Last week, an article fell into my lap that addressed the topic of Ph.D. acquisition: There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about.

While I don’t identify with the author’s experience (simply because my own was very different), I do sympathize with the people who went through that misery. I have friends whose life is described in the article and I am sorry because no one should ever have to experience that.  My naiveté makes me think that before signing up for a Ph.D., everyone goes through a long cost/benefit analysis to figure out if that Ph.D. is actually worth it. But I am told that is not true; some people go for a Ph.D. because it sounds like a “good idea”.  Let’s just say I can think of about a million things that sound like even better ideas.

So, here are my two cents about the things you need to know before signing up for a Ph.D.

Know what you are getting into: What will your life look like as a Ph.D. student?

1. You will be miserable at times, and that’s normal. You will be spending your days running data, doing experiments, not having anything to show for it at the end of the day and wondering if this is everything there is to life. There will certainly exist milestones to work towards (comps, dissertation proposal, and dissertation defense) but at times, the purpose is so far removed from normal life, it’s hard to explain it to people who are not your classmates.  The upside is that a few other people (those classmates) will know exactly what you are experiencing. Make sure to learn early on who your “whining” audience is (hint: it’s not your husband) and trade those whining privileges with each other.

2. The misery can be accentuated by a significant other who does not see the purpose or the end of this quest of yours. What’s even worse, if you listen to this reasonable human being next to you, you will also start wondering why you went a little crazy and signed up for a Ph.D. when your life was just fine before it. If this person is putting you thru school (my husband did), he/she deserves some input so you should probably listen to what they have to say. On a serious note, you need to be prepared for hard conversations about what a Ph.D. means to your relationship not only during the 4-5 years while you are in school, but also afterwards, when you have to take a job in Fairbanks, Alaska, because that’s the only offer you got. You will be moving this person across America twice (the first time for the Ph.D. and the second for your first position). You owe this conversation to your partner.

3. You may be poor, really poor for a few years. I always wondered why someone goes straight from an undergrad to a Ph.D. without ever trying to get a real job first. Now, I know. Giving up 130k a year to become a Ph.D. student hurts (this is where you are really thankful for that working spouse). Yes, you do get a stipend to become a student but that stipend is small. They vary between schools and programs. Mine was about 25k. You need to be ready for this. You can supplement your income (I used to teach GRE and GMAT classes for a few test prep companies), but you really need to plan for what I call your “Ph.D. finances”.  My advice: don’t just quit your job and take your monthly $800 BMW payment (with no savings) into a Ph.D. program. It is way easier to be ready for the change and adjust your life accordingly beforehand (preferably with a financial plan) than to be blindsided by such a change (and in the process, lose your BMW to bounty hunters).

Know why you are doing this: What is your ultimate goal?

1. The goal is to be a professor, or at least that’s the goal with a Ph.D. business. In other fields, things are different. For example, engineers may get Ph.Ds because they want to run their labs. In business, you do NOT (trust me), you do not get a Ph.D. to be a practitioner. You do it because you want to be a professor. (Refer to the second article mentioned above to learn more on this topic). You might want to be a professor for the lifestyle, for the love of teaching, or because you want summers off but you need to be clear what your ultimate goal is. And believe me, your ultimate goal is not to work as a financial analyst. [1]

Personally, I decided to get into this profession because: (1) I like teaching (I taught full time as an instructor for 2 years before sighing up for a Ph.D. just to make sure that’s what I wanted to do), I wanted flexibility in my life (rather than the 2-3 weeks of vacation I had at ING when I left) and I really wanted summers off so I can live in other countries (hasn’t happened yet, I spend my summers writing papers, but I am still hoping one day, it will).

2. The other goal is to get a green card. For some people, this is a big deal issue. We don’t talk much about this but short of getting married, this is how a smart and hardworking foreigner becomes a permanent resident and gets the privilege of paying ½ of his/her salary in taxes.

Know how this whole thing works: Does the program you go to matter?

1. Yes, it does. You need to understand the different levels of Ph.Ds out there: a finance PhD from Kellogg is NOT equivalent to one from FAU (I can talk about that, I went to FAU). You need to understand where in the food chain you will stand after finishing this Ph.D. You will not be getting a job at UF, Yale, Harvard or USC coming out of FAU, unless you are the super duper genius who published 5 papers in the top three finance journals before graduation.  You need to be aware of the jobs you can, and will, get afterwards. This is a tough one because the better the Ph.D ranking, the longer the program and the higher the stress, but also the wider the post-graduation choices. Figuring out what is important to you and your life is imperative in the quest for the right program.

2. I often get asked how I personally decided where to go. Here is how:  I looked at the schools I got into (4 out of the 11 I applied to) and ruled out some of the ones that told me: (1) that I will probably be there for 6 years rather than 4 (that’s 250k of forgone income right there), (2) I heard horror stories from former students in that program (imagine a piranha advisor) and (3) I bypassed the schools that purposely admit more students just to keep the best ones to the end (do I really need to be “cut” after 3 years?). And that’s how I made my choice. I got lucky because my experience could not have been better. I lived in a great place for 4 years (Boca Raton, FL), I had an advisor who made sure I was as successful as I could be, which resulted in many job offers after graduation, and overall, I had a pretty easy going life. In my opinion, making the best choice for yourself, rather than going for the “top” option, is important.  Also, do yourself a favor and before signing up for a particular Ph.D. program, talk to as many former students you can find; you need to know what you are getting into.

Know what’s going to happen afterwards: Do you want to have a job?

This one just kills me! I am perplexed why anyone decides to sign up for a Ph.D. where there are 700+ people applying for a job. I am not advocating giving up on your dreams but please, study this market, look into this issue, and make sure you don’t end up absolutely surprised with 70k in student loans and no job. It’s ok to go into a Ph.D. knowing well that you are doing it for the love of philosophy. It’s not ok to go in without having any idea what your job prospects will look like.  Here is an example I can relate to: the choice between a Ph.D. in finance and economics. I have plenty of friends who have Ph.Ds in economics so please comment on this and wipe my arguments out.  When the fields are quite similar, when you can do almost the same research in either field, but when the job market is much better for finance (and the salaries are much higher for finance), why go for economics?  Obviously if you are looking for a Ph.D. in theater, finance is not an option…. But between finance and economics, I was always wondering, why make this choice when it appears that you can “do better” with some tweaks?  I do get the idea of sub-fields and that not all finance is economics but what else am I missing?

I am sure the “tips” list can go on forever but hopefully, for someone who is contemplating a move towards a Ph.D., the list above will come handy when making that choice.

[1] There are a few Ph.D. programs out there that are legitimate but are also part time. These programs are oriented towards the practitioner (similar to a DBA). Those programs are not what I am talking about. I am focused on the ones that require a full time commitment.

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