Professors paraded down the aisle in colorful gowns, broad stripes, and octagonal hats, and a dream grew in my heart: “I want one of those hats!”

As silly as such a beginning point was, the desire for the academic distinction of a doctoral degree has remained with me over the last eleven years and is a part of what keeps me in school semester after semester. My route to the goal has become a non-traditional one, and has brought me to an online, generalist program focusing on the Great Books of the Western World. I spent a year between master’s and doctoral programs searching, and I found the right program.

Articles like this one from The Atlantic describing the collapsing mental health of graduate students, alongside stories from colleagues describing impossible-to-please advisors and external readers make me grateful that such stories have not been my experience. It doesn’t have to be hell; rather, graduate work can be a humanity-enhancing experience.

My initial applications were successful: I gained admittance to both Kansas State University and Catholic University of America’s graduate programs in history. The year, however, was 2011 and there was no money for funding my graduate studies. As an alternative route, I enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

While I eventually secured scholarships which covered the cost of tuition, I quickly learned that life outside of college is expensive. My wife and I needed more money; after a year of working five part-time jobs, I began teaching middle school history, literature, and grammar at Thales Academy. Over the following years, I taught humanities courses while maintaining full-time enrollment as a Master’s of Divinity student. By the time I graduated in 2016, I realized two things: a seminary PhD was not what I wanted, and teaching was my vocation.

Reality Interrupts PhD Dreams

At my wife’s request, I took a break from academia to “just focus on life.” Three months into this break year, I began scouring different PhD program descriptions. I had lunch with a friend working on his degree from UNC Chapel Hill, and I emailed old professors for advice.

As I read through various programs, I began to develop a picture of what I was looking for; history programs were less in my area of interest. The English, philosophy, and religion programs at UNC Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt, and the University of Chicago were closer to what I wanted. The more I searched, the more I became convinced that my scholarship would be based around teaching rather than research.

With that realization, the programs I had been eyeing no longer looked as appealing: residency and language requirements, the prevalence of theory, and the focus on publication specialization all seemed to diverge from I wanted in a doctoral program. if I wanted a traditional residential PhD, I would need to uproot my wife and move to a school; to fund this adventure, I would (short of an unexpected oil well) need to borrow the value of a house.

The rewards on the other end seemed nonexistent: declining tenure track positions are now a truism, the normalization of the adjunct, and the ability to compete for a few publication spots on topics few would understand seemed like pyrite masked as real gold. I found the prospect of developing a niche specialty unattractive. Did the world really need another expert in early modern religious warfare? Or the latest author of a unique approach to fill-in-the-blank text using some hitherto unknown theorist? Perhaps, but I didn’t want to be that guy.

As my grad school dream grew grimmer, a bright light appeared on the horizon: the University of Dallas Braniff School of Liberal Arts seemed like a viable alternative. Several of my undergraduate professors at Hillsdale College were UD alums, and I had friends who had benefited from UD’s great books focus. Here would be a program which would support my teaching vocation. Three problems remained: UD is a Catholic university, and while they welcome all religious perspectives, their Catholicism is rigorous enough that I thought I would be a poor fit for the program. I would need to move to Dallas, which would require leaving my job (and health benefits). And finally, little financial assistance existed. For the sake of my extra-academic life, the University of Dallas was unattainable.

I remember the day I had reached the above conclusion. I knew I wanted a generalist PhD program which would prepare me to be a better teacher whether at the secondary or higher education level, but that I did not want to go to UD.

A Viable Alternative to the Programs Out There

I began Googling “humanities PhD programs” and eventually found an old blog post by Robert Woods describing an innovative new program beginning at Faulkner University. This accredited doctoral program focused on a set of core classes which required all students to read the seminal texts in a given field (philosophy of history, literary theory, social sciences, humane letters, etc); following these courses, students used tutorial courses to develop a departmental specialty and read for the dissertation. Upon successful defense, the degree would be conferred.

My interest was piqued - perhaps this would solve my dilemma! I began digging, and quickly turned up Dr. Woods’ email. When I contacted him, I expressed my primary concern—the program is delivered online. Was it a rigorous program? He addressed my concern with grace and firmness. In his view, this program surpassed the rigor of traditional programs in depth and breadth of reading requirements. As for the online component, he found that to be an asset to the program.

Following this conversation, I learned more: the online component was handled through Google Hangouts. Instead of my past experiences with online classes (where recorded lectures were meticulously quizzed), every other week class consisted of meeting to discuss student generated questions about the week’s reading. A professor guided the conversation, but students posed the questions based on a common set of readings. This virtual face-to-face conversation facilitated a replacement for the seminar table in a way which enabled the promises of distance education to be realized.

In short, I applied, was accepted, and found that the program surpassed my expectations. I’m now in my second year of coursework and have been astounded at the level of insight others in the program bring to the reading. Each course has had reading which prepared me to understand the state of the discipline, yet also required me to read works which I knew I should have read. This program has sharpened my writing, enhanced my teaching, and better prepared me to learn over a lifetime.

My fellow classmates are from a variety of backgrounds: some teach at four or two-year colleges, some are beginning doctoral studies as a retirement plan, some are working full-time and studying, others are full-time students plowing through the program. The diversity of age in this program is a blessing to our conversations. Discussion is rich—everyone comes to class with the reading complete and ready to engage in dialogue. The professors steward our time wisely; each class (so far) has been worth the cost. And on that note, the cost is a fraction of the price tag connected with residential programs. As a doctoral student in the Great Books Honors College of Faulkner University, I can maintain a full-time teaching job and make my monthly payment towards that semester’s tuition.

The narrative of grad school is clear: pay your dues, be a slave, become the precise expert. Do this, the grad student is told, and you have the privilege of earning your guild card to join the exalted ones who live the life of the mind. The cost of this narrative is immense: the graduate student emerges 5-10 year behind his peers who pursued a professional career, creation of a home and family have been subordinated to the doctorate, and the typical student will spend decades paying off his loan (unless it is forgiven).

In such a system, is it any wonder that those who go this lonely, isolated route often suffer from mental health concerns? Faulkner University has found another way; it is possible to have rigorous study and not abandon the rest of human, adult life. It is possible to have the elements of personal stability—marriage, a house, a career—while pursuing an advanced degree. It’s not easy, but Faulkner’s setup makes it possible.

When I looked at other online education options, I was worried about the relational disconnect—where would I make the academic friendships paralleling what I would experience in a residential program? Turns out that a program centered around conversing about the Great Books lends itself to forming close friendships. Between students and professors, I’ve found great friendships and deep wells of support. Online education can be done well, and Faulkner University is leading the way in collaborative dialogical learning.

If I have any advice, this is it—don’t settle for a program which offers ephemeral prestige at the cost of perennial goods. Find the program, the professors, who will help you develop not just as a scholar but as a human. That’s a program worth investing in.