To LDS Fathers: So, Your Daughter Wants An Advanced Degree?

by Sherman Watkins

In our first AMW podcast, Susan Madsen discussed how her research showed the influential role fathers play in ensuring that their daughters graduate from college. Given that my father was a big supporter of my educational pursuits, I’ve invited him to share his perspective as a father of two aspiring Mormon women.  –Naomi

Having a daughter who decides to complete a Ph.D. can be a bit intimidating. Not because the degree itself is so imposing—though it is—but because in most cases, it involves treading unfamiliar ground. A father has many privileges in guiding his daughter: helping her learn to walk, teaching her to read, or worrying while she is out on a date. But pursuing an advanced degree goes places most fathers have never been. While I did earn a master’s degree, I did so while working full-time and specifically chose a program that catered to the working student. I’d heard, and have now observed, that a Ph.D. is a whole different ball game. For the first time, I could not use my own experience to guide my now not-so-little girl as she ventured on this new path. Instead the question became, “What could I do to help her reach this goal?” And later, upon further reflection, “What had I done to prepare her for this decision?”

Allow me, first, to set the stage. Education is a rich part of my daughter’s heritage, so the idea of college was not radical or new. All four of her grandparents had at least a bachelor’s degree, and six of her eight great-grandparents had at least a two-year degree. She had a leg up over many and was not starting in a hole, having to prove education’s worth before she could ever begin classes.

My wife and I had also encouraged our daughter to excel throughout school, but we did not push her in any one direction once she began college. We did, however, help her to recognize her talents and take advantage of her strengths in choosing a course of study. Her master’s degree seemed a natural outgrowth of her work and previous schooling, and, while we celebrated it, we did not look at it as new or exotic; she had at least a half-dozen aunts and uncles with master’s degrees.

I quickly figured out there were a few things I couldn’t help with anymore. No longer would I receive the occasional paper to review, since they now addressed things beyond my ken. Any parenting skills I could share were of little use in the classes she taught, since her students were adults themselves. She was never studying a book that I had already read. She was an English major, so I couldn’t even check her punctuation. My skills were useless.

So, what could I, or any dad, do in this situation?

First, last, and always, I could be there when needed. Sometimes a girl, even in graduate school, just needs her dad. Unscheduled and unscripted, these visits by telephone could be long or short. Generally they were late at night and never convenient. Their frequency dropped off as time went on, but they never went away completely. I can’t remember a single detail, only that when I was needed, I was needed, and I could not delay my response by a week or a day or even an hour.

Because this was new ground, my daughter spent more time figuring out the right questions than the right answers. She did not need me pushing for answers where she only had half-formed questions. It didn’t help that her adviser had never advised a doctoral student before. If ever there were two blind people seemingly destined for a ditch, it was them. Neither one needed me standing by to give them a shove. I took information as it became available, asked questions to clarify what was known, and did not try to pioneer new territory . I could give opinions when asked and help her sort through options, but I could not decide for her or fault her on decisions only she could make.

I could be a cheerleader. A Ph.D. is hard, hard work. It will never be attained by someone who does not have an internal drive to succeed. But even the most self-motivated person performs better in front of an appreciative crowd. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a new sport with rules I didn’t understand, but my understanding was only incidental to the cheering, which was crucial.

Occasionally I could offer refuge. The pressure of an advanced degree program can be intense, and there is a very real danger of unreleased pressure causing an explosion. Luckily, we had introduced our daughter to camping and hiking. Luckier still, she liked them, and she was smart enough to use them as a retreat when opportunities presented themselves. That kept the pressure tolerable. Trips home drove the pressure lower still. We could see her unwind as “home” worked its way into her soul. Conversely, we could watch the tension rise again as she prepared to return to school. But that tension was never as high when she left home as it was when she arrived.

My support of my daughter through her Ph.D. program was simple and an extension of the foundation laid when she was young. I answered when she called. I listened. I cheered. I did not second-guess. And I tried to give her peace. It wasn’t hard work on my part, but hopefully it made the Ph.D. that much easier for her.

4 Comments on “To LDS Fathers: So, Your Daughter Wants An Advanced Degree?

  1. I love this. I remember when I started graduate school (in Art History), my dad started reading the New York Times Arts page, so that he could talk to me about current artists and exhibitions around the country. I was always so touched by that, knowing that he cared enough about what I was doing that he was finding whatever ways he could to connect to that. Thanks to all of the great fathers out there for their unceasing love and support.

  2. This is such a great post, love. I selected my first major when I was in middle school–Architecture–and my Dad started giving me books about it. It wasn’t until I signed up for my first Architecture courses in University that I realized I already had all the books required on the syllabi. My Dad had gone to the University Bookstore and, over the years, had bought and given me all the required books for my Freshman year. I didn’t end up graduating in Architecture, I moved on to Economics where my Dad was equally helpful and supportive, going so far as to tutor me in tricky Calculus and Stats so I could pass my Econometrics/Math for Economists courses.


    • Heidi,

      What an awesome story! I hope to be a dad that is that cool. My daughters are 8 and 6 so it is a little premature, but I can “aspire” to be a father as supportive and thoughtful as yours!

  3. Sherman,

    Thanks for such a wonderful post. You are so right about PhD programs. I was the first one in my family besides my grandmother interestingly enough to get a PhD and really the only member of my family besides her to go past a bachelors degree. My parents both never finished college. However, like you they were very supportive even after I entered a world they didn’t have much first hand experience with. For that I am so greatful. It helped so much though I think they sometimes wondered if it did. I should tell them 🙂

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