Thinking of doing a PhD for fun, have I lost my mind?
April 12, 2016 3:05 AM   Subscribe

I have a perfectly good professional career which is interesting and pays a good salary. Occasionally I get to do a small research project which I enjoy. Lately I have caught myself thinking about doing a PhD part-time, and cutting back the hours of my regular job.

I can afford to do this. I do not expect it to advance my career particularly. I am in my late 30s. I have various hobbies outside of work.

Research Mefites, have I lost my mind completely? I know how hard PhDs are. But I think I want to do one. Can you tell me what you loved and hated about your program? Would you do it again if you had your time over? What should I do to make it as easy and enjoyable as possible?
posted by superfish to Education (47 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, you have lost your mind.

You do not need to do a PhD in order to have a fulfulling part time research career: Do research! Publish papers! Avoid all the horrible grindy bits that are required in order to actually get a PhD which no one in their right mind would go through if they didn’t need the letters after their name!
posted by pharm at 3:28 AM on April 12, 2016 [14 favorites]


It consumed 6 years of my life that I will never get back. It was gruelling and punishing. It was like being with an abusive partner who constantly told me I wasn't good enough but that I also had no choice but to stay because I would never make it alone out there. Upon finishing it has taken years for me to reclaim my life. I would not do it again. I can't think of a single one of my peers who didn't seem completely obliterated and depressed by the whole process. Maybe one or two golden boys out of dozens and dozens.

When people ask me about grad school, I tell them that the only reason to go is that you have a goal, a place you want to get to, and grad school is the step that will get you there. People who know exactly why they are there tend to be way more focused and better able to prioritize. It's like a giant mud pit at the bottom of a hill. If you want to get up to the top of that hill, and you go tearing down at high speed, your momentum can take you through and then upwards. Everyone else gets stuck in the mud and then faces a steep climb from a standing start. The mud is not a satisfying place to be despite how it may appear from the outside. It might feel kind of fun to be back in school and surrounded by intellectual ideas but sooner or later you have to either crawl out of the mud or admit you've just been wasting time and neither is pleasant.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:42 AM on April 12, 2016 [30 favorites]


There is absolutely nothing wrong with education for education's sake. Good for you!
posted by MexicanYenta at 3:43 AM on April 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


Your intended field may be relevant, since PhD programs vary wildly. I say "may" because in my field (physics), I haven't encountered any PhD programs that will even admit students intending to be part-time from the start, and students who go part-time partway through the program tend not to finish.

There's also this earlier "should I PhD" ask, which got a lot of really great comments about why you probably shouldn't pursue a PhD just-because (in particular ctrl-F "ClaireBear", everything she posted in that thread is spot-on).
posted by dorque at 3:46 AM on April 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


You'll be taking a space, and using limited instructional/mentoring time, possibly from someone who would go on to base a career, and advance human knowledge, on the basis of this work.
posted by amtho at 3:55 AM on April 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


You're not very specific. People who want Ph.Ds aren't, "Oh, I think I'll try getting a Ph.D." They're, "I'm getting a Ph.D in this exact field and no I'm not changing my mind and I am going to do this." Even people who don't finish Ph.Ds know at least what field they are going to start in a Ph.D. It's not a matter of enjoyment, it's a matter of true passion.

You're also assuming you can get into a Ph.D program near you in order to continue working, and that's not necessarily likely. Ph.D programs up-heave entire lives to the point that for many doing a Ph.D, it's all they do for 5-7 years full time to the exclusion of family, friends, and non-class and research relationships --- how long do you think that would be extended were a program to take you part-time? Some people live for this kind of thing, and it's okay that they do. Absolutely. And some fields allow for better balance, but as far as any Ph.D. program I've ever heard of goes, the Ph.D. program is always the priority to anything else in your life. I know this very well as the spouse of someone who was in a Ph.D. program that made us both miserable by his third year that he ended up leaving for something that made him happier and let him be with me and our son. He might very rarely miss the resources to mess around with lab experiments, but mostly -- he has zilch regrets.

I declined 4 excellent Ph.D. programs in my intended field because I saw how small and how unlikely it would be, even if I worked my butt off, that I'd land a position somewhere with it. I probably have a few more regrets about that than my husband does, but they don't last more than a second.

I don't really like to persuade people from a goal if they have one, but with the true expenses of Ph.D. going well beyond money, it's worth really looking at personal priorities. And, you know, there are plenty of Masters degrees that require less intensive thesis projects. Maybe start with one of those. It'll take less time but give you a bit of a taste of a Ph.D. program and maybe a leg up on the research skills. It's less time so it'll be easier to stick out if you find it's not where you want to be after all.
posted by zizzle at 4:27 AM on April 12, 2016 [7 favorites]


I think you may have lost your mind. Maybe.

Certainly everyone I know who did a PhD (including me) ended up with some psychological damage from the process. Most of us ended up on antidepressants at some point, and those who didn't, probably should have.

But a lot of that is the stress that comes with the uncertainty of the job market. Many if not most people who do a PhD in my field do it because they desperately want an academic career. And a PhD is a horrible sort of many-year task where you don't get a lot of indication of how you are doing until pretty much near the end. So people suffer from imposter syndrome, and they think they are sucking and going to fail badly, and the end up having a fraught relationship with their advisor because of this, and it's not like there are regular performance reviews or bonuses or anything else that in the real world helps you calibrate your sense of self. And even if you are incredibly awesome, there are so few jobs that you might just not get one anyway. And if you do get one, you will probably have to move away from everyone you know, and it might well suck for your partner and kids if you have them. But if you are just doing a PhD for fun, none of that applies, which is kind of cool.

And then there's huge pressure to do a million other things for your CV: publish in great journals, sit on committees, get teaching experience, win awards, travel to conferences, etc. If you don't want an academic career, you can just skip most of that (although your advisor might still put some pressure on you to give papers at conferences and publish journal articles, because that's a good way to get feedback on your ideas before they go into the thesis, and because it reflects well on them to have a student doing these things).

Finally, yeah, part time is tricky. I know very few people who did a PhD part time who ever finished. Maybe because the passage of time provides so much space for your ideas to change that you just never end up satisfied with something you feel you can hand in? And it's much harder to keep up with the literature on a topic over a period of 7-10 years than it is to do so over 3-5. Part time students also often don't have the social networks to support them that fulltime students do, because they are usually part time due to work or family commitments that keep them away from the department at times when other students are there. So you are likely to miss out on that sense of being part of a cohort, and on the informal support, mentoring and collaboration that a good department will provide. That makes things hard.

Oh, and in my experience, especially near the end, a full time PhD student will work evenings and weekends and every goddamn hour available. Even in the earlier stages there are times when it's like that for months on end. So half time students are not doing 20 hours a week - they are doing half of the much more than 40 hours the full time ones are putting in. Can you fit that around your career?
posted by lollusc at 4:48 AM on April 12, 2016 [19 favorites]



PhD programs are often ill-designed for people who aren't looking to be academics. (I know: in the current context where there are hardly any stable academic employment, that is ridiculous.) The expectations are that the Ph.D will be your priority. As someone said, most PhD programs don't accept people part time, at least not in the first year.

So if you're still considering a PhD after all the stories above, make sure you research the available programs and pick one that would support you as a part-time student. You might also want to investigate, depending on your intended field, if there are professional doctoral degrees.

All that being said, I firmly believe that the only reason anyone should do a Ph.D is because they love research. And it sounds like that's where you are. I started my Ph.D thinking of it as a luxury I was giving myself, and my love of research kept me sane through the worst of it. I struggled to relate to my peers in a lot of ways because of this. Anytime the Ph.D had me down, I would push the petty academic drama to the back of my mind and focus on my research. That alone was enough to comfort me and helped me push through.
posted by Milau at 4:59 AM on April 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


go for it. i got a phd and it wasn't particularly exhausting or unpleasant - i quite enjoyed it. these days there's even more pressure to publish, but if you're not particularly looking for a career in academia you can shrug that off. also, in my experience (which may be dated) they loved "mature" candidates. the only thing i would change if i did mine over is the location - i stayed in the same place as my degree, and was pretty tired of it by the end (in fact i think the negative parts of my phd were mainly social - i was young and a bit lost. it would probably have been better doing it when i was a bit older).

also, a year or so ago, i switched to working half time. i don't regret that at all - best change i've made to my life in ages. in fact, i am considering doing a maths degree in my spare time. the only thing to be aware of is that you will feel (at least, i feel) less connected with your work. i still do good work, i hope, but i am much, much less invested in the whole company, the politics, etc.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:05 AM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


I did two years of grad school in literature essentially for fun when I was 34 and 35. I did it full-time, having gotten a fellowship. I knew I wasn't likely to go on for the Ph.D., and I knew I wasn't going to end up as a prof, because I was very settled in my life where I was. During the second year, I was pregnant with our first kid. I had little opportunity cost from those two years—I'd been teaching as an adjunct at community college, and my fellowship actually paid better, and adjuncting is an easy job to move in and out of.

It was great. I loved the intellectual challenge, and the scholarship I did. I loved being immersed in this literature I was so in love with. I was well insulated from the BS of it—my first semester, I had a prof who was a jerk, and I was pretty much the only person in the seminar who wasn't afraid of him, for instance.

I read a lot but that's not the same as being in a well-designed course led by an expert. And it's definitely not the same as being asked to produce your own very best work. It was both challenging and satisfying. I never actually got the MA I was supposedly there for, because between a rough pregnancy and then the baby I never finished my thesis. But who cares? I had a great two years and did some really good work, and I was not harmed by it financially.
posted by not that girl at 5:10 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I spent September 2005 to October 2009 in Manchester UK doing a PhD in Art History.

There was never the slightest chance that this was going to lead to employment of any kind. I realized this about halfway through the process.

My favourite part was the book auctions that I went to in Manchester.

I am now a book and antique dealer.

I would not do it again.
posted by crazylegs at 5:12 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Doing a PhD is a commitment. It is also very specific. What type of research do you actually want to pursue?
posted by demiurge at 5:12 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I will add to the chorus of voices that says that this really really depends on the field and the program. I'm starting my phd in the fall in a combo social and physical science, and about three-fourths of their students are part-time, and they actually encourage non-academic job placements. I said the magic words "I don't need funding" (I'm doing my classes on a tuition waiver), that I held a masters in a related field with a 4.0 GPA, and showed some concrete research interests, and away we went (I'm doing prereqs this year). So it can be done (we'll see if I'm saying the same thing in a few years!) but you need the right situation and a plan.
posted by joycehealy at 5:22 AM on April 12, 2016


I'm about to do this in engineering. I am about your same age. Some things I am doing to make this a reasonable process for myself:
-working with a professor I know and like and who I did my Master's with
-starting with a Master's in the field I am going to focus on for the PhD, so the number of classes is greatly reduced and I have some (albeit a bit old) research knowledge in the area
-spending some time choosing my research topic
-have a timeline goal that my prof is aware of and has stated he will help me meet

The why I am doing it is very similar to yours--I enjoy doing research. I like it best when I am running the direction of it (which this prof I am working with will let me do). But, I also know how I am going to use it downstream in my career, which you don't quite describe--and I'd say is pretty important before going into this.
posted by chiefthe at 5:25 AM on April 12, 2016


My PhD should have taken 3 year, but it took 5. It destroyed my mental health and has taken me 8 years to rebuild my self-esteem. I would certainly not do it again.

If you have a very specific research question and expertise in that field then my answer might be different! Now I'm working in (unrelated) clinical practice I would consider doing a PhD / research project within my clinical area, but that's a very different prospect.
posted by kadia_a at 5:30 AM on April 12, 2016


I am four years into a PhD on biology and rather think you've lost your mind, for all the reasons other people are stating.

Why are you aiming at a PhD and not a Master's degree? In my experience, Master's programs are set up for situations very similar to yours. They are more likely to be structured around adults who have jobs. They take two years, so the commitment is lower. They're more flexible and often not designed for people who are aiming to be professional academics. They seem like exactly what you're after. Why not start there?
posted by sciatrix at 5:31 AM on April 12, 2016 [17 favorites]


There is absolutely nothing wrong with education for education's sake.

A PhD is primarily an apprenticeship rather than the sort of structured education you get with a bachelor's or master's degree.
posted by grouse at 5:38 AM on April 12, 2016 [18 favorites]


Ph.D programs up-heave entire lives to the point that for many doing a Ph.D, it's all they do for 5-7 years full time to the exclusion of family, friends, and non-class and research relationships --- how long do you think that would be extended were a program to take you part-time?

Just wanted to second this. I am very lucky in that there is a very prestigious doctorate program in my field that is summers-only. It STILL causes upheaval and displacement in my life, because every summer I have to pack up and go live in Vermont for 6-8 weeks. I've basically written off having any summer plans for the foreseeable future, which really sucks, because as a professor, the summer is when I actually (used to) have time to get stuff done. Also, the part-time nature of the program means that it takes twice as long to complete; the coursework alone will take 4-5 years instead of the normal 2-3, and that's not even counting writing the dissertation.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:41 AM on April 12, 2016


I dunno, I'm a bit more than halfway through my PhD and I have loved every minute of it, basically. It's all been smooth, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I am 36, in social sciences, in the UK.
posted by still bill at 5:58 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


The answer will really vary if you are in the US or elsewhere. I got my MA in Europe, and my rich, peaceful experience has nothing in common with the horror stories I hear from people in the US. And there are no similar horror stories from *any* of my friends who did their PhDs in Europe either. There seems to be a current of abuse and exploitation in graduate school currently in the US, but since you would be free of many of the pressures other students would be under, I think you could take it in stride and focus on enjoying the parts of it that you love.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 6:13 AM on April 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


Of course you should do some postgrad study if you want to!

However, in order to do a PhD you need to have a very clear idea of what your research question is, and you haven't mentioned any topic in particular that you're intense about.

So I would definitely suggest starting with a Master's program. That will show you the ropes and give you time to contemplate what it is you want to research.

Ignore the naysayers. You don't have to worry about the job market because you're already securely employed. A lot of the things that subjugate younger people in grad school will roll off your back.

Mind you, I do say this as a UK researcher and probably-soon-to-be doctoral student, who has experienced academia as more fun than a barrel of monkeys. What your Stateside experience might be like, I can't give an informed opinion.
posted by tel3path at 6:34 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I got my Masters for "fun" because I was interested in the subject and have completely shot myself in the foot. It's difficult for me to even get interviews for jobs I want. HR people and managers/supervisors have told me that my degree makes me less desirable.

I now leave it off my applications and gloss over those years in interviews when I can.
posted by thewestinggame at 6:48 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Another counterbalance here to the naysayers. I did a PhD and continue to work in research in my field, and I'm very happy with my career. Sure, the PhD was stressful at times but no more so than any other job I've had.

Of course the part-time idea changes things a lot. I personally could never have finished my PhD if it were part-time - I needed to be focussed on just my dissertation. And I also travelled overseas for extensive fieldwork for months at a time, which is obviously pretty disruptive and definitely not a part-time thing. And finally, some programmes (such as the one I was in) prefer not to have part-time PhD candidates.

So you'll need to think through the actual logistics, which may be more or less prohibitive depending on your field. But in theory I say go for it! Education is good!
posted by nomis at 6:55 AM on April 12, 2016


You'll be taking a space, and using limited instructional/mentoring time, possibly from someone who would go on to base a career, and advance human knowledge, on the basis of this work.

But more likely that the slot would be taken by someone who wouldn't ultimately finish or wouldn't make it in academia. So it's probably a wash.

There isn't nearly enough information here. I used to work at a research/government contracting lab where many people were working on their engineering or science PhDs while they were working there. It was worthwhile for the individuals and helped them move their careers in a more research-oriented direction.

Yes, it's psychologically taxing, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. You just need to articulate a goal and know what the logistics are of getting your PhD, especially while you are working.
posted by deanc at 7:17 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I see you are in New Zealand. I think that the answers you receive are going to depend on where people are and what field they know. I know History and Area Studies in the US.

Here, PhDs are professional degrees like MBAs whereas masters programs are for people like you who are curious about graduate school and a particular but general field and want to see if they like what it all entails. You take the same classes that you would in a PhD program. After completing one or two years of coursework, you receive the degree and then get on with your life.

That is the point at which PhD and masters programs diverge. From that third year onward, PhD candidates work on the dissertation, without much direction at all. The lack of structure distinguishes PhDs from other professional degrees. Whatever structure you have is what you create for yourself. There is nothing that can prepare one for doing that: there is no course to teach you how. It is very different from working in an office.

It is very isolating. Your former classmates are no longer your peers. Everyone goes their own way after the first two years. Your peers are now the few dozen people around the world who are working in your field. They are more like frenemies, since you are all competing for the same resources. You might meet them in person only a handful of times at conferences.

It only ends when you produce x number of research papers that complement one another and call it a dissertation. It could take two years or twelve years.

It is not worth it.
posted by CtrlAltD at 7:25 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Your PhD will help create a new you who is no longer capable of or interested in enjoying anything at all ever again. Your friends (should you have any left) will want to engage in social activities and you will do so, but be fully distracted by the mountains of work that you have sitting undone. This will happen throughout your doctoral program. It will get worse and worse until you exist in a steady state somewhere between a panic attack and crippling depression. If you like insomnia, gaining weight, feeling like something is going to fall and crush you at any moment, and generally being sad a lot, then by all means, get a PhD for fun.
posted by paco758 at 7:58 AM on April 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


Bearing in mind that I am in the finalish throes of my PhD in the United States, I would say that this is not at all what you want to be doing. The image of PhD students as people who spend their lives engaged in the research they find most meaningful, and then go on to keep doing happy research with nothing else getting in the way of their Life of the Mind, is unfortunately unrealistic and pretty far from the truth.

You will need to have a very specific idea of what your research project will be, and identify the faculty who can help you get it done, and you need to get into their department's PhD program.

Depending on the structure of your PhD program, you will have 1-4 solid years of coursework. You may be able to teach or take on a research assistantship to fund your program; otherwise you will likely pay out of pocket. Fellowships are incredibly competitive, fully-funded programs are rare and admission is highly competitive, and funding a part-time PhD is very rare.

You will need to come up with a way to fund your research.

You will need to write your dissertation while you are teaching or working as a research assistant on another project, or working your other job.

You will then have a PhD, at least 6 years after (but honestly, likely much longer). Then you will be overqualified for pretty much all jobs that are not being a professor, but probably underqualified to actually be hired as a professor. You may still have your current job, but don't expect your PhD to benefit you at that job in any way, including salary increases or anything like that.

Knowing what I do now as I look out over the precipices of "No academic jobs" and "Overqualified almost-30-year-old who has basically no savings and a kind of unsatisfying personal life" and see my friends from high school on "Getting Married" and "Having Children" and "Satisfying Career" mountains, I would advise myself to make other choices. I'm happy with where I am and what I do, but I have paid huge opportunity costs for it. Do your research on the side. You don't need to buy into and contribute to a hugely unsustainable academic structure in order to be interested in things and research them.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:09 AM on April 12, 2016 [7 favorites]


Another thing to consider: In a lot of Ph.D. programs, it is very difficult to get faculty attention if you are seen as Not Serious — where "serious" usually means "utterly dedicated to making huge sacrifices for the sake of getting a tenure track job."

As far as the overall question goes: I think if there is specific research you want to get done, and a specific Ph.D. program where you will be able to do it, you should at least make some inquiries. Maybe you will find an advisor in that program who is interested in supporting that work.

But if you're just here for the general pleasure of reading, interviewing, studying or solving problems, then write an oral history of your local music scene, or get yourself a drone building kit and start customizing it, or take up geocaching or genealogy or birdwatching.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:30 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


You don't answer the most critical question, which is why you want to do a PhD (or think you want to, in your words). Why grad school at all, and why a PhD over a Masters? This question is even more critical because you say it's not for your career, which is....well, the usual reason why people go through everything you need to do to get a PhD.

I'm almost done my PhD (defending next week!), after more than 6 years of grad school. My lab is fantastic, we have decent funding (including a salary that allowed me to live comfortably albeit with very careful spending), my supervisor is brilliant and kind and wonderful, I've made many friends in the lab, I love the subject material, I've gotten some decent publishable data, and I've worked fairly reasonable hours on average (with some crazy times). I've been very, very lucky, and for the most part, it's been a wonderful experience. Many/most people are missing one or more of those things in their PhD, and don't have as wonderful an experience as a result.

Despite a pretty ideal PhD environment, I'm pretty ridiculously burnt out, disillusioned by science as a field, and seriously contemplating switching fields because I can't imagine doing this any longer. There are just too many things going wrong all the time, and the occasional thing going right isn't quite compensating for it anymore.

So whether I would do it again is a complicated question. I don't think I regret the time spent, and overall I did enjoy it, but most of the jobs I'm looking at now require a Masters at best, and a PhD is likely to overqualify me for some of them. So I'm not sure yet whether it was a productive use of my time and energy.

Would I do it part-time? HELL NO. Working full-time and doing your PhD at night, there's no way you'd be done in less than a decade, if you ever finish, and you'd spend most of your time catching up on advances other people are making in your field in the meantime. Even if you're in a field where a PhD is more of a novel than a research project, you're looking at a decade or more with even more stress and less free time than a straight-up PhD. Everyone I know who did university or a Masters part-time while working full-time (or even consistently part-time) had a miserable time and finished much later than they predicted. I don't know anyone who's done a PhD part-time because that's crazy.

If you want to see what research is like, great! Go for a Masters. A PhD is for people who know they enjoy research enough to make a career out of it - and many of us change our minds on that by the end of it.
posted by randomnity at 9:15 AM on April 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


So I'll put in an opposing viewpoint. I think if you don't really depend on the results of the PhD, if you're quite happy to do it on a part time basis, and you don't need the funding or the papers or all the status points of a traditional academic, I think you have the best possible reasons to do a PhD. You'll be studying for the sake of enriching your own knowledge and perhaps making a contribution to the field out of sheer love of it. This, according to me , is the ideal situation. All the normal pressures of a PhD program will not apply to you. Of course, the choice of a supervisor will be vital, as well as a good program. I can't say any more, because as others have mentioned, the situation is very different based on the field you want to get into as well as the country you're in.
posted by dhruva at 9:24 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've been out a year, and I realize that phrasing makes it sound like I'm talking prison. But I'm talking about a PhD.

I can add my sob story about how getting a Phd ruined my life (and it really did), but I think that's been well-covered above. I do want to add that you should not do this under any circumstances unless you have full funding for the duration of your entire program.

Most part-time PhD students I know never finish. YMMV.

Most people I know who made this choice this are lonely and poor. Most of them are over- or under-weight, with serious health issues that come from not taking care of themselves because they do not have the time or the energy to do so. All of them express genuine crushing guilt over the time they spend doing normal, everyday things like making dinner for themselves. YMMV.

I am a faculty member now, and I almost always advise the young, bright-eyed students who come into my office asking about how to pursue a PhD to back away from academia as quickly as they can. I know I'm not supposed to do this, but I can't bring myself to perpetuate this system. I envy the people who quit, almost as much as I envy the people who never got into this mess in the first place.
posted by sockermom at 9:49 AM on April 12, 2016


How about let's talk about WHAT you would do a Ph. D. in, and why a Ph. D. is the best path forward for that particular topic?

For a great many topics, you can become a subject matter expert on your own, and have a better experience with it than having to confine your investigations to the requirements of getting your Ph.D. Because you're driving, not some supervisor with their own agenda.

I concur with the vehement distain for doing grad studies after having gotten my master's in chemical engineering - I would be hella careful about the conditions if I ever did do it again. I am weary of doing a Ph.D. even part time - it does appeal... like having children and forgetting how much childbirth sucks... I would only do it for the IDEAL project, and would have to do much advance research and investigation into what that would be, who I would do it with, and agreement on how to go forward on the project with that supervisor/committee. But frankly, in the interim it looks like I'll be working towards being a subject matter expert on environmental remediation via my own work endeavors.
posted by lizbunny at 9:53 AM on April 12, 2016


You'll be studying for the sake of enriching your own knowledge and perhaps making a contribution to the field out of sheer love of it. This, according to me , is the ideal situation. All the normal pressures of a PhD program will not apply to you.

A quick point: this is not a thing. This is not possible. Academia is a system that perpetuates itself. If you do not contribute to perpetuating the system, you will get pushed out. Quickly. The "normal pressures of a PhD program" are things like qualifying exams, defending your proposal and then your dissertation, dealing with research subjects (be they mice, or people, or numbers, whatever), dealing with colleagues (at least two of whom who are more than likely narcissistic sociopathic shits), getting paid next to nothing because it's an "apprenticeship," etc. Everyone who does a PhD has to do these things, regardless of what you want out of the doctorate.
posted by sockermom at 9:54 AM on April 12, 2016 [10 favorites]


Your PhD will help create a new you who is no longer capable of or interested in enjoying anything at all ever again. Your friends (should you have any left) will want to engage in social activities and you will do so, but be fully distracted by the mountains of work that you have sitting undone. This will happen throughout your doctoral program. It will get worse and worse until you exist in a steady state somewhere between a panic attack and crippling depression. If you like insomnia, gaining weight, feeling like something is going to fall and crush you at any moment, and generally being sad a lot, then by all means, get a PhD for fun.

Well, I wouldn't say THAT exactly. However, the semester I took my comprehensive exams, I broke out in a rash over most of my body and also had crippling stomach aches and diarrhea 4-5 times a week, which lasted for several months. Mr. Freedom developed tremors down the right side of his body, and was thankful that at least he is left-handed, so he could still write his exams. My former boss, the chair of a department at a community college, started bleeding from her gums, and her hair started falling out.

The good news is that this USUALLY resolves itself once the exams are over!


Ok, in all seriousness, I am sort of in your position. I went back for a doctorate after I already had my Master's. I took 7 years in between the two because I could not fathom the idea of continuing after taking comps. I do not "need" a doctorate, I have a teaching job at the instructor level, and I am very happy. But I love academia and my field of research and I'm getting a good set of scholarships, so. I would urge you to think VERY VERY hard about all these negatives that everyone is bringing up and brace yourself for them. Now that I am older and doing this for the second time, I think it's worth it. When I was 23 and desperate to finish my Master's, not so much. It all depends on your outlook.

I also have WAY more support now than I did at 23. Then, I was living on my own, trying to scrape together enough to support myself, and trying to jumpstart my career. Now I have a husband, a house, two cats, a stable job, and a better idea of my research interests, as well as a therapist, a career coach, an antidepressant prescription, and emergency benzos.
posted by chainsofreedom at 9:59 AM on April 12, 2016


My boss got his PhD while working full time and starting a family. It took longer, and sometimes it was clear he'd rather be doing something other than going to a required seminar or writing his thesis, but he seems glad that he did it. Key factors were tuition reimbursement and having an advisor who was ok with the plan from the start.
posted by ldthomps at 10:22 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


The naysayers above have a good point. A lot of people go into academia because they have a passionate interest in their chosen field. A lot of these same people exit academia six or ten or twelve years later, utterly burnt out on that thing which once fascinated them so.

Bearing that in mind, I don't really see the harm in you giving it a shot, with caveats: for various reasons (some of which do not apply in your case since you don't intend to be a professor, but some of which still do apply) a PhD is really only worth acquiring if you don't have to pay anything for it. Usually that means, not only tuition remission but also a living stipend. In your particular situation, I guess a tuition remission (which includes student fees, etc) is all you'd really need, though. So, if you can manage to score such a package at a nearby university -- so the program won't disrupt your current employment -- I don't see the harm in giving it a shot. Don't be surprised if you end up wanting to run for the hills after the first semester, though.
posted by mylittlepoppet at 10:39 AM on April 12, 2016


There are worse reasons to get a PhD.

Your reasons may actually allow you to get more out of it than the people who do it thinking they want a career in academia/research.

On the other hand, the system is still going to be stacked badly against you. Chances are that if you can't be broken, you will be rejected as a dilettante.
posted by Good Brain at 10:39 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


If you want to see what research is like, great! Go for a Masters.

This is a really good suggestion.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:45 AM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]



There is absolutely nothing wrong with education for education's sake.

A PhD is primarily an apprenticeship rather than the sort of structured education you get with a bachelor's or master's degree.
posted by grouse at 7:38 AM on April 12


It's still education, is my point. Doesn't matter if its structured or not.

Actually, although I didn't remember till just now, members of my family have done exactly this.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:46 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Let me pose another question. You seem to have a surplus of time and money and you want some kind of change. A PhD is certainly a thing you could do that would shake up your life. Are there other things you could do? What are they and what kind of places would they take you?

Think about this seriously - it's a 5-year full time commitment, maybe 10 years part-time, it's going to eat half your salary for most of that span. This is like a Major Life Project. This is a big chapter of your life, it's a serious commitment of a big chunk of the limited life energy you have to spend. You could completely transform your life with these amount of resources. You could learn a new language, move to a new country and integrate to a new culture, train and master a completely new skillset and build a new career, start and grow a business ... so what's missing in your life and what do you really want? It is not my place to say what you should or shouldn't do, but I want you to go into this knowing that a PhD demands a major expenditure of life energy and it is very easy - common - maybe even typical - to come out feeling like this energy has been uselessly wasted. Tragically wasted. So don't throw it away. Spend consciously.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:58 AM on April 12, 2016 [7 favorites]


My anecdotal evidence is that the people I know who went into it part-time did finish and seemed the least scarred by the experience (for example, one did it while she had young kids, one did it while he was also working almost full time in a professional job). It seemed to me that doing it part time meant it did not become this symbol to them of their entire life worth.

The part-timers who didn't finish were the ones who kept switching to part time to just draw out the time they had to do it (in Australia you get 3.5 years of funding for a full time PhD, so it seemed to me that those who weren't doing well would switch to part time to give themselves longer, even if they continued to work on it full time).
posted by AnnaRat at 1:57 PM on April 12, 2016


I would also like to mention that in my case, my uni offered a research only phd program, which meant that I didn't have to do any coursework.
posted by dhruva at 2:03 PM on April 12, 2016


I could also list out all the horrors of the PhD process, although my story is not that different than those above. :) But just another vote for "definitely not worth it." I now have what is pretty much my dream job, so in my case I do feel it was worth it. But if it's not the only way to the career you want, I do not think it is worth it. Even if you're somehow able to escape the stress factor (which, let me just say, EVERYONE thinks they will be able to do, and almost no one is in fact able to do it), consider that you'll be spending a ton of time with miserable, depressed peers. And, it is REALLY hard to find an advisor willing to invest in you if you are not seen as a serious academic. Which, as a part-timer, you certainly would NOT be (my program did not even accept people part time).

There is zero reason you can't learn stuff on your own or take some classes or even do a Masters. The total misery that is a PhD program is not necessary, and honestly the most likely conclusion of all of this work would be completely killing your curiosity and desire to ever again do research.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:34 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


You have lost your mind. Part-time Masters in a field that would extend your job, more reasonable.
posted by clew at 3:45 PM on April 12, 2016


As you can see, you would be surrounding yourself with a ton of laid back people who never catastrophize and don't see the politics in social situations and would never do something just because it advances their career... But yeah, general curiosity is pretty much the only and best reason to do a graduate degree these days.
posted by one_bean at 6:19 PM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Why don't you just write a book? You'll have all the fun of research, the excuse to interview people thinking about similar subjects, and a finished project to show off, and you won't have to stress about why your Ph.D. advisor thinks you should be doing something else.

If you don't know what book you would write*, or how you would organize your time to get it written, you probably aren't ready to start a Ph.D. program anyway.


* (or what prototype you would build, if you're looking at a building-things sort of subject)
posted by yarntheory at 7:18 PM on April 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


I really, really think that a lot of this depends on what you're getting the PhD in and where you are. I got my own PhD in the US and now am a professor in Australia and the situations are very, very different. If you're in the US and in a field where you're expected to take lots of coursework, funding is tied to a specific supervisor, almost all of the programs are much more tailored to getting people prepared for academia and academia only, and taking 5-7 years for a full-time PhD is the norm (meaning it would take you 10-14 years doing it part-time) -- then I agree that you should seriously rethink this, or consider a Master's.

In Australia, on the other hand, most PhDs are 3-4 years (meaning it would be more like 6-8 done part-time). Funding is not so much tied to specific supervisors, which means you are a little less constrained if you happened to have a supervisor who is a total asshole. There is generally more work-life balance, which means there isn't the expectation that you must live and breathe your topic otherwise you are a total failure. There is not necessarily the expectation that you will go on in academia. If this sounds like New Zealand, then it might -- might -- not be a bad direction for you.

Other, more personal factors matter as well. I have had two students who sounded like you: both were mature age students with their own independent careers, who planned to do the PhD part time and who mainly wanted to do it because they were so interested in the subject matter. One of them didn't make it; the other hasn't graduated yet but I would say of all of my students (none of the others is part-time), he is making the best progress and he seems happiest with his life. He really appreciates the relative freedom of academia (compared to his job) to investigate interesting questions on his own and since he isn't burdened by the future-job-stress of my other students, he can enjoy the genuine positives of being a graduate student a lot more. [In fact I'm kind of jealous, because as a grad student my own future-job-stress was really crippling at times and the idea of being able to do research without that looming over one's head is really awesome].

That said, some people even in those ideal circumstances don't make it. In my case, my student who dropped out ultimately did so because he struggled too much with the balance: he ended up putting in 30+ hours a week at both his PhD and his job, and he had two small kids, and his sleep and mental health was really suffering. I didn't blame him but I don't think he or I had a sense going in how difficult that balance was going to be for him. I think if you are not already very good at being extremely efficient and setting priorities, trying to do both part-time will kill you. My student who is really enjoying it, though, is quite efficient -- he keeps logs and optimises frequently -- and it works for him. He also doesn't have small children and has the flexibility to handle the occasional crunch time, which is also critical.

The other reason my student who dropped out did so is that when push came to shove, he realised that what he loved the most was the idea of getting a PhD - not the actual research question. The student who is very happy is one of these people who just can't stop himself from obsessing about the kinds of research questions we study. So for him, the process is very truly its own reward.

Think very hard about yourself. Is this where you're coming from? If so, then this might be for you. But you have to love the process, or this will be a total mistake. Maybe not everything about the process -- nobody loves the bureaucracy, for instance -- but if more than say 5% of your motivation consists of hazy daydreams of yourself with the letters "PhD" behind your name, or yourself being able to opine as an expert on this or that topic, then don't do this. Seriously. It's true for everyone who wants a PhD, but especially if you're doing this part-time and not for the career goals, don't do it unless you really want to actually do the research. If you find yourself doing it and thinking about it anyway, without the benefit of a supervisor or colleagues, that's a good sign that this could work for you.
posted by forza at 9:33 PM on April 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


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