How do I (or Should I even) go about getting a PhD?
March 28, 2015 1:47 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in systems theory as field and am trying to determine if/how I should go about studying it deeply and probably making a career out of it. But there are significant questions I feel I should answer before I can decide about such a significant change in my career. I need advice about how to determine if my fascination about systems theory is worth trying to make a career out of it and also advice as to how I can go about creating a career in it?

A bit of background:
I am a separated guy in his mid 30s with no kids, no debt, working in the field of data analytics, basically helping clients build predictive models for retail, mortgage, media etc companies.I have a total of about 10 years of experience in consulting, analytics and technology. More or less, my contribution in projects is that I can understand all three stakeholders: understand what the management wants, talk with & help the statisticians and modelers building a model and guide the technology teams in implementing it. A jack of all trades but expert in none.

I have an engineering background and did an MBA after couple of years of work. Due to my work, I have a fair knowledge of statistics. I did calculus and took couple of advance mathematical courses etc during my undergrad, which basically means, I have a familiarity with mathematical terms, notations and methods but cant remember anything useful right now. So, getting to a maths heavy program would not be a completely unknown field but I definitely need to improve my mathematical skills by a lot if I want to go for a PhD.

My inclination:
I am fascinated by systems theory. Whenever I think about it, I feel excited. I frequently think about how the world could be interpreted in terms of multiple systems and interaction of their components. I honestly believe that systems theory needs to develop a lot if we want to solve the big problems facing this world and I would love to contribute in solving these problems. Whenever I read any article about systems or how our world can be interpreted and simulated by models, I feel a deep desire to learn more about it.

My challenge:
I am not really sure if my fascination should be enough of a basis for trying to get into, what could be, 6-7 more years of studies (I'll probably have to do MS+PhD) easily and not a lot of money afterwards. I am in my mid 30s and have a decent career right now which pays pretty decently. I am in middle management right now and the natural career progression plus the attractiveness of the field would mean that I could reach upper management in, say, 6-7 years.

But I am not very satisfied with my current job. Money is not a big motivator for me. I would of course like to be well paid but just the promise of huge bonuses doesn't motivate me to work more. The current career feels a bit pointless and, it seems, I am just skating along right now. I don't feel very motivated to excel in my current job.

If I look back now, I think, I did my Engg and MBA more out of glamour of great career and a default response to not knowing what I really wanted to do. I don't want to make that same mistake again. I don't want to do a PhD because it looks intellectually sexy and the default thing to do if I am unsatisfied with my current career.

I understand that PhD is not exactly easy and there are no big rewards at the end of it. I might make more money 7 years down the line if I continued with my current career. Even then I am thinking about making such a switch.

My questions:
So, I need your advice on trying for a MS+PhD program in the middle of my career. Let me know if you have been through similar career change, if you have done a PhD after leaving a relatively well paying career and your opinion/advice to others trying to make the change. Also, please suggest if you know a way to validate/confirm that my fascination would be enough to sustain me through 7 years of drudgery/hard work of MS+PhD. Basically, I want to be reasonably sure that I want to have a career in systems theory.

I am scared that I will start a PhD program and then lose interest or find out that I am not willing to devote the time and effort required.

Further, do I really need to get a PhD to have systems theory as a career? Are there other ways in which I could change to systems theory oriented career without having to commit to a PhD program?

I also would love to get advice about what do I need to do to get into a good PhD program for systems theory. What are the good programs? What skills I should brush up on to get into one? What courses should I refresh before trying for a systems theory PhD? If you could share any contacts who can guide me or help me through choosing the right PhD program, that would be great.
posted by TheLittlePrince to Education (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
What do you actually want your career to look like? Do you want to teach students? Do you want to spend your time writing grants and directing graduate students? Do you want to write articles about systems? Do you want to build and test models of specific systems? Do you enjoy your current jack-of-all trades role? What sort of system are you interested in?

More practically, what does "enough money" mean to you? Are you OK with working anywhere in the world, including very small or very rural places, or would you prefer to live in a specific place or type of city?

From what you've written, it sounds to me as if you already have the background for an industry career that uses elements of "systems thinking", but you're not very excited about the specific problems you're modeling. Have you researched companies that use data analytics to solve bigger problems? Are there work-related conferences where you could meet other people interested in similar questions?
posted by yarntheory at 2:17 PM on March 28, 2015

When you talk about a career in systems theory, what kinds of things are you thinking of? Would your goal be an academic position? A position in industry, but with a PhD? Something else?

If you would like to become an academic, then the PhD is likely a necessary stepping stone. If you would like to focus on applying systems theory to problems in a more applied setting, the degree itself can be a useful tool, but probably isn't as much of a deal breaker. A masters degree often provides you with the same level of coursework and a significant level of research experience.

Earning a PhD often means that you know a lot about a very narrow area (far more narrow than just "systems theory"). You certainly don't need to have a dissertation idea at the outset, but can you see yourself identifying and enmeshing yourself in a tiny corner of the field for a few years. You may find it useful to review some recent dissertations from programs that look interesting. As you read them (and you certainly wouldn't be expected to fully understand them), you could ask yourself whether you'd trade the time, effort, and lost earnings to do something of that scale and scope.

Another question you may wish to ask yourself is whether systems theory is the right area for you. Are there some aspects of what you've read that interest you more than others? Perhaps related, more mainstream disciplines would be a better fit.
posted by i love cheese at 2:18 PM on March 28, 2015

I think I am more comfortable with a research/deep dive type of profile where I can try and invest my time in figuring out and understanding how a previously unsolved problem/system works instead of a day to day changing variation on an already answered problem.

In my current role, it has become most of a discussion with people and solving variations on similar predictive models.

For me, enough money is, i guess, upper middle class in NYC? Its tough to quantify more than that.

I haven't ever taught students or written grants so I am not really sure if I would like to do that ... but from what i I can observe of my tendency in meetings or working with my juniors, I think I wouldn't dislike teaching. I like answering questions and explaining things and am pretty patient with my juniors. So, I dont know if I want to be an academic, but it doesn't sound unattractive. Research sounds better actually.

The current jack of all trades is not something I am comfortable with. it makes me anxious that I don't know enough about one part of it and am making errors there. When I talk to statisticians, I am always on the edge as to whether I understand their problems correctly and whether I know the model well enough to make intelligent suggestions.

This anxiety also makes me think that I might not have enough technical knowledge for a really meaty problem.

While, in my current role, I talk to people and host meetings and conduct them, I don't think I am a very "people person" and would rather that I was doing such meetings occasionally, not daily/regularly.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 3:32 PM on March 28, 2015

If you want to do research in industry, is a PhD necessary?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:36 PM on March 28, 2015

Are you thinking of doing this in industry? Maybe as some sort of engineering startup? If so, I'm not sure you need a PhD, either, though you may need more formal education. Many universities, including many prestigious ones, will let you register as a "special student" or "non-degree student." You could take graduate classes, get to know some professors, dive into the field and leave when you feel ready/able to do whatever you want to do. As a special student, you wouldn't necessarily have to worry about required courses which means you could take relevant courses across the university (especially helpful in an interdisciplinary field). You would get grades and course credit, so if you then did decide to do a PhD, those courses would be done. This is also a good option for deciding if a PhD is something you want to do.

Unlike PhD students, non-degree students are not typically funded. This isn't great for your, but OTOH, there's the university's incentive to take on such students. If you do decide to eventually apply, this gives you a source of letter writers, since I'm guessing that in your mid-30s, your university profs might not remember you, if you can even find them. And if you apply to the same university where you were a special student, then you'll have letter writers in the program -- who could be more trustworthy than that?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:48 PM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I realize this isn't exactly the focus of your question, but since the ultimate question here is whether you should get a PhD, there might be another relevant factor to consider: You say you are separated. If reconciling with your partner is something you hope to do, how would this be affected by going from career-in-full-swing to student? Can you/should you move to another city if that ends up being part of the path?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:51 PM on March 28, 2015

Regarding if a PhD is the right choice: I'm not sure I'm qualified enough to say anything helpful. From what I see as a current grad student, tenure-track seems reserved for graduates of the top ~5 universities to fight over, and industry research positions or something like the Santa Fe Institute are also pretty rare for this field. If you're considering machine learning/statistics/other CS fields, there seems to be a lot more industry opportunities. A lot of CS PhD grads nowadays go onto do startups or work for big tech as software devs unrelated to their research.

From what I see many jobs using heavy problem-solving math (outside of ML) are research-related, and getting them will depend on your publication record during your PhD. That is -heavily- correlated with the supervisor you have, so if you do pursue a PhD I strongly recommend spending a lot of time sniping potential supervisors. I'm not too familiar with other routes of getting these jobs.

I am scared that I will start a PhD program and then lose interest or find out that I am not willing to devote the time and effort required.

This is very real; you're making almost no money, must be completely self-motivated to publish against 20-year veterans, and no garauntee of any salary/job prospects (except for a select few fields) at the end of the line. You'll be competing against top students from other countries that have tons of social class to gain by succeeding. The PhD Grind made rounds a couple years ago.

Systems theory: definitely linear algebra and an intuition for linear dynamical systems. Perhaps peek at (computational) game theory, control theory and causality.

If you want to do research in industry, is a PhD necessary?

Yes, I believe. You can be research engineer, but that will be more along the lines of a software developer that implements research ideas instead of coming up with your own.

This anxiety also makes me think that I might not have enough technical knowledge for a really meaty problem.

Haha, every feels this way in grad school until they spend the time to learn it. Often one thing depends on another, that depends on another, so seeing the connection from the end of the line + unknown jargon is very opaque. But once you've worked your way through, it becomes a lot more clear. Motivation, not lack of technical chops (to an extent), determines success in research.

Another option is to do a research-based master's. In Canada they're funded and it's normal to lead into a PhD after it. Seconding the drop-in-grad-course as another option, too.

Good luck!
posted by spec at 3:56 PM on March 28, 2015

> in his mid 30s<>
No. Do not do a PhD.
posted by rr at 3:56 PM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Upper-middle-class in NYC? Do not do a PhD.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 3:59 PM on March 28, 2015 [10 favorites]

I like the idea of taking up courses from universities in related fields as a special or non-degree students and use that experience to check if I want to do PhD.

It helps me gain skills, postpones the decision making and commitment and might also help me gain the knowledge to move to a research intensive roles.

So, the question becomes: What are the key courses/colleges I should be looking at to gain more knowledge of systems theory?

I have taken up couple of statistics related courses online (through udacity and coursera) and as suggested by IOIHAP above, I will explore taking up linear algebra. if you can suggest any other courses, please do.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 4:41 PM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Only the very best of the very best in academic research make "upper-middle-class in NYC" kind of money, and quite frankly you're probably already too old to become a research superstar. You could be upper-middle-class for Manhattan, Kansas, if you're lucky, but that's part of the tradeoff - if you're doing academic research, you go to whatever small college or university town you're lucky enough to get a job in.

As a Ph.D. who left academia, I always compare grad school to acting or becoming a novelist - it's a career path you follow only if your heart is in it 100%. It doesn't sound to me like you're there yet, and I don't know from your description if it would ever be.

If you're actually in NYC, I would recommend going to things like systems theory related meetups or lectures. Find people to talk to in industry. There may well be opportunities for you to do those deep-dives outside of a Ph.D. program, whether in work, or a master's program, or a hackathon, or a personal project that you can lever into a calling card for the sort of job you want. (Note also: if you can't independently structure your time enough to do a personal project on the side, you will hate grad school).
posted by mishaps at 4:42 PM on March 28, 2015 [7 favorites]

Unless you really really really want to be an academic (and let's be honest, age discrimination is a real thing in hiring for TT jobs too, so late 30s with fresh PhD going to be a rough row to hoe there), you basically do not need a PhD.
posted by PMdixon at 5:10 PM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think the only real reason to get a doctorate is because you really want to spend more time doing thinky work. You would spend a lot of time in meetings and trying to understand collaborators research. Maybe you need to take a couple stats courses. Classes can be fun and engaging but they're a really minor part of a research degree. It sounds like you have lots of great parts to your career. If there's not a huge gaping hole in your heart because you are bored or totally unfulfilled in your job, do not get a PhD. It's a rough road where you make almost nothing, have your ego bruised, and will very often be unsuccessful and super frustrated. When you finish you will make way less money and unless you go back into industry management, likely never will. b.s. engineers typically make more lifetime money than doctoral engineers.
posted by Kalmya at 5:26 AM on March 29, 2015

If you're unsure about committing to a full PhD, how about an MSc? How about one overseas, say in London?

Both Imperial and Kings College seem to have systems theory MScs on their websites, I am almost certain UCL does as well (they're the big three unis in London). All three universities have strong industry focuses, and I know quite a few Americans who have come over here because even our overseas fees are significantly cheaper then equivalent US universities. There are other universities outside of London which would be even cheaper (and still very prestigious).

Most UK MSc programs are one year long, so you may well be able to get your current employer to give you a sabbatical, or possibly even to fund it. They are intense - my husband spent about sixty hours a week on his (he got a distinction, but it was bloody hard work). But you will learn a huge amount, will do enough research to get a job in the field (most people here will not do a PhD, a masters is the usual exit point), and you will definitely know whether you want to do a PhD at the end of it. Plus you get a year overseas, which always looks great on the CV.

Thought that might be an option you hadn't considered. Obviously there are Ithe cities aside from London, other countries aside from UK, etc etc.
posted by tinkletown at 9:22 AM on March 29, 2015

« Older You've gotta know the rules if you want to play...   |   Reading on a Google Nexus Tablet Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.