My grade ten math teacher wanted me to go into engineering. He was one of those wonderful math teachers who went out of his way to persuade girls to enter non-traditional fields – especially a girl like me, with her head in the clouds, who dreamed of writing books for a living. "Be a computer engineer for ten years," he advised, "and then retire and be a writer!" I never seriously considered a career in engineering, and I’m not at all convinced that I have the personality for it, though I do look enviously upon the career opportunities available to engineers I know, who seem to find their work challenging and stimulating.
I recently heard that a former neighbour of mine grew up and became a physician; she lives in Edmonton now and is working on a research project on post-partum depression, counseling new mothers and developing new treatment methods. These are aspects of medicine that appeal to me, especially the element of human interaction. But I pretty much foreclosed that career path when I dropped biology after grade nine, relieved beyond words to avoid the prospect of dissection. I’m probably not cut out for the health sciences field either – I get squeamish at the sight of blood, and when I talk with my nursing friends, I’m always grateful that my job doesn’t involve actual bodily contact with other people (and really no contact at all with their private parts).
Law school, though – that’s the career that got away. People used to tell me I should become a lawyer – a comment that reflected my stubborn, bull-ish, childhood self, the me I used to be before I learned about negotiation, compromise, and conflict-avoidance. I considered law school in an abstract way, though never to the point of actually applying, stopped always by my inability to answer the question of what kind of lawyer I’d like to be. Having spent the last three years observing my husband’s law school experience, I’ve remained equivocal – some of his courses sounded interesting; many of them seemed mind-numbingly dull. Now that he’s articling, I’m aware that the law profession is a ravenous dog that eats you alive and spits out the bones. But that’s not to say that I’ve ruled it out entirely. And when I review all the choices that have led me to be where I am now, law school remains the road not taken.
If I had gone to law school immediately after I completed my undergraduate degree, I would have finished by the age of 25. Instead of being one year into what would turn into a five-year doctoral program, I would have been finished my education and ready to start a career. It’s mind-boggling, really, to think of how different my financial position would be right now if I had been working for the last ten years instead of spending four of them in school and the other six working for peanuts as a sessional indentured servant.
Was grad school a mistake? Certainly it was according to those who consider it little more than a high-stakes gamble, with a tenure-track position as the potential pay-off, and with failure the more likely alternative. I loved my years in graduate school and went into them with my eyes open: I knew that I wanted to teach at the university level, and wasn’t especially concerned with the status attached to my official job title (lecturer, adjunct, associate). I wasn’t accumulating debt for the sake of my education, and I wasn’t convinced that there was anything else I could do that I would enjoy so much. And I was right about all those things: for the last six years, I’ve been doing work I love. I’ve never been bored. But what I didn’t realize when I was 22 years old and deciding between law school and grad school is how irreplaceable the next ten years of my life would be. At the end of those ten years I was married, pregnant, and no longer in a practical or emotional position to pick up stakes and follow my career wherever it took me. In some ways I do see grad school as a Venus fly-trap for smart people – it tempts us with the lure of intellectual stimulation and sucks away the most potentially productive years of our lives. Attractive scholarship packages mask the fact that you are paying for those graduate seminars and dissertation supervisors, not with cash but with your future.
So to bust myself out of this morose cage I’ve locked myself into, I’m going to remember all the things I’ve loved most about graduate school – the experiences I wouldn’t trade away for anything (not even a 70-hour-a-week job on Bay Street, with a 2-hour commute to the palatial mansion that I visit for a few hours a week in order to check on how much my children have grown since the last time I saw them):
- The Victorian Race Theory seminar that introduced me to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and to Oliver Twist, and reintroduced me to Jane Eyre so that I would never see Bertha Rochester the same way again. I remember how exciting it was to immerse myself in Victorian culture, to feel the impact of the invention of new technologies like the typewriter and the gramophone and to recognize how the anti-Catholic stereotypes I had been exposed to as a child were rooted in Victorian ultra-Protestant xenophobia.
- The Poetry Massacres. As a grad student at a Canadian prairie university, I loved the warm, friendly, uncompetitive atmosphere; I felt immediately comfortable among my fellow grad students, with whom I threw absurd fund-raisers in which the marquee event would be a 13-minute presentation of Hamlet or Macbeth. My role was always to die in melodramatic splendour, clutching my hand to my heart in the manner of Jo March and screaming as I fell senseless to the floor.
- My trip to P.E.I. One of the main reasons I never landed a tenure-track job is that I only ever went to conferences when I wanted to, which is to say that I’ve attended a total of three and presented papers at two. But one of those papers was given at the L.M. Montgomery conference in P.E.I. Not only did I spend a weekend roaming about the Island in June, when the red roads are lined with banks of blue lupins, but I did so in the company of a group of "Kindred Spirits" – members of my very first online community, a mailing list for Montgomery fans. I ate lobster and sampled jam, bought early-edition copies of Anne’s House of Dreams and Rainbow Valley, and wandered around the abandoned Macneill homestead at twilight, communing with the ghosts.
- Doing research at the British Library. For two weeks I lived in central London, spending each morning combing through anti-Catholic tracts from 1850 and 1851, and each afternoon sightseeing and shopping, stocking up on tea from Fortnum & Mason and browsing through the rare books on Charing Cross Road. I’ve never been much of a sightseer – what I like is to live in another country, even if only for a short time, and I remember my hours in the library reading room as fondly as I do the Tower of London and the National Portrait Gallery. A grad school friend made the trip with me and we roamed the city together, visiting cemeteries (her favourite) and bookstores (mine), while I strove, with some success, to conceal from her the terrible, terrible lovelorn-ness that was resulting from my first separation from He-Who-Would-Be-Hubby, who had only become officially more-than-a-friend a few months prior to my trip.
- Being paid to read. Not paid well, mind you (never that), but paid, nonetheless, to read novels and poetry, to immerse myself in Jane Austen and George Eliot, in Tennyson and Browning, with the result that I can almost invariably pick up the brown pie pieces when I play the Genus edition of Trivial Pursuit.
Not a bad bargain, on the whole. Yes, I’ve mortgaged away my future, but at least I did it for the sake of some really, really good books.