Best ways to spend the burden (gift?) of a year?
November 20, 2008 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Unintended year off between MS and PHD programs: How to spend it, prepare for it, cope with it?

So, life happened, and although I fully intended to finish my Masters in Experimental Psyc this year and head off to a PhD program in Developmental Psyc in the fall, I haven't proposed my thesis yet (but likely will in a few weeks) and my adviser tells me that she can't write me the letter I'll need to help me get into a PhD program (and that other faculty mentors likely can't if I haven't proposed yet). She thinks that it's in my best interests to wait until next fall to apply and spend the year after finishing my thesis (that will undoubtedly happen on time, yet for some reason she can't confidently say in a letter) working on pubs to put together an application that is undeniable (aside from minimal pubs, my application would otherwise be strong).

So, okay, if she can't write me the letter, she can't write me the letter. I think I've made my peace with having this extra year to work (it could be really cool, actually, to have some pubs that aren't posters on my CV). What are some cool things that I could do to pay the bills though? I can't get a paid RA position with her or any other faculty member at my school while I'm working on pubs (lack of funding, among other things). This is a terrible economy to not be in school, and I'll have to start paying student loans during this interim (had a year off between undergrad and MS program, don't want to take that last deferment if I can avoid it), not to mention the cost of keeping afloat.

Things I've thought of:
-Getting on as a paid RA at a nearby school (~1 hr commute across the Canadian-US border everyday)
-Looking for a 1 year grant position with a school district
-Just working at a preschool or daycare to have more hands-on experience with the population I study.

How do I best prepare? When is the best time to apply for jobs? I'm on a quarter system, and classes end mid/late June. Also...this is (obviously) pretty disappointing. How do I handle the nagging feeling of failure? (Note: The reasons I haven't proposed yet are not a function of my work habits but of some pretty dire extenuating circumstances. I've stayed remarkably focused, considering.)

-I can't change location. I'm currently in the PNW and in a long-term relationship (and he has kids). Any awesome "take a year and do something really awesome and service-related in a foreign country" is out.
-I have to have something that pays at least what my (minimal) TA stipend pays (but would prefer something more).

Other points:
-I'm not adverse to finding a job that is so incredibly awesome that I never end up going back for the PhD.
-I love editing and reviewing others' work and would love to find a way into that field.
-I would even consider freelance writing of some sort if there were a way to assure it would pay the bills.
-I also love the advising and teaching aspects of an academic career. It's one of the top reasons I chose this path, but would jump at a random chance to do this without more education.
posted by messylissa to Work & Money (12 answers total)
have you talked to your advisor about this? she may have some ideas. talk to your school's career center, as well.

you're probably not going to make enough editing and writing freelance to pay the bills off the bat--it can take years to get into the black doing that--but it might work as a sideline.

i wouldn't stress about finding the "right" job. i think in this economy, go for anything you can stand doing for a year. certainly if you study kids and want to work at a daycare, that's an option. but i don't think a year of temping as a receptionist is going to kill your career if it comes to that.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:37 PM on November 20, 2008

While this is mundane, if you work at Starbucks you get health insurance even if you're part-time. It doesn't align with your academic interests, but it pays the bills.

Also, wouldn't anything too time-intensive not allow you to work on publications?
posted by lockestockbarrel at 6:40 PM on November 20, 2008

My advisers idea was that I would spend the year working in a coffee shop or something equally benign to pay the bills while working on the pubs to satisfy me otherwise. I'm not adverse to this idea, but would obviously prefer something a little more stimulating (and better paying, if possible...I will have a Master's degree, after all).
posted by messylissa at 6:43 PM on November 20, 2008

Let me see if I have the timeline right. You want to apply for PhD programs now, expect to finish your Master's between now and Sept 09, and start the PhD in Sept 09. Your advisor says, hold off till Sept 10. Right?

So you have yet to propose a thesis -- I assume that means once the thesis is proposed in a few weeks, you have, oh, 8 months of grinding work ahead of you to get it done, right? So worry about that first. 8 months of grinding work has a way of turning into 12 months -- especially if you spend too much time looking ahead and less time worrying about the task at hand. This happened to me and I ended up spending two months starting a PhD and finishing a Master's simultaneously. (not recommended!)

How does your funding work? Does it run out in Sept 09? Can you stretch it? Finish your thesis, but don't defend or submit it; work on your publications while you're still a student and still have funding. Once your funding runs out, then you defend.

If you are at all like me or most of my colleagues you will be mentally and physically exhausted when you finish your degree. Maybe you can't go to Australia and work as a bartender while you travel across southeast Asia, but you could work a non-career job and give your mind a rest for a few months.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:45 PM on November 20, 2008

Funding runs out in June of 09. Anything beyond that is student loans.

Oh, and I should add, my thesis is part of another project, so data collection is already underway. The proposal is really just a formality at this point.
posted by messylissa at 6:49 PM on November 20, 2008

Ouch. That sucks. I guess you should do your best to finish by June 09 then.

I would suggest tutoring on the side but there's no demand for that in summer. There are probably cool seasonal jobs you could do in the summer though -- work at a camp, maybe? Possibly relevant to your research interests, too. Once classes start up again in the fall there may be tutoring opportunities.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:55 PM on November 20, 2008

You could kill a LOT of student loans by working your ass off for a year while still living like a student.
posted by rokusan at 6:55 PM on November 20, 2008

Rokusan, at best, I'll only make a very small dent in what is a massive pile of loans accrued from my private undergrad education. You have a valid point, though, and it's one I've definitely considered. However, at this point, I don't really "live like a student" in my two income household with stepkids to support.
posted by messylissa at 8:26 PM on November 20, 2008

Are you positive you can't work in another lab? Don't just stick to your department--if you're in psychology look at other social sciences, as well as statistics, biology, cognitive science, neuroscience. There may well be jobs where they're looking for someone with a bachelor's and your master's will be the big bonus feature that gets you hired.

Even if the duties are below your ability level, staying in something related to what you do is much better for your PhD applications, not to mention your own mental stimulation. When work is slow, you might be able to get permission to work on your publications during work hours.

If that really isn't an option, then working at a preschool or whatever your target population is probably is your next best bet.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:38 AM on November 21, 2008

I didn't finish my thought. I was working so hard on my master's thesis that I didn't devote much effort to applying to PhD programs. My top choice ended up not offering me a spot that year, but I was sure that was where I wanted to go. So I talked to my prospective advisor and was able to work for in her lab for a year.

When it came time to accept people to grad school the next year, the admissions committee knew me from seminars and journal clubs and knew the good work I'd been doing in my advisor's lab, and I was accepted easily. If you have a family with kids, this approach may be harder, but if you were planning on moving for your PhD anyway it should be a possibility.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:50 AM on November 21, 2008

finishing my thesis (that will undoubtedly happen on time, yet for some reason she can't confidently say in a letter)

She can't confidently say it because you are already not on track to graduate this year, and she isn't sure how much longer you will take.

But if the thesis/articles are your highest priority, I think you should listen to your adviser, and get a job (like at a coffee shop) that you can completely leave behind you when you walk out the door after a full day of work. The absolute worst case scenario, in terms of finishing your thesis and writing some articles, would be a job that had irregular hours, lots of work to take home, and high stress (imagine, say, the directorship of a small non-profit, for example).

What you have is a really fundamental choice here. Your two goals -- thesis and publications, or interesting and engaging employment -- are directly at odds with each other, and you need to make a firm choice as to which is more compelling.

You indicate that you would be ok with not going and getting the phd (which would almost certainly mean traveling away from your partner, and the same again when you go on the job market -- travel for work is an expected part of academia) if you found an interesting job. The usual advice, which may be playing a part in your adviser telling you to wait a year, is to not apply for a phd unless it is absolutely essential to your future plans. I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but the truth is that phd programs are really brutal and full-time endeavors, and require intense self-motivation. If you are able to be derailed during a masters, you will probably find the phd very hard to complete, unfortunately.

All of that to say, I wonder if you wouldn't be happiest taking this "derailment" as some sort of cosmic permission to explore options outside of academia, finding work in your field locally, and enjoying being with your partner and family. That path has a lot fewer sacrifices, and a lot more flexibility for dealing with the complications and joys of "real life."
posted by Forktine at 5:45 AM on November 21, 2008

get a job (like at a coffee shop) that you can completely leave behind you when you walk out the door

Amusingly, this is exactly what I thought when I had an unintentional year off after finishing my MA - that I'd work at Starbucks to pay the bills, blissfully leave at the end of my shift and not give the job another thought until I started my next shift. Turned out, I was entirely wrong. I hated the job so very much, because I was used to being intellectually challenged, that it took over my life. For three weeks I was crabby, miserable, sad, and generally plagued by the job that I thought would be freeing. Then my manager, who had spent those few weeks training me, asked me why I was still there - said he wanted to keep me, but knew I wasn't happy, and was there a job in my field I could apply for?

I don't have great advice for you since my field is very different from what it sounds like yours is, but my general advice is just to keep your eyes out for any opportunity at all. If you decide on a specific thing - RAship, field-appropriate job or internship - you may overlook something else that is tangential, but useful. I ended up side-stepping into a job that was related to my general field but not my subfield, and while some told me it might hurt my chances of getting into a PhD program since it showed 'split focus', they were wrong. I ended up with marketable skills and an admission to a program that is the perfect fit for me.

Anyhow, just keep your eye out for anything that might fit, and follow your instinct and your educated decision-making skills. Don't hesitate to go to a Starbucks or something if you need to pay the bills in the interim, but don't feel you have to settle.

Unless, of course, you end up loving it. Do what you love, and don't let anyone else tell you otherwise!
posted by AthenaPolias at 8:25 PM on November 22, 2008

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