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Unsure about PhD route. . .


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So- I'm debating doing a PhD in civil/construction engineering at a top 5 engineering school, but I'm unsure if it is worth the time and/or money versus a MS only.


This is what the Economist has to say about it:  http://www.economist.com/node/17723223


Please help! I actually haven't started graduate school yet, but I can't decide whether or not to ultimately aim for a PhD or only a MS. If I'm going to complete the PhD I'd like to get started on research and publishing as soon as I begin the MS. 



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Why don't you start and see how the first semester or year goes? You can start with the goal in mind of continuing to the PhD and plan your courses/research accordingly but declare some time (after first semester and again after the first year) to reevaluate. You may start with research right away but publishing takes some time, so I bet that if you stop to reconsider after the first semester you'll have a much better understanding of how you like research. However, without having read the article you linked to, with very few exception, you don't do a PhD to become rich or famous. You do it because you love research; you'll probably make more money with less effort if you get an MS and find a job in industry. As you read in many advice columns, if you can see yourself doing something else - do that. If you're already going to grad school, my advice is more conservative - try it and see. You don't need to decide now, do you?

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Most of the things that article says are true - in graduate school, you won't be paid well and you will be expected to do a lot of research.  Engineering is a little different - postdocs are less common than in the life sciences and other physical sciences - but I think it's becoming even more common for engineering PhD students to do postdocs before moving into a faculty job.  And the academic market seems to be contracting; most PhD holders won't find tenure-track faculty jobs.


With that said, I'm in my 5th year of a PhD program.  At various points I have struggled with whether to stay or go, finish or not; at times, I have regretted my decision.  But overall, I can say that I've enjoyed the intellectual and personal development I've experienced here.  Part of that likely would've happened regardless of whether I'd started a PhD program.


But at some point during the journey I realized that I just didn't care as much as other students did.  I don't know how to explain it better, but it's just like - some students were really willing to put in the 10-hour days, 7 days a week, and live and breathe their research all the time because that's just their passion.  That's not me, though.  I'd rather sleep or read a novel (although a lot of the things I read are related to my field, so I know I'm passionate about it, just in a different way).  Chasing tenure 


So I decided that I was going to do whatever I wanted to do, and not much more. That's worked out for me - I have publications, I have an NSF, I have a pending postdoc offer a year out from even finishing.  That's while volunteering in my community on weekends, taking off Saturdays (and more recently Sundays as well!), getting married, and working as a residential life paraprofessional sheerly because I enjoy it.  It's because "whatever I want to do" also includes writing and analyzing data and working on the problems of my field.  I genuinely enjoy the research, and not pressuring myself to be The Best has helped to discover that I really do like this.  I think the students who are the most successful are the ones who have a true, deep passion for answering questions in their field and really like to do research (even if you could theoretically imagine yourself doing something else).


I say all this to say - yea, sometimes a grad program is absolutely miserable and you just want to cry for hours.  And other times, it's amazing.  I think that's like most jobs, honestly.  If you can spend 5-6 years in a program knowing that the likelihood you'll get a tenure-track job is really slim, and you don't really care because you love the research a lot, then…maybe a PhD is for you.  I'm not even sure I WANT a tenure-track job but I know I want a job using the skills I am learning in a PhD program.  Also, if you can learn to think of those 5-7 years as an actual period of your life and not a holding cell or that you're "waiting to start your life," then you'll be happier.  Once I realized that a PhD was actually real life and not just preparation for a future I started doing things that made me happy, too.


And the more practical consideration is - do you need a PhD to do what you want to do?  If you don't, 95% of the time I will say don't get it.  If most of the people who do what you want to do in the next 5, 10, 15 years do not have a PhD, then don't get one.  To me, there's little point in taking the 5-7 years it takes to get one if you don't need it, unless you just want it for personal edification.

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Thanks so much Juilletmercredi. That was some great advice. Thanks for taking the time to write it.


Yaaaaa- I'm not convinced I want a faculty position at all. I actually think I'd like to go into the construction profession afterwards, but would need to make sure my MS and PhD research helped my career, or I'd start in the same position I could have after undergrad. So- I'll need to develop a niche but valuable set of skills.


Any thoughts there? 

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