PhD Pi or Blueberry Pie?
August 8, 2009 2:02 PM   Subscribe

Get a PhD by 50, or go to pastry school? I'm having a midlife crisis and am considering returning to school instead of launching another business. (Launching another business is already in the planning stages, but no hard commitments have been made.) I've been accepted to a graduate program for neuroscience that will let me do masters work and doctorate work at the same time. On the other hand...culinary school is calling to me...daring me to become a pastry chef.

On the one hand; a PhD in neural networks with a bioethics focus would be intellectually challenging and a chance to work with some of the most brilliant people in the field. But...I'm returning to school after almost 20 years, and am old enough to be the mother of most of the other people in the program. Optimistically, I could finish/defend my dissertation a little before my 50th birthday. (6 years from now.) I don't know if that will make me way too old to ever get a position where I could be a researcher...but I suspect it would, since I'd be competing with super-geniuses who are 20+ years younger. And I'd have a limited amount of time in which to show an ROI on the money the program will cost.

On the other hand...bread! pie! cakes! tarts! chocolate! I love baking. I am really at my happiest in a kitchen. That said; I don't know that I would love baking in a commercial setting, as I've never tried it.

I could finish culinary school in about 18 months, since I don't need to take any of the actual academic courses, but I have no real idea what one does once one graduates with a pastry chef degree. (Although the idea of owing my own cake shop/bakery holds some appeal to me...I think I'd be just as happy showing up each day to bake and decorate for someone else.) Also a consideration, the entire culinary track would cost about what one semester of the PhD track would cost.

Am I being realistic when I think that 50ish might be too old to enter a competitive research field like neuroscience?

Is anyone a pastry chef that wants to talk about their experiences?
posted by dejah420 to Education (45 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Long ago I was considering a career as a pastry chef--and then I spoke for a while with an actual pastry chef about his life. Simply put, the hours sounded soul-crushing. In the end, I took the easier path and became a lawyer.

You may have an easier time as the proprietor of a bakery, though--this guy was pastry chef to a notable Philadelphia restaurant, if I recall.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:13 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was talking to someone about being a pastry chef a while ago. He had made this gorgeous cake for my friend's wedding, but he wasn't working professionally as a pastry chef any more. He said the reason was that the hours had made him miserable. His schedule was essentially the opposite of his wife's 9-5, so they ended up feeling like they never saw each other. I'm not sure if that's totally universal, but typical pastry-making hours seem to be nights/early mornings so that pastries are ready for daytime customers. Maybe that's appealing to you, but I mention it because it whisked any pastry-chef-dreams out of my mind.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:14 PM on August 8, 2009

As a PhD student, I would suggest that the intellectual stimulation isn't worth it for the cost/ROI.
posted by k8t at 2:17 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure whether 44 (extrapolating) is too old for neuroscience, but my guess would be no. There are a lot of threads on this question at the chronicle of higher ed forums; here are 2: 1, 2; I found these and many more by searching for "too old" in quotes.


And I'd have a limited amount of time in which to show an ROI on the money the program will cost.

Also a consideration, the entire culinary track would cost about what one semester of the PhD track would cost.

There probably isn't any age where it is a great idea to do a PhD that you are paying for, especially if (as it sounds like) you would be paying private school prices.
posted by advil at 2:18 PM on August 8, 2009

just to be clear: my guess would be no ... it is not too old
posted by advil at 2:19 PM on August 8, 2009

This advice is just for the pastry chef route: before you go for culinary school, read Kitchen Confidential - it will definitely cure you of any romantic notions you may have about the life of a pastry chef (not that there's anything wrong with romantic notions, but it sounds like you want to go into whatever with open eyes). I'm not a chef, but friends who have worked in kitchens say it's pretty accurate. Bourdain is pretty dismissive of culinary school as a route to chef-dom, IIRC.

What if you went and did an apprenticeship with a pastry chef instead? That would probably be a lot cheaper and give you a much better idea of what the job is like. It would also give you a chance to try something different for a while, which it sounds like you need.
posted by lunasol at 2:25 PM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm mostly a night owl by nature, so working nights might actually work out better for me, if it let me be home when my son got out of school, and spend the afternoon and evening with him and my husband.

But yeah, I don't know any working pastry chefs. I know a ton of chefs, including my mother who is an executive chef, and I've grown up working in restaurants and catering businesses...but we always contracted baking goods out to another I don't have any feel for how that side of the culinary world works.
posted by dejah420 at 2:25 PM on August 8, 2009

My ex-boyfriend entered culinary school and studied to be a pastry chef when he was in the midst of his own "what do I want to do with myself" stage. He loved (still loves) to cook, was great at it, and picked pastry chef because as far as the food industry goes as a career, pastry chef-ing was the best option as far as being able to keep normal hours.

I'm sure others will tell you -- it's a lot of work, it's not lucrative, and it's highly competitive. Much like getting your PhD, although it takes a lot less time, and is more physically challenging than anything else. In his case, he very much enjoyed the program, and still loves to bake, but he eventually went back to his original field and now makes incredible pastries for his friends, bakes the occasional wedding cake when close friends and family members get married; that sort of thing.

He did get a job right out of culinary school working in a five-star restaurant, I think he was disappointed in the experience, all that time and energy into school, and the first job was decidedly unglamorous, even though he'd hit the jackpot in terms of the kind of restaurant he was working in right out of culinary school. Obviously, YMMV.

I think it really all comes down to your expectations post-school (culinary or post-grad). Your anxieties about the competitive nature of neuroscience are likely to be inflamed when you come to face the competitive nature of the food industry as well -- there's not a reality show called "America's Top Nueropsych Student" (probably because it would be over everybody's heads, but I digress in my effort to make my point). I've never been in culinary school nor have I gone to grad school, but my closest friends have done one or the other (or both) and they share similar complaints -- "I love it, but it's really competitive, and I have no illusions that I'll get rich doing this."

This is not an attempt to dissuade you - from your question, it sounds like either one of these roads will be fulfilling to you once you weigh the options, and pick what sings louder to you.

I don't know what your economic future looks like regarding retirement, but that might have some bearing. The PhD will be MUCH more work and probably cause you far more intense, long term stress, but you've got a better chance of landing a gig at a University or an organization with a pension plan. On the other hand, you hint at having lots of experience starting businesses and the like, so starting your own bakery is certainly going to be less of a longshot for you than it would be for, say, a 22 year old culinary school grad just starting out.

I'm not very much help at all, am I? From my perspective, honing in on what exactly your end goal is will help you make the ultimate decision. Why are both of these things interesting to you? Where do the interests intersect and where are they opposed? You can use that to weigh the pros and cons of either decision more realistically.
posted by pazazygeek at 2:26 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd have a limited amount of time in which to show an ROI on the money the program will cost

I'd generally recommend shying away from any hard-science grad program that wanted your money (unless it was an MA purely for professional advancement in a job/career you already had, or unless you had nonstellar credentials and the program had an established history of placing its MA students in top-tier PhD programs).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:28 PM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

There probably isn't any age where it is a great idea to do a PhD that you are paying for, especially if (as it sounds like) you would be paying private school prices.

This. It's never a great ROI in purely financial terms — even if you're making money as a grad student, guaranteed you could be making more and advancing faster somewhere else — but it's a truly awful one if you're paying for it out of pocket. If you're really serious about being a neurosci researcher, look into ways of getting there that get you funding. If you're not all that serious (and that's totally cool), sit in on some classes during those free daytime hours that you get as compensation for baking all night.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:31 PM on August 8, 2009

I recently stopped working in a virology lab (not a graduate student) and started working in a bakery. I handle breads and breads alone, but I know the pastry chef and her support team because one or two of them are already in the bakery when I clock in at 3:00 AM.

Being a night owl won't really help from what I've seen and heard about in other shops. You need to be a "really freaking early morning" owl. That depends on the bakery/pastry shop you work at, but at mine only a few items can be saved over night for sale the next day, which means that every morning the pastry crew must whip out a couple dozen different types of items before the shop opens at 6:30 AM.

I love science and I'll eventually get back to it, but I needed a break from the lab, and I fucking love to bake. Keep doing research and make your choice, science and baking are both really pretty awesome.
posted by Science! at 2:35 PM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm going to second ROU_Xonophobe. I got a PhD neuroscience and no one in my program paid a cent - they give you a research or a teaching assistantship. If it is the former, you are being paid (not much, mind you - but enough for tuition plus health benefits plus a stipend, which is enough for a single person to live modestly [rent, food, etc]) to do research that you can then use for publications and your own dissertation. If it is a teaching assistantship, usually you help teach a lab section or 2 for usually 20 hours/week for the same amount of $.

I've never met anyone that had to pay for the PhD in neurosience -- if you are beingn told this, apply to other schools.

As a reminder, if you go this route (PhD and want to do a lot more researh), most people I know are usually doing one if not 2 postdocs after that (think ....more research in a lab, getting more really doesn't pay much, but that is what they do to then possibly get a research position.

Another possibility (you may find you enjoy this in graduate school) - you could probably get a position at a small college if you are willing to live anywhere. Some of these positions do not require research/or if they do, it is small scale. These places will hire you without a postdoc.

Anyway, just giving you a little bit more information if this helps.
posted by Wolfster at 2:38 PM on August 8, 2009

There's a ton of middle-age-and-later adults jumping at the chef/pastry school bait today. The sad truth about the industry is that it's a young man's game. Do yourself a favor and hang-out at a working kitchen or bakery and see just what kind of special hell it can be. Then imagine your 50-year-old mind and body trying to cope.

Unless you can magically establish your own little, very-low-volume, for-select-clientele, only-open-during-sane-hours, shop, I'd stay far, far away from anything remotely close to the food industry.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:38 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Doctoral neuroscience programs, in the US at least, are typically funded. Along with acceptance in the program, PhD candidates are either given a flat-out grant to cover costs, or at least the opportunity to TA some classes in exchange for tuition plus a small monthly stipend (enough to fund a lifestyle featuring Ramen and roommates). If your department has not brought this up, you should contact the university to inquire--it may be that you need to apply for the grant, as well. You wouldn't bring in big bucks during your grad years, but you wouldn't go hugely into debt, either. This would change your ROI calculation significantly.

As for the age question, there were several students in their late 30s/early 40s in my neuroscience program. yeah, they stood out a little from the rest of us 20-somethings, but we all got along together. And you know what? A good number of the younger crowd dropped out, while all of the older students ended up graduating and getting faculty positions or postdocs.

I love this question, BTW... sometimes I dream about ditching neuroscience and opening a bagel place...
posted by oceanmorning at 2:46 PM on August 8, 2009

You can always get in touch with local pastry chefs to see what they recommend and have conversations with them. I would suggest that you scope out several bakeries or shops you think you're interested in that are not chains and that actually make their own products instead of getting them delivered. Getting to speak with someone who has experience could take three or more visits or calls to the shop.

First find a time when the front of house (counter/sales) isn't busy and call or visit and ask them to recommend a time to contact the pastry department. That might be the perfect time right then, so be ready to talk. If not contact the pastry chef at a not busy time and set up a brief 10 minute meeting or so. If the person can't do it they can't do it. If they can and it goes well, you might get someone to throw occasional questions at (get an email address so they can follow up a their leisure), or a recommendation of who else to talk to in your city.
posted by Science! at 2:48 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

n'thing that you should absolutely not be paying for your PhD. The school or your lab should cover your tuition, and ideally a modest stipend (although many programs/labs do require you to apply exhaustively for outside funding).

Other people have covered the career track, but for what it's worth, don't worry about the age thing too much in terms of how you'll be perceived. Many many people take crazy twisty paths before getting to neuroscience. Also, depending on the school, your research, and the connections you develop, there do exist "soft money" non-faculty positions. They're risky, since you're often being paid (minimal amounts) off someone else's grant, and they don't necessarily lead to further career advancement. But for people who have a love for research, don't want to be faculty and can be flexible, there are options...
posted by synapse at 2:52 PM on August 8, 2009

TheOtherGuy, what is that supposed to mean? People can't be interested in various things?

Anyway, if I were you, I would go to pastry school/culinary school, and maybe start my own pastry catering/event cake business. Start out via current connections and word of mouth to get work, and move up from there. It's not guaranteed success, but people, especially brides, are always looking for awesome cakes at reasonable rates. Wedding cakes can be insanely expensive and I know a lot of people who make good money on the side doing affordable, but still impressive cakes and other pastries. As you get larger clientele, you can go up in price, etc.
posted by ishotjr at 3:15 PM on August 8, 2009

Oh, but culinary school can be really expensive, so if you're good at that stuff already, maybe consider trying to do some work without going to school and see how it goes.
posted by ishotjr at 3:15 PM on August 8, 2009

Most culinary schools are a rip-off. That said, there are excellent program out there. I disagree that kitchens are for the young. Being a pastry chef is long hours, sure, but you said you grew up in and around commercial kitchens. So you probably know how to plan your work and work your plan. These 20-somethings flailing around back there working themselves silly haven't figured that out yet. Be a pastry chef. You can always read books on neuroscience while the croissants are baking.

Besides, kitchen politics are usually resolved with screaming matches, flung cutlery, and beers afterward, whereas academic politics lasts for years and years of uncomfortable meetings and icy stares at cocktail parties. Life's too short for that shit.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:29 PM on August 8, 2009 [6 favorites]

One factor that is driving the retail pastry/bakery business in the U.S. is the spread of "category-killer" chains like Panera Bread. They make a decent, if entirely predictable and standardized commercial product range, have a high success rate, and their strategy for franchising ensures they only have experienced, savvy, well capitalized franchisees. Independent bakeries going up against Panera have a harder time maintaining margins, and getting experienced help, when a chain with the buying power, advertising muscle, and customer loyalty of Panera pulls into town.

But if you've got a net worth of $7.5 million (with $3 million of that liquid), multi-unit restaurant operations experience, real estate experience in a market to be developed, and a "passion for bread," you could still get a franchise slot on the Panera bandwagon.
posted by paulsc at 3:30 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Are there part-time, single-course pastry arts classes available in the area? I'd suggest that, so you get a taste of what it's like to work in a commerical-like setting before you put a lot of money into it.
posted by xingcat at 3:31 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Regarding funding; I've only thus far talked to bureaucrats, who have not mentioned anything other than student loans and "soft grants", which are apparently a large part of the funding for students. Most of the PhD students I've known have had to take out huge loans, even though they were TAs. Granted, most of them weren't hard science it didn't even occur to me to ask about tuition. I mean, it's published right there on the never crossed my mind to ask.

Other schools aren't really an option. While I'm surrounded by universities, the bioethics tracks are almost non-existent; this university was the only one that would allow me to deviate from an established neuroscience or psychology track...don't even get me started on the lack of doctoral level philosophy programs. Moving for a university isn't really an option at this stage of my life. I own a house that is worth less than I paid, my son is just about to start first grade, and uprooting everyone else's reality so I could chase rainbows just seems rude.

Also keep in mind that I would be starting as a MS candidate that could take some doctoral courses concurrently, but I believe I have to get approval from head of the department in the 2nd year to actually be considered a doctoral candidate. The university doesn't offer a bioethics track, but I would be allowed to start developing the resources that I need for my dissertation while getting my masters.

Neuroscience was just the closest I could get to figuring out a way to study how brain structure impacts ethical understanding. How exactly does the brain work when one considers and evaluates ethical knowledge? What role does cognition play in how someone manages ethics? Why does damaging certain areas of the cortex radically shift behavior in some people, but not others? What part of our morality lies in neural subtext and what part of it is learned? This work got me started thinking about it years ago: Anderson, S. W., Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D. and Damasio, A. R. (1999) Impairment of social and moral behavior related to early damage in human prefrontal cortex. Nature Neuroscience 2 , pp. 1032-1037. But you can see that my interests are primarily philosophical, rather than the hard science being done by the folks doing AI and NN.

I don't really have the math to understand a lot of what neuroscience is doing with artificial intelligence and neural networks. I mean; I understand it conceptually...but there's a point where the math just starts sliding off my brain and I start to stare blankly at people.

So, I could be wrong; but I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of grants and allowances for neuroscience students are for the people who are doing things like artificial intelligence, more so than the people who are doing cognitive and ethics research. I could be wrong. I can ask someone at the school.
posted by dejah420 at 3:33 PM on August 8, 2009

First of all, congratulations on your two pursuits!
Second of all, don't intimidate yourself with concerns about all the "geniuses." If I'd been fearful of that, I never would have entered my non-traditional self into a Ph.D program at all! I'm older than 99% of my classmates, but I've learned that doing the best work I can- and making connections with the right people- can gain me entree into a variety of work opportunities where my decades of work experience is an advantage over the 20-somethings who've never had "serious" jobs.

I'm also a baker of artisanal breads and would love to pursue this passion professionally. I balance my two passions by baking on the side and giving away the majority of my creations. This gets my work "out there," which may help me when I'm ready to pursue the baking as a side job. I am considering an internship at an artisanal bakery to give me the real-world perspective of professional baking. I would suggest to you to try an internship as well.

Among my cohort at the university is one guy who must be in his 60s. He has a full time career but for the sheer love of learning, pursues a class every semester in order to earn a Ph.D. Could you do the same? That way you could have your cake and eat it too. (OK. I'm sorry for that last line, but it fits your situation even better than it fits mine!)

Feel free to write to me if you like. I'd love to talk to another doctoral student my age who also wants to pursue a career in the culinary arts!
posted by Piscean at 3:38 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also keep in mind that I would be starting as a MS candidate that could take some doctoral courses concurrently, but I believe I have to get approval from head of the department in the 2nd year to actually be considered a doctoral candidate. The university doesn't offer a bioethics track, but I would be allowed to start developing the resources that I need for my dissertation while getting my masters.

If you're starting as a masters student, then yes, you will most likely have to pay. In my experience (computer science / engineering), PhD students are funded, MS students pay. Why? Because PhD students do research and produce value for the school. If you find someone to do research with, you will likely become funded and let into the PhD program. (Your point about AI vs ethics is something to investigate w.r.t. funding, though.)

I started grad school (computer science) as a masters student, but I had every intention of getting a PhD. I paid for my first semester, and during that semester I met a professor willing to fund me to do research with him. I was funded for the rest of my time there, and the research activity and connection with the professor enabled me to enroll in the PhD program.

So bear in mind that your entry into the PhD program will usually depend on showing promise as a researcher. That, in turn, most likely requires a faculty advisor. If the school doesn't have a bioethics track, who will be your advisor and vouch for you when you want to enter the PhD program?

Ask someone there how many PhD candidates are funded and what their sources of funding are. Also ask how many people start as MS students and continue as PhD candidates and how that works. Try to talk to some of those students to figure out how it really works. They may well know some other students who started in the MS program and were not allowed to continue to the PhD.

Finally, consider if an MS in your field is worth anything. In many fields, it's like a super-bachelors, and it might get you a slightly higher paycheck in the relevant industry, but that's it. I'd guess neuroscience is one of those fields, and you would have a hard time finding a research position with just an MS. I mention this because grad school is hard, and many people leave with a masters (or aren't allowed to continue in their program). Would it be worth it to you to spend $X0,000 and two years for the knowledge alone?

On the other hand, pastry-chef knowledge is valuable whether you work in the field or not. Unless, I suppose, neither you nor any of your friends like pastries.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm trying to dissuade you from something you're clearly very interested in. I just wanted to introduce a few factors that you might not know about yet. I went into grad school with the understanding that the worst case was I would leave after two years with an MS that cost $X0,000. In my case, that was fine. Then it worked out much better than that! Whatever you do, good luck!
posted by whatnotever at 4:25 PM on August 8, 2009

I went as far as an MA in neuroscience before deciding it wasn't the career for me (but I still try to keep up with the field from the sidelines). I was most intimidated by the older Ph.D. students -- real adults, not obnoxious 20-somethings like me -- who were obviously more dedicated, more serious, and more earnest than I could ever be in academics.

So yes, people do this, and they were damn good at it because it meant something to them.
posted by nev at 4:53 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

If the school doesn't have a bioethics track, who will be your advisor and vouch for you when you want to enter the PhD program?

It's a valid concern, and one that I asked about, but was told (again, by a bureaucrat, not an academic) that we could cross that bridge later. This is a well respected school, with ties to good medical facilities and labs, so I don't think they're just trying to pump enrollment numbers...but I suppose, given the current economic situation, that they may be treating the MA program as a weed feeder for the PhD track. (Much like philosophy 101 was a weed-out class in undergrad school.)

I actually hadn't thought about it in terms of promotion into the doctoral track. That's a really good point. Thanks.
posted by dejah420 at 5:18 PM on August 8, 2009

paulsc said: But if you've got a net worth of $7.5 million (with $3 million of that liquid)....

Well, I could check the cookie jar...but I'm pretty sure I would have noticed if a few mill slipped in under the quarters...
posted by dejah420 at 5:43 PM on August 8, 2009

So I'm in a PhD program in cognitive psychology in a lab that also does neuroscience. Honestly it seem more like you want to be in a cog psych program than a neuroscience as the neuroscience programs are less, as you put it, "philosophical" (though I wouldn't use that term) and are focus, often, more on the lower level of the brain (ie. neurotransmitters, cellular structures, etc), whereas you seem to want to do more fMRI stuff (which is what I do) or patient stuff. Everything you mentioned wanting to study seem to be well within the realm of cognitive psychology, so really this is the type of program I think you should be looking into. So that's point 1.

Point 2 is somewhat echoing what early people have said. You should be paying for a PhD program in a science like this. You don't get much, but you should be being offered someway to be funded. However, what it seems like you are being offered is admissions into a Masters program. This crap about "being able to take PhD courses alongside" is crap. In my program the MA and PhD course requirements are fairly identical, you just need more classes for a PhD, so you'd always be taking PhD courses as a MA student. So what this university is doing is getting you to sign up for a MA program while offering you the POSSIBILITY of a post-Masters PhD program after, which is not a good way to go. I know of some people who went this route because they could not get accepted into a PhD program and they often had to beg and plead to be accepted into the PhD program and not all were. They are just putting you off because they don't have the funding for you and they think they might in the future if you seem to be good enough or can find an advisor willing to work with you.

Point 3, if there is no one at this university doing the research, or at least fairly similar research into the cognition behind ethics, then you won't be doing that. fMRI research is really expensive because the machines are really expensive to run. No one will fund you to do that if they aren't already doing something related to it. Also, patient work is done on in very particular labs and if you aren't in them you are not likely to have access to the patients you want (for example, only people in really 1 lab and their collaborators got to work with HM), especially since you aren't talking about studying a common disorder like ADHD, but rather a very small subset of brain damaged individuals. This is why in research PhD programs you are applying to work with particular people, not to the university in general.

Point 4. Though 50 is by no means too old to be graduating with a PhD (though many neuroscience degrees take longer, especially if you are working with rats or other animals), the earlier poster is right, if you really want to do research, after that PhD you will need to get a post-doc position somewhere else for another 2-5 years at least before applying for your first real research position, so you need to decide if being 55 or older is too late for you personally.

So all this being said, I don't think that the program you have been accepted into is right, but that if you want to do a PhD in neuroscience/cognitive psychology, don't let your age be the determining factor.

I can be of no help with pastry chef land though.
posted by katers890 at 5:47 PM on August 8, 2009

Im at university, and currently considering packing it all in to become a pastry chef myself! I have never had anything resembling a sleeping pattern anyway.

Either way, i guess you just have to consider what is the "safest" route, especially if you have large financial obligations, and what you really want to do. And then figure out whether security or having a job you love is more important.

It sounds to me like you should do your PhD, because thats what you seem to get excited about from these posts (or maybe im mis-interpreting, it seems to be the thing most discussed). And baking is something you can learn to do in your spare time.

Good luck, anyway. I hope youre more decisive/have more guts than i do
posted by stillnocturnal at 5:52 PM on August 8, 2009

BitterOldPunk said: most culinary schools are a ripoff...

Yeah, when you're talking about things like the Art Institute, I totally agree. That's graduate school prices for an associates degree. Insane.

However, the community college over in Dallas has an astounding set of courses, from which some truly revolutionary chefs have graduated. And all for the low, low price of around 17 a credit hour. And I can take the train in. So, that's nice.

xingcat said: Are there part-time, single-course pastry arts classes available in the area?

I don't know if the community college will let you take random classes from the culinary program, or if you actually have to be in their vocational track...but I'm going to call on Monday and find out. I think that's a brilliant idea, to test the waters and see how I like it.

Also, I've gotten an email from a local mefite who is connecting me to a cake shop that they know. I'm going to call the cake shop on Monday and see if they'll let me be a free"intern" for a couple of days to see if I like doing commercial decorating...and if my mad skills are actually mad skills or simply delusional. Hhe.
posted by dejah420 at 5:54 PM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

stillnocturnal, to be fair, while the post was ongoing; I baked a batch of gruyer bread shots (like little mini 1oz loaves stuffed with cheese and spices, so very good)...I can't think of a week in the last year or so where I haven't baked something. If left to my own devices for very long, I'll either make a batch of soap, or bake something. I've been doing bread, just because the sheer volume of cake around here got to be frightening. My neighbors were all gaining weight from the cake I was bringing around. (But then, I'm very popular with my neighbors now...)
posted by dejah420 at 6:54 PM on August 8, 2009

1. you're not too old for a Ph.D., not at all.
2. you should get paid a stipend for your neorscience Ph.D. no way should you be paying tuition. If a program doesn't have sufficient NIH funding (assuming you're in the US) to fully fund Ph.D. students, that's a big red flag.
3. getting a Ph.D. can be rewarding, but it can also be spirit-crushing, and will take at least 5 years, most likely 6, to complete.
4. Do what makes you happy. I vote baking!
posted by emd3737 at 7:58 PM on August 8, 2009

Heh, that sounds impressive. If youre doing that much, i say go for it. Might as well get paid for something you feel a need to do anyway no?

So go for the baking!

(... but i might be biased coz i was reading cake wrecks a couple minutes ago, i may be having cake cravings)
posted by stillnocturnal at 8:07 PM on August 8, 2009

What do you WANT to do? That's really the only question; life is short and not that important to spend doing things that don't bring you joy.

Bearing in mind that you can always start the phd and drop out if you don't like it, or do the bakery afterward.

HOWEVER: the fundamental, number 1 rule for grad school is that you don't set foot in a phd program unless you are fully funded including 100% tuition and living expenses.
posted by paultopia at 2:18 AM on August 9, 2009

You know, I've never gone into a bakery and asked to see the degree of the baker. Without knowing what you want to do after pastry school, how do you know that you need to take those classes to succeed as the kind of baker you want to be? I have my suspicions that with your understanding of food science you are way ahead of the curve already, and might benefit more from some method of apprenticeship to exercise the skill set you need to build. I'm glad you are trying a decorating "internship".

I've seen several people get into the business of baking by starting off subleasing space in a commercial kitchen, and selling their wares at farmer's markets. At least one couple I know parlayed that experience into starting their own bakery. They worked hellish hours the first few years. I'd drop in and they'd be so tired it hurt to look at them. They are crazy popular (partly for their sandwiches), but I can't say I like their product. Have you scoped out a lot of bakeries and caterers to see which ones you'd like to model a business upon?
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:32 AM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have you considered an M.D. with a goal towards becoming a neurologist in a research setting? If your main research subjects are going to be actual live humans rather than cells or animal models, you will need to work with M.D.'s to test any hypothesis that can't be answered in a non-invasive way.
posted by benzenedream at 5:05 AM on August 9, 2009

I’m back again, although I don’t know if I can provide very useful suggestions…but I just saw you elaborate on your interests.

There is no reason you can’t go straight into a PhD program. In fact, I think that would be your best course of action – do lab rotations the first year. If you can work your way through labs that do molecular techniques, work with patients, etc. (some schools have this option, others do not), you can at least expose yourself to the tools that you want to use later. I’ve known people who quit after the first few years of the PhD and they get a masters…and they didn’t need to pay for it. Just something to keep in mind.

Also, I’m a bit concerned that your interests are already far outside the research interests of the current faculty. My interests were very diverse as a grad student and there was no way my advisor would even let me consider doing a research technique that deviated from what we did (microscopy/confocal microscopy…that’s it!) Anyway, I have seen other students, though, break away and pursue some of their own interests. There were rare examples of this, but I did know a student who 1) had access to monkeys and collected biologic samples from the local lab animals at our university and then 2) through a collaboration with another university and the blessing of his advisor, had access to another unique colony of monkeys somewhere else (disease model) and was allowed to do research there, too. I have also seen rare cases where the student can have access to even more than this, but the question would be is your advisor going to approve/bless this, and are there already collaborative groups in place?

If it were me and I wanted to get a focus outside what was done at the university, I would do the lab rotations and really get to know the faculty – are they open to letting you do a small amt of research away from their area of interest? Do they have collaborations with other faculty and facilities? Do they have the hard evidence that other students followed interest X in addition to their research? (see publications as hard evidence)

As a “hold off on your full research interests” for a few years (let’s say you don’t go gung ho until postdoc years, but get a good grounding in neuroscience in grad school) – you can take other classes – faculty may frown on it, but you can just sit in on other classes (and it may or may not appear on your transcript, it is up to you). I know you may not believe me now, but trust me, there is a point where you can teach yourself a lot of the material on your own so you may not need billions of courses, just an introduction to what is hot in the field/current now/interesting research approaches. Also, I didn’t know about these opportunities until I was close to finishing my PhD – but be very vigilant and always peruse and look out for conferences that are close to your area of interest. For example, I had an interest (again, we didn’t do this research, but my advisor said if I found funding I could go) in human psychiatric disorders – well, there were conferences for this, with lots of lecturers, etc, and they had funding for X number of students. Look out for those opportunities, and apply. Cold Spring Harbor also offered summer courses/small lectures/conferences…but again, just look out for these interests and at least get yourself exposed to the field, even if it a small amount of this. Finally, I have no doubt that as a grad student you would go to the Society for Neuroscience Conference to present your own research. There are thousands of neuroscientists there with different backgrounds. Walk around and find your particular interest…check out the posters, talks, etc. but it may give you a little bit of what you crave for now.

Also, poke around in the about me pages of current faculty members (and run their names through scholar google and/or pub med) – are you sure none of the faculty may have some interests in these areas? Look closely at their research - is there a bridge into an area that both of you may have mutual interest?
posted by Wolfster at 5:33 AM on August 9, 2009

There's a lot of good advice above; my two cents' worth is definitely talk to actual faculty you might be interested in working with because they will have MUCH more relevant information than bureaucrats, and, keep in mind that if you do successfully complete the PhD program, you almost certainly will have to relocate to take postdocs or jobs in your field.
posted by agent99 at 8:29 AM on August 9, 2009

If you do decide to go the grad school route (in which case, I agree with many people above that cost is a much bigger issue than your age), take comfort in the idea that you'll have a wonderful stress reliever waiting at home in the kitchen. I'm a PhD student in neuroscience myself, and I love love love to bake. I've definitely entertained the possibility of dropping out of school to be a full-time baker, but for the meantime, am perfectly content doing research by day, baking by night, and bringing my baked goods in for all my fellow grad students to enjoy. That way, I get to enjoy both.
posted by dino might at 3:20 PM on August 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know, based on your comment in the Kevin Smith thread, I think you should move to my town and we'll open a titty bar.

I'm only half joking. One just went bankrupt after the owner snorted all the profits away and it's just sitting there empty. Right by the interstate, too. Lotsa trucker parking. Unincorporated area, so no city taxes, just county.....Hmmm...
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:06 PM on August 9, 2009

Well, OK BOP, but only if I can call it Cupcakes, and the kitchen is big enough to make baked goods. Also, I get to wear Mae West outfits and make suggestive comments to random strangers...I can rock a ginormous hat, I tell you what.
posted by dejah420 at 7:35 PM on August 9, 2009

I think a Tallulah Bankhead look would be better, seeing as how close this place is to her old stomping grounds (it might even be on the highway named after her daddy). But feel free to accessorize with ginormous hats!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:47 AM on August 10, 2009

I'm a former pastry chef who was the head of the station at a fancy-pants restaurant. It's generally more complicated than this, but I'll just boil it down to the bare bones: there are two ways to be a pastry chef in a restaurant. One is to be the prep person. You go in to work in the morning to late-morning and you prep everything. Depending on the restaurant, you could prep for one night or for a week or for a month or more (we did a lot of freezing of big-batch stuff that would keep, after vac-packing and blast-chilling, for months). If your restaurant does lunch service you plate the dessert orders that come in. You clean up as you go, rinse, repeat. Then the "night shift" chef comes in for service, your shift is over and you go home, usually just as the dinner seatings are starting, around 5:00 or so. The other option is to be the service chef. I did a lot of this at the end of my time at the restaurant. You come in before dinner seatings begin and you make sure your prep chef hasn't screwed anything up, tally your needs, and get the station set up. You do as much prep for the next day as you can, helping out the prep chef. You get your order ready, if it's ordering day. You plate as the orders come in, cleaning as you go. After the last order comes in you clean up your station, put everything away, and clock out. It could be as early as 11:00 pm (not a good night as far as covers go, though), or as late as 2:00 am. During service you're also consulting with the executive chef regarding plating changes, new desserts (especially if your restaurant does a seasonal menu), and you're experimenting with flavors and combinations. You're on your feet for at least 8 hours, usually more like 12-14.

That's just what it was like at my restaurant. They're all run differently, really. It just depends on the executive chef, the type of restaurant, the number of employees, the revenue, etc., etc., etc. The likelihood of you being home with your husband and son in the afternoons and evenings is quite low, if we're talking restaurant work. Bakery/pastry shop hours are totally different and I have absolutely no experience with either.
posted by cooker girl at 9:58 AM on August 10, 2009

I dated a Neurosci PhD student for awhile. It seemed awfully high-stress to me.

On the other hand... pie. It's pretty much the tasty physical version of low stress and happiness. And the soul is more important than the head.

I vote for opening your own bakery.
posted by rokusan at 10:24 AM on August 10, 2009

An update:

I talked to the head of the neuroscience school today. A fluke really, I was going to talk to the professor that had been recommended for my advisor, but through a series of events, ended up talking to the person in charge of the program.

He repeated what a lot of the people on the thread have said: that my acceptance into the masters track WAS NOT a guarantee that I would be allowed to pursue the PhD. We talked a bit about what I wanted to study vs the established programs, and he said, as people above said, that there were no bioethics faculty and getting approval/sponsored for a bioethics PhD would be unlikely. He recommended a couple of good schools that have bioethics programs, but none of them are in this part of the country.

So yeah...I can't shoehorn what I wanted to do into the confines of what they are actually researching. Which, now that I know more about how the PhD system works outside of the liberal arts, makes sense. I had been approaching it as though it were a philosophy program, which it isn't. They're doing very specific (and really interesting) research there, but none of it is really the stuff I wanted to study.

@cookergirl: Thanks for sharing all that! But after spending years working under crazy executive chefs...well, mom...and having spent a fair amount of time working the front of restaurants, I've sworn off restaurants. I admire the people that can do it...but I'm not one of them. It's an insane world filled with crazy people. Bless their yummy-producing hearts.

Tomorrow I'll be talking to people who own some outstanding bakeries/cake shops to see if they'll let me work there for free for a couple of days to see what it's like. If I like it, I think I'll be able to get a feel for what skills I don't have that I should learn, and if it's things that justify culinary school. I'll probably take culinary classes anyway, because I think they'll be fun, and there's a bunch of the classes that are on how to run a business based on consumables that I think would be valuable if I ever do decide to open a bakery or catering supply business. (Many caterers hire bakers to do breads and cakes, rather than doing it themselves, and so there's a side to the catering business where you supply the caterer, rather than having to deal with the clients or bridezillas.)

If I try working at the bakery and find I don't like it...then I reckon I'll have to move and start up a gentlemen's club with BitterOldPunk. But hey, if we do drinks for everyone who brings a bunny with a pancaked head or a cat scan.
posted by dejah420 at 2:42 PM on August 10, 2009

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