Snakes on a plane
November 12, 2005 6:02 PM   Subscribe

PhD filter: did you find your experience worth the time invested? Did it bother you that it took until your late twenties/early thirties only to complete your education?
posted by Krrrlson to Education (34 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm commenting as a wife of a grad student. My husband is completing his PhD in a hard science - which means he has been paid as a research assistant for the 5 years (7 if you count the Masters) he's been in grad school. Life as a grad student is pretty good. Flexible hours and relaxed working conditions are hard to find in the real world. I'm afraid that when he finally gets a "real" job he'll feel like cutting his throat.

My husband is now in his late thirties and we've been able to have a pretty nice lifestyle over the past several years. Occasionally he misses the money he could have made in the work world over the past 5 years, but I'd never trade the extra time and fun we've had for money.
posted by TorontoSandy at 6:15 PM on November 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

I finished mine 4 years ago, and I haven't even started my education yet.

It took me a week under 4 years. While I was doing it I thought I was wasting my time, and now, having been unemployed for so long, I still feel that I was wasting my time. In many ways, it was a total waste of time. My research was ultimately pointless, I have no tangible skills to show for it, I forgot most things I learned during my first degree, I lost a lot of self-confidence and self-belief, suffered a lot of stress, and I'm now penniless and have very little vocational experience.

But that's not to say I regret doing it. For a start, I do get a sense of achievement to think that I stuck it through to the end. It would have been an even greater waste of time if I'd have quit. I met some wonderful people (including the present day Mrs. nylon), and I got to do other extra-curricular things that wouldn't or couldn't have happened otherwise. I've never been one to worry about what could have happened in life, only what has happened, or what might happen in future. So I honestly don't know whether the experience was actually worth the time invested or not, but I do know that I had an experience and I invested some time, and I don't regret it. Knowing that something wasn't worth the effort and not regretting aren't necessarily exclusive.
posted by nylon at 6:53 PM on November 12, 2005

nylon: where are you and what was your research on?
posted by Quartermass at 7:02 PM on November 12, 2005

I worked for a couple of years after my BS, then went back to school full-time for graduate degrees. Even working as a TA/RA, the move cost me about $150k in accumulated salary. When I went back to work, I found that the advanced degrees were only worth about $5k/year over my BS once I adjusted for the inflation in salaries for the time I was in school. So I will have to work about 30 years to make up the difference financially.

OTOH, I greatly enjoyed grad school and the environment there, not finding anything to match it since. I found it worthwhile.

BTW, isn't there a MeFi member who got a PhD in physics at 19? I remember reading that a while back.
posted by forrest at 7:10 PM on November 12, 2005

Worth it in money? No way. Not a rational investment at all.

Worth it overall? Yep. The lifestyle bonuses of being an academic are gigantonormous.

Don't do it unless you really want to enter academia... or -- I see you're an engineer now -- unless you're going to be guaranteed a big fuckin' raise if you do. If you want to be in academia, either go to a truly excellent program for what you want to do, or do not go at all.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:43 PM on November 12, 2005

Absolutely! Grad school was an intellectual adventure, and being a professor is an insanely great job. I was in my early 30s in grad school and that was awesome too--having a few extra years made me less neurotic and better able to enjoy the experience.

But but but--I got a job at the end. In my field (history), not everyone does. And if I had been less lucky, my attitude might be very different.

Krrrlson, what field of study are you contemplating?
posted by LarryC at 8:18 PM on November 12, 2005

Did you find your experience worth the time invested?

In a strictly monetary sense? No. In the same amount of time, and exerting the same amount of effort and brainpower, I could have gone through law school and been 2-3 years into a well-paying job; or I could have gotten an MBA and be pulling down lots of money now. A PhD is one of the worst investments that you can make in monetary terms: depending upon the field, it guarantees you a future in a profession that is hugely undervalued by the rest of society, and that undervalues your skills immensely.

Did it bother you that it took until your late twenties/early thirties only to complete your education?

Yes. While my friends and peers were well into their careers, earning good salaries, buying houses, and starting families, I was still living a student's life: renting crappy apartments, trying to make ends meet on nothing at all, never knowing where I might be living the next year or two. And, most of all, still a student. While others my own age had real responsibilities and were in charge of people and projects, I was still a neophyte, someone who depended upon others for his livelihood and assessments of his self-worth. It sucked.

I'm a college professor now - good job, pretty good school, good enough life. Was it all worth it? Sure, I can say that it was because it turned out well for me. But I'm lucky. And I can tell you this: it really, really, really sucks to be at a dinner party with people your own age who are living adult lives, with families, responsibilities, real salaries, etc. and you are still a student worrying about grades and what your advisor is going to think about your latest chapter draft.

Does this mean that graduate school and getting a PhD isn't worth it? No. Does this mean that all graduate students have the same experience as I did? No. But you asked whether the experience itself was worth it, and from where I stand, four years out, I would have to say: No, not in the least.

As RUO said, if you are dead set on being an academic, then of course it is worth it. But there is nothing intrinsic to the grad school experience that makes it worth it.
posted by googly at 8:26 PM on November 12, 2005

I knew way too many people who went on to a PhD program because they didn't know what else to do. For those people, it really doesn't end up worthwhile (many dropped out, those that finished the degree typically ended up doing something unrelated to their field).

I do have to disagree with ROU_Xenophobe, there are plenty of rewarding non-academic jobs that one can get with a PhD. I did some teaching and a post-doc after my degree and enjoyed the lifestyle very much. For the last couple of years I've been doing very applied work for the government, and despite the 9-5 hours and bureaucracy, I am very fulfilled. I get paid to conduct really interesting research -- stuff I wouldn't be able to do in the academic world, plus I have job security without having to get tenure, no worries about funding, and the ability to see my work having a very real contribution in the world.

ROU_Xenophobe is right that the value of a PhD is typically not financial but the lifestyle and professional possibilities.

And yes, in response to your question, it does suck to be financially retarded. I am essentially 5-7 years behind my non-PhD friends and family in terms of finances and related grown-up activities. I'll start a family and buy a house in my mid-30s, and I only own one suit. I had friends in grad school who were having kids in their mid 20s, who owned houses, who had IRAs etc., but we thought they were weird.

However, I learned a while ago that I don't enjoy working in the "real world," doing the types of non-research activities that I'm suited for. All in all, I'd have to say that I found the PhD worth it.

(on preview, what googly said)
posted by i love cheese at 8:32 PM on November 12, 2005

Response by poster: I would be studying electrical engineering, possibly with a biomedical lean. I enjoy my work, and I do see myself in an academic (or at least heavily research-dominated) environment as a final goal.

My concerns stem from the fact that I tend to see a degree as a means to an end - something you are stuck with doing until "real life" begins. At what could be five years or more, however, a commitment to a PhD is more like a way of life in itself. And so, I just wanted to hear some perspectives from people who have been through it before. (On preview, googly captures the attitude nicely.)

As for snakes on a plane - I was too lazy to think of a decent title, so, uh... snakes on a plane.
posted by Krrrlson at 8:41 PM on November 12, 2005

As someone going through the grad school process, it's evident that this isn't necessarily about producing something (publications, a thesis), nor about the degree or any possible gain in earning power, but rather about the educational process.

But it is a sink-or-swim learning experience, often unstructured, that contrasts sharply with the "complete this assignment" and "write this essay" modality of education many receive in college.

Intellectually, it teaches one to manage time, projects, and deadlines, to find interesting ideas, assess them, discuss them with colleagues, and go after them, to independently solve problems, to communicate accurately and persuasively with one's peers and funding agencies, to understand the pace and expectations in scientific collaborations -- in a word, grad school is a process of metamorphosis from the passive learner in college to becoming an active contributing member of a scientific community. This is an important process, although for landing a good postdoc, a string of Nature, Science, and Cell papers never hurt.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 10:20 PM on November 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

Your education will never be complete, no matter what paper credentials you get. You might consider valuing a graduate education for learning how to learn, not for the end product.
posted by Rothko at 11:32 PM on November 12, 2005

My PhD got me a career* in research, which is extremely congenial to my mode of thought; but if you want raw advancement and thumping cost/benefit ratios, I'd probably look elsewhere. It's really for academic types, and as you know requires a hefty investment in time and foregone opportunities. I did it because I wanted to; I've found it's led to some unexpected opportunities, but yeah, the yards is hards.

*sort of
posted by Wolof at 2:20 AM on November 13, 2005

does it bother me that it took so long? - no, it was pretty interesting/fun.

would i do it again? - perhaps not, or at least not in the same subject. being a postdoc is not the same (much more cut-throat, huge emphasis on publishing) and my phd (astronomy) had little use outside academia.

it sounds as though you think there's something better you could be doing (getting rich?). if that's the case you may be right; i never felt there was anything important i should be doing otherwsie.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:31 AM on November 13, 2005

I live in comparative squalor to my friends who chose careers rather than PhDs but it is such a happy squalor! It’s hard work but glorious hard work. The worst parts of the job are more than balanced by working in a community of creative and inspiring people and I wouldn’t trade any of it for more pay.

I would consider your own situation as well. Depending on what you do things will change. If you are someone working in a line with similarly flexible work hours than things should work out fine but the freedom of student life will evaporate very quickly once he has the full time job.

Students tend to think we just teach a couple hours a week and while you get more perspective as a grad student I now laugh at what a presumptuous demanding little brat I was still. You may know all of this but I was surprised by how much we do when we are employed full time --research, teaching and all the various committees and planning work as we tend to run our own workplaces. I had completely overlooked that amount of time that goes into reading and responding to grad student's writing. Not to mention the university wide steering committees and groups. Then there are all kinds of outreach if you’re in the state sector. Grant proposals take weeks even months to write. Travel is a big part of the job if you are a successful researcher and jet lag cuts into your week here and there. As you advance you have more and more editorial responsibilities. Pastoral care of students is significant if you are a popular teacher or just a teacher that student’s trust. And then, depending on the department, participation in social events can sometimes be obligatory as cooperation and good feeling are the name of the game – even if rarely achieved. In short, it is much like any other demanding work environment. Hmmm..that sounds horrible – can I say once again that I love my job?
posted by anglophiliated at 3:40 AM on November 13, 2005

I would advise against going for a Ph. D., unless the process itself is appealing to you. Five years is a significant portion of your life. Besides, being a grad student (after the first couple of years, anyway) is a lot like being a professor, in terms of how you spend your time. (Of course, you get much less money, prestige, and responsibility.)

For what it's worth, I love being a grad student - the freedom of movement and the diversity of work are great. I certainly miss not having much money, but that's not such a bad tradeoff, as far as I'm concerned. By the way, I'm a math grad student, expecting my Ph. D. in May.

I am now in the midst of a postdoc job search, so it remains to be seen what kind of a financial payoff this degree is going to have. But, even if I go on to do something outside of academia, where my degree won't help me much, I am confident that I will not have any regrets about the way I've spent the last four years of my life. The sense of accomplishment alone is worth it. I've also done some very interesting (to me) things, and I've discovered abilities in myself I didn't know I had. As for age considerations, I'm not bothered by the amount of time I've spent in grad school, but that's because, as far as I'm concerned, there was nothing better I could be doing with my time.
posted by epimorph at 3:44 AM on November 13, 2005

Doh! First post and I managed to conjoin Krrlson and TorontoSandy. Typical. Apologies to you both.
posted by anglophiliated at 3:45 AM on November 13, 2005

Finished my humanities Ph.D. when I was 39. Two years were spent working 3/4 time, three years in a tenure-track job. So it took six years at the school and three years of trying to finish the diss while working full time. Things improved when my adviser left for another job and a committee member with a stronger sense of ethics and motivation helped me finish four months later. My experiences with the first adviser were not unique. This is not to say that I didn't do plenty of screwing up and procrastination.

I started when we got married, we now have four kids, and I got a job whose income is equal to my student loans. However, the loans only come out to $200+/month, which seems to matter less and less as my income has increased by 3k since I started. On the other hand, since we moved closer to campus, I am selling my second car to help cushion the impact of the loans (and the new mortgage).

I have often thought, "gee, I wasted what was left of my youth stressing out for nine years in graduate school" but the fact is, I was already married and would have had kids anyway, and the first three years were pretty intellectually enriching, and now I'm in a position where I can choose which cool thing I want to study and do so. I feel a little burned out right now after teaching full time and finishing/defending the diss over the summer, but in general I like teaching and I like the vacations and summers. Also, I go to my office and work on what I want, (when I'm not grading) and they buy me a new laptop every couple of years. Tenure at my school is pretty straightforward. Overall, I'd say it was worth it, but it would have been more worth it had I finished and gotten rid of that cloud of stress years earlier.

/sorry, something I think about too much.
posted by mecran01 at 7:01 AM on November 13, 2005

p.s. I chose areas of emphasis that were marketable within the academic system, and the whole experience wasn't good for my marriage, but I think we're recovering.
posted by mecran01 at 7:06 AM on November 13, 2005

Life as a grad student is pretty good. Flexible hours and relaxed working conditions are hard to find in the real world. I'm afraid that when he finally gets a "real" job he'll feel like cutting his throat.

I feel like I'm reading something from Bizarro World. For me, life as a grad student was hell, I had no time for anything but studying and bitching to fellow grad students, "working conditions" (an odd phrase to apply to grad school, if you ask me) were hideous, the professors treated the students like subhuman slave labor, and when I finally cut my losses and left I felt like I had escaped a prison camp and entered real life. I've gone back and forth over whether the stuff I learned was worth the agony, but I've never once regretted quitting.
posted by languagehat at 7:39 AM on November 13, 2005

I finished mine in May. I went straight out of my bachelors and my Ph.D. (in biology, with a marine ecology focus) only took me four years.

I was fortunate enough to work with one of the world's experts in my field...literally an award-winning scientist. I had some tough times, when I had disagreements with him or my fellow students, but in the end it was totally a worthwhile experience. I am a much better scientist because of everything that I did and all the people I had a chance to work with. (I was in Woods Hole, so it was essentially a town of marine scientists.)

Field work was sometimes physically challenging, but when you spend every day (give or take a few) from April through September snorkeling on Cape Cod, your life can't be that bad.

So here I am, Dr. nekton, 26 years old. At the moment I am working as a regional coordinator for research, outreach and education for a state program. My office is in a little watershed association. I've got my eye out for the next step up, career-wise, but overall I feel like the world is my oyster.

I am absolutely delighted to have my Ph.D.
posted by nekton at 7:49 AM on November 13, 2005

I'm in my last year as a Mechanical Engineering PhD student in a US News Top 10 program.

Did you find your experience worth the time invested?

Yes. I got paid to do things I like: solving problems no one had solutions for, taking interesting classes in different departments, reading interesting books and papers, writing code, writing papers of my own, traveling to conferences.

Did it bother you that it took until your late twenties/early thirties only to complete your education?

No. I'm 26 and really not interested at all in settling down, starting a family, etc. and my graduate student stipend gives me enough money to live simply and still do things I enjoy. I'd run away from a dinner party with married people.

The average starting salaries for PhD Electrical Engineering graduates from my school ranged from $80k / year to $110k / year. Not too bad.
posted by driveler at 7:55 AM on November 13, 2005

Response by poster: Rothko - when your first condescending non-answer was deleted, what made you repost it in essentially the same form?

Everyone else, thanks.
posted by Krrrlson at 8:50 AM on November 13, 2005

I did my PhD under the old UK student grant system before the Tories and 'New Labour' destroyed it in favour of student loans. It took me three years and I was Dr by age 24. It never bothered me that I was still doing this whilst my friends did gruesome low-level accountancy and managerial jobs. I felt very lucky and privileged not to have to do that. The first year was very hard as I got used to the discipline of being out on my own doing independent research. About half way through my first year I had a eureka moment and discovered what I really wanted to work on - from then on it was wonderful, fascinating and challenging.

I've never regretted the time spent for a moment. I later went into curatorial work which drew directly on my PhD specialism and then into the media, where I now work on history programmes. I still find it wonderful to have the skills to go into an archive and research stuff from scratch. I still edit early modern texts from time to time, using my expertise. I've never regretted it and being a 'Dr' saves the whole Ms/Mrs/Miss thing :-)
posted by Flitcraft at 11:49 AM on November 13, 2005

$$$-wise, going to school in the UK is a lot cheaper and faster. Your PhD will be just as legit.

I'm doing my MA right now in London. London itself is expensive, the rest is worth it.

I'm applying to PhD programs now. Thanks for the good and thoughtful question!
posted by k8t at 12:31 PM on November 13, 2005

I'm speaking here as a first-year PhD student in math. I'm 24, which makes me a couple of years older than most of the other first-year students in my program, but the thought of not finishing until I'm 30 or so never even entered my mind as a reason not to do grad school.

It seems like some people here are taking the attitude that 'real life' doesn't start until you finish your degree, but perhaps that's sort of funding-dependent. It depends a lot on your field of study; in math, engineering, sciences, etc, there's is a lot of outside funding available that can really have an impact on your standard of living. Of course, if you're in the arts or humanities, it's a bit of a different story. (Note: I'm not devaluing arts or humanities here, just stating the reality that there is less money available in these areas.)

The other thing that I really like about being a grad student (beside the fact that I get paid to learn stuff that totally fascinates me) is that the community of grad students (in my program, at least) is absolutely wonderful. Here is a whole group of people who share some common interest with you, and yet still have a diverse range of other pursuits as well.

I suppose I should also add that I'm planning on being a professor when I finish my PhD, so that's my motivation. There's really nothing else I'd rather be doing. If you think you'd be happier doing something else, you should do it. A PhD is definitely not an easy path, and if you're not really committed, it's probably not worth the time and hardship.
posted by number9dream at 12:39 PM on November 13, 2005

Rothko - when your first condescending non-answer was deleted, what made you repost it in essentially the same form?

A graduate degree is a lot of hard work with no guarantee of financial success, but it can have value in other ways. Thank you in advance for showing some posting etiquette.
posted by Rothko at 12:58 PM on November 13, 2005

The average starting salaries for PhD Electrical Engineering graduates from my school ranged from $80k / year to $110k / year. Not too bad.

Just a word, then, about the "biomedical" part of your plan, Krrrlson: the average biosciences postdoc earns $36-40K. That goes up if you make faculty, full professor salaries ranging from $80K - $120K depending on school, but faculty positions are few and far between. So just make sure you'll be employed as a lofty Engineer not a lowly biologist (like me!).

More generally: nearly everyone I've ever spoken to in my own field hated, hated, hated their grad school experience. The exceptions are overwhelmingly people who started grad school "late", after trying other things. These folks had more of a sense of what they wanted out of the program, and even more importantly, more of a sense of themselves. Greater selfconfidence, broader range of "life experience", better developed support networks = much better grad school experience.
posted by sennoma at 1:27 PM on November 13, 2005

languagehat brings up an extremely salient point.

Your experience will very much hinge on what your supervisor is like.

Mine's a total ass. I decided to cut out early and finish a MSc instead of a PhD. Found another lab in a different field (still Biology) to take me in but my supervisor has screwed my chances of starting that in January so I'll probably end up working at the video store until September.

Money will be an issue. There won't be a lot of it, and depending on which field you're in, there might not be a lot of it after you get those extra initials after your name.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 1:42 PM on November 13, 2005

Krrrlson, with a PhD (in engineeering or like discipline) comes two main trajectories: professor, which has been well discussed above, and industry researcher. I'll say a couple of words of what I know about industry research with a PhD. I am currently in a CS PhD program at Georgia Tech. (Woo, it's hard and fun and great and miserable at the same time!)

Industry research is done by companies that are trying to stay ahead of the curve, and so spend big R+D bucks emplying PhDs to make sure they're ready for what's coming. In CS, the usual suspects have big R+D shops (Microsft's "MSR," IBM Research, Intel Research, Yahoo Research even, along with venerable PARC). I'm sure Intel, AMD, Ti, etc, have ee research divisions, and surely the computational biomed companies have lots of this also.

These jobs are generally well-paid, top-of-the-class and competitive to land. Starting salaries are basically what a person who's been working for 5-ish years would get as a lateral transfer (so, if somebody working at MSFT started at something like $80k, worked 5 years and wound up with a salary of $110 or something, the PhD would start somewhere similar). But, and this is a big but, the job responsiblities would be very different. Industry researchers get to keep on doing whatever they did that got them hired, which is to say research and publication. They get the resources they'll need (labs, equipment, etc.) and the people they'll need and they just do stuff. They are rarely "bottom-line" requirements -- nobody comes by your lab to ask you how we're going to make $1,000,000,000 offa your current work. They'd be happy if it's going to make $$$, but it's not the metric by which you're judged.

This means that the work is self-directed to a great(er) extent. That the projects are your own. That you'd still be publishing and researching like you did as an advanced student. Without a PhD, a job at a big technology company is either as a grunt (a coder, a UI designer, a tester -- this is CS-centric cause that's what I know) or eventually as a manager. There's definitely room for creativity and problem-solving and even a bit of strategic / visionary stuff, but oppportunities are fewer and farther between. With a PhD, you'll basically write your own job description and do you own thing.
posted by zpousman at 3:14 PM on November 13, 2005

Rothko - when your first condescending non-answer was deleted, what made you repost it in essentially the same form?

Condescending his phrasing may have been, but it was exactly the thought I had also before I opened the question. Perhaps it could have been put better: if you are the sort of person who thinks your education should become completed (which is, I believe, a valid viewpoint), then you might not feel that the time invested in grad school is invested well. The question apparently presupposed that when you get the PhD the learning stops and the career begins - but in at least the academically oriented fields, this is not what happens. The learning is the career.
posted by advil at 5:47 PM on November 13, 2005

Thanks, advil. My email is in my profile, Krrrlson. Feel free to apologize (or not).
posted by Rothko at 6:37 PM on November 13, 2005

Had I walked away after my masters' (EngLit), judging from those who did the same, I would have likely saved myself three years that are now mostly (thankfully) a blur to me. The knock-on effect is magnified, too. A humanities doctorate is possibly the perfect way to end up overeducated, underemployed, and badly set-up to make the transition to the real world.

If you're in the DC area after Christmas, you may see several thousand people in their late 20s and early 30s with faintly traumatised expressions; that would be the MLA convention.
posted by holgate at 10:23 PM on November 13, 2005

The contrast between Languagehat's answer and my own points to something else important--the variability between grad programs. Some are set up on a competitive model, where financial support is recalculated each year for existing graduate students based (supposedly) on performance. This turns the students against each other and makes for a terrible dynamic. Other programs offer an aid package for you entire education, and are much more congenial. And other programs just suck for reasons of their own. Talk to some graduate students currently in the program you want before you make any commitments.
posted by LarryC at 5:54 AM on November 14, 2005

In a strictly monetary sense? No. In the same amount of time, and exerting the same amount of effort and brainpower, I could have gone through law school and been 2-3 years into a well-paying job; or I could have gotten an MBA and be pulling down lots of money now. A PhD is one of the worst investments that you can make in monetary terms: depending upon the field, it guarantees you a future in a profession that is hugely undervalued by the rest of society, and that undervalues your skills immensely.

Well, that depends on the feild I think. I know a girl whos' going to be gettign $120k to start, and she can barely speak english.
posted by delmoi at 11:56 AM on November 14, 2005

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