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Decisions about my future (PhD, family and career)


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Hi all!

First of all, I'd like to thank all the users that have been helping me either by asking questions and getting feedback from other users or by responding to my own questions. I'm lucky to have this forum to support me.

As the most of you guys, I've been preparing to apply to grad school for the last year of my undergraduate studies. I have done well in my classes, I've got good GRE and TOEFL scores and I've sent my complete application package to nine schools across the United States. There are some important information you should know before I tell you what my current struggle is in making a decision. 

About myself: I'm a 24-year old mechanical engineering student from Brazil who in 2014 lived and studied in the U.S. at Rice University as a MechE visiting student. During my time there, I had the chance to work at a laboratory during the summer at University of Georgia. That first research experience really motivated me to pursue an academic career in the U.S., especially after I met many international students at UGA. At that time, my main motivation was that I wanted to live in a better country than the one I was born. Also, I felt that working at a lab was much different than working in a company (I had worked at a large multinational company for 19 months prior to coming to the US), since I had more freedom to do my own work whenever I wanted. I was not strictly regulated by that 8 am to 3 pm scheduled that I was used to. I used to get to the lab at 9 am, do my work and leave whenever I was finished with my work. Furthermore, I met my current girlfriend in 2014 and we've been making our relationship work even though I'm in Brazil and she's in America. She's visited me twice in Brazil and she's currently enrolled in a PhD program at Rice University. Also, she's American. Before I came back to Brazil to complete my undergrad studies, we were dating for about 7 months in the U.S. One last important thing, I am not sure what I want to work with in the future. I don't know if I want to be a professor or if I want to work at a company, so I have applied to both MS and PhD programs.

Recent news: I got into Rice's PhD Program!!!! I was super excited about it and, I confess, a little surprised. I'm sure that's what they call the "impostor syndrome" though. They will be providing me a tuition waiver, they'll be paying me 9 months per year (total of 18k/year) with possibility of also working in the summer at the university or getting an internship as stated by my adviser, and they'll be paying 70% of health insurance fees. The professor seems to be a great fit in regards to what I want to research and develop as a grad student. I already know Rice and I have a bunch of acquaintances at Houston, as well as a couple of friends.

About my family: I'm going to talk more about my father here, and you'll understand why later in this topic. He's a mechanical engineer who has always worked for companies and started working when he was still in college. He is not a very flexible/open-minded person, and would love to see me following his steps, i.e. getting a good job at a large company and making money. Also, he and my mother have given me financial assistance throughout the entire process of taking standardized tests and applications.

I have been accepted into two PhD Programs (one funded, one not funded) and I'm still waiting to hear back from 4 PhD applications and 1 MS application.

The "struggle": After I got the news, my father said he was really worried with my future. His point of view is that I will be 30 by the time I get my PhD and that it will be too late to find a good position in the job market. He's not even considering the possibility of my becoming a professor, since in my country professors do not make much money. I agree with him partly, considering that I will come back to Brazil, but that is not my goal. I intend to live and work in the U.S. Things could go wrong, of course, and I would come back to Brazil if that was the case, i.e. I decide a PhD is not for me or I don't find a job after graduating. My father is also worried that I will be living a miserable life while enrolled in the PhD program, since I won't be making enough money to eat and live well (though I'm sure I could live well with two grand per month). Do you think that his point of view is reasonable? I really don't feel like refusing an once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity like this one, but I also don't know what I want to work with in the future, so it makes things a little harder. Would you have any advice?

I'm sorry for the really long post, but I wanted to get some feedback on this.

Thank you!

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A couple things.

1) 30 is not that old, and is actually pretty young to begin an academic career. Most new academics are in their late 20s and early 30s because of the amount of time it takes to finish a PhD and a postdoc or two. It's maybe a little older than many people begin an industry career, but right on target for people who do a PhD and enter industry - nobody would expect you to be younger than around 30 knowing that you had a PhD. So don't worry about that. I'm 29, and lots of people in our parents' generation are concerned about age in a way that we don't have to be - they got married and bought houses and had kids sooner, but we're delaying all those things in pursuit of education and career. To them by the time they were 30 they were already in the workforce for nearly a decade and maybe had a couple kids, whereas to us that's maybe unthinkable. I started my first PhD-job when I was 29 and nobody was concerned about my age at all. (I sympathize because my mom harped on this too - that I would be spending my "best years" and my fertile years in graduate school rather than making money and potentially having babies. Ugh, lol.)

You should note, though, that you probably won't be 30 when you start an academic job. More likely, you'd be 32-35, because these days most professors (even in engineering) have done a postdoc or two for 2-5 years before beginning an academic position. So keep that in mind.

2) Professors don't make a whole lot of money in the U.S., either. The average starting salary for an assistant professor is around $68,000. Of course that varies based on the job - science professors do tend to make more (and engineering professors the most), and professors at research universities and more prestigious universities make more than professors at teaching colleges and less-well-known colleges. I would say as a beginning engineering professor you could probably expect to make $75-90K. In my book that's plenty, especially in most localities in the U.S. - but of course you could make a whole lot more as a PhD-trained engineer in industry (or even as an MS or M.Eng trained engineer in industry). That's up to you, though; most people who enter academia don't do it for the money. They do it because they love research and are utterly dedicated to the independent, scholarly pursuit of new knowledge.

THAT said

3) $18,000 is a really low stipend - for anyone, but *especially* in engineering. Engineering PhD stipends are almost always north of $25,000, with full coverage of health insurance. Even though Houston is lower COL than, say, New York or Boston - $18,000 doesn't sound like enough to live on. Personally I would not accept an offer with a stipend that is not enough to live on and with less than 100% health insurance coverage, and I wouldn't advise anyone else to either. In that sense your father is right - you may struggle, and it may be kind of miserable.

You won't be making $2,000 a month. You'll be making $2,000 a month before taxes, which is really more like $1,600-1,700 a month after taxes.  Even if they don't take taxes out of your stipend you will still have to pay them in April when you file, although I don't know exactly how that works for non-U.S. citizens. And that's only if you divide the stipend by 9 months: if you divide it by 12 months, then it's closer to $ $1,200-1,300 a month after taxes, which doesn't sound like enough to live on at all. Check and ask whether this is a 9-month stipend or a 12-month stipend.  If it's 9 months you may be able to pick up additional RA work over the summer to cover the other 3 months of the year, but that also means that you'd have to scramble every year to find that (will probably be easier the more advanced you get). But remember that most PhD students don't go home during the summer: they get an apartment with a 12-month lease and they stick around during the summer to do additional research and write publications.

4) It's really common for the combo of excitement and imposter syndrome to motivate people to choose paths they wouldn't otherwise take, including a PhD. Of course it's exciting that you got into a prestigious PhD program and makes you feel a little like maybe you didn't deserve it - maybe you were borderline, just scraping in, etc. Know that *everyone* feels like that, and moreover, it's probably not true. Even if it was, it's irrelevant. Furthermore, if you were good enough to get into a PhD program at Rice, that means you are good enough to do a lot of other things too. So don't value the difficulty of getting into the program when you make your decision, because that information is irrelevant when it comes to deciding whether or not the move is a good one for your career.

5) This is *not* a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Please don't view it that way, because that may lead you to make a decision you don't want or need. If you got into a prestigious PhD program one year, chances are very good that you can get in again later. Graduate school is always going to be there. (Besides, even if it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it wouldn't matter if you didn't want it, or it didn't help you get to your career goals, or if the opportunity wasn't that great to begin with.)

My major concern here is that you don't know what you want to do after the program, which to me indicates that you probably shouldn't start a PhD - although opinions will vary on this.

My thinking is that you have access to most industry jobs with just an MS, which typically takes two years. A PhD in engineering can take 5-6 years. So by pursuing an MS, you are sacrificing 3-4 additional years of salary and saving for retirement. You're also signing yourself up for 5-6 years of hard work and stress that might be unnecessary (because even if you love the work, a PhD program is stressful!) Why lose out on 3-4 years of salary and add stress if you don't need to, and your career outcomes are similar? Especially if you can always choose to return to get a PhD later after getting an MS?

Others might say that you should go ahead and get the PhD either way, because particularly in engineering you'll be able to get a job out of a PhD program with it. You may only make slightly more than you would with an MS (if at all), but the PhD is usually funded so you will have little to no debt. You'll also open yourself up to a greater number of jobs - both in industry (as many industry research positions require a PhD) and in academia. And it's sometimes more difficult to return to do a PhD after you've worked for a few years, gotten out of the rhythm of being in school, and gotten used to the lifestyle afforded by an actual income. I don't disagree with some of these arguments, and it's information to consider. While I wouldn't do my PhD over again if given the chance, if I had to do it I would say my 20s were the right time, and it did allow me to be considered for (and hired into) jobs that required a PhD.

The caveat here is the academic career. If you have even a little bit of a desire for an academic career, you should seriously consider the PhD program. The only route into an academic career is a PhD. (However, I still might not attend a program that provided me with an $18K stipend. That just sounds like a recipe for disaster. I wouldn't have wanted to live on $18K even in the small college town at which I did my postdoc, much less a city like Houston).

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I don't know too much about the cost of living in Houston, but I am from a large, relatively extremely expensive city in Canada and I've been living on around $12k. For reference, the average one-bedroom costs $1500 and I pay $600 (I've got a roommate in a great place). If you know about costs in Houston, you could perhaps compare to these numbers.

As you mentioned, this is your 9-month stipend, and you could get some extra money in the summer through various means. Could you contact students that are in the program now and ask them if these opportunities actually work out? It's one thing for the school to say there are extra TAships or internships, but its another for the students to reliably get them.

I may be coming from another perspective, because I think that sounds like a middle-of-the-road offer and in my experience, it's difficult to get in as an international student, let alone to get sufficient funding. But the term sufficient could mean different things to different people.


The most important thing to focus on, more than the things your family might be concerned about, is whether you are prepared and willing to do the very long commitment of going through a PhD program. It's okay if you don't know exactly what you want to do. But if it requires a PhD and you're passionate about that job and about everything you'll have to do within the PhD, then you can get through the tough times when you don't feel great about what you're doing, and you're questioning what the point is.

I wouldn't worry at all about being 30, unless you have a problem with starting your career at that age. We'll live a long time, we hope, and you have tons of years to work. Starting later is very common and completely understandable.


Your job now should be to research jobs you may want to do, and if they are in industry, then look into the difference in salary between having a masters and a PhD. If it's a lot and you want the PhD level, it can sometimes make financial sense to be in a longer program. Adding the difference between a funded PhD and an unfunded Masters, if the PhD opens doors for you, it does seem worth it. That's a decision you have to make though, and it requires a lot of commitment.


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Hey @juilletmercredi and @eternallyephemeral, thank you for replying to my post!

I agree that 30 is not that old, considering that I will have just finished a PhD degree. I believe that American companies would understand it and that's a regular age to either enter a post-doc program or find a job in academia. I think that my age concern was based on the point of view that I could possibly return to my home country after finishing the program and companies do not really value PhD degrees here. I'm sure it would not be a problem with Brazilian universities as well. 

That age concern intertwines with my absence of career goals in such a terrible way... because I'm not sure if I want to work in academia or in a company

I agree that getting a MS degree would be a better path for someone who is not sure about his future career plans, and I actually considered applying to many MS programs. Later, I noticed that most of them are not funded, and my family is not willing to pay for my studies (the conversion rate is now 4 to 1, so expenses would be multiplied by four). I only found one MS program which was funded (at UIUC) and am still waiting on a response from them. Still on this topic, I could always try and see if I like the PhD program, right? They're giving me a chance to figure out what I want to work with in the future. I could love it and then I would stay and finish my studies, or I could not really like it and I would come back to my home country. I'm sure it wouldn't be so nice with my future adivser, but I guess it's not really a problem, is it? I don't know, I feel like I should at least try and see if it works out.

Thank you for the taxes explanation. I will definitely take that into account. Still on the money topic, you guys think it's better not to count on a possible RAship or finding an internship myself? Would it be really tough to find a summer internship as a first-year graduate student?

Thank you for all the advice and for being realistic.

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@fernandes: you seem very aware of the potential issues and I think that's most important.


I also thought very hard about the masters vs PhD aspect, as I am interested in going into industry. And frankly, because the PhD can help me in some ways, and because they are funded, that was a really big deal for my decision. It's worth it I think, not to come out with all that debt but to start a little later.

Are there any degrees where the PhD is combined with a masters? This might be less common in engineering, but in some biology/psychology programs I'm familiar with, you get accepted and complete a funded masters first, and you're expected to continue to the PhD. However, not everyone does. This could give you more options, because if you were to leave in the middle of only a PhD program, you wouldnt have anything to show for what you did.

Regarding the taxes thing, it would be good to talk to someone who's knowledgeable about these things, especially because grad stipends are confusing (sometimes most of your money is not taxed) and there can be extra issues if you are international. Though if you're making that little, I don't see then taking a lot of money from you.

Your best bet regarding internships is to do your best to budget without that summer money, and then consider it to he extra income you didn't plan for. So try if possible to keep your necessary and extra spending (needs and some wants under 18k, until you know more about the internships. They may never be guaranteed though, so you don't want to go into debt because you expected them and they didn't happen.

If you don't know if you want to do a PhD, I don't think that's the worst thing in the world. You'll still learn a lot, and in your case you could get really helpful knowledge on the way American universities and maybe businesses work. This could be really helpful for you, though of course finishing the degree is good as well. You may never know if you are capable until you try it, but you should definitely spend a lot of time thinking (which it seems you have).

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@eternallyephemeral: yeah, I've been trying to get as much information as possible so I can make a better decision.

In regards to getting a PhD and going into industry, multiple schools have something called Versatile PhD, which is an online resource to help humanities, social science, and STEM graduate students and PhDs in all fields identify, prepare for, and succeed in non-academic careers. I think that participating in this program and its events could help me prepare for possibly working in industry.

I will make sure I get everything sorted out about the taxes. Maybe they'll only tax half of my stipend, or something like that. So thanks for the advice!

Saving money before I know of my summer situation seems to be the smartest thing to do. I was also thinking that it could be possible to work a few hours per week on no-contract jobs (I don't know the best word for it, sorry) such as babysitting or in a catering company on Friday or Saturday nights. Of course I should not count on those, but maybe I could find something like those.

I really like science, learning and research, but I'm still not sure if that's what I want for my career. And yes, I also don't think is the worst thing in the world. I have a bunch of friends that are not certain of what they want to do with their career at their 20's as well. So thanks for the empathetic words.


Thanks for helping!

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@fernandes: Great to hear! Taking on an extra side-job (they have lots of different names) is a great idea to make some extra money. It can help to break up the monotony as well.

You're absolutely right about the taxes, sometimes only your TAing positions are taxed and not any fellowship or scholarship money that you receive. I know for my school, I will only be taxed on TA income (I'm not sure about supplemental RAships, it may count to those as well), but not on external or internal scholarships or the money that pays tuition. These are all questions the administrators at your school should answer.

I agree regarding not knowing what you want to do. Many people are in PhD programs after spending years or decades of not knowing what they want to do. I think there's nothing wrong with focus on the cost and benefit of each degree, considering the increase of people getting advanced degrees and where you want to stand within that, and thinking about many different options for your future. In my personal opinion, people who do that instead of blindly following what they have previously done or what people say is best for them make better decisions that make them happier.

Anytime! Best of luck to you!

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I think I might have wrote about this in a response to a different thread (maybe by you? maybe by someone else?) so I'm sorry if I'm repeating it, but:

If you are an international student (on F-1 or J-1 status), then you will not be allowed to have a side-job to make extra money. By default, you are only allowed to work on campus. You can apply for special permission to work off campus but the hours are limited and the job must be related to your education. There are a few exceptions due to unexpected financial circumstances though. But, to get into the country on F-1 or J-1 status, you must prove that you have the financial means through a combination of the school's funding package & your savings to pay for everything---you cannot include income from a side-job to make ends meet.

So, I would not count on being able to work the type of jobs you mention. Even babysitting for pay would violate your international student status. I know that maybe some people are willing to risk it and take jobs that pay cash / are not recorded but personally, I would not risk it.

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Yeah, I think you did comment on that at another thread.

And it makes sense, I just thought you meant that I could not "officially" work but that it could be okay to have a side-job in which you work for once a week or so. Violating my F-1 visa status is not in plans at all, so thanks for saying it explicitly.

I think I will not really need to get a side-job though. I'll just do a great work in the beginning and try to get an internship as soon as possible. And in the Spring I'll know for sure if the summer stipend will be available. By the way, do you know how difficult it is to get an internship as a grad student when compared to an undergrad?

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2 minutes ago, fernandes said:

I think I will not really need to get a side-job though. I'll just do a great work in the beginning and try to get an internship as soon as possible. And in the Spring I'll know for sure if the summer stipend will be available. By the way, do you know how difficult it is to get an internship as a grad student when compared to an undergrad?

At the career fairs and through other events run by the career center at my school, almost all internship recruitment are directed towards undergrads. But there are a few opportunities. In addition, the other challenge is getting time off from your graduate program to do the internship. At my school, you have to officially go on leave ("detached duty" is the official term they use here) in order to do an internship. Most supervisors here do not want their students to leave their regular research duties for an internship in the summer. So, if this is in your plans, you might want to find out how open the professors at Rice are about this. Some departments might be more open than others!

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3 minutes ago, TakeruK said:

At the career fairs and through other events run by the career center at my school, almost all internship recruitment are directed towards undergrads. But there are a few opportunities. In addition, the other challenge is getting time off from your graduate program to do the internship. At my school, you have to officially go on leave ("detached duty" is the official term they use here) in order to do an internship. Most supervisors here do not want their students to leave their regular research duties for an internship in the summer. So, if this is in your plans, you might want to find out how open the professors at Rice are about this. Some departments might be more open than others!

Yes, fortunately my possible adviser said it's okay with her to either work as an RA or get an internship, so that's a great thing. I thought it was thoughtful of her, since she could not guarantee a summer stipend but she does not disapprove an internship during the summer, giving me more career and funding options.

Thanks for pointing it out though!

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