Saturday, July 16, 2011

Should you get a PhD? Things to consider.

One thing I never considered when initially looking into MA and PhD programs was that it might, in certain cases, be not such a great idea to pursue a PhD.  While it turned out to be a good decision for me (at least, it seems so thus far), I figured it might be useful to write a post about this issue.  This is not meant as a checklist to decide if a PhD is the right or wrong decision, but rather is meant to be a list of things that the potential PhD student should think about when deciding whether to pursue a PhD, or other opportunities instead.

You said I can make $15,000
per year for five to ten years?!?
1. Do you currently have a good-paying job?
If so, then you will probably be in for a bit of a shock when it comes to the salary of a PhD student.  While I've heard of stipends for Social Science PhD students getting as high as $40,000 in very specific programs/cases (and that amount didn't cover tuition...), more realistic is in the $15,000-$25,000 per year range.  This amount may or may not include summer salary, and may or may not involve 'actual' work (depending on if you receive a fellowship or an assistantship).

Still, assuming you won't have a sugar-daddy or sugar-momma supporting your PhD pursuits, don't have a string of income properties providing you constant rent money, or generous parents who will pay your living expenses, living on that salary may require some sacrifices or creativity.  For me, entering the PhD program in 2006 (when stipends were even lower) meant I took around a 70% decrease in my annual salary.

Also a holder of a Sociology BA degree...
Thankfully I had a sugar-momma/wife who was bringing in big bucks with her Sociology B.A. degree. Still, despite having the earning power of both a grad student and an entry-level case manager in the family, it was still quite a change in our lifestyle after I started the PhD program.  Even after finishing the PhD and receiving a very competitive job offer for an assistant professor position, I will still be making much (much, much) less compared to my friends/coworkers whom started about the same time as me in the non-academic job I left for the PhD, mostly because they have been dutifully (and successfully) climbing the career ladder for the 5 years I spent in grad school.  So yeah... It is very unlikely that a PhD will make you rich (see #2), although it hopefully will still result in a fairly comfortable life once you actually finish.

So, what does this mean for someone considering a PhD program in the Social Sciences?  If you can't possibly see giving up the finer things in life that you currently enjoy in your well-paid job (e.g., eating out regularly, buying newer model cars, living in a fancy apartment, buying food that doesn't begin with 'top' and end with 'ramen', etc.), and you won't otherwise have a sizable stream of income aside from the PhD stipend while in school, you might want to reconsider getting a PhD, or at least reconsider going full time for it.

2. Do you want to be filthy rich when you 'grow up'?
Notice that he was never
referred to as Scrooge
McDuck, PhD... probably
one reason why he was rich.
Getting your PhD in a Social Science field, especially if you intend to pursue an academic job, will not make you rich.  In fact, you may make less money as an academic with a PhD than you would in a non-academic job with an MA but no PhD. (This doesn't count academics who write popular introductory textbooks.)

For example, the median academic salary for a recent Social Science PhD graduate in 2009 was $55,000 (Source).  Going into industry provided a somewhat higher salary, while being a Post Doc provided a somewhat lower salary.  While this salary can provide for a pretty comfortable life, especially if you live in a low cost of living area like much of the midwest or south, you're not going to be a millionaire anytime soon because of it.

Further, if you have to take out student loans while you're in school to cover living expenses or other bills, those monthly payments afterwards can take a serious chunk out of your take home salary (more about funding and PhD programs in a later post). (NOTE: I firmly believe that you should not go into a PhD program if they do not offer you either full tuition remission or a comparably-larger stipend.  Taking out (low-interest) student loans can sometimes be useful, especially to pay off other, higher interest debt, but don't pay tuition for a PhD with student loans!!!)

3. Do you like to leave your work at work?
Oh how I miss
that sweet, sweet
overtime pay...
One of the things I liked about my pre-PhD-program job was that at 5pm (or 6pm if I wanted to make an hour of sweet, sweet overtime pay), I could go home and largely forget about work until the next day.  Yes, it was stressful trying to meet various deadlines, but most of the stuff I did could only be worked on while at work (due to security clearances and stuff).  Once I left for the day, I couldn't really do anything for my work, so I (usually) didn't have to worry about it.

The PhD program is not like that.  You won't be able to consistently show up for classes, work for an hour in your office afterwards, and then take the rest of the night off.  You'll have homework (at least, at first), assistantship duties (which could involve grading assignments, prepping to teach courses, research projects with tight deadlines, etc.), studying for comps, and (eventually) work on your prospectus and dissertation.  There will constantly be something you should be reading (whether for courses, teaching, or your research).

You should probably get used to
empty parking lots when you are
working on your dissertation...
If you don't put in some after-hours work, you could find yourself slipping behind in classes, being unprepared to teach a class (which is one of the worst experiences in the world), and not making a lot of progress on your dissertation.  So, if you pursue a PhD program, you should plan on working at least a few (if not a majority of) evenings each week, and some weekends, especially while you're still taking courses. While a lot of this work can be done from the comfort of your couch, it's still work that needs your attention and mental energy, and it can be taxing both mentally and physically (especially if you like to slouch while reading...).  That said, once classes are over, depending on your assistantship duties you can largely make your own hours, which is a nice perk if you're not a morning person.

The wife and I were also going
to run a small B&B in our spare
time... seriously, we bought
books about it!
4. Are you only willing to live in one specific place? 
When I first started the PhD, I had dreams of becoming a professor and being able to live in the small little village in the Northeast somewhere, teaching a couple classes and then sitting on my porch reading to the sound of leaves falling off the trees.  

After a couple years in the program, I became more knowledgeable about the different types of schools that offered advanced (MA/PhD) criminology/criminal justice degrees in my field.  Needless to say, the states I was most interested in living had very few schools that offered what I would be teaching.  Most of the states that had these programs were in the midwest or the south (like, the south-south...). Once I decided I was really interested in a job at a research-oriented
This probably would have been
me driving to work had we
ended up in the "south-south"
 program, I realized that there were very few of these schools in the Northeast US, and most were in very urban cities (e.g., NYC, Philadelphia, etc.).  Further, since schools almost never hire their own PhD students for tenure-track positions right after graduating, I had effectively burned one of my top choices for my first job by choosing to get a PhD there. (Not that I regret it now, as choosing a great program for your PhD is more important than going to a less-great program and hoping the great program will hire you for your first post-PhD job).

This led me to consider other areas of the country, starting with the mid-Atlantic and north/eastern-Midwest.  I knew convincing my wife to live anywhere BUT the Northeast was going to be tough, so I started early.  Over the last couple years of my PhD program, I slowly hinted to her about working in different states that weren't in the Northeast.  I talked up the benefits of flat cornfields (you can see twisters coming from miles away!), the Canadian wilderness (free healthcare for bear attack wounds!), and deserts (we can pretend we're at a beach that's simply run out of water!). Each state/area I brought up with her was a little further away than the last.  In perhaps a year I had my wife talked into living in about 50% of the US, and by the time I went on the market, I was able to talk her into 'okaying' my application almost anywhere in the US, Canada, and the UK.

Sorry Memorial U.,
I really did try and talk
my wife into living in
Newfoundland, but she
absolutely hates seafood.
Note that I said almost anywhere...  I wasn't able to talk her into some parts of Canada or the deep south (the south-south).  Still, just because my wife and I were willing to live almost anywhere didn't mean that I was able to choose where I got a job.  I sent out perhaps 50 applications to a wide range of programs (Criminal Justice, Criminology, Sociology, Public Policy, etc.), and ended up accepting an offer just before Christmas from a great department in a state I would have never considered a few years ago, simply because it wasn't in the Northeast.  When I visited the state for my interview, I was amazed that it wasn't what I was expecting (in a good way!), and that I could really see myself and my family living there.  When my wife and I went out to look for housing (after I accepted their offer), we realized that we really enjoyed the culture, the 'scenic vistas', the weather, and discovered that we could be very happy here, possibly for a very long time (obviously depending on tenure success and a few other things). 

Dr. Fussy was able to live
in his preferred area, but
had to make sacrifices.
The bottom line was that if I had stood firm on needing to live in a very narrowly defined section of the country, I would have missed out on applying to a number of great programs, and probably would have had to go back on the market the following year.  

Another thing to realize is that the academic job market really is a crap shoot for a new PhD, no matter how much you try and prepare in advance.  It's almost completely random which schools will be posting jobs for assistant professors, the specialties they will want to hire in, the people making up their search committee, and many other things that can all affect whether you get called for an interview for any given job posting, let alone get an offer.  

As it was, I only received the offer I ended up accepting because the first candidate they offered the position to turned it down to accept a job much closer to his family. (I know this because that candidate was/is my friend, and we were very open with our interviews/offers/etc. throughout the job market process -- more on the job market and the need for friends during that process in a later posting).

Beautiful, but flat as hell... are you
willing to live here for 3+ years?
So there are some questions you need to think about when it comes to getting a PhD, and where that might end up sending you in search of a job: Do you have an 'ideal' section of the country you want to live in?  Are you flexible and willing to explore other areas of the country you may have never visited or otherwise considered?  Is your spouse 'stuck' in their job and unable to move?  Are there a lot of potential places to work in your ideal section of the country?  Would you be willing to give up a great job simply because it's not in your ideal section of the country?  Would you be willing to work at a less-than-ideal job in order to be in that ideal section of the country?

5. Do you have realistic job prospects?
Related to #4, do you have a realistic idea of what the job market is like?  In 2009, about 73% of PhD graduates in the Social Sciences (including Psychology) had a 'definite' job or post doc lined up (Source Table 38).  That means that more than 1 in 4 new PhDs did not have anything definitively lined up after they finished.  Are you only interested in working at an R1 (very high research intensive) university when you graduate?  Do you know how many of those jobs are posted each year?  Do you know how many new PhD grads are competing for those jobs?

Yeah, the job market is a little like that...
Without needing to do much digging, I can tell you that there are relatively few R1 jobs each year compared to the number of candidates on the market.  In fact, there are relatively few academic jobs each year period.  For instance, in 2009 there were about 368 PhDs in awarded in Sociology (Source). That same year, there were a total of 324 assistant and open-rank academic jobs advertised (by U.S. institutions) with the American Sociological Association (Source, see Table 1).  Of these, perhaps half were at PhD granting departments, and one third were at R1 programs (Source, see Table 6). Not all of these resulted in filled positions.  Even assuming that some of new Sociology PhDs went into non-academic or non-tenure-track positions, when you consider how many people are searching for jobs (let alone trying to get 'good' jobs, whether that involves teaching or research), and that the assistant professor ranked jobs are also drawing applications from PhDs who have already been out a few years, as well as from non-Sociology departments (e.g., Economics, Public Policy, Psychology, etc.), you have the makings of a very tight job market for new candidates.
Not too far from the truth...

Therefore, you need to be realistic about what type of job you're going to get upon graduation, and whether you'll be happy in less-than-ideal jobs (What if you had to teach 5 courses per semester?  What if you had to adjunct for a couple years?  What if you had to live in a 'crappy' area of the country (see #4)?).  If you enter the PhD program with the 'R1 or bust' mindset, you might end up finding out what 'bust' really means.

6. Are you willing to devote 4+ years to the PhD?
In 2009 the median time in graduate school to earn a PhD in Social Sciences was between 7 and 8 years (Source - Table 28).  That's a damn long time to be working on a PhD, so you need to be sure you really want this, and are willing to put in that time.

Side rant: Yes, there are some people who can finish their Social Science PhD in 3 years.  You're probably not one of them (sorry).  If you do not already have a Master's degree in a related field, I'm almost positive that you're not one of them (again, sorry).  This is because for someone with a Master's degree, you'll likely take courses for the first year and a half, and then have comps to defend, a prospectus to write and defend, and then the rest of the dissertation to write and defend.  Without a Master's degree in a related field, you'll probably be adding another 1.5 years of courses to that schedule (2.5-3 years of courses total). So, the question is whether you are willing to devote 4 or more years to getting your PhD?  If you do finish in 3 years, great!  But don't be fooled into believing that 3 years from start-to-finish is typical, because it simply isn't.

This kid already has two AJS
pubs and an in-press ASR,
and he defends next week.
Another thing to consider is your marketability when you finish. Sometimes taking a little longer may make you much more marketable.  For instance, finishing a PhD in 3 years means you'll probably be on the job market at the start of your third year.  Is this going to give you enough time to make a solid CV?  If you have no publications by then, and want an assistant professor job at a research university, you're going to have a very, very hard time competing for those jobs. If you'd prefer a teaching-focused position, then what are the chances you'll have a significant amount of teaching experience by your third year?  Would you realistically be competitive with someone who took 5 or 6 years to finish, and had 2-3 more years of teaching experience in the mean time?  The only time I can think of that finishing a PhD quickly won't matter for marketability (at least as much) is if you're looking for a job [probably in the private sector] that only cares about the degree being completed, and not any of the other accomplishments like teaching or publishing.

Publishing a paper from
start to finish can take
longer than the gestation
period of a baby elephant.
Further, you're unlikely to have many (if any) publications by then simply because writing a solid manuscript can take months and months, if not years, depending on the length of time you have to spend collecting and analyzing data and then writing.  Once you have something you're willing to send out for consideration, the publication process can take upwards of a year from initial submission to final acceptance (assuming you get an R&R on the first try and revise fairly quickly).  It may take another year (or longer) for the article to come out in print. Thus, if you go on the job market after a little over 2 years in the program, it's probably unrealistic that you'll have a solid C.V. by then unless you either 1) started publishing while in a prior MA program, or 2) got hooked up with a major research collaboration/project your first semester in the program, and was put on a paper already being written (in which case you're probably not first author).

7. Do you have a good support system in place?
My friend Sara recommended I add this one, and I think it's a great question.  The PhD can be done alone, but it's much, much harder than if you have a support system helping you through, keeping your spirits up, providing non-academic outlets, and generally helping to keep you a) sane, b) fairly motivated, and c) from dropping out in disgust.  I'll post more on building a support system in grad school in a later post, but you should be asking yourself who is going to support your decision to go to grad school, who is going to help you get through grad school (whether that means letting you bitch to them about the program once and a while, helping you proofread your dissertation, providing a person to bounce ideas off of, or simply helping to make dinner when you're exhausted from a full day of classes and teaching), and who isn't?

In Summary:
All of this may sound like I'm trying to talk you out of a PhD, but that would be far from the truth.  All I wanted to emphasize with this post is that there are a lot of things to consider when first considering a PhD, let alone when you later choose programs to apply for (more about this later).  Finishing a PhD is a LOT of work, and a lot of people don't ever finish.  Further, even finishing a PhD is not going to guarantee you a job, nor will it guarantee you a high salary or the ability to select where you live.  So you should consider what you will be giving up to pursue a PhD, what you want to do with a PhD, the realistic opportunities you'll have after graduation, and the type of life you'll lead as a PhD.  Just make sure you're making an informed decision to pursue (or not pursue) a PhD.

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1 comment:

  1. As someone in the process of (re) - entering a PhD programme I am both delighted and terrified at having found your blog. Although I am based in Australia - so no, I didn't misspell programme even though I keep getting a red squiggly line under it - which has a more British model for the degree I can see that there is some great info here. Cheers.