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Is it worth it for me (as a Non-traditional) to go back for PhD?


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I am a nontraditional student with an MA and several years of research experience who has applied to several PHD programs. I am currently waiting to hear back from schools and I am having serious doubts about whether or not it is worth it (for me) to pursue a PHD.


I envision that having a PHD will enable me to:

· have a job with flexibility (this is a major draw)

· make a decent salary (currently I am stalled in the 40s)

· have some control over my day and the freedom to attend to family when needed.

· I will never be bored at work


· I am not sure if I have what it takes intellectually to defend my ideas on a continual basis. I think I am reasonably intelligent but I have little confidence these days and even graduate level classes are intimidating me at this point. The idea dong doing battle on a daily basis is scary.

· I have family ties in my current area and I don’t want to move my family in 4 years to get the only junior faculty position available.

· I am leary of taking a 50% pay cut for 4 years only take a post doc that pays about what I make right now in 2011. Did I mention I took a 5k pay cut this past year when I was downsized. Basically I am making only a few thousand more than I did in 2003.

· I am not sure I want to give up the retirement contribution that I would receive from my employer if I stayed in my currently position.

People say only do the Phd if it is your life long dream to study X. Well, I don’t know if I can say that. Honestly, when I left research for a while I did not ready one research article during that time. I have plenty of hobbies that provide intellectual stimulation and they don’t require a PHD to enjoy them.

Basically, I am at a huge decision point. If I go into a program and I fail I will cost my family a lot in terms of time and money. Maybe my MA, if accepted, will shave some time off of this endeavor and make it less of a sacrifice but still there is the problem of what to do after the PHD. For some who go to PHD out of undergrad can at least tell themselves they got an MS if they don't make it all the way through. For me that would be a moot point. I keep reminding myself to NOT overplan this but it is hard to ignore so may looming questions.

Sorry this is so long but there is a lot for me to tease apart here (fear of failure vs genuine reasons for not dong this).

I would appreciate any input regarding this issues/anxieties. Thanks in advance.


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This is something I'm thinking about right now too, especially the fact that working on a PhD would mean that many years less I was contributing towards retirement. In my current position, I'm making next to nothing (I am back to the same pay scale I was in the early-mid 90s,) but the benefits are great. I don't have the other cons to deal with, namely family, but I do wonder if putting myself behind as far as retirement benefits go is the smartest thing in the world. I sometimes wonder if it wouldn't be smarter to just wait for a better job market and look for a higher-paying job.

In the end, I applied to two ridiculously competitive programs with astronomically high rejection rates, and two programs with questionable funding. I figure that if I got into either of the first two, I'd pretty much have to go, and my mind would be made up for me. But then again, if I make the wrong decision, no one is affected but me, so it's probably a lot easier for me.

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I'm just a really young 21 with pretty much no life experience, so you can take this with a grain of salt. That said...

I really believe that the "right" decision always boils down to what will make you the most happy with your life and yourself. Who cares about having lots of money or success if you can't find joy in life?

That being said, would you be happier deciding to forgo the PhD and wondering the rest of your life if you shoulda coulda woulda or getting a PhD, losing some financial security, and maybe having to live more frugally and retire later than you otherwise would have?

Do you really think you would fail at a PhD, or is it just self-doubt that you're allowing to creep in?

I think your family would understand especially if they knew that trying was important to you. Speaking as a daughter, it's much more important to me that my father be happy and content with his life than having enough money to buy lots of frivolous things. My family has scrimped and saved for as long as I can remember, and it's made me a better person. But you do have to consider how they feel and how their feelings would impact your happiness or chance of success.

Really only you can decide what's best as you're the only one with all the details. But I hope you take some time to consider what you WANT to do without worrying so much about logistics and what ifs. They're important, no doubt, but I don't think they are the most important part of the equation.

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Ah, I asked a similar question to this one on the Sociology board.

I also applied to some super competitive programs, so at the moment I'm left with a "low-ranked" university versus keeping my current job and working my way up the private sector.

I do love Sociology & academia, but I'm worried about the 'risk' of going to a low-ranked school, possibly accumulating debt, and not finding a job after graduating. My time in the private sector has definitely shown me that employers (at least in market research) seem to prefer work experience over the PhD.

I wish I could give you some advice but all I can think of is "confusion loves company". :mellow:

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It depends, to some extent, on what field you're in and how the Ph.D. would improve your job prospects in that field. You mention wanting a faculty position and that the flexibility that can come with those positions as one of your biggest reasons for pursuing a doctoral degree, but you also mention that you don't particularly enjoy research. The academic job market is tight in all fields, but some more than others - and if you really want a tenure-track position, you need to be prepared to move your family farther from home than four hours. Faculty positions either require quite a bit of research or have high teaching loads, which will significantly reduce the flexibility that you desire, and even tenure-track positions that focus on teaching (often) have limited pay. It might be worth researching the market in your particular field and seeing both what the academic market is like and what you could do with your degree outside of academia.

For me, as I was waiting to hear back, I definitely wavered on whether this was the right choice for me. I think it's natural to "devalue" the potential path to protect ourselves in case it doesn't come through - the sort of "that's okay, I didn't really want to go to your school anyway" kind of reaction that so many of us have when we get rejected (who needs warm weather, I keep telling myself!). When you hear back from your schools, your emotional reaction may tell you how you feel... Best of luck to you in making a decision that sounds multifaceted and difficult.

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i did a spreadsheet that calculated salary/retirement between now and the next 25 years. I did it pretty conservatively and the PHD still come out ahead but not by as much as you would think. those 5 or 6 early years of compounding hurt the phd row quite a bit.

Did you research average salaries in your field with and without a PhD to figure this out? I figure that by spending 4 years in a PhD program, I'd be denying myself somewhere around $60-70k of retirement contributions in the near future, not counting compounding and stock market fluctuations. But this doesn't take into account that a PhD should make for a higher income for the last 17-18 years before retirement. I guess if it turned out I came out ahead at all, even by a little bit, it would definitely be worth pursuing.

But I haven't heard back from anyone either, so I'm getting ahead of myself.

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I'm in a somewhat similar position. A PhD in what I am interested in (*cough*, philosophy) leads to a career with a salary about 50% of my current salary (in clinical research, hi!, PM me if you want to talk about the CR options). So... I applied to three highly ranked programs. If I get in, I'm thinking of it like a calling from God or something similar- an opportunity. But the financials are very bad indeed. Long term, if I get in, I would like to see myself as a adjunct (good thing, since that's the most likely outcome) and also consulting in my current field and maybe having the best of all worlds.

At this point, I'm almost hoping I don't get in. I feel like I had to try to shut off that voice in my head that was saying why not try. Now I can say I did try, it didn't work out (if that's the case) and get on with the rest of my (very awesome) life and career. And not be poor, which this process has reminded me is also very awesome.

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So... I applied to three highly ranked programs. If I get in, I'm thinking of it like a calling from God or something similar- an opportunity.

Yeah, that's what I did too. Aim so high that if I got in, I wouldn't have any choice but to go, regardless of the long-term financial impact.

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