Fork in the road and I lost my map
March 13, 2009 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Fork in the road question - more education (with poverty and adventure) or a job (with stability and dissatisfaction)?

So I graduated a few months back with an M. Sc. in chemical engineering from a Canadian university, and have since then been working in research for my thesis supervisor. But I need to move on, and am wrestling with my options with no clear winner...

I used to be dead set on getting a job in industry, but the prospect is losing its appeal. Back before the economy crash, this was a pretty good degree to get a top-paying job with, but now commodity prices suck so no one's hiring, or loads of competition for low pay. Odds are also high of ending up with a job at a plant in the middle of nowhere (the places no one wants to go)- sure I'd only have to stay there a few years until the market picks up and then I can switch jobs to a bigger city (hopefully better life), but that's looking like a sad couple of years to me where I'd always feel robbed in some way. I'd have a stable, relatively easy life with some decent income though.

Or I can do a Ph. D., something I'd been swearing I wouldn't do, because I didn't think I want to write papers and do research for the rest of my life... but my current work isn't going so bad so I dunno. And the opportunity to travel in academia is so much better - I could study in the UK, and easily travel throughout Europe on weekends and holidays. Doing some post-doctoral research would also mean being able to live in other countries and prolong the adventure. And then I could end up in some research facility or become a prof. But I know that this path has high odds of burning me out, losing sight of my goal, and I'll remain in relative poverty for at least the next 5 years too.

Both options kind of have me shaking in my booties about the downsides. I'm going to be applying for both of them just to see what comes up, but if I become faced with having to choose, I don't know what to do. Making a list of priorities doesn't help - i want to travel but with a job I can just pay for holidays. I have no one else to worry about but myself, no debt either.

I'm surrounded by people who support the Ph. D. route, but I can't help but feel like they're biased - all profs and academics here whee I work already. Part of what I really hate about research is how you're constantly faced with so many little failures all the time, it's soul-crushing. But a friend of mine managed to counter this point the other day, by saying he went back into research because he got tired of having only tiny successes in his job all the time, that it just put money in the pocket of someone higher up and it doesn't benefit you personally. This alone has made me reconsider the Ph. D.

Hopefully the hive mind can help me get a clearer idea of what these decisions will entail... I want to hear your anecdotes, thoughts, opinions on all of this, what your own experiences are regarding working in academia or industry, especially from anyone who's found themselves in any similar position... anything that might give me food for thought. sigh.
posted by lizbunny to Grab Bag (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My Ph.D. experience can best be described as "spirit-crushing." Unless it's your lifelong goal to be a faculty member, it really doesn't seem to be worth it. Holidays? Weekends? Not so much.

Obviously some people have more positive experiences than I, but I wish someone had warned me about how depressingly awful getting a PhD can be.
posted by emd3737 at 2:41 PM on March 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Young and uncommited? Poverty and adventure! Plenty of time for stability and dissatisfaction when your older.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:52 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:53 PM on March 13, 2009

Depends on the school, depends on the environment, but generally the PhD route is most useful if you really want to make a life in academia or public research. The big exception would be in fields where many academic departments are tightly integrated with (and effectively owned by) the industries that fund them -- such as computer science at UBC or Waterloo.

For the long-term it definitely sounds industry is where you should head.

For the short-term I can only suggest that you keep plugging away at finding a job, and hang on to whatever you find like gold.
posted by randomstriker at 2:55 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Or you can do option C which is something else you haven't thought of yet. If A and B both have downsides don't forget that there's more than an alphabet of other options out there. If you really are down to the 2 options then I'd say go for poverty and adventure every time because adventure = opportunity and something you never thought of will come of it.
posted by merocet at 3:27 PM on March 13, 2009

Best answer: You make it sound like a PhD would make it impossible to go into industry, at least here in Europe you have a much better chance of getting a job with a PhD. Why not wait until the market picks up while doing a PhD and enjoying the freedom and (usually) nice work environment that a research job gives you?
It's not like a industry job can't be soul-crushing, and I doubt that even the tiny successes are a given, as the failures are not a given in research.

I think I'd go down that route, but with one important consideration: The work you do during the PhD should have some appeal to industry companies. It may not be possible to be sure of that when you start the PhD of course, but I would not do my thesis on some far out pure research project again ( *cough*evolutionary biology) when planning to leave academia afterwards.
posted by Lynx at 3:34 PM on March 13, 2009

I'm in year two of a projected five-year Ph.D in media arts. Unless you -know- you want to be faculty or lead a research lab in industry, this is not a friendly road. Before starting the Ph.D, I did a year in two jobs that sound similar to your "get a job now" -- small town, long hours, boring work. So I can say that neither of these options is particularly good, and merocet's Option C might be worth looking into. I never really tried poverty + adventure, and I kinda regret it.
posted by Alterscape at 3:38 PM on March 13, 2009

In the last few months or so, I also had to decide on grad school/work, and I eventually decided to get the master's (at UBC, engineering). I just spent the most boring year of my life working for a small engineering firm in small-town Ontario, and I was not looking forward to going back permanently.

My justification was; I still like the student lifestyle, I'm used to being poor, I want to move to Vancouver, and I have my whole life to work.

Another factor was that my internship payed off my student loans, and I have some savings. The program is fully funded too. I would not be going to grad school if it meant going into debt.
posted by piper4 at 3:43 PM on March 13, 2009

Grad school is horrendous. It will be the same for you. Getting a PhD is an even worse idea when you're doing it as a maneuver to put your life on hold because you don't know what else to do. You are afraid of feeling "robbed" working in industry? Ahahahaha. Wait until you've been working on your dissertation research for five years. Then you will know what "robbed" feels like.

In seven years, when you're still working on your dissertation, still poor, and still haven't been on a vacation since you started your PhD, I would wager you will feel less sanguine about your "adventurous" job. The job that has impoverished you, prevented you from having kids, a house, or much-needed new clothes or shoes. Your fantasies of travel will likely not happen. Also, poverty is not noble. It sucks.

Then you'll find out about the academic job market. Unless you win the lottery (and do you know anyone who has?), you will be in industry in seven years. You'll just be seven years behind in career advancement and pay.
posted by hardcore taters at 3:45 PM on March 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm having a great time in my Ph.D. program so far, but apparently I'm the exception, so I don't know that I can confidently recommend that route. I went for the Ph.D. after spending a few years outside of science, and was careful to choose a program that would give me a chance to do interesting things during the course of my studies, so that may make a difference. If you can find a department whose students seem happy, it's definitely worth considering. As others have pointed out, a Ph.D. need not lead to a lifetime in academia.

I'm with merocet, though. You should think about options C, D, and E just so you have more things to compare. You could take one of those jobs you mention, out in the middle of nowhere, and save up all the money you're not spending on big-city entertainments. In a year or so you'll have enough to take six months off and wander around the cheaper corners of the world. Or you could get a job in some totally unrelated field for a while--I spent the years between college (physics) and grad school (geophysics) in technical writing, and that led to some opportunities I never would have expected when I started doing it. Or perhaps you could join the Peace Corps. Lots of options out there.
posted by fermion at 3:57 PM on March 13, 2009

5 years of Ph.D. grad school was the worst decision I've ever made (at a top-5 program for my field!), and one of the best was leaving the program. It was five years of poverty, crushing oppression, and misery (though it started out well, and I kept on going, hoping I could get back to that feeling). Five years preparing for a life of post-docs and adjuncting, accruing debt and little else.

This is written about the humanities, but applies quite well to the social and real sciences. Read it. Dismiss the ridiculous idea of grad school.

Then get a job and realize that life isn't just about what you do from 9-5, but what you do with your life, period. You'll be far happier.
posted by The Michael The at 4:10 PM on March 13, 2009

If you were considering a Ph.D. in the humanities I'd tell you to run for cover. I'm in the process of trying to do just that.

But you've got an engineering degree. Grad school is thus going to be a whole different ball of wax, as unlike a doctorate in, say, Renaissance poetry, you're pretty much guaranteed a job afterwards. Even if you don't finish your degree, having spent a few years doing research is going to make you more attractive to industry, not less. Whereas Ph.D.s in the humanities are largely restricted to university departments for using their degrees, engineering Ph.D.s are in high demand by industrial firms the world over. They wind up being project leaders, etc.

On the other hand, unlike humanities Ph.D. candidates who, though tremendously busy, can manage to have pretty decent lives, the engineering Ph.D. candidates I know are obscenely busy. My university is on spring break right now. Not only are none of the engineering students leaving town, they're all spending the entire week in their respective labs. Too much work to do. You will be expected to contribute to your professors' research almost immediately and have your own research project as well. In addition, though the academic market for engineering Ph.D.s is not nearly as insane as it is for humanities majors (i.e. you basically have to win the lottery), it has its own kind of insanity, which tends to privilege established, tenured researchers over anyone under the age of 45. Grant money is almost impossible to get if you're just starting out. And without grant money, it's almost impossible to get a job. Industry is going to be a lot easier.

Look: get that job. If you decide you really do want to get a Ph.D., you've got at least five or ten years to go back and get it. But consider that as a grad student you're going to be pulling down less than 50% of what you'd be making as an engineer. As in getting a Ph.D. could easily cost you in excess of $200,000 in lost income over the six or seven years it's going to take you to get your degree. You can go back to grad school in a few years if you want. You can even probably find a corporation that's willing to pay for you to get your masters while you work for them. I know several people who are doing that right now.
posted by valkyryn at 4:22 PM on March 13, 2009

In my circle, the people in academia are the ones with the least control over where they live. They apply and apply for positions and finally end up in small-town Illinois or similar unexciting places. Are you sure it's different in your field?
posted by PatoPata at 4:46 PM on March 13, 2009

Best answer: I'm a couple of months away from finishing a PhD in humanities. Did my BA at a Canadian university and my PhD in London. Here's the good and bad from my experience.

Bad: The PhD will be harder and more soul-destroying (at times) than you can possibly imagine. You will be frustrated, unable to sleep from the stress, question yourself and your decision on a daily basis and want to quit.

Good: A huge caveat with this: I am fully funded, so leaving grad school with almost no debt. The adventure part has been unbelievable. I have traveled North and East Africa, the Middle East, and all of Europe. I have lived in one of the coolest cities on earth and met like-minded people who were into academics and travel and living abroad. As for the school part, as the end of my PhD road nears, I am overwhelmed in the best possible way by my achievements and the significant contribution to my field I have made.

What's next? I'm not pursuing academia and have been slowly wiggling my way back into the career I left to do my PhD. I had a moment of "Oh god, I'm back where I started" but then I realized that my adventure has fundamentally changed me. When I was making this decision, my dad said this to me: "You have your entire life to work. You have limited time to travel and live abroad when you're young, before you have children and need to answer to other people." I think he was right and while the moments of my above "Bad" section were close to unbearable, I wouldn't change a thing.
posted by meerkatty at 4:50 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you cannot decide, how about a year off to go backpacking? You could spend six months in India, having the time of your life for very little money. By the end of your time backpacking you may well have a much better idea what you want to do. Besides, once you start a long-term commitment of whatever sort it would be much harder to do something like this again.
posted by Hediot at 4:55 PM on March 13, 2009

Response by poster: yay for jaded grad students.

merocet and fermion, I know there's options c and d (volunteering abroad and working holidays). My previous askmefi post and a few friends have brought that up. They're temporary solutions, so I end up in the same boat when I get back. But believe me, I fully intend on exploiting this type of option next time I need a long break - either from the degree or the job.

And I'm aware of what kind of life i'm setting myself up for in a Ph. D., I've been working in a lab as per valkyryn's description for the last 4 years, 2 of which were the M. Sc. I'm now well-equipped to plan experiments, get publications out as I go, and at the UK universities I can do the ph. d. in 3 years - no classes, just research, with a scholarship (I'm not going without being funded). Thanks all the same for the article, The Michael.

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Keep 'em coming.
posted by lizbunny at 5:22 PM on March 13, 2009

But you've got an engineering degree. Grad school is thus going to be a whole different ball of wax, as unlike a doctorate in, say, Renaissance poetry, you're pretty much guaranteed a job afterwards.

The experience of some Engineering PhD students in my office is that:

1. The number of jobs for engineering PhDs may be vanishingly small, particularly if you want a job in the same area as your research was in. So you can be the world expert in robotic automation of drug discovery, and all of a sudden you can count the pool of possible employers on one hand.

2. When applying for a job outside the area of one's research, employers may prefer to put you on their new-graduate-no-experience scheme, offering you a position pretty similar to what would be on offer if you did not have a PhD... except you get there several years later. Of course, a PhD might open more doors later in your career.

3. Jobs with limited career advancement prospects may reject you as overqualified, because they think you'll get better offers than they can make, and you'll leave to pursue such an offer when one inevitably comes along.

THE ONLY REASON TO DO A PHD is because you're fascinated by the subject your research will be about. If you go into it motivated by the expectation of rewards other than those, you're likely to be disappointed.

In my circle, the people in academia are the ones with the least control over where they live. [...] Are you sure it's different in your field?

At my institution the rule for PhD students is: You must meet with your supervisor at least once a month. You can spend the rest of your time sipping piƱa coladas on the beach if you want, as long as you've printed some papers to take with you. So in that sense you get a lot of freedom.

Of course, a great deal of the freedom offered represents an unlimited amount of rope with which to hang yourself; you only get so much funding, more than a couple of people run over by about a year, funded by their own savings. Needless to say, most jobs in industry you don't spend a year working for $0.
posted by Mike1024 at 5:33 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you do a PhD don't do it in the US. European schools treat you approximately 1 million times better and you graduate in half the time.
posted by fshgrl at 6:33 PM on March 13, 2009

You associated "job" with "dissatisfaction," which says very clearly that that isn't the right path to bring you joy.
posted by aniola at 10:12 PM on March 13, 2009

Best answer: I am another of those jaded graduate students. I went into the PhD program because I was genuinely motivated - although I did reasonably well with research, the environment was such that I decided to take an (unofficial) sabbatical for an year and find a job in industry as a change of pace.

An year later, I returned - refreshed and recharged. Sat down to write up the thesis, handed it in and found another job in industry again (this was 2008, by the way - the economy hadn't started sucking quite so badly then). Now, I am approaching the deadline to submit my corrections; but the job keeps me so busy that I haven't found the time to finish off. So I will be taking a sabbatical from the job (or quitting if I can't negotiate something favourable) just to finish off the remaining bits.

With that lengthy background out of the way -

Things I like about the PhD program (and academia in general)
- Freedom to do your own thing, set your own hours and take research in directions that you set. Of course, this depends on the degree to which your supervisor is involved in the work. Mine was quite hands off, so I had a lot of autonomy, which I appreciate

- Academia is the ultimate coccoon that insulates from the outside world, especially if you are a graduate student. Bad economy? Well, you might get fewer funding opportunities. It's also great for riding out the job prospect storms that rage outside

- There is opportunity to travel, especially if you are in a university that must produce tangible research output every quarter (as I was).

The bad:

- You will be living (as others have noted) in relative poverty; especially compared to your erstwhile peers in industry.

- Once graduated, you will find that you are several tiers below in experience for your age. Again, a big deal in engineering if you have any interest in landing a technical job afterwards. I had to fight hard to get my now-employer to overlook my relative lack of work experience. Another point - you may be overqualified for some classes of technical jobs (this is Comp Sci, though). If you're doing postdocs, most contracts are very short term - 1 year is common, 3-5 years considerably less so.

- See what the others have said about the PhD being a soul destroying experience. I know there are exceptions; but I had a similar experience with lots of low points. I also knew I wanted to go back to industry (the PhD was just for me, if you know what I mean) - and there were times when I couldn't take the complete lack of deadlines or the relaxed academic environment anymore. That's why I went back to industry twice and still haven't finished the PhD. I missed the adrenalin rush of external pressures. Oh, and the money :)

If I were you, I'd think seriously about part time work at least in industy (or landing a fellowship/RS job for an industry driven project) while doing research. This is probably the best of both worlds; since your work experience isn't completely compromised but you still keep a toe in the research game.

Sorry about the lengthy comment!
posted by geminus at 2:37 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

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