PhD now or later
April 22, 2010 4:09 AM   Subscribe

Is there an 'expiry date' on your studies when it comes to being admitted to a PhD? I'm thinking of working for a while first.

Finishing off a masters in economics/finance, with a double bachelors in mathematics and political science. I've been a broke student at university forever. And I've kind of become disillusioned with academia and less interested in spending my life in it.

I do want to get a PhD one day if a good uni lets me in, and I think I'll have a reasonable shot at that. But is it worth it to wait a few years and do some "real world" learning first? Plus, having some savings put away would be a good cushion for living on a PhD student's salary (not to mention the fact that my partner and I are going to be pushing thirty soon, and, you know....)

Say I were admitted to a fancy grad school tomorrow, but I pass the opportunity to go and work for say, five years... after that time, would I be more, less or just as likely to be admitted again? Do grad schools prefer "fresh" grads?
posted by moorooka to Education (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
From discussing this same conundrum with profs before I left uni to join the workforce, I'd say you will almost certainly be considered a stronger candidate for experiencing the real world before going back.
posted by hamandcheese at 4:23 AM on April 22, 2010

In my experience, which is mostly in the field of biology in the UK, it is quite common to spend a couple of years working before embarking on a PhD. It's what I did. I also know of several people from the states who've done the same thing.

Obviously it would be best if your "real world" job was connected in some way to your PhD topic.
posted by jonesor at 4:27 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

It depends on what type of grad school you want to got to! I'm pretty sure that my grad school (bio-sciences) prefers people with a few years of experience over fresh graduates. Some schools (especially those that are going to pay for your tuition) will begin to discriminate by age once you visually start to look 40ish - it's not fair, but they're thinking about your career longevity. I would definitely recommend getting a job first, connections in business are easier to get when you are at the BA/BS level than the PhD - there's simply less jobs available at the top. Plus it will give you more time to think about what sort of advanced degree will actually fit you the best - you listed 4 majors without specifying which one you want to study more, or what you would need a PhD for.
posted by fermezporte at 4:28 AM on April 22, 2010

Perhaps half of all econ PhD students will have some work experience when starting, but it's often about 2 years of working for an economics consulting firm as a data monkey. Five years out, and in your mid-thirties, you'll definitely be more of a non-traditional student, and the risk is less your grades expiring so much as the admissions committee presuming that you're just bored with your job and want to try something different for a while. This also means you'd be looking for a PhD-level job at 40 or later; this isn't disastrous, but, again, your competitors for the same jobs will be 27-30 or so, it's not a great signal that they knew what they wanted to do right from the beginning where as you had to wander for 10 years. If your goal in life is to be an econ/finance PhD and maximize your potential in that field as well as your present value of lifetime earnings, you should go as soon as possible.

That said, can't say you sound that enthusiastic, and I wonder why you think this is a good idea if you're disillusioned and bored of academia. The attrition rate for rigorous econ/finance PhD programs is very high (like 50% or more), and most of this is self selection. Why do you want to invest 5 years of your life in something you're bored of already, and has an uncertain outcome?
posted by deadweightloss at 4:37 AM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

BTW, my source on the above is that I'm an econ professor in the US.
posted by deadweightloss at 4:39 AM on April 22, 2010

Plus, having some savings put away would be a good cushion for living on a PhD student's salary (not to mention the fact that my partner and I are going to be pushing thirty soon, and, you know....)

I think these are great reasons to wait.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:48 AM on April 22, 2010

Definitely wait. Sounds like you need to recharge your batteries a little.
posted by grouse at 5:04 AM on April 22, 2010

Just as a minor dissent: in some fields (I'm thinking physics, mathematics, and to a lesser extent chemistry) it's rather uncommon to do more than a year or two of work between undergraduate and graduate school; most people go straight from their undergraduate degree to a graduate program. This may be because of the relative lack of jobs that are actually in these fields that require a bachelor's degree only. Fields do differ, of course, so I would listen to deadweightloss's comments above.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:11 AM on April 22, 2010

Just a thought on the financial issues: you're used to being a broke student. If you have money for a few years, it might be hard to go back to being a broke student again.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:19 AM on April 22, 2010

Just anecdotally, the only drawback about being older that I've seen is that it seems like it's much more difficult for people who are older and have had established careers to go to working much longer hours for a third of the pay. Add that to kids, &c., and I've seen a lot of people decide that the PhD was not for them.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:13 AM on April 22, 2010

In my own PhD program (a smallish Philosophy program), I'm very much in the minority as a straight-to-PhD student. I went straight from undergrad to this program, and can think of only one other person whom I know to have done so. The vast majority of folks spent some time post-undergrad or post-Masters doing something else.
posted by Rallon at 6:32 AM on April 22, 2010

I actually took 5 years off of my math PhD (I was ABD in functional analysis and came back to do Graph Theory). My wife and I wanted to have kids and grad school makes it tough to have insurance and, you know, groceries. I taught at a couple small liberal arts colleges, learned how to be a pretty good teacher, and though the job market for new PhDs this year was rough for others it was very kind to me. Even if my CV wasn't full of research (I'd say I'm not as good a mathematician as I would have been had I continued without a break) it was full of experience at the same type of job I was looking for.

Sure, it was tough to get back into the swing of things. Inertia is really valuable in academics. It was totally worth it, though, and I found my groove eventually. I'm also making it out in only 3 years since my return since I have an improved focus and I realize every day that I have people at home who depend on me. Besides, having a little grey looks good on us book-learnin' types.
posted by monkeymadness at 6:50 AM on April 22, 2010

One or two years of work is more common than 5, I think. However, a related piece of advice: If you decide to wait, be sure to keep in touch with your profs during that time and give them the heads up now that you'll go to grad school after a few years working and will be coming around for letters then. Also, if you're going to be applying to programs requiring the GRE do it ASAP. Now if that will work or in a year if doing it now would mean having exired scores when you apply. You'll do better while your brain is still in student mode.

Speaking of your profs, this is a question you should be asking them.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:02 AM on April 22, 2010

In my experience, applicants who have real world experience, but have kept their hands in their area of interest, are more attractive than those who have not. Granted, my experience has been with applicants in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts, so perhaps it would be different for economics. In my mind though, some real world experience would add a depth to your analysis that you just can't get in a classroom. Two-five years isn't really that much time to take off, especially if you're working in your chosen field. Just keep current and maybe take a class here or there to bolster your scholarly side. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 7:55 AM on April 22, 2010

I was accepted to a good graduate program in physics 11 years after finishing my BS in electrical engineering. But I took some senior-level physics courses before applying, and I think that helped.
I was 33 years old, and remember hearing another first-year student saying "I sure hope I get this done in 5 years, 'cause I sure don't want to be doing this when I'm 30." Shifting from 2 incomes to 1.5 was no fun, but not the worst part: For me was juggling family life with studying.
posted by Killick at 7:58 AM on April 22, 2010

If you think you might not want to start your PhD right now, you should NOT do it. (A strong opinion of mine, obviously.) Even people who are really, really into academia think about quitting their PhD programs all the time. If you have the ability to get a job that you don't hate, I would suggest going that route first. You may find that you a) don't need a PhD at all or b) can work for someone who will pay for it.
posted by nosila at 10:32 AM on April 22, 2010

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