Should I suck it up or cut my losses?
May 14, 2010 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Is it worth it to finish my Master's degree?

I've completed all my coursework, and have been completed since December of 2009. I was set to defend my thesis in January, but about two weeks away from the date my advisor felt like I was missing a certain level of understanding and/or effort required (her words) and asked me to postpone. A series of difficult life events was really at the crux here (namely a high stress child custody case and related fallout), and I ended up asking her for a break until June when things would be calmed down. Now June is looming.

Originally, I had joined this MS program in experimental psych with the intention of gaining the research experience necessary to apply for PhD programs. I was dead set on continuing on as a developmental researcher, looking for a job as a professor at a teaching university. After 2.5 years of practice in the world of academia, I realized that it is not a good fit for me and I don't want the lifestyle that accompanies life as an academic. Even knowing this, I've had every intention of completing my degree, because who wants to be the asshole who gets thisclose to finishing and then doesn't?

In the meantime, I found a job that's a great fit in a career path that I wish I had pursued instead of jumping back into school just because I hadn't found a job within 6 months of graduating (I think there are a LOT of people in this boat). I'm totally interested in project management, have been promoted 3 times in the last 6 months and really feel like this is a career that makes sense for me. Nowhere in there does a degree in developmental psychology make sense.

In order to finish at this point, I'm going to have to fork over around $1000 to be registered for enough credits to defend and graduate, get all of my university passwords and such reactivated, re-do all of my analyses since that my advisor has continued to run our joint study in my absence, jump back into the weekly meetings and life that I haven't been a part of for the last 6 months, and essentially re-do my entire thesis which I just can't seem to give a rip about anymore. Now that I'm so far removed from the strange little world of academia, it seems so transparent and pointless to me, whereas I love my job and love that every day I feel like i have a purpose.

So...why go through all the pain? Is there any point to finishing my degree other than saying I finished at this point? I have 5 years to finish, should I wait to see if I come back around?

(Anonymous to keep details separate from my sn. Throwaway email at
posted by anonymous to Education (16 answers total)
In some organizations, you can only get promoted so far without an advanced degree. That said, I don't see any reason to finish it immediately instead of a few years from now, before your deadline is up if you're already at the point where it's going to be a lot of extra work to finish.
posted by booknerd at 3:29 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would torch it. I know of others who have done so, without regret. It's a shame to give up when you're so close, but I just don't see any upside to continuing. I know people who have toughed it out, and completed in similarly difficult circumstances. But in those cases the person really wanted to finish, and enjoyed the academic life, which doesn't seem to be the case with you.
posted by No Robots at 3:40 PM on May 14, 2010

Based on your description, it doesn't sound like it's worth a thousand dollars to finish the degree. I would try to ignore the sunk costs you've already invested in the degree and focus on the job you love. Forget the master's. Enjoy the awesome job!
posted by eisenkr at 3:41 PM on May 14, 2010

It's worth the $1000 for sure. Is it worth the time and effort that it will require? Yeah, probably, but that's more of a call that you're going to have to make.
posted by The World Famous at 3:48 PM on May 14, 2010

I've never once -- ever, in my whole life, not once -- regretted investing time, money, or effort in myself.

posted by ChasFile at 3:56 PM on May 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

I was in a similar position once - I was halfway through my MS program (part of a combined MS/PhD program in fact - so I, too, had intended to get my doctorate), and out of curiosity began applying for jobs. I got offers. They were tempting. I thought of quitting graduate school outright, without finishing my degree, since like you, I realized that academia was not my thing and that outside of very select fields (i.e., sciences), I'd have perfectly reasonable job prospects without a doctorate.

For a number of reasons (mostly personal, none professional) I ended up staying long enough to finish my M.S. Yes, it sucked at times - it felt like I was treading water rather than charging forward, and at 22, I wanted very much just to charge forward.

But several years out, I'm very, very glad that I got that degree. In hindsight, an extra year (plus a year of forgone salary) was an acceptable cost for actually finishing. I left on reasonably good terms with my research advisor, who has been a professional reference for me and really, a great mentor when needed - remember you still have a relationship with your advisor, and she can still provide useful input outside of an academic context. Once I did actually get out into the Real World (TM), I found that my M.S. still gave me a leg up on things, especially when things went reaaally south and I decided to find a new job (I'm an engineer, and I practice in the fields I majored in though, so YMMV).

I know you're already out there working, but you'll never know what will happen, and $1000 + effort seems like a small price to pay for actually finishing and having that degree (no matter how useless you think it'll be now - I thought mine would be useless and it turned out to be exactly the opposite). Also, as someone who has quit things, I'll say that quitting something now makes you much more prone to quitting things later - I have to work twice as hard as I did before to quash my desire to give up when the going gets tough. That also sucks, and I hate that the thought of quitting crosses my mind so much more easily now.

In short: My opinion is that quitting now because it'll suck for a couple years and will cost you $1000 is short-sighted. But only you know what's right for you.
posted by universal_qlc at 4:58 PM on May 14, 2010

It is beyond question that it's worth it. I had to resist typing that in capital letters.

Put aside every other value received from a degree and you still have one thing: a degree - particularly a masters or phd - is a certificate that shows you were capable of setting a multiple-year goal, putting in the effort, working within the structure and satisfying the requirements.

That matters to employers, even if the degree isn't immediately applicable to the job's subject matter. To discard that value over $1000, particularly after you invested over two years towards it, would be madness.
posted by phearlez at 5:09 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

a thousand dollars is nothing--nothing--compared to what that degree might mean to you financially down the road. even if you're working in a completely different field.
posted by msconduct at 5:32 PM on May 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

Don't forget the poster also said:

re-do all of my analyses since that my advisor has continued to run our joint study in my absence, jump back into the weekly meetings and life that I haven't been a part of for the last 6 months, and essentially re-do my entire thesis which I just can't seem to give a rip about anymore.

I agree that the degree is worth the money. If you can suck it up and do the work and get it done quickly, I'd do it. But if you're going to end up dragging it out, it's going to suck royally. The best thesis is a done thesis. I'd suggest sucking it up and just barreling through to get it done, because yes, that is a huge thing that sets you apart from the word go, for life.

Your new job is great, seems like something that is really making you happy. A year from now though, you never know what could be happening with the company. The longer you wait to finish, the harder and harder it gets to finish.
posted by cashman at 6:03 PM on May 14, 2010

I had a baby when I was at the point you are. Nine years ago. I had been thinking of going on for a Ph.D, but it quickly became clear I wasn't going to do that. I still thought I'd finish my thesis and get the M.A., just to do it and not to have that feeling of it being unfinished hanging around. It was a great relief to me a couple of years later to admit I wasn't going to finish it. In your situation, I'd wait. Things may get clearer to you in another year or two.
posted by not that girl at 6:24 PM on May 14, 2010

As others have pointed out, $1000 is not too much money. I don't think you lose much by making the attempt to finish your degree. Even if you do stay in project management as a career I think it will still help in the long term. In 10-15 years, having an extra one or two years of experience isn't going to be as much of an advantage as having an MA. If you are competing for a job against someone else with similar experience, having an MA would help you stand out and signal to employers that you are capable, competent, and accomplished enough to meet a difficult goal.

Of course, if you do realize that you really don't think you will be able to finish despite your best efforts, then cutting your losses is probably the better decision. Don't throw good money after bad, as they say.

But overall, I think you should just try to suck it up and finish. You will also have the personal satisfaction of accomplishing something that is pretty difficult (if you care about that type of thing). Good luck!
posted by w84rav at 8:35 PM on May 14, 2010

If you've got five years to finish, then by all means, don't force yourself to do something now if your heart's not really in it. I don't think that waiting always makes things more difficult; sometimes a bit of time/distance/clarity can actually lead to renewed enthusiasm and a new perspective, which can be invaluable.

And although I don't know what kind of project management you're doing, I can say that having done print/web/software/misc interactive project managing for ~15 years, no one cares if you have an MA or not; what they care about is: Can you get shit done? Period.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 9:41 PM on May 14, 2010

if this economy teaches us anything, that great job you start today could very well turn out be unemployment 6 months from now, or a year, etc. when and if you find yourself pounding the pavement "almost a master's degree" won't be worth squat. the longer you wait the harder it will be to finish.

when i was 18 i worked for the water company, literally, digging ditches. one of the guys i worked with had been in a similar situation to yours, his was a sick mother i think, he took some time off to help out and earn some decent money. twenty years later he's still in a hole with a shovel and a bad back, closing on 50 talking about how he'll get around to finishing sometime...
posted by swbarrett at 7:30 AM on May 15, 2010

Here's an okay infographic. Doesn't have graduate degrees, but.
posted by cashman at 8:06 AM on May 15, 2010

If you are at the point where you have a thesis that's somewhat workable and only need to finish it up, I would say go ahead and do so. I'm in an experimental field of psych too, and one of the benefits of our theses is that they don't tend to drag on and on abstractly as in some fields. If you've done the research, that's a large part of it. I realize that you don't plan to go into teaching, but having that MS would allow you to teach if you felt like it (at the CC level, or sometimes even beyond if you're in the right place at the right time). It would also be useful if you wanted to do consulting work, just to have the degree behind you.

One thing you might want to do is go to your advisor and tell her that you've found what you really want to do. You do not plan on going on to further graduate work, and you would like to know the basic steps that you could take in order to put this degree behind you asap. See what she says -- you might be surprised at how little you need to get past the "passed" hurdle.
posted by bizzyb at 7:57 PM on May 15, 2010

I speak from somewhat similar experience, although I'm still interested in pursuing academia. Started a Masters degree in 2003. Coursework got interrupted multiple times at the point where I had one quarter of courses, plus my thesis, left. But I don't teach in the subject I got a degree for, so I am familiar with changing paths, too.

Life can sometimes throw things at you that take precedence over academics. That's all fine. But...

Someone said to me around the time that I graduated from college: "the decisions that we make out of weakness are the ones we regret in the long-term. I've found that to be incredibly helpful advice to check myself against over the past ten years.

It sounds to me like throwing in the towel would be a "man, I cannot be bothered to deal with this anymore" decision. In your shoes, I would feel pretty lousy about myself if I left it unfinished, even though I now wanted to do other things. And even twenty years later, there would be the "I wish I had followed through" regrets nagging at me.

So my guess is that you are much less likely to regret completing it. You might not regret leaving it unfinished, but you're more likely to. So suck it up and get it finished. But obviously, I don't know you, you are not me, etc., etc.

As bizzyb says, you might be surprised at how helpful your advisor can be once she knows that you just want to finish and get out of academia.

Good luck.
posted by bardophile at 12:49 AM on May 16, 2010

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