Embarrassment of riches or just embarassment
September 9, 2010 5:14 PM   Subscribe

Grad school/business school decision freakout. Need help and perspective.

I love studying technology and society stuff. danah boyd is my goddess, as well as a lot of other assorted geeks. I also really love the energy of startup businesses, hustling and getting things done. I was an entrepreneur for a few years and loved it.

I'm a mix of entrepreneur and academic, and I have a lot of trouble deciding which to pursue career-wise. I know it's a weird choice to be facing as these are usually completely different career paths, but I'm good at getting into weird situations. :P

So here's my dilemma: I've been accepted to a PhD studying technology usage at a business school in the UK. I have received funding for three years. Also, I was accepted to a top MBA in the US (think Harvard, Wharton, etc.). MBAs are really, really expensive ($150k)

Jobs I could see myself doing:
- itinerant research analyst at a think-tank
- product management at a tech startup
- business development at a tech startup
- policy stuff relating to technology

Basically, I love technology and business... but I'm only an okay coder and I'm not the stereotypical clean-cut MBA type. I don't have a lot of typical job experience -- I was an entrepreneur mostly, but I have done a few regular corporate jobs and was bored and not a terrific fit. I have a lot of soft skills and pick things up quickly but sometimes wish I had something specific to offer, like being a programmer (or an acupuncturist or florist) or something. I don't have a specific entrepreneurial idea to follow at this point. I also don't have a specific research question I'm burning to answer (although I do have some areas of interest).

I am freaking out. I have no idea which path to take and am terrified of letting go of either option. I know that I'll never get into as good an MBA program. (I really think it was a fluke that I got in.) I might be able to get into a different PhD in the US, but not sure how competitive I am. I grew up poor and am afraid of being poor in the future. Both the poverty of the academic life and the MBA debt scare me.

(I am deciding at this super-late date because of a quirk in the admissions system at both schools. I don't want to go into detail, but trust me that I'm really deciding.)

Should I do the PhD? The MBA? Both? Neither?

(Thanks to the few people I asked for help with this decision earlier -- you gave me a lot to think about, but everyone said such different things that I'm sure there are even more opinions out there I should be considering. So I'm throwing it open to general mefites to see what you say.)

Thank you!
posted by metametababe to Education (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can you ask admissions to defer the b-school offer for a year?
posted by anniecat at 5:21 PM on September 9, 2010

Both options sound great. So there's only one solution here: Flip a coin! Seriously...do it.

Got a coin? Ok, heads the MBA and tails the PhD.

Do you have your coin? You can't flip a coin without a coin. Ok...Ready? Set...FLIP!!

Well that settles that!

Now...are you thinking "ok then...I guess I'll get a(n) ___" or are you thinking "Best 2 of 3" and getting ready to flip again? Now at least you know what you really want.

Also an excellent decision-making tool for choosing between the chicken and the fish in a restaurant.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:22 PM on September 9, 2010

What entrepreneurial endeavor do you plan for which the MBA is relevant? I deal with a lot of entrepreneurs, and most of the best do not have MBAs. Perhaps there is a field for which it is needed but I've yet to find it.

It is possible, though, that the network you get from having attended a top school is worth it. But that says little about the value of the MBA itself.

I've no opinion on PHD programs.
posted by dfriedman at 5:25 PM on September 9, 2010

Figure out what the PhD will enable you to do, that you can't do otherwise.
Look at the info from the program, what are their grads doing?
Look at the websites of think tanks or policy places where you'd like to work -- what credentials do their employees have?

A funded PhD is great, sounds like yours is only partly funded.
Ask the program, and talk to current grad students: What's the likelihood you could finish that degree in 3 years?
If you will take 5-6 years, what's the likelihood of getting more funding to cover the remaining 2-3 years of the degree?

Figure out what you'll get at the MBA school.
What do the grads of this specific school go on to do? What will your preparation be, moreover what will your contacts/network be - are they in finance and you want to be in Silicon Valley?
To spend $150K on anything, you better be pretty confident you want and can get a job that will pay WELL (and that you want those hours, that work environment, etc).
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:34 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why wouldn't you get into a good MBA program again? Sounds like you have early-onset impostor syndrome.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:34 PM on September 9, 2010

metametababe: I'm not the stereotypical clean-cut MBA type. I don't have a lot of typical job experience -- I was an entrepreneur mostly, but I have done a few regular corporate jobs and was bored and not a terrific fit. I don't have a specific entrepreneurial idea to follow at this point.

I grew up poor and am afraid of being poor in the future. Both the poverty of the academic life and the MBA debt scare me.

Can I suggest you not spend 150K you don't have on an MBA you don't know what to do with?

If you can complete the PhD in three years, do that. There's nothing wrong with not having an exact roadmap for post-academia, but having no idea what you want to do, no forecast for a job market and 150K worth of debt is a vastly less desirable kettle of fish.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:53 PM on September 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also an excellent decision-making tool for choosing between the chicken and the fish in a restaurant.
A Psychological Tip
by Piet Hein

Whenever you're called on to make up your mind,
and you're hampered by not having any,
the best way to solve the dilemma, you'll find,
is simply by spinning a penny.
No - not so that chance shall decide the affair
while you're passively standing there moping;
but the moment the penny is up in the air,
you suddenly know what you're hoping.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:05 PM on September 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

Don't get a PhD unless you are 110% sure you want to be an academic. And being an academic sucks in a lot of ways, especially right now. I can list them if you want but poor work-life balance, stress and shit pay start the list.

There are few jobs in new media stuff in social science or humanities. There are many people doing amazing work.

I got a job based 80% on my training before my PhD and 20% based on my methodological training in my PhD. My new media stuff and super famous advisor? Did not get me a job. (Although it did give me a pinky toe up above other ABDs on the market.)

I could have probably gotten a similar job at a similar pay without my PhD (and the years of my life and debt and lost earnings.)

Did I enjoy my grad years? Yes. Was it worth it? Probably not.

No offense to danah, but her academic career+life is atypical and if you tell a potential advisor (well, many of them) that her type of research is your goal or her type of career is your plan, you aren't going to find an advisor.
posted by k8t at 6:36 PM on September 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

+1 to neither.

PhD may qualify you for the think tank, and possibly the policy stuff, but there are fifty PhDs for every such job. For biz dev and product management, relevant experience and a well-stuffed Rolodex are far more useful than degrees. If those are the jobs you want, why not just go and do them?
posted by rdc at 6:39 PM on September 9, 2010

PS I got a non-academic job that did not require a PhD. I went on the academic market and failed. I do new media research.
posted by k8t at 6:42 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Funded PhD vs 150K in debt for the MBA. An MBA from the schools you listed look great but there are a lot of career tracks where it will take years to pay back the initial investment via post degree higher wages. Is the PhD program a free ride or partially funded? Is the PhD program at London School of Economics or at the UK equivalent of the University of Phoenix?

Is it possible to start in the funded PhD program and them later transfer to one of the US MBA programs and carry some class credit with you? (If you determine after giving the PhD program the old college try that the MBA program is more to your liking?)

I'd be really hesitant about funding the 150K especially via debt. (I left law school in 1997 at 37 with only 40K. If I follow the standard repayment program the final payment and my retirement at 60 will closely coincide)
posted by Carbolic at 9:35 PM on September 9, 2010

Is there anything in the UK that offers a Master's in Information Management? It's something of a hybrid MBA/ MLIS/IT program (Syracuse Universisty in the US offers one of the better programs). Because that sounds like a degree that would prepare you for just about all of the jobs you see yourself doing. They also offer a Ph.D program as well. And you can do it online! (at least the Master's, anyway)
posted by KingEdRa at 11:13 PM on September 9, 2010

You need to track down some people working in the fields / careers that interest you and talk to them. These are the people who know what hiring conditions are like right now, and the best path to get there. Work your network, reach out to organizations you may want to work for eventually.

I would be wary of starting an MBA that will put you 150k in debt. A top-flight MBA is not the immediate moneymaker that it used to be, plus you'll be competing with all the grads over the past few years that are still looking for their dream job, but now have additional work experience.

Do you have enough funding to fully cover the first year of your PhD? Could you defer the MBA while you learn more about the field and build a network of contacts? You may find the first year PhD work very helpful to your career even if you decide not to complete.
posted by bayleaf at 9:16 AM on September 11, 2010

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