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master out and become engineer or switch groups and get the PhD?


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Lately, I'm realizing that I might not be the type to get a PhD after all. I have few friends in my department. The good friends I have are outside of my graduate program. I find that a lot of people who are doing PhD's may be lacking in the social department, or maybe that's just the particularity of my group.. And even those that do socialize, I don't really find myself a good fit with them. I would like to have a life outside of school, go out maybe a couple of times a week, have time for hobbies, and just have the time to develop other aspects of myself than my career. I don't want my career to define who I am, but I feel like this is where the PhD is taking me.. my father is a PhD (different field, not what inspired me), and his career consumes him.. I don't want to be that.

On the other hand, I have worked in industry as an engineer, and the level of intellectual engagement I had as an entry level was quite poor. I was basically a paper pusher. I realize that most entry level assignments are like this, and I was hungry to actually use my engineering brain to solve engineering problems. That's why I went back to school for a PhD, so that I can work on interesting projects, with higher levels of autonomy and higher quality people. I had this vision of working in industry, collaborating with others, sharing ideas, and working in a team to solve complex engineering problems.

That said, I have not found a whole lot of collaboration in my PhD group. I believe a large portion of this is because we have a relatively small group, and we're all working on pretty different projects, which I get is the case most of the time. I think another component of this is not everyone in the group seems to be getting along. I always try to keep things lighthearted and always make things a learning experience. I can't say the same for everyone else, as much as I'd like to. Bottomline, I don't think I'm a good fit in this group.

My path forward is to master out and get a job, or try to find a different group, which will likely have to be in a different department, because my research is in a specific area, and I came back to school to get trained in this area, as well as get my phd. Based on what I've written, what are y'all's take?

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29 minutes ago, spectastic said:

Based on what I've written, what are y'all's take?

You may be trying to find too much self-efficacy in one arena.

You want

  1. work that is intellectually challenging,
  2. a work environment that is intellectually engaging from the start and most of the time, and
  3. a workplace that provides opportunities for social bonding with your peers, 
  4. AND you have a quirky personality/sense of humor which you don't want to dial down too much, AND
  5. a work life balance

In my work experience at two engineering firms in different industries, a great work/life balance is the minimum price one pays to check the other items off the list, and dialing down the quirkiness is also a requirement if one wants to get the more challenging projects. My sense is that it's about earning trust from the Powers That Be by demonstrating one's commitment by fitting in with the culture of the pack and showing one can handle responsibility in a way that resonates. Ultimately, it's about expenses and revenue and reputation. There are those people that the bosses like to pal around with, and those they trust with the future of the company. Members of the former don't always get asked to join the latter; the latter are not always from the former.

IRT earning a Ph.D. and joining the work force, IME, new hires with doctorates (we've hired two this year and one year before last) are expected to hit the ground racing with zero warm up time and even less training time.

My recommendation is that if you decide to rejoin the private sector sooner rather than later, you practice patience, patience, and more patience. The time you spend pushing paper and twiddling your thumbs is part of your training. PMs/bosses need to trust an engineer before that person is given meaningful work. (We recently hired an EIT who is a course or two shy of a master's degree. This EIT is having many of the issues you described years ago. Those of us who are training this new hire are counseling patience but the advice may be falling on deaf ears.)

Edited by Sigaba
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13 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

You may be trying to find too much self-efficacy in one arena.

You want

  1. work that is intellectually challenging,
  2. a work environment that is intellectually engaging from the start and most of the time, and
  3. a workplace that provides opportunities for social bonding with your peers, 
  4. AND you have a quirky personality/sense of humor which you don't want to dial down too much, AND
  5. a work life balance

In my work experience at two engineering firms in different industries, a great work/life balance is the minimum price one pays to check the other items off the list, and dialing down the quirkiness is also a requirement if one wants to get the more challenging projects. My sense is that it's about earning trust from the Powers That Be by demonstrating one's commitment by fitting in with the culture of the pack and showing one can handle responsibility in a way that resonates. Ultimately, it's about expenses and revenue and reputation. There are those people that the bosses like to pal around with, and those they trust with the future of the company. Members of the former don't always get asked to join the latter; the latter are not always from the former.

IRT earning a Ph.D. and joining the work force, IME, new hires with doctorates (we've hired two this year and one year before last) are expected to hit the ground racing with zero warm up time and even less training time.

My recommendation is that if you decide to rejoin the private sector sooner rather than later, you practice patience, patience, and more patience. The time you spend pushing paper and twiddling your thumbs is part of your training. PMs/bosses need to trust an engineer before that person is given meaningful work. (We recently hired an EIT who is a course or two shy of a master's degree. This EIT is having many of the issues you described years ago. Those of us who are training this new hire are counseling patience but the advice may be falling on deaf ears.)

Thanks for your response. I've highlighted the things on the list that are valuable to me. I think bonding with peers is something that's more dependent on personality types than anything else. Sometimes, people get along, other times, not so much. I'm not sure where the quirkiness comes from. I can be quirky with my friends. I only crack safe for work jokes when I'm at work, that's not really a problem for me or my peers.

as far as earning trust before getting more responsibility is concerned, I was working in the oil and gas / chemical production area. there was not a position i could transition into that would involve anything other than keeping the plant running. they kept the r&d stuff largely secret from everyone else, but having talked to some of their engineers, it seemed like they were just doing process control stuff. It's just not really my cup of tea.

If I could get a job doing research with my Master's, and getting to learn and collaborate with likeminded people, and have room to move up, I think I would be happy with that. My main concern is that I'll be competing with PhD's for some of those jobs, and I might hit a ceiling quickly with a Master's, especially at a bigger company.

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It's possible to maintain a social life while doing a PhD, and it's possible to find a workplace in industry with your important components (including the personality expression) with a PhD too.

Just because you don't find much in common socially with the other people in your department doesn't mean you have to drop out - it just means you need to get in there to do what you need to do, then clear out. I did this in my PhD program for similar reasons - I liked and respected my colleagues, but I didn't want to be friends with them. I found friends outside the department, or with master's students, or with people who weren't grad students at all. I definitely went out a few times a week, indulged in hobbies, and developed other aspects of myself (I learned to bake while writing my dissertation; I ran every morning; I started yoga; etc.) It's just that you have to make the conscious decision to do that and put in the work to develop your relationships and your personality outside of the confines of your program.

On the other hand, there are lots of interesting jobs you can get in industry with a BS or MS in which you wouldn't be a paper pusher. Now that you have a little more experience and education, especially, you might find your way into an interesting role where you can solve engineering problems. It sounds like the job you were in was a bad fit for you, and not necessarily that you needed a PhD to do more interesting work. Unless you're committed to doing research - and, specifically - to leading a research team in conducting cutting-edge research somewhere - then I don't really think you need a PhD. Your real task is to find a company and team culture that fits what you want (collaboration, interesting problems, work/life balance).

Academic work is by its nature kind of isolating. If you're looking for collaboration and sharing, you will not find that in a PhD program...not really. I was in a department in which people were friendly and wonderful and even occasionally published together, but on the whole the feel was not "collaborative." It was often people working in parallel, or at the very most would take different parts of a project and split it up in such a way that they weren't even really working together much. If you read many blogs and comments by academics, you'll see that's just the case across the field. Science is a bit more collaborative than other areas, and some people have good paired working experiences, but the work is not really designed to be completed in teams of PhDs - your job as a professor is to build a lab in which you'll conduct most of your work.

So I don't think your answer is so clear; it kind of depends on the kind of work you want to do. I think you can be happy in your PhD program, but you have to stop relying on your cohortmates to be friends and branch out to make other relationships outside the department. You could also probably be happy if you left with an MS and went into research in industry, but I don't know whether you would find the competition too steep or hit a wall - I'm not in the same field.

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15 hours ago, juilletmercredi said:

It's possible to maintain a social life while doing a PhD, and it's possible to find a workplace in industry with your important components (including the personality expression) with a PhD too.

Just because you don't find much in common socially with the other people in your department doesn't mean you have to drop out - it just means you need to get in there to do what you need to do, then clear out. I did this in my PhD program for similar reasons - I liked and respected my colleagues, but I didn't want to be friends with them. I found friends outside the department, or with master's students, or with people who weren't grad students at all. I definitely went out a few times a week, indulged in hobbies, and developed other aspects of myself (I learned to bake while writing my dissertation; I ran every morning; I started yoga; etc.) It's just that you have to make the conscious decision to do that and put in the work to develop your relationships and your personality outside of the confines of your program.

On the other hand, there are lots of interesting jobs you can get in industry with a BS or MS in which you wouldn't be a paper pusher. Now that you have a little more experience and education, especially, you might find your way into an interesting role where you can solve engineering problems. It sounds like the job you were in was a bad fit for you, and not necessarily that you needed a PhD to do more interesting work. Unless you're committed to doing research - and, specifically - to leading a research team in conducting cutting-edge research somewhere - then I don't really think you need a PhD. Your real task is to find a company and team culture that fits what you want (collaboration, interesting problems, work/life balance).

Academic work is by its nature kind of isolating. If you're looking for collaboration and sharing, you will not find that in a PhD program...not really. I was in a department in which people were friendly and wonderful and even occasionally published together, but on the whole the feel was not "collaborative." It was often people working in parallel, or at the very most would take different parts of a project and split it up in such a way that they weren't even really working together much. If you read many blogs and comments by academics, you'll see that's just the case across the field. Science is a bit more collaborative than other areas, and some people have good paired working experiences, but the work is not really designed to be completed in teams of PhDs - your job as a professor is to build a lab in which you'll conduct most of your work.

So I don't think your answer is so clear; it kind of depends on the kind of work you want to do. I think you can be happy in your PhD program, but you have to stop relying on your cohortmates to be friends and branch out to make other relationships outside the department. You could also probably be happy if you left with an MS and went into research in industry, but I don't know whether you would find the competition too steep or hit a wall - I'm not in the same field.

thanks for your input. I have indulged in my hobbies, and tried to have a life outside of academics. however, my advisor sees this as a threat. he doesn't think i'm motivated enough to be in his group, if I prioritize my life over research. but jesus, I'm 27. this is the time to have a life, if I'm ever to have one. priorities generally change when you're 30s and onward. anyway, I think I have what it takes to complete a PhD. I just need to find a different group by the end of the semester, and my options are limited.. 

I completely agree with you about working in parallel, compared to collaborating.. One big unknown I have is how will this rhythm change after getting your PhD? I imagine you won't be expected to pull more than 40 hrs/week, and the work environment WILL be more collaborative. But if you basically worked your ass off to get to the dream job, wouldn't you be expected to continue to sacrifice for it? The idea I get is that PhD is like boot camp. After boot camp, it's just the beginning..

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