Good idea? Huge mistake?
April 6, 2012 9:22 AM   Subscribe

I've been accepted to a PHD program at the University of Maryland's iSchool, and will likely be researching social media and social gaming for my dissertation. I'm excited, love the program, and can't wait to start publishing work as part of the academic community, however recent discussion on Metafilter, and a smaller living stipend than I expected, have me second guessing what I thought was a great opportunity. Details inside...

I like the academic world, and I would love to work in a tenure track position, but it seems that these positions are becoming increasingly scarce, and the process of obtaining them is becoming more and more financially perilous. My main question is will experience writing a dissertation and conducting original research be good resume material for work conducting research outside of academia? I'm pursuing the PHD because I'm genuinely interested in the field, but I want to be economically viable to pay off my modest student loan debt after I graduate.

Since I have experience getting my MLS in the same program, I know that it's very collaborative, and that I'll likely have opportunities to work on a wide variety of projects, but I'm also worried that employers will take one look at my resume (a lot of part-time jobs, a lot of school, not a whole lot of full-time work) and immediately bin it.

My secondary question perhaps isn't answerable, but if you're in academia full-time do you think that the relatively small stipend as part of a GA-ship I'm currently getting will be increased with more time in the program? I've talked to my adviser about this, and he's said that most students get hired as part of grant-funded projects, but it's clear that he doesn't want to over-promise and under-deliver (can't say that I blame him). As it stands now I'll probably have to take out some small loans next year to cover cost of living (as well as working part-time on the weekends in addition to my course-work and GAship duties), and I definitely want to try to keep my loan debt where it is, if not shrink it with small payments. This is especially relevant in light of the government no longer offering subsidized loans.

I know that this has been asked somewhat recently and frequently in the past, but those seem mostly focused on the humanities and hard sciences. I feel that the social sciences (or whatever hybrid Information Studies qualifies as) is slightly different, especially since I'll be gaining hard skills in conducting research. However this is just a gut feeling at the moment, so I wanted to query the hive mind to get other perspectives on it.

You are not my personal life coach, but if you have similar experience maybe you can help me figure out if I'm making a mistake, or taking a sensible risk.

I'm terms of practical details: I'm fully funded, I'll be living in Maryland, and no other debt outside of a little bit of CC and my existing student loans from my MLS, I would be fine with either teaching or researching after I finish my dissertation but want to be sure that there is actually an option and not just a railroad.
posted by codacorolla to Education (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
will experience writing a dissertation and conducting original research be good resume material for work conducting research outside of academia?

Yes. Your dissertation is your professional "calling card." It means you're an expert in your field. It means when you show up for an interview, you sell yourself on your expertise in that area.

If you can't imagine a job that would be interested in what you worked on, then, obviously, you might have a problem, though even then, many consulting companies hire people on the basis of your ability to do research, not the specific research you did.

I think your risk is sensible, but you really do need to figure out a way to organize your life and expenses around your stipend rather than taking out loans and doing part time work.
posted by deanc at 9:33 AM on April 6, 2012

I'll echo deanc's comments. As someone who has hired in professional services and consulting, I'd tell you that the training you get as part of your PhD program prepare you not only do to that work in an academic setting, but to do that similar work most anywhere else.

Remember that the people who tell you that your PhD work is irrelevant outside the academy typically have a vested interest in making sure you don't think about leaving the academy.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:37 AM on April 6, 2012

Best answer: I am an assistant professor in a field related to Information Schools and I know people in iSchools, from iSchools, working at iSchools, so that colors my impression.

- "Fully funded" -- what does that mean? Does that mean that you can live, YEAR ROUND, without taking on any loan debt? That's the best thing. (I was in a very expensive place and most grads had to take out loans to get by in the summer and/or for emergency car repair.) You need to talk to current students and/or anyone at UMD to really determine if this is possible. (Looks like you already live in CP, so you know how much it costs to live.)

And it sounds like you think that you'll have to take out some loans and with the new loan policy this will be tough.

You will not have time to work on the weekends. Having additionally employment is looked down upon by most grad programs and in some, in the handbook, you're prohibited from having additional employment. In the summer this is usually not as much of a problem, but still discouraged. And why is this? Because weekends are for working.

- Grad stipend increase? Doubt it. There was 1 increase in 10 years at my U.

- Similarly, it is also a purely economic thing -- if you're currently making $X, putting $Y into retirement, this will be 4-7 years of no longer putting money into retirement, and then you'll graduate and get a job that pays $Z. And it is entirely possible that $X > $Z and than in the meantime you would have increased your salary from $X to $X + raises/whatever. You're also cutting into the years that you're contributing to retirement.

- In terms of this being a good idea -- is the UMD iSchool the absolutely best place on the planet for you to study the phenomenon that you want to study? Is there someone there that is going to be the bestest advisor for you ever?

- What's your outcome? What's UMD iSchool's and your potential advisor's placement rate for students going to TT positions and industry jobs? You need to know this and be comfortable with it.

I'm strongly in the PhD = waste of time for anything other than going into TT positions. I briefly flirted with working in government and I learned that my great research skills were not really respected or appreciated.

If all you want is the "skills" - you can take those classes on your own time or even get a *gasp* MA. You don't need a PhD for that.

- And WRT to iSchools... this is a newish field. iSchools aren't a "discipline" per se -- some iSchools are super computer science-y, some are super social science-y... it really varies. Also a lot of other fields do similar work - Communication, Computer Science, HCI, Education, Psych, Sociology, Business Schools... so for any potential TT position or postdoc that you're going for, you're going to be competing with all of those people too. And even iSchools themselves hire TT faculty from these other disciplines still.

- Salaries for social science TT faculty really vary. If you kick major ass and run into some luck, you can possibly get a TT position that pays $75k+ a year. Some people kick major ass and are a little lucky and get a job for $55k-65k. Many others are making in the 40s. AND THIS IS IF YOU ACTUALLY GET A TT JOB AND NOT AN ADJUNCT POSITION OR NOTHING.

I am one of the very lucky that got a good TT job - but I busted my ass for years to make this happen. I have no personal/social life/free time. I work all the time to get publications out. I have gone to every conference and networked my ass off. I had/have a very good relationship with my famous advisor who did a lot to promote me over the last few years. All of this has come at a cost.

And while I am happy(ish) with where I am at, I'm not entirely sure that the me of ~7 years ago made the best financial, personal, and emotional decision going into this. It was certainly a very poor financial decision to say the least.

Moreover, I am quite sure that my spouse and child would say that it was not a good decision.
posted by k8t at 9:40 AM on April 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

And the Professor is In is always very helpful.
posted by k8t at 9:44 AM on April 6, 2012

I do think that social sciences PhDs get skills and experience relevant to jobs outside of academia - if you take a qualitative approach, you gain skills in interviewing and qualitative analysis, and if you take a quantitative approach you'll gain skills in statistical analysis, survey design, social network analysis, etc., depending on the approach taken.

Regarding stipends, that is very school and department-driven. So just because University X increases stipends some small amount every year does not mean this will be the case at your university. You should talk to current Ph.D. students to get a sense of how they're coping money-wise. Personally I would be leery of taking on part-time work in addition to the GAship and coursework.

If you are still feeling uncertain about pursuing this particular Ph.D., some questions to ask: What are the placement statistics like for PhD's from your program? That is, what percentage go on to academia and what percentage go on to non-academic jobs? What kinds of companies are people ending up at? What percentage are unaccounted for employment-wise?
posted by research monkey at 9:45 AM on April 6, 2012

Are you open to working outside of the United States? The topics mentioned in the link you've shared are a nascent yet growing field in many rapidly developing nations seeking to leapfrog their way up the ladder of social and economic development via the ICT4D path. I know of many who have leveraged their thesis work into significantly visible research positions in places you wouldn't normally think of. Here is one example.
posted by infini at 10:09 AM on April 6, 2012

I have an iSchool degree (Masters), am married to someone with an iSchool degree, and worked for a startup founded by someone with an iSchool PhD. (Well, I still work for her, we were acquired. Yay!)

I can't speak to the TT odds, listen to other folks for that. I'll speak for the PhD-to-industry track. I can say that for those folks I know who did the PhD from an iSchool and then went into industry ... generally they did very, very well, but it is a huge gamble in terms of the time spent/money thing.

(Industry, here, BTW, means the tech industry, broadly defined, including gummint and nonprofit versions of same.)

One of your original questions was "will experience writing a dissertation and conducting original research be good resume material for work conducting research outside of academia?" and that's ... not quite the right question, really. (The answer to that question is "Sure, but a Masters will get you 80% of the way there with much less pain.") The better question is "Will my research be directly interesting to industry when I get out?" And that depends on your research.

Best-case scenarios can lead to careers like Danah Boyd's. But her research is directly interesting to folks like Microsoft and Google. Is yours? If it is, are you willing to make the shift into industry (even if it's research in industry) with the differences in culture, ethics, and goals that that entails?
posted by feckless at 10:12 AM on April 6, 2012

Best answer: Hi, I was formerly in a Social Science Phd program - I left with my MA and now work outside of academia. Few things:
- Yes, the skills I developed/strengthened in graduate school helped me get jobs outside of academia, both qualititative and quantitative. In my current position I come across people all the time who have a PhD in xx but work outside of academia doing yy. Of course, it works best if the two can be somehow related.

Side note: having an MA from a top school held me back initially because a)I had not yet figured out how to demonstrate their utility in some of my job interviews and b)it did intimidate some people. However, both of those were overcome by my learning to sell myself, and developing some additional skills which were more generic and therefore more marketable.

- I was fully funded for five years - so stipend and tuition (and health insurance) - and I wa lucky enough that my stipend covered all of my living expenses and I didn't have to take out any loans. T the way our packages were set up was that after the first couple of years, GA-ships were mandatory and your stipend was your GA paycheck. We were guaranteed, though, x amount of dollars annually if you were part of a funding package. Our stipends increased every year I was there, but not by much, about 500 dollars at a time. This varies depending on the school. I was not at your intended school. It's worthy to note, perhaps, that GA-ships outside of funding packages did not increase. Ever. We did have grants, internally and externally, that we could compete for.

- Of the people I know who have PhDs from this top school, only one is working in academia and he is not tenure track. It took him 10 years to complete the PhD because the school makes you pay a fee to continue being a student there, which is almost the same amount as the current GA stipend -- he had to work outside the field part-time. For the rest, they are not doing purely research-oriented jobs. They are also making about the same amount of money as those of us who have only the MA.

- As to whether a PhD is a good idea or not, think carefully about what I call "The Three Fs" - funding, fit, future. And then think again. And ask some people, someone whose career you admire, someone you respect, and someone who knows you better than your prospective advisor. One of the programs I turned down was at a top 10 school for my discipline, but the program itself was interdiscplinary, had no TT placements as of yet, and it seemed like too big of a risk. It was also the least attractive funding package. I sometimes still regret turning it down because it was the best fit - kind of a case of "what might have been" on my part, although I am relatively okay with where I've ended up so far. The program I chose was ranked much higher, had the second best funding, the second best fit, and the best future. It was a miserable experience.

That was all very long, I hope it was a little helpful. And made sense.
posted by sm1tten at 10:17 AM on April 6, 2012

I can't speak to what will happen after you graduate, but...

FWIW I went to grad school at UMD and had an assistantship. Depending on your contract/department you can sometimes work up to full-time. I worked full time during the summer and any school breaks. There were actually several other GAs from the iSchool in the department where I worked (it wasn't my program's department)

I think that would be the only option though because I heard a lot about how university salaries have been frozen for a couple of years so I would assume that GA stipends are included in that.
posted by fromageball at 10:17 AM on April 6, 2012

To add about PhD skills translating...

My pals and I are exceptionally well trained in methods. They know survey methods and sophisticated analytical skills. We all come from schools with great reputations. We have CVs miles long.

My non-academic government job? I was working with people with BAs and some MAs doing the same stuff, although I was capable of doing much more. We were all paid the same.

My pals trying to get jobs at survey firms - private or government? Those firms will take people without a PhD to do the same thing without a question. (Look at Pew Internet, for example, very few of the people working there have PhDs although certainly people with PhDs would love working there.)

If you have a topic that is "hot" enough to get consulting work, that can work for you (I happen to fall into this category)... but you don't need the PhD to get those consulting gigs. You just need to be networked.

And like I said before, if this goal is methods training, you can just take the classes without doing the PhD.

For every danah boyd, there are thousands of people that don't have that kind of profile or life. Moreover, if the goal is to be a public intellectual, you don't need a PhD to do that.
posted by k8t at 10:30 AM on April 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Try to think like a scientist, and map out the population. The probability of any particular outcome for your degree will probably be close to the average outcome for people that go through that program. If only 20% of graduates wind up in research careers, or if 80% of them do, then you probably have your answer as to whether this degree will give you the career you want. See if you can get any information about where people have ended up, and look for patterns.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:48 PM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi - I'm a PhD student at the iSchool at UT Austin.

Congratulations on getting into the UMCP program. Word among the people I talk to about IS as a discipline (and yeah, I'm totally going to call it a discipline) is that it is a dynamic and growing program.

I can't speak to your first question directly since I'm still in school. But a couple of my fellow PhD students who are graduating this year have done well interviewing at places like Microsoft for post-doc fellowships. It does happen; it depends on your area, etc.

As for your second question, probably not. I am on a "fully funded" fellowship that has stayed at the same level, stipend-wise over 3 years. There may be small increases, but probably not.

Ask me again in a couple years when I'm on the job market, but I don't regret my time in this program, and don't think I will, even if landing a TT job winds up being a struggle. I'm sure, though, my metrics are quite different (I'm older, married with young kids (flexible academic schedule FTW) and have many years of full-time work with my MLS already on my CV). Getting educated with no debt seemed like a good bargain for me. Adding debt certainly changes the equation, but you will be getting an amazing education. Maybe it's my blue-collar background, but the fact that I've gotten other people to pay for my graduate education just blows me away every time I think about. Yay, learnin'!

Good luck -- and feel free to mail me if I you want to chat!
posted by pantarei70 at 12:07 PM on April 8, 2012

You've probably made your decision by now, but here's some more data to consider, from some colleagues from my Ph.D. program:

hiring and placement in the iSchools

The data on graduate placement and faculty hiring is from 2004 to 2010. UMCP is not in the list of schools that placed graduates in another iSchool.
posted by research monkey at 7:45 PM on May 24, 2012

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