued higher education. I still valued the mission of higher education and wanted to be involved in that. And so I thought rather than trying to go back to this East Asian studies PhD and this program that's not built for me to continue to work, because that became part of it is we wanted to grow our family and I wanted to be able to have a real income and I loved my job. I didn't want to give up my job. So I wanted to be able to do it part time. So that was part of my decision was talking with my old program and it was very clear that they were not going to be friendly to a part time option for coming back, I needed to go back and commit to full time, commit basically back to a life of poverty, which is what a full time doctoral work often is, and I just wasn't gonna make that sacrifice anymore, because I knew that it wasn't going to get me where I ultimately wanted to go with my life, right? There was other things I valued more. and so I started, , talking with professors in this program and met one professor, , that I decided I really like her to be my mentor, and took for a class from her as a non degree seeking student while I was applying to the program to really feel out. I wanted to be very intentional about this is the kind of work I would like to do. This seems like a good fit, but I want to take a class. I want significant time before I commit my life to working with you as a doctoral student for many years because I knew I was going to go back part time. I knew it was going to be a 10 year adventure at least for me because I wasn't going to go back and try to rush through a doctoral program. My goal was one class at a time, and I wanted to see, can I fit one class in a time with the rest of the things that I value in my life? I wanted this to be one rock in my jar and then pouring all the rest of the sand in, but I didn't want it to be the only rock, right? I had other things that were much more important to me in some ways., and after taking that class, um, being accepted to the program, I knew it was a great fit. And then I remember sitting in orientation and looking around the room and just feeling overwhelmed, um, with gratitude and joy because it was a, the most welcoming space I had ever experienced. I could be there as I was, everyone could be as they were, um, the expectation was, if you want to do this one class at a time, we want you to do this one class at a time. We will do everything we can to support you on your journey. This is where I wanted to be, right? Understanding that I was going to work full time. They, they plan around that. A lot of the people in the program, my peers also work full time. All of our classes are after 4 p. m. 4. 15 is the earliest class time I have to make for, for classes that I'm taking. Other classes are from 7 to 9 p. m. I have high flex options often, so I don't always have to be on campus. Sometimes I can just be home and I can be taking care of my, we now at a miracle, we do have a child, a nine month old baby. I can have my baby on my lap while in class if I need to. Right. And so just a much more understanding. program built for how I want to go about doing my, my doctoral work now. And it's, it's just absolutely wonderful and fantastic. I get to study what I want to study at the pace that I want to study it, but I don't feel like I'm cheapening or losing any kind of value of what my doctorate will mean in the end or what it means to me now. And so that's just such a, such a gift. There's not, I've learned there's not a lot of programs that are that, , intentional about supporting. part time programs as a PhD program rather than like a professional program, I guess. I love the time that you took to investigate the program to make sure it was a good fit. I know a lot of people don't do that and in hindsight say, wow, I wish I had taken that time. You know, a lot of times there's this feeling of a rush. You need to get this done now. But what is so beautiful about your story, Adam, is that you had this goal and the PhD was a way to this goal and then life. And there were challenges and there were barriers and there were tough times, but you know, we talk about the doctoral process being a transformative journey and really being in that program was a catalyst for you transforming things. Now you're in a program that you love. You've got a great job. You've pivoted your career goal. You're still in higher education. That was the kernel. You knew you loved something about higher education. You got your new little bundle of joy on your lap and things turned out. And so if you're out there listening, going, things are just not working out for me. This may just be a season or a chapter. And Adam, I love that , you did what was right for you, even though your mentor said, if you leave now, you're probably not going to come back. And here you are, successfully pursuing your PhD, and I just, I love that. Yeah, absolutely. And to be fair to my mentor, when I decided I wanted to go back to a different doctoral program, I approached him and said, I'd like you to do a letter of recommendation, and he was 100 percent supportive. And another professor I'd worked with closely was also very supportive. They said, we knew you're going to do great things, and we're sad that you're not going to do it with us, but we're glad that you're going to continue, uh, your education, right? And they were super supportive., And so I am very, very grateful., I owe a lot to that program. I grew a lot as a scholar, um, and I see a lot of the value that working on that doctoral work, even though I didn't lead to a degree eventually, was just so key to my perspectives and how I approach my current doctoral work. So I don't see it as a loss anymore before I used to be like, Oh, I wasted so much time on this, but really I, grew and I was learning., and it was a, still a great opportunity. So I don't, I don't see it as a sunk cost. What I'm advocating, like any listener out there, it's okay. You didn't lose anything. You still learn, you still grew, you learn that maybe this isn't the right time, but that you are capable and you can handle it and you can figure out where it might work in the future, right? Yes. Or if say you had landed in a job that wasn't in higher ed and you were completely happy and decided you didn't need the PhD again, you could have stepped out of that program, grown from it. I love that you say it was not a waste. Anytime you spend in a terminal degree program is going to change you, teach you things about yourself, maybe teach you what you don't want, which is just as valuable as understanding what you do want, right? Absolutely, yeah. And to really just have gratitude for that experience and keep moving forward. And Adam, I would love to have you back as you progress through your program. Maybe next time we meet, you could share specifically how you're balancing. We've got a lot of listeners who are working full time and doing their doctoral degree part time. That's still a job and a half. They've got families and kids like you. So there's this whole idea of, of time management and balance. So I'd love to have you back to chat about what are you doing now in this new program to keep your sanity and keep you moving forward? Absolutely. I'd love to come back and talk through, I do have some strategies that I kind of develop and really help me, especially I work from home, and so keep being the work life balance thing going. I have really specific things that are maybe a little bit odd, like I, I only eat on one side of the table during the day, and then I eat with my family, and I sit in a different chair, kind of stuff like that, that helps me. stay balanced and separate those spaces. I love that. Yes. So listeners look out for that episode in the future, but Adam, before we wrap up today's episode, do you have a favorite quote or some final words of wisdom you want to share with the audience? I do. And it's going to sound really little ridiculous, but I have a quote from Will Smith's character Jay in the film Men in Black, so it's, you know what the difference is between you and me? I make this look good. And the reason I share that quote, um, is because he just had wiped his entire identity, made this life changing choice, and he went into it with confidence. And so that's, that's kind of how I was thinking about my own experiences. Like, you know, maybe this thing didn't work out, but I went this other direction, you know what, and I'm going to make this look good. I'm going to give it my all. And, uh, I'm going to do it my way. I love that. Thank you for taking time out with us today and I look forward to catching up in the future. All right. Thank you, Heather.