No PhD for You!

In April I received a letter informing me that my application to the PhD program in Computer Science at UCI had been denied. This was pretty disappointing, as I had really been looking forward to it.

But it forced a time of self-examination that I am really grateful for. I had to decide whether to spend the next year working to improve my qualifications and apply again, or to take this as a "no" and move on. The decision was one of the most difficult ones I've ever made, and it took a long time. There were good reasons to choose both paths.

Working on a PhD would be incredibly rewarding. It would allow me to do something challenging and intellectually stimulating in the intersection between computer science and biology. I love both fields. It would let me participate in some really exciting work going on right now, and contribute to what I think is a coming revolution in how we do biology. Academics is part of who I am, and this would allow me to exercise that part. It would re-orient my work around something I am really passionate about. Also, a lot of my thinking has been moving in this direction for the past 2 years during my Masters. Not getting a PhD would mean leaving behind unformed thoughts, ideas, promising projects, and half-finished journal notes. It would mean leaving a part of my life that I have grown to sincerely enjoy in a very abrupt, unfinished state.

But there are other considerations. Emily and I feel strongly that our first calling is to family. The question for us has never been whether to focus on family or my schooling, but if we could fit my schooling into our family. And a lot of factors would make that difficult to do. First, the delay: assuming I could improve my application enough to get accepted to a graduate program, I wouldn't start until fall '08. That means finishing a year later, which almost certainly means one extra year of PhD work with 3 kids. And, as Emily pointed out to me, we could conceivably have 4 before I was finished.

Jonathan would be at least 6 years old, and we would be home-schooling him. If I'm not working on a PhD I can be much more involved in that process. For example, I'd like to set aside a significant chunk of time for developing a philosophy of education: both at a high level (what is education?) and a low level (how does it apply to a hyperactive first-grader?). I'd also like to teach him Latin eventually, but I can't do that unless I become at least familiar with it. That would take time.

Also, PhD work is really grueling. Long hours are expected, and that would leave me feeling very torn. It would certainly place some stress on my marriage and leave me with less time for Emily and the kids. Money would be very tight, as well.

But the primary thing that I feel is threatened by a PhD is my holiness. My last quarter at UCI, especially, I was sort of in survival mode: eat, sleep, work, make it through a token Bible chapter in the morning, and that was about it. This Lent, especially, when I gave up science, I remembered what I had been missing. And since then I have spent much more time in prayer and Bible reading. I'm making a concerted, purposeful effort to be close to Jesus. I feel more like a monk than I have in quite a while.

So, after a few months of prayer and discussion with Emily and others, I've decided that it would be best for my family and my soul to not pursue a PhD right now. I won't pretend that I'm not secretly hoping to be able to come back to it someday. Or that I'm not a little sad at giving up such a dream. But sacrifice is a part of living well, and I'm also excited about the challenge ahead of ordering my life, simplifying, and re-orienting it around the most important things right now: my family and my journey toward holiness.