My Ph.D., My Self

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”

–Virginia Woolf

 I am what you might call a recovering hot mess, because back in the day (read: from age 29-35) I had quite the time finding out who I was supposed to become, who I was not supposed to date in the wake of my divorce, and how to feel comfortable on my own.  Fortunately, around age 35, somewhere between taco Tuesday and my latest breakup, I had the good sense to apply for graduate programs. I worked in a profession where getting a Ph.D. was the ticket to advancement.  I was single, no kids, and had reliable transportation. I decided I would move to whatever school had a good reputation in my field and would pay me to study, put my nose in the books, write that dissertation-thingy, and then move back to my comfort zone of the Pacific Northwest.

sherrigoestoiowaFast forward a couple months and I was trekking across the Rockies with a girlfriend (because who in her right mind makes a life change without a girlfriend riding shotgun?) to The University of Iowa. Fields of Opportunities! Sweet Corn! Full Assistantship! I unpacked my earthly belongings–Kitchen Aid mixer, strappy sandals, laptop– threw a slip cover on my furnished apartment’s couch, and packed my backpack for class. I had moved to a town where I knew not. one. soul. It was scary. It was humbling. And it was the best decision I ever made. Prior to this big move, I had lived within fifteen minutes of my hometown for nearly my whole life. Everyone knew me and I knew everyone. I had street cred. Well, more like gravel road cred because it was small-town eastern Oregon, but you get the idea. Somewhere in the process of finding the best local coffee, where to get my car serviced without using my Dad’s name to get good treatment, and navigating the city bus system for the first time, I began to know myself. And, not to get all “The Greatest Love” a’ la Whitney Houston here, but I also began to believe in myself.

This learning to believe in myself came in handy when I was thrust into Statistics class after not having cracked a Math text since 1989. It was useful when I conducted research and was expected to have a well-articulated position. And it was ever so necessary as I began the process of researching and writing my dissertation.

Right about now you’re thinking, “Wait, this is a mommy-blog…what is this single woman with no kids doing on our site?” Spoiler alert: Things are about to get real up in here.

In a matter of months, my life as a graduate student quickly became much more than seminars and study sessions at the coffee house. And by “much more,” I don’t mean the smidge that is the suggested Haagen-Dazs serving size. Imagine instead a hang ten surf tide “much more.” I met a boy. We fell in love. We bought our first home. I got pregnant. We got married. In that order (no judgment). Then we bought a new house and invited my aging in-laws to move in. Sprinkled into the “much more” was also one summer when I helped my niece and Godchild take the first steps in her drug and alcohol rehabilitation while at the same time learning of a health issue that would require a minor surgery and a major conversation about whether or not I could have more children. I also took a full-time job when I completed my coursework but still had that pesky dissertation to write.

Pursuing my dream of earning a Ph.D. now became but one facet of a life bursting with responsibility. I had multiple identities: student, partner, mother, professional. Sometimes, the identities didn’t stay within the lines. And sometimes it got downright messy. When I had a baby on a Tuesday and school the next Monday, I walked into class and rocked that inflatable donut-shaped pillow on the hard desk chairs so as to not fall behind in my studies. The year my husband lost his only brother, fell into a depression, and also worked at a soul-sucking corporate job where he didn’t feel valued or fulfilled, we also went through a very difficult time in our marriage. Writing my dissertation in the wee hours of the morning during those months helped me to breathe when I felt I might choke from the pain.

Turns out, the true test of believing in me and pursuing my personal goal came in learning to balance the multiple roles I would assume as the years went by. Sometimes the balancing act was more like a being on a teeter-totter, with one identity bullying the others like the mean kid on the playground who jumps off to leave me banging my behind on the ground, teeth rattling. Other times, the balance was a beautiful thing, equal parts writing and working with family trips to the playground, football Saturdays, sitting down to dinner at the table, and regular date nights at favorite spots downtown. Achieving my dream no longer became a matter of sticking to a particular timeline but rather trusting the journey as long as I was moving forward. I learned that I could be a good mother—dare I say a better mother?—while also nurturing my individual dreams.

sherridaughterI started this Ph.D. journey to pursue a dream that was just for me. Today, I can claim this new identity as something that is uniquely my own, accomplished within and around my other responsibilities. There’s been a lot of “mommy wars” talk in the blogosphere and in the media lately. Who’s the better mother? What is the best choice to make for your family? Truth is, we’re all mommies working in or out of the home (or both) or supporting the mommies in our lives. We are married, partnered-up, or parenting solo. Our identities are inextricably connected: Mother to daughter to partner to colleague. I happen to think it’s not so much a battle of who or what is best, but rather an individual battle to claim our spot in the world. We have a basic desire to know that we matter to our families, our colleagues, our friends. But we also need to matter to ourselves. What is it that is uniquely yours? What is that one thing you have that when you have doubts or go through hard things you can call upon as a source of strength and confidence because you battled that sucker WWE-style? For me, it was the Ph.D. and writing my dissertation. For you it may also be earning a degree. Or it could be learning to dance, starting a business, writing a blog, or training for a marathon. Whatever it is, pick it up, believe in yourself, and claim it as your own. And make sure you have your big-girl pants on—you’re gonna need ‘em.

sherriSherri Erkel is a transplant from Oregon who
lives in Iowa City. She and her husband Kyle have a 4 year-old daughter, Aissa.  She works at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA where she helps first-year
students make the transition to college. She earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at The University of Iowa where she also became
an avid Hawkeye fan.


  1. Cool, love your story! I would love to talk to you more about your niece’s addiction. I just found out my 18 year old niece has had a 6 month stint of trying heroin and just checked into rehab. I would love to help her but don’t know how.

  2. Sherri – thank you for this. Just. Thanks. This was affirming for me as a mom / PhD student / partner / professional / slash slash slash slash…had me in tears.

  3. Dr. Erkel, you said it better than I ever could. It’s so easy to lose a sense of self in the day to day. Thanks for the reminder that all us mommies need!


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