Major Career Switch
October 8, 2004 8:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering a major career switch and wonder if anybody has gone through a similar experience. Right now I'm an IT manager but am finishing an MA and considering going for a phd. [More inside]

I'm young (30), married (no kids), but have a mortgage, so the prospect of going back to school full time for a PhD is scary. I'm applying to a few programs, but am wondering if anybody else has done this. I'm work for a small tech company, but dislike my job. It pays well and I like my coworkers, but it's not what I want to be doing anymore. I think that I might be happy in slightly different but similar jobs at other companies, but I really would like to try and teach college (which seems to afford my writing friends a more writerly lifestyle.) I'm a fiction writer and have been published in a few journals and am considering getting a combined literature/writing phd (if I get into a decent program.) I'm finishing a creative MA that I did part time, and am applying to schools, but the practical considerations are looming - what about my mortgage? What are the prospects for jobs at colleges after graduation? I have a few ideas and my wife is very supportive, but I'm scared and wondering how others in similar situations have done it.
posted by drobot to Work & Money (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
what does your wife do? you generally have to move around the country/globe looking for postdoc positions before you get tenure. if she has a good job, will she be happy moving? will she be able to find new work?

one alternative would be to find a different way of working. i work 8 days shift, then have 6 off (with vacation time too, i work almost exactly 50% of the year). that gives me much more time to focus on my own projects. of course, that could be something in addition to academia - i knew someone who got funding and negotiated a deal in which he would receive half the annual value for twice as long, while only working 50% of the time.

teaching takes a lot of time and effort (at least in my experience, in the sciences). i mention that because the teaching part seems to be an afterthought in your description above, necessary for the lifestyle, rather than something significant in itself.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:19 AM on October 8, 2004

(sorry those seem -ve, i was just trying to think of possible problems. in general, i would say do it. people are way too worried about financial security etc - without kids you can do almost anything. we manage fine (first as two academics, and then with one of us - me - working at "real jobs"). maybe you need to sell your house and get something smaller in a "worse" neighbourhood - it's hardly the end of the world).
posted by andrew cooke at 8:22 AM on October 8, 2004

Thanks Andrew - I'm very interested in teaching, even as an adjunct (which I might be able to do without the PhD.) I think my main goal is to do something in which I'm immersed in literature and writing, instead of doing it at night and the weekends. My wife is at a similar point in her career, which complicates things, but it also makes us open to the idea of doing something else, or drastic like selling our house and moving to another city.
posted by drobot at 8:27 AM on October 8, 2004

drobot -- I am in a somewhat similar situation. I am planning to leave an IT job and the entire IT field after 10 years, and am planning to go to culinary school for a year's training as a professional chef. (Yes, not exactly the same as going for a Ph.D., but I've been on that trip, too) I am ten years older than you, with a wife and child and a big house in the suburbs.

My wife and I agreed that we would sell our house to get out from under the obligation of a huge mortgage and look for a condo or even an apartment to reduce our living costs while our income is reduced. The house went on the market last week. You might not need to sell your home, but it's an option to consider.

Scary? Fuck, yeah. But I went through an even bigger scare this summer, and have simply decided it is time to start doing what I want rather than suffering through another hopelessly soul-crushing corporate IT gig all in the name of an American Dream that isn't mine.

I can't give you much advice except to tell you that I think you should go for it now, not ten years later, because it only gets harder to do, and to tell you that you're not the only one in this boat. Good luck.
posted by briank at 8:49 AM on October 8, 2004

some grants/funding (again, this is from the sciences, but maybe it applies to arts too) can be used at any university. if you're both thinking of studying and one of you can get a grant like that, it's a huge help (since you can both go to the same place). otherwise, it can be much more difficult (with grants to study at different places). on the other hand, since this is a known problem, institutions try to be flexible (if they offer one of you a funded phd place, they might be able to find teaching for the other, etc).
posted by andrew cooke at 8:49 AM on October 8, 2004

This is going to sound harsh, but:

Lots of people want to do what you want to do, because it's a nice life. Lots of departments have accommodated these dreams by letting vast hordes of people into their programs. As a result, the job market for new PhD's is positively brutal.

Do not go into a "decent" program. If you can't get into a downright excellent program -- top 15 or so -- don't bother, because the people from the excellent programs will be taking most of the jobs.

Rule of thumb: if you have to pay to go, don't. You should not be paying tuition. You should be being paid a stipend. If you're not being paid to go to grad school, don't, because it's the people at the better programs, who are being paid to take classes and do research or creative projects full-time, who are going to get the jobs, not you. The only exception to this is that some states legally forbid their state u's from waiving tuition; this should be compensated for by a higher stipend.

Whereever you might think of going, *insist* on seeing what percent of people entering the program get their PhD's "on time" or within, say, 6 years. Likewise, *insist* on seeing placement information on recent graduates. If the places they're going don't sound pleasant to you, don't go.

Irrespective of the quality of the school you go to and the quality of your work, you will be in nationwide job searches. For the first decade or so of your working career, you will not get very much say in what part of the country you live in.

On preview: don't get sucked into the adjunct trap. That market is hugely exploitive -- you will be paid crap, you will receive no or few benefits, you will be treated poorly, and you will be worked too hard to get yourself out of that situation. Doing it for a year or two to get a bit of teaching experience, or while you are finishing your dissertation having already completed 2/3 of it, is fine.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 AM on October 8, 2004

I am not a PhD. I got an MA in Comp. Lit in 98. I had expected to continue with a PhD, and to seek a teaching position. That's not what happened for various reasons. I taught one or two classes a quarter as adjunct faculty at a community college for two years while working a 9 to 5. I got about $20 per classroom hour. I didn't like teaching part time. Lots of hassle. Lots of prep time. Lots of paperwork. No time to do it, and none of the perks of the contemplative life. My MA is from a prestigeous school so I even got to do some sophomore level classes which usually you have to "earn" through dogged plodding through years of freshman comp classes.
I still think being on faculty at a College full time, preferably tenure track, would be great.

But there are some market realities you need to research. I read that about 1000 people get PhDs in Lit each year, and there are about 500 jobs added each year. This is a problem compounded by all of the people who didn't get jobs last year or the year before. There are some web sites directed at grad students and new PhDs that cover this topic. I stopped looking at them a few years back and can't remember what they are called.
Seriously research the job market and try and understand what your life will be like with a PhD.

This article about the MLA conference was interesting and fun. A good start.

Also, consider your debt burden after school is up. My wife and I owe $80,000 in combined acedemic debt. This commits us to a large monthly payment for the foreseeable future. Factor your debt into your consideration of your post-PhD lifestyle.

Thus conclude my uncharacteristically cautionary comments.
That said, briank's comments should be taken seriously. I'm on a 2 year plan to escape my career. If I could undo a part of my life I'd skip the suburban consumer chapter rather than the academic one.
posted by putzface_dickman at 9:07 AM on October 8, 2004

Read the archives at InvisibleAdjunct. The discussion exposes a lot of the issues that people don't think of when entering a PhD program or embarking on a scholarly career.

The Chronicle of Higher Educationoften has relevant articles, not to mention a sobering list of openings.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 11:00 AM on October 8, 2004

I'm only a grad student (in English literature), not a Ph.D., but I would back up ROU's comments: make sure you go to school on full fellowship with a stipend, or don't go at all. That said, if you don't get into a program like that the first time, don't sweat it: just keep applying. Lots of people in my current program, which is a good one, have applied multiple times; quite a few of them are past thirty. I would say you should take it slow, and make sure you're into a program you're comfortable with before you change your whole life around.

My other note is: grad school, at least where I am, is nothing like my undergraduate experience (I got a combined undergrad degree in English and creative writing), and nothing like I thought it would be when reading and writing were a 'hobby' for me. It's turned out to be a lot more serious--a lot more professional--just as much of a job as any I've had in the past. I love it, though, and if you're comfortable with something that's more professionalized, and if you approach reading as an intellectual and emotional, but not necessarily religious or sacred, endeavor than you will likely love it too. I say this because the number one problem people seem to have, in my experience so far, is an unhappiness with the act of turning your life-long love of books, conversation, and deep thoughts into a full-on career. It's been weird for me, and I'm only in my second year. This might already be obvious to you, but it never hurts to point it out!

Best of luck!
posted by josh at 12:44 PM on October 8, 2004

Also, just a note: I think that Believer article is pretty terrible. Lewis-Kraus gets points for actually going to the MLA, which it seems most of the people who write those articles never do--but the conclusions he comes to about the purpose of literary criticism and of teaching literature are silly. Reading that article, you get the sense that every professor of English in the world is determined to write about, say, the intersection of Dickens and Buffy. This isn't true. The criticism he highlights in that article is, in the main, bad, and not really in my experience representative.
posted by josh at 1:07 PM on October 8, 2004

Thanks all! I really appreciate all the info and links. I'm only applying to top ten schools that allow creative dissertations and definitely won't go anywhere where I have to pay. Faculty is a big thing for me too. I have friends with PhDs from 'tier 3' schools and they've had some problems finding work, although all three of them are now in tenure track positions at small private colleges and community colleges.

I'm hoping that because I have a few publications and some journal editing experience, I'll be a good candidate for these schools, but I'm not going to go just for the sake of going, so if I'm turned down by my first choices, I think I'll wait, or do something else.

Josh - thanks for the info. I'm finishing my MA now from a school with a pretty good reputation (for creative writing), so I'm pretty aquainted with the undergrad vs. grad world. It's a great experience.
posted by drobot at 1:34 PM on October 8, 2004

great great stuff guys. thank you all of you.
i'm also trying to figure out how to get myself out of blah blah blah 9-to-5 and into a creative position, and for the last year I've been trying to make up my mind whether further academics (masters, etc) an essential part of this path, or whether it would be better to try and build work experience/portfolio. Of course, there's a million rock-star jobs I'd like to have, and none of them particularly have a direct path.

posted by fishfucker at 1:43 PM on October 8, 2004

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