The post-secondary implosion has stimulated all kinds of thoughts on DIY education, how to hack education, and how to earn a badge instead. In between status quo and the other extreme, there are options for doing higher ed differently. It certainly may seem crazy to do a doctoral degree these days given the fact that the primary employer for PhDs is undergoing a major mid-life crisis, but there are still good reasons to do one, especially if you aren’t looking for a job as a professor.
I get questions occasionally from people who are interested in doing a PhD but aren’t really sure whether it’s worth it, whether they can do it and work at the same time, whether they can do it and have kids at the same time, and whether they can do it and still have a life. My answer to the above based on my own experience is maybe, yes, yes, sort of. This post is really about sharing some my thoughts on those questions, as well as pass on some observations I’ve made along the way. To give you some context, I’ve had a very up and down university student career–I was an almost undergrad drop out (academic probation), then a Masters drop out. When I went back to finish my Masters the 5 year period had run out, and I had to start all over again. Given my lackluster track record, I decided to attempt a PhD only if it didn’t mean quitting my full time job or getting into debt.
My overall advice is to approach your PhD like part businessperson, part project manager. Try not to get caught up in any ivory tower romanticism that you might have, or that is being conveyed to you via other channels of influence. You need to understand the PhD project in terms of its overall costs and benefits, and its potential return on investment. You need to do your homework on this. However, every PhD program, every personal situation is a bit different, so you also need to take this into account when listening or reading anybody’s advice on the topic.
The first decision to make is whether it’s worth investing financially in your PhD. You need to research realistic job prospects, find out how much they pay, and then calculate how long it will take to recover your costs (eg. your return on investment, or ROI). If you have a job that you like and are planning on staying there beyond your PhD, you might want to find out whether there are any pay incentives for doing one (eg. will you get a raise, and is the raise worth it?). Everybody has a different comfort zone here for the ROI , but the ROI number I was looking for was 2 years. I looked at a few places in the US, which would have required the cost of relocating, 10’s of thousands of more in tuition, and dubious job prospects for my partner (important!), and I would have had to quit my job. My local university was offering free tuition for PhD students and since I was employed by the same university in a job that I liked, this was a really easy decision to make. Be careful here though…some universities can offer you much more than free tuition–grants, scholarships, etc, and it can add up to more than what your current job is paying. But if you are considering funding it through those sources you will want to also calculate the time/effort/cost invested in pursuing those sources of funding and potential return. One scholarship I considered applying for would have required about 80 hours of time for a return of $12,000 and about a 20% chance of success of getting it. I didn’t think my chances were worth it for 80 hours of unpaid lost time, considering how competitive the candidate pool was in my department. Remember, in a project planned PhD, 80 hours of lost time is significant, since it may end up being a cost in lost income, or having to pay tuition for one more semester.
If you aren’t sure about keeping your job while pursuing your PhD, you might want to find out what the grad student pay rate is at your university, and any benefits that are provided. When I went back to do my Masters, I realized that working part time at the grad student rate, with the addition of some medical and dental benefits that I didn’t have at my job at the time, made more sense than actually keeping my job, which essentially paid less. You might also want to calculate the benefit of working on campus vs. lost time in travelling to and from your job. Time really is $ in a PhD project, so this can really add up, not to mention the cost of transportation that you use to get to and from your job.
Once you’ve done your homework and made a decision, you will want to gather your assets and start minimizing your risks. That is the subject of the next post.