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PhD vs job?


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Hi everyone,

I'm new to the forum (and this process in general), and would really appreciate any input! :)

I'm a senior in college, and I'd always thought that I wanted to go into academia. As a result, I've never had any work experience outside of research internships. This past fall, I applied to several PhD programs in Psychology/CogSci. So far I've heard back from 3 schools inviting me to interviews. On a whim during a Career Fair on campus, I also submitted a resume to Microsoft just to see what would happen. I ended up going through two interviews with Microsoft and (very luckily and unexpectedly) received a job offer as a Program Manager. The job pays very well and is something that I would also be very interested in--I'm passionate about technology and how people communicate (hence CogSci). I am now considering accepting the job offer and reapplying to PhD programs after a year or two. My reasoning is that I could save up some money to use when I am a starving grad student, and also gain some work experience to make sure that research is what I really want to do. Admittedly, the job would not be that related to Psychology/CogSci research, but I'm hoping that the skills I would gain while working--communication skills, managing skills, technical/programming skills--would help my research career in the long run. However, I'm also worried that I would become "out of touch" with research during the two years I would be working, and significantly lower my chances of getting into an equally good program when I reapply. I guess this dilemma leads me to several related questions: (1) Is it helpful to work first before getting a PhD, or should I go straight out of college? (2) Would industry experience help me with my research career in the long run? (3) Would I be less likely to get into a program if I decline it this year to work and then reapply in a few years?

Thank you very much! I really appreciate your advice and comments.

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I'm not in your field, but my two cents: the economy is so bad and the prospects in academia are also so bad that I would take the job. It's only for a year or two (and a year can go fast!), you already suspect that you would enjoy the job, and it would build your resume for non-academic work as well as establish a network in case academia doesn't pan out. People in your field can better speak to the risks of losing touch and whatnot, but I'd say go for it!

Plus, if just a year or two outside the academy was enough to disqualify people, none of the non-traditional or gap year applicants would ever make it.

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40-hour workweek decently-salaried job now


60-hour workweek minimum wage grad student stipend for 5 years, with a kinda-sorta-not-really-better 2-year postdoc, and thereafter a slim chance of actually getting a quasi-permanent tenure-track position paying a somewhat-decent salary (but still with a 60-hour workweek)?

Take the job.

(Great, thanks. Now I'm second-guessing my Ph.D. applications. Got any openings at Microsoft you can hook me up with? ;))

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Take the job. Not only it will broaden your perspectives, but it will do wonders to your bank account :P.

As for what will it do to your future grad school applications, it may not necessarily set you back. You can always represent your Microsoft exp in the best light when you write your SOP.. The biggest hurdle may be to make sure that your LOR writers remember you by the time u apply to grad school.. So keep in touch with them.

As for your questions:

(1) Is it helpful to work first before getting a PhD, or should I go straight out of college?

Generally, if it is not a research-related job, then it wont help you. And there's that well-spread-phenomena among my undergrad cohort that those whose said that they'll go back to school, never do.. But, I broke this rule.. I went to the industry before deciding to go to grad school. When I decided that I'm gonna go back to school, I definitely KNOW why I want to go back to school (as opposed to not knowing anything else better to do). In retrospect, I am glad I took that break from school as it let me experience the "outside" world.

(2) Would industry experience help me with my research career in the long run?

If your job is not research-related, then may be no. But, you will stop wondering how would it feel to work in industry .... Well, I dont think industry fit me well though...hence, I have a certain respect for academia.

(3) Would I be less likely to get into a program if I decline it this year to work and then reapply in a few years?

maybe... But, you can minimize that by keeping in touch with all of your LOR writers and putting your industry exp in a good light when u write your SOP.

best of luck... Having Microsoft listed in your resume as an employer is great.

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Thank you for your input guys! That helps a lot. :) If there are other opinions, I would really appreciate that too!

I think this depends more on your long term goals than immediate finances and the pros and cons of being in a job making good money for two years versus the eventual time as a poor graduate student. IF you are committed to academia and are certain that is what you want to do, then I would suggest pursuing your PhD if you are accepted to a place you are excited about. That said, if you are hesitant about pursuing your PhD, which is very understandable coming fresh out of undergraduate, then the job may provide you valuable experience. The job can be valuable not because of its research-experience value or for applications, but for helping you gain perspective on what you really want to do with your life. Earning your doctorate is such a big commitment that it is best to be full-committed and if a job helps you learn that a PhD is or is not for you, then that experience is important.

I did not consider pursuing a PhD immediately after undergraduate and instead had a number of interesting jobs that helped shape my career goals, and in the end helped develop my research interests for my PhD. Even though I presently have a very good job, I am still excited to return to academia. In my case, my work experience helped affirm my desire to return to academia and helped me gain the experience and credentials to (hopefully) get into a strong PhD program.

Whatever your choice - best of luck!

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  • 3 weeks later...

Absolutely take the job! Working for a year before applying to grad school was the best decision I ever made. The experience and perspective you gain will make you a better and more motivated grad student if/when you decide to go for your PhD. It's true that a lot of people may say they're going back to school and then never do, but I'd look at it this way: 1) If you never go back to school because you enjoy your job and don't really feel the need to go back, I don't see anything wrong with that. 2) If you don't really like your job and can't see yourself staying there, you'll be all the more motivated to go back to school.

As one word of caution, however, I would say, if you take the job, be careful not to get strapped down with too many monthly expenses & responsibilities. This is probably one of the major reasons that people who say they will return to school don't. I will be going into grad school with a monthly car payment for the first 3 years- I don't regret it because it was a necessity for me getting to work, and the car will last me well beyond when I finish paying it off. However, be sure when you buy these sorts of things to be planning for a grad student's budget, not your current budget. I also adopted a dog last year, and while I absolutely love her, looking at starting grad school I have to consider her in my choice of housing, in my schedule, and in my budget. It's easy to say now that you will live frugally and below your means, but suddenly having the freedom that comes with a decent paycheck and no studying to do can really change your mentality.

Also, research experience may trump professional experience in applying to grad schools, but overall I think that professional experience prior to applying for grad school will be looked at very positively on your application- it will almost definitely make you a stronger applicant than someone coming right out of undergrad. Students who take a year or two away from school before going back tend to be more focused, confident, and realistic about their own abilities when they go to grad school, and admissions committees know this. If you get the chance, browse through the book "Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Getting an MA or a PhD" by Robert L. Peters. Also, take a look at the sample essays in the book "Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice" by Donald Asher. These will make it extremely clear that the many, varied life experiences applicants may have between undergrad and grad school only makes their applications stronger.

Finally, if you are dedicated and disciplined enough, it's not too hard to keep up-to-date with research. Keep in touch with faculty from your university & friends/classmates who are going to grad school in the field you are interested in. You may have to pay for subscriptions to a research journal or two if you don't have access to them through your job. Just set aside some of your free time for reading. For me, time off of school gave me the chance to really expand my horizons and when I go to grad school I will be doing research that I find really exciting, but that I was never exposed to as an undergrad, and wouldn't have known about if I hadn't taken the extra time to read up on the range of research going on in/slightly outside but related to my field.

Finally, I'm guessing job openings at Microsoft are really competitive, and getting that job offer (in addition to all those grad school interviews!) says a lot about your abilities. I'm thinking you will be just fine no matter what you decide to do. So, congratulations, and good luck!

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OP, I was in a PhD program and dropped out to be a program manager at Microsoft for a few years. I am now re-applying to grad school. If you have any questions about what MS is like, etc. DM me and we can talk. It can be a great company to be at, depnding upon which group you are in.

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Take the job.

It will give you time to focus your interests and interact with the real world (as oppose to "ivory tower hopping" for the rest of your life).

Plus, you said that you've never really had a job outside of research labs. How can you be so committed to one thing when you haven't tried anything else? Give it a shot and you'll be able to reevaluate in a year or two.

If you decide to take the job, let your POIs know WHY you are postponing your PhD (I did this exact same thing, though the job I took was in academia). Keep up with the journals that best represent your field. Continue following your POIs websites for new publications, and be sure to look into new programs as your interests evolve.

What ever you decide, best of luck!

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