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Rethinking career choices? Is this normal?


rkg2012
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I got into several good programs, but I am now petrified of academia. I know lots of people second guess their decision of which school to go to, but I'm going well beyond that. Do I really want to spend 5-8 more years in school? Am I really sure about my area of focus? Will I actually be able to (have the energy to) succeed in the world of publish or perish? What if I don't find a job? I was so certain and confident when I started, but now I'm rethinking everything and the stress of making decisions is seriously detracting from my schoolwork. Does anyone else have similar feelings? How are you dealing with the whole situation?

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I am feeling the same thing and asking the same questions. Many people might respond to this topic with "Well you are probably not right for academia if you are questioning it at this point" but these are really good questions and I don't think a lot of pre-PhDs seriously (and I mean seriously) put into account the amount of uncertainty one walks into when going into a PhD program, and I don't care if you are going to an Ivy league school or a small unknown program - you will never know if you are going to work well with your POIs, get your manuscripts published (let alone written), and also life OUTSIDE academia - personal life, family, relationships. A Master's degree is easy to commit to (in my opinion) because it is a lot shorter and a Master's can be applied to more than just academic careers. When you get a PhD, you are limiting your career options severely, albeit, you might be able to get a fantastic tenure-track job, but the chances are low and you need to be willing to relocate at the drop of a hat to get a job.

In short: I am questioning whether I want to get a PhD too. I love school, I love taking classes, learning, researching, and developing not only my own mind but my discipline and students. But I am also approaching my 30s and I want to have a family and have a stable life. A PhD does not bring much stability. That is the reality.

These are my honest thoughts right now. But I still respect and admire those that are in or have completed PhD programs.

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It is completely reasonable to ask these kinds of questions. I heard somewhere (but can't remember where, sorry!) that the dropout rate for PhD's is near 50%. Is it because they aren't smart and talented? Hell no! We all see everyday just how many smart and talented people never even make it in!

But after the first few years, many programs kind of have you direct yourself and lots of super talented people just can't make it work. They complete their coursework and not their disseration. (Obviously there are other, more complicated, reasons why people leave PhD programs as well).

If you're really questioning this, you have a few options.

1) Talk to people currently in PhD programs. Ask them what their days are like, if they think it was worth it, or if they have any regrets. Does their life sound like one you want? Also, since you're in the progress of choosing schools, you may find things that will be dealbreakers for you (For example, it is really important to me that English and Writing departments at my school get along; I've heard horror stories that made me scared to go to grad school at all! BUT, that is one of the things I'm taking into careful consideration as I choose a school.)

2) Talk to your profs or a mentor you have; someone you really trust. They should know you well enough to help you see if you are pysching yourself out or if you are bringing up things that may point to a different life path.

3) Look into the possibility of a deferrment for your top choice. For me, working outside of academia for a year was more than enough to show that this is my path.

And, most important, remember that you're allowed to make a mistake.

If you don't go this year and decide later that you want to, it isn't like all the things that got you in now will have disappear. And if you start a program and decide to leave, no one will come after you and poke you with sticks. Life is a journey. Let your life unfold. By all means, do your homework and trust your gut. But beyond that, do we really have any control?

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Thank you both. I guess I'm reasonably confident that I want to continue my education, but I am less confident that I will be happy in academia afterward. Maybe I'm just afraid of failure though.

I will certainly be discussing my doubts/choices with professors. I agree that a Masters is pretty easy to commit to, but mine hasn't been as fulfilling as I expected, which probably has something to do with my current doubts. I will be visiting the programs that I've been accepted to in a couple weeks. Surely I will have a better feel if I will be happy/how happy I might be at each of the programs after that.

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I'm going through the same thing! I was just accepted into my dream PhD program, and I will soon finish an MA at a very good school. Yet... I am starting to doubt whether this is right for me. Do I want to make $20,000/year for the next 5 years? What are my odd at a tenure track job? If I go work for a company I can make more money and have more freedom with my life (relationships, where I live, etc.). Lot's to think about, and I don't think any of us should feel guilty for questioning our decisions.

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Me too! I've been stressing out so much about this lately and mind you I'm only commiting to a master's and not a PhD. I'm so scared of making this decision. I keep praying that some sign will manifest itself to me and help me choose what to do. There's just sooo much uncertainty and I don't do well with making decisions that are highly uncertain.

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If I can throw in 2 cents....

This is completely normal and a sign that you're human. I think one of the biggest problems about people going into the PhD land is that they treat is like school. It is and it isn't. Yes, you're attending a school but you're also training for a very specific career. Furthermore, the MA and PhD zones are two very different things. Even in these combined track prgrams you can always finish your MA and then decide that academia just isn't for you. That's fair. At a PhD, well, as was mentioned if after a semester or a quarter or whatever you just it ain't for you....then it ain't for you.

That being said, don't rush into any decisions. Give it a lot of thought. A good grad program is going to be a lot of work, involve a lot of effort, and probably take a big toll on you at certain points. Welcome to the game, basically.

My personal 'demon' (if you can call it that) is worrying about the whole realm of publishing. I love what I do but I don't necessarily look forward to this mentality of having to write a ton of articles just to get a secure job. Mind you, that mentality can be very different depending on where you land a job. It's also easy to think that everything published has to be a piece of gold when it really doesn't. Hell, just pick up any journal and check out what most articles are these days. Not everything written is a Renfrew-style seminal work.

That's a bit rambly but...it's end of quarter. I can't think straight, haha. rmgerdes gave you a lot of good advice. I'd definitely stress talking to someone you trust that is either in a PhD program or is a professor. Generally I've found that people in the application process, etc, etc are horrible downers and aren't the best source of advice.

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I was having similar doubts about whether I would enjoy being in a PhD program or would be able to find a job afterwards.

The first concern subsided after I visited some schools and got a better sense of what the programs were like. Being able to talk to current graduate students was very helpful. I could really see myself happy at one of the schools that I visited.

The idea of relying on becoming a professor in a highly competitive academic environment always felt very stressful to me. I looked into how to prepare for positions in industry with my degree. I now know what skills to acquire and have confidence that I can get a job in industry. Looking into reports on what people in your program/subject area after graduation is a good way to start a search like this.

Gathering information can help you make a good decision and removes a lot of the uncertainty associated with worrying. Getting in contact with current graduate students and professors in your area of study is probably best.

Best of luck!

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I think it's very healthy to have these thoughts because a PhD is a very large commitment to make (financially, emotionally, and career-wise too!). It shows that you are giving careful consideration for a very important decision. Either way you decide, you can at least feel that you've thought about this thoroughly. One reason I am in a MSc program right now was because I could not be confident I could commit to a PhD program right out of undergrad. Also, in Canada, you have to do a MSc first anyways.

Even when putting together my applications in the last months I was still having doubts. I could only write my SOPs on the "good" days where I felt confident about my PhD decision! Eventually, talking it out with my family, peers, and especially my spouse helped me make the decision. I know I do not want the "traditional" academic life where I complete a PhD, move from place to place looking for post-docs and then basically moving to whatever school offers me a tenure track position (if I can get one at all). My dream career is a tenure-track position in my research field, but the academic life terrifies me!

But then I realised that's not the only route you can go after a PhD. My spouse and I agreed that in ~8-10 years from now (so after a PhD and 1-2 post docs), we WILL be living in our hometown. We want to raise our future children close to our family and we really enjoy the place we grew up in. I know it is very unlikely that I will be able to land a tenure-track position in my hometown but having a PhD would help me get a position at one of the many teaching colleges nearby (Only a MSc is required, but PhD helps and pays more). We also know that I might be able to get a position as semi-permanent research or teaching staff, which is fine by me.

tl;dr: I was concerned that pursuing a PhD/an academic career would compromise on what my spouse and I want for our future family. But we felt better once I realised I could limit this effect by explicitly setting priorities: family first, career second, since I won't really need a good career without a family to provide for!

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its good to think about these things. previous posts already said alotta great stuff. my one thought:

were you gonna get at least a masters anyways? if so, just take the qualifying exam once classes are done, pass it, then drop out and boom! you just got an MA for free.

i dont know at all what the job market for archaeology is though, and if an MA would even help?

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I think the problem is this myth that "you have to be sure," coupled with all of the stereotypes of PhD holder (perpetuated by professors themselves) - that the "life of the mind" means you have to be a hermit that only thinks about your research and works 80-hour weeks, taking no vacations.

First of all, I would be worried if someone said that they couldn't imagine doing anything else besides being a professor. That either shows a lack of imagination or some other issues...anyone who would make a good professor would also be good at a variety of other things. So I think it's only natural to wonder if maybe you should do one of those other things that takes far less time and hard work to achieve. It was only when I realized that I had many options besides being a professor (including options if I decided to leave my program) that I felt truly content here. So that's rule number 1 - never feel trapped. You can always leave. If you got into a PhD program, you are intelligent, resourceful, and hard-working. You can figure something else out!

I think that made me feel better going into the program, when someone told me that even if I hated it, I could just leave with my MA.

The other thing is that with a PhD, you only have to work as hard as you want to (after a certain point). That's not really true during the coursework phase; you have to do the coursework rather quickly to maintain adequate progress. The coursework is kind of a grind, but it's a predictable grind - you've taken classes before; you know what to expect. They're at a higher level, but at their basic core the structure is the same.

After that...your progress is more or less on you as long as you stay on your advisor's standards. I decided that I wasn't going to kill myself to try to be America's Next Top PhD Student, but I still have a first-authored publication in a great journal, a third-authored paper in the final stages of prep and two more first-authored ones in the planning stages. The statement "it's a marathon, not a race" is so, so, so true. So don't think that you have to stress yourself (unless everyone at your intended program is running the rat race. I chose my PhD program, in part, because people seemed much more laid-back here. Work gets done but people leave at 6 pm).

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