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Should I go back to school and get a PhD?

There are many things to consider when thinking about going to graduate school and getting a PhD. This is especially true if you are already out of college and have a career and family. After all getting a PhD is a longterm commitment that could take 6+ years (although it is also possible to finish in just 3 years — more on that later). There are concerns about giving up your current job and going back to school, when the last time you took a class may have been more than a decade ago. In this post, hopefully you’ll find the information you need to help make this life changing decision.

Tough Decisions Ahead Road Sign

From the questions that I’ve gotten about this topic, I realized that there are a few misconceptions about what getting a PhD is about.

  1. Getting a PhD makes you more money.
  2. My job is boring and too routine and so I want to go back to school and get a PhD
  3. Having a PhD will make your children respect you more, and thus pursue higher education themselves.

First, the financials. Thankfully, unlike with getting a law or business degree, you are at least paid a stipend while you are at school. However, unless your PhD leads to employment out side of academia (especially for the engineering disciplines), the amount of money you make in academia might disappoint you. A PhD stipend is plenty enough for a single person, but it’s not really enough to support a family. A postdoc salary after that is also iffy, especially since your job security depends so much on grant money.

As for getting a PhD in order to get away from a boring job, it really depends on what your doctorate thesis is about. In some cases the process of research can be very repetitive and boring. In my own case it involved thousands of hours of Excel in which I polished so much with short cut keys that I was able to perform complex functions with my eyes closed since I had to do the exact same thing over and over again. (8 rats, 1 data point every 10 min, running 24/7 = 8 x 6 x 24 = 1152 data points each of which have to be manually checked EVERY DAY, even weekends.)

What’s different is the knowledge that what you are doing is adding to the knowledge of the world. You are the expert in your exact project and no one else in the world knows more about it than you. And potentially, some day, what you discover could have a real significance and may have an effect on  people’s lives.

Now for the family aspect. I myself am a new mom to a 2 month old baby girl. Having children changes everything and they certainly should be considered as part of your decision making process.

While I did not have kids when I was in grad school, I did know others in my class who did come into grad school with young children, and increased their family size further while they completed their PhD studies. Furthermore, my own mother went to graduate school when I was 8 and received her PhD when I was in high school. Growing up, her choices certainly affected me, more on that here.

What I think you should really ask yourself though is why you want to get a PhD. What do you plan to do after you get a PhD? If your goal is to be a professor, focused on a scientific topic that you wish to explore, then a PhD is the way to go. If your goal is money and prestige, getting a PhD might be one of the worst thing you can do (you would probably do much better to apply for a different job in industry or other career fields). At least in the US, getting a PhD means very low pay for years and years, at a job with very little recognition. If what you don’t like about your current job is routine and being overwhelmed, depending on your lab, those are actually two of the very reasons why some people leave academia. That and the fact that there’s no money. Then there’s the matter of research experience in getting into a PhD program. At least for science PhDs, previous research experience is pretty much a must. So if your current job is not research related, it might be difficult to get into a program without first getting a research position as a transition.

As for respect, my mother’s choice to go back to school certainly did influence my respect for her and my own love of science. Even with all the hardships I saw her go through in grad school, I still chose to get a PhD myself. A lot of it has to do with my familiarity with the academic environment since I grew up in it. Still, I believe there are many ways to show the importance of education to your children than to get an advanced degree yourself. Getting a PhD is a long term investment, and you should do it only if you think it’s best for your own goals.

Hopefully I answered some of your concerns. Please feel free to contact me or comment below if you have any more questions.

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