Club doorman from the movie Knocked-Up:
“I can’t let you in ‘cause you’re old as ****. For this club, you know, not for the Earth.”
Every once in a while I get an e-mail from U-M that has my demographic information on it. Normally I don’t read the demographic stuff. I know I’m male and half-Latino, I don’t need an e-mail to remind me. But I did happen to notice a category I had never really looked at previously. This demographic had me listed as a non-traditional graduate student. Honestly, I had no idea what this meant. Generally speaking, I do consider myself liberal and non-traditional in my social and political views, but I don’t think I ever told U-M this. After doing some research, I found out it just means I’m old. Not too old for the Earth. Just older than the average Ph.D. student. It’s funny because this is something that I had never really thought of before now. I can’t deny it. It is 100% true. I look around me at the others in my department and, in my first year of the program, I am as old (or older) than the people who are finishing their dissertation. To be fair, many of the others in my department went straight from undergrad to Ph.D., which is a solid shortcut. I did a master’s degree after undergrad and then decided to enter the workforce for a number of years before returning for my Ph.D.
With this in mind I decided to pit Non-Traditional 30s grad student me with Traditional 20s grad student me in a battle of key life circumstances and see who wins.
Battle Number 1: Holy being poor Batman!!! When I was an undergrad I had pretty much zero money. I worked over the summer doing retail, had some student loans cash along with my work-study job, but as I’m sure most of you guys can attest, that doesn’t add up to much. Graduate school was more of the same. Traditional 20s grad student me had very little time to do anything else other than be a student and a graduate assistant, and the GA money doesn’t come close to matching a real and true salary. But going from undergrad to grad the first time wasn’t a big adjustment for Traditional 20s me since I’d never had a real paycheck before and didn’t realize what I was missing. Now, after having had a real paycheck for many years, the realization has dawned with extreme quickness for Non-Traditional 30s me. The only positive to being non-traditional in this scenario is being fortunate enough to have some savings and a wife who works. Neither of those things existed in my traditional days.
–Tie, both score a point because Traditional 20s me can eat ramen and PB&J “ALL DAY SON!”, and Non-Traditional 30s me doesn’t have to eat ramen and PB&J anymore.
Battle Number 2: The roommate experience has lost its novelty. My first time through grad school I had two roommates who I had never met prior to living with them. I never thought twice about this at the time. “Sure, living with people who I’ve never met is great! It will be a fun exchange of culture and ideas.” Then you realize that not all graduate programs are created equal. Nor do they all require the same amount of time to study. One of my roommates spent most of his time on the couch watching Dragon Ball Z marathons. It also got tiresome having people I didn’t know being invited over without any prior warning, being woken up at 3 am by people coming in late when I have 8 am class the next day, or having to try and be super quiet when I get in at 3 am because the following day is the only day I have off for the month (yes, I recognize the hypocrisy). Being able to come and go and do as you please in your own apartment or home is just plain brilliant. Something that I truly embraced as soon as I was able and I haven’t looked back since. So as non-traditional me looks back at the younger grad me, I’m impressed at his struggle, but I’m not going back.
There may be those of you who say, “Wait, but aren’t you married? Doesn’t your wife live with you?” Yes, absolutely, but completely different. I’m going to do a horrible job of explaining this but when you’re married, or at least in my marriage, it’s a very strange sci-fi/action sort of existence. The easiest way for me to explain it would be Voltron. I was always partial to the five lions Voltron, but you can choose the 15 spaceships Voltron, I won’t judge you. (For those of you who are not non-traditional, Voltron is a much cooler, more mature, more action version of Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, fully animated without the Saved by the Bell side storylines.) When you’re married, in a very strange way you become extensions of each other. My wife and I are completely separate people with our own lives, but we are also one unit, much like when the five lions form one Voltron. So it’s still like living by yourself, only you’ve gained weight. I went a really long way for that explanation; I hope it was worth the trip down Voltron memory lane for you guys.
–Tie, Both score one point because Traditional 20s me gets cheap rent, and Non-Traditional 30s me doesn’t have roommates.
Battle Number 3: I actually do indeed have a wife. Back in my traditional grad days, the idea of being married was a very distant thought. I was 23 and had maybe two serious relationships. With all of my various responsibilities, and being in a new location, making friends really wasn’t a possibility, let alone actually finding a significant relationship. To be honest, one of the most difficult parts of my master’s program was the feeling of isolation. I went from undergrad which was all social all the time, to grad school which was a new place, with tons of work, and zero time. Huge transitions with very little support.
(Warning: the following will be mushy and sappy). The greatest luxury I have is the ability to bring my family, my best friend, and the love of my life with me wherever I go, wrapped up in one little 5’2” Latina package. She is the greatest support I could ever have, my best stress relief, and my biggest cheering section. She sees in me the ability to accomplish things, even when I’m filled with self-doubt. It is not possible to quantify or put into words how much this means when you do all the things that we, as Ph.D. students, have to do. I don’t even think she realizes how much she helps, but there is the very real possibility that none of this would be possible without her. And now I have the difficult task of making sure she never reads this, or else she will hold it over my head for all eternity.
–Score one point for Non-Traditional 30s me. The wifey always wins the point.
Battle Number 4: Academia is its own mindset. Going from undergrad to grad, things get more intense, but the style of thought is still the same. When you’ve been away from academia for a number of years, like I have, getting yourself back into that style of thought is difficult. In the workforce many jobs, not all, become repetitive. You have your duties and responsibilities, you learn them, and you repeat them, ad nauseam. In academia you are constantly in a state of flux, being exposed to new ideas and theory on a daily basis. There’s new classes to take, new classes to teach, and new experiments to design and run. It’s this amazingly wonderful chaotic dance of whirling ideation. And when you haven’t done the dance for a while, it takes a minute to remember the steps.
-Score one for Traditional 20s me. Getting back into the swing of classes and papers takes more than just a little work.
Battle Number 5: “Why am I here?” The very cliché question that everyone asks at some point. It can be in reference to a location, a job, a school, an existential state of being, or the line at the Secretary of State (DMV if you’re from California). At some point during my master’s program, I definitely asked this question. Why am I here? What was the point? Is this program really going to get me what I want in a career, in a future, in a life? Or am I just doing this because all I’ve known is school and it just made sense to keep going to school? Looking back, the answer is obvious. I would never change my decision to go for my master’s degree. At the time of my traditional grad life I lacked clarity and only had a vague direction. This time around I am crystal clear on what I want, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The importance of having that kind of confidence of purpose cannot be over-stated. It brings a surety of direction that helps all other facets of life settle into place.
-Score another point for Non-Traditional 30s me. I know where I am without the help of GPS!
And the winner is…
Non-Traditional 30s me!!! Yay!!! Woooo!!!!
But of course that’s not true at all. Both have positives and negatives, and neither is a cake walk. My true comfort comes with the knowledge that even though I may be too old for the “Knocked-Up Doorman’s” club (which is great because I hate clubs, I’m more of a dive bar kind of guy), I’m not too old for the Earth, or for this Ph.D. program. I’m right where I’m supposed to be.