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Help! Need advice! NSF fellow, but may prefer a masters only: what do I do?


sumner

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Hi all! I have been a lurker here for a couple years now (ever since I decided that graduate school might be in my future). First, let me say that you've all been a great help in the past to all us lurkers, even if you never heard us say so (until now). So thank you!

On to my current problem:

I was accepted to the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California: Irvine, and I am currently finishing up my first quarter here next week. I was given the NSF fellowship and therefore have three years of full-funding plus $30,000 in stipend per year. I have started working on refurbishing an older robot for new research purposes, but it's a longer project that may not culminate in publications for a while.

When I applied to grad school, I did it with intentions of a terminal masters, but (insert a long story here) was eventually accepted for a PhD with the expectation of earning a masters on the way. I was also urged to apply for theNSF graduate research fellowship, and I did. I did it more so with expectations of gaining application writing experience, and was surprised to be honored with the fellowship! The important fact to take away is that I sort of "fell" into a PhD track without set intentions to do so.

Because of the fellowship, I currently live a very privileged graduate student's life. I just don't know if I can spend five more years in academia. For a mechanical engineer (M.E.), the benefits of a PhD over a masters aren't that much, and in all honesty not fiscally worth an extra 3.5-4 years. I have ambitions to work in industry, and therefore don't need a PhD (for teaching etc…), either. On the other hand, I feel like I have a huge opportunity in front of me as well. I have no debt, I have great funding, and am in a good place. I have just turned 22, which is young, but 27 still sounds like a long time to wait before I venture into the "real world" or make "real money". Is it selfish to turn down 1.5 years (out of the 3 offered towards a PhD) of funding from the NSF? I just know a lot of people who ARE set on PhD would kill for my situation.

If you made it this far, thank you!! I really don't know what to think about all this, and your opinion is very helpful!

So, my question is.. what would you do?!

Would you tell your advisor your thoughts right away, and maybe ask him advice? Or would you make your decision first/on-your-own? Essentially, I would be able to finish my master's by the end of this year (august 2013) if that was my final decision, but would give up 1.5 years of NSF funding (~=$55k). Option 2: I can put my head back down and dig in for five years.

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Honestly if you know already that you don't want a PhD then I don't see why you would stay. If you leave with an MA, you could be joining the workforce, gaining practical experience and starting to earn real money much sooner than if you stay for a PhD. Not to mention that earning a PhD might also make you overqualified for some positions. I understand the sentiment of not wanting to give away the funding you won, but I don't think it's worth three years of your life where you'd be doing something you don't want to do.

Re: telling your advisor - that depends on your relationship with him. If you're comfortable confiding in him, why not tell him. Additionally, if your advisor will need to recruit someone to fill in your position, he'd probably appreciate it if you told him sooner rather than later so he can find someone during the upcoming application cycle. The main reason to hold back is if you think his behavior toward you will change if he knew you're not continuing for the PhD. In that case, you should do what's good for you and not what'd be good for your advisor.

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fuzzylogician - Thank you for your response!

The more I think about it, the less I think a PhD is what would be correct for my future at this point. My worry is that I'll get into industry and only then realize that maybe a PhD was the right thing to do. Is it unethical to take a leave of absence from school/fellowships to pursue a career for 1-2 years before officially pulling out?

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  • 2 months later...

@Sumner

I work in industry and am surrounded by engineers (Me being the only biologist), and every one of them have told me that getting a PhD in any type of engineering is a waste of time. Many of them have their PE (professional engineer)license which seems to hold more weight than a PhD. From their explanations, it seems as though real work experience is the best way to go. Hope this helps.

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No, it's not selfish to take or turn down the funding; you earned the funding on your merits, and you did it with good faith: you're in a PhD program, you are doing research, and you weren't one hundred percent sure that you were going to drop out with a terminal master's.  In fact, YOU were convinced by the department to do the PhD instead of the master's.  Who knows, next year you may change your mind and stay on.  It's not your fault that you were awesome and got an NSF.  Lots of people choose to leave after being awarded some fellowship or another; the presence of funding shouldn't deter you if you've determined that a PhD and a research career with one is not for you anymore.

And dear god, NO, it's not unethical to put the PhD on hold for a year and see if you like working and whether or not you want to return.  I think that's the best way to do it, if you really want out but aren't sure whether you want to come back.  You'll have that assurance that you can return.  Just a note, though, that if you take a leave of absence for a non-medical related reason you may have to terminate your NSF.  I checked the rules and there don't seem to be a provision for those of us who want to take a year or two break.

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@Sumner

I work in industry and am surrounded by engineers (Me being the only biologist), and every one of them have told me that getting a PhD in any type of engineering is a waste of time. Many of them have their PE (professional engineer)license which seems to hold more weight than a PhD. From their explanations, it seems as though real work experience is the best way to go. Hope this helps.

This was very helpful; thank you!  It is always hard for me to judge my field whether it be academia or industry.  I am the only (and I do mean only) one in any of my immediate or extended family who has finished a 4 year degree let alone grad school.  I don't have many friends who chose similar career paths either, so I don't have a lot of people to look to.  Thanks for your view from the "field". :)

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No, it's not selfish to take or turn down the funding; you earned the funding on your merits, and you did it with good faith: you're in a PhD program, you are doing research, and you weren't one hundred percent sure that you were going to drop out with a terminal master's.  In fact, YOU were convinced by the department to do the PhD instead of the master's.  Who knows, next year you may change your mind and stay on.  It's not your fault that you were awesome and got an NSF.  Lots of people choose to leave after being awarded some fellowship or another; the presence of funding shouldn't deter you if you've determined that a PhD and a research career with one is not for you anymore.

And dear god, NO, it's not unethical to put the PhD on hold for a year and see if you like working and whether or not you want to return.  I think that's the best way to do it, if you really want out but aren't sure whether you want to come back.  You'll have that assurance that you can return.  Just a note, though, that if you take a leave of absence for a non-medical related reason you may have to terminate your NSF.  I checked the rules and there don't seem to be a provision for those of us who want to take a year or two break.

KellyKell - Thank you for taking the time to respond! This was all extremely helpful. It may just be the proverbial nail in the coffin.  I suppose it comes down to working up the guts to talk to my advisor.  I have always been the type to impress and please others even at my own expense.  I think that is what has made this decision hard for me.  It's really the first time in my academic career I haven't gone above and/or beyond what was expected of me.  I have to move past feeling like I am moving "down" a degree though, and do what is right for my career in the long run.

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