So, I’ve graduated. There’s no graduation ceremony in January, which is fine because I’m not too big on graduation ceremonies anyway, but as of a couple of days ago I do officially have a PhD. All I have to do at this point is watch the mail for my diploma. And to mark the occasion, I thought I would tackle a question here on the blog that I’ve been attempting to answer for years:
Why? Why are you getting a PhD? What are you going to do with that?
This is a totally valid question. And, by the way, it’s not only a question that other people ask me. It’s also a question I’ve frequently asked myself. Even back when I applied to the PhD six years ago, I didn’t totally know why I was doing it, or what it entailed exactly, or what I was supposed to do with it once I had finished.
Plus, now that I’m all into personal finance and everything, the question “Why get a PhD?” has become even more interesting. I think advanced degrees are sometimes seen as a potentially questionable choice, personal finance-wise, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to try to demystify my own decision, as well as its financial motivations and consequences, as best I can.
By the way, the title of this post is rather misleading, as it implies that I totally understand the connection between PhDs and personal finance, whereas in truth I can only speak about my own experience. (I very much welcome other PhD-ers to weigh in below in the comments section though!)
So here’s the story of how this all started.
Remember 2009? That was not a great year to be looking for a job. I had just finished a master’s degree in a liberal arts field and had taken a position as a special education aide at a public middle school. The salary at the middle school—$18,000 a year—was far from ideal, but luckily my rent was super cheap that year, and honestly I felt fortunate to have a job at all.
Oh, and I owed about $28,000 in student loans.
Feeling distressed about my student debt and about the fact that I seemed to have relatively few marketable skills, I had been toying with the idea of getting a second master’s degree, this time a clinical master’s in a field with a very clear career path. However, I wasn’t sure I could handle the idea of taking out even more loans to pay for another degree. Even back in those days, when I thought personal finance was boring, this didn’t seem like a wise move. However, another possibility soon occurred to me:
Why not save some money by getting a PhD instead?
Ok, that may sound like an odd idea, but let me explain. It just so happened that at that point in my life, the majority of my good friends were either in PhD programs, applying to PhD programs, or already had PhDs. And I knew from talking to them that if you can get into a PhD program, your university will often pay you money (!!!) to get a PhD—in other words, not only do you not have to pay tuition, but you get a guaranteed paycheck for five years straight, plus loan deferment, plus you end up with an advanced degree at the end of it, and presumably a clear career trajectory. I suspect that I may be one of the relatively few people in the history of academia who thought a PhD sounded like an attractive option financially, but there you have it.
(By the way, the reason PhD students get paid is because as part of the PhD we’re doing work, either research or teaching or both, that’s benefitting the university. In many ways, it’s a lot like having a regular job.)
Interestingly, the clinical field I’d been eyeing for a possible second master’s degree also had an option where you could simultaneously pursue a master’s and a PhD. So in 2010, almost exactly six years ago this month, I applied to the dual program and got in.
Now, I don’t want to make it sound like I *only* applied to the program in order to get the steady paycheck. I was definitely interested in the field, and I thought doing research sounded cool. But I won’t lie—the paycheck and the student loan deferment were definitely compelling to me. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the recession when you’re smack in the middle of it, and I was afraid that if I didn’t take drastic steps, I could end up making $18,000/year for many years to come.
So those were the motivations. Now, here are some of the consequences, which I will attempt to list as objectively as possible:
- I did indeed have my tuition waived for both degrees, as well as a (relatively) steady, livable paycheck for five and a half years.
- I had student loan deferment during that entire period as well.
- I had student health insurance through my university.
- I learned a LOT during both the master’s and PhD, including super valuable and transferable skills involving statistics and data analysis and giving presentations. No matter what I decide to do next in my career, these skills will serve me well. (Side note: why is statistics not mandatory for all high school students? In my opinion, it’s The Most Important Math There Is. I feel like I should write another post all about statistics and how it changed my view of the world.)
- The paycheck was steady…except when it wasn’t. For various complicated reasons, there were some spans of time during that five-and-a-half year period when I had a reduced income, or no income, which I sometimes responded to by taking out even more loans. (But twice I responded by asking for more money, which I am very proud of.)
- Sometimes, again for various complicated reasons, I had to pay for conference travel out of my own pocket (once to Atlanta, once to Switzerland).
- The graduate student stipend seemed crazy high to me when I started (because I was accustomed to getting paid $18,000/year), and while it certainly was livable, it was still less than almost any entry-level office job in the same city would have offered.
- PhD stipends may be livable, but they do not offer any type of retirement plan. What I should have done, in retrospect, was contribute a small amount each month to my Roth IRA. But I didn’t do that.
- As it turns out, it actually can be very anxiety-inducing to sit around for over five years knowing that you have a ton of student loans but not really being able to do anything about them. This caused me a lot of sleepless nights.
So that’s the rundown. If you or someone you know is considering a PhD and would like to talk more about possible reasons why this may or may not be a good move, consider this an open invitation to email me (theyachtless [at] gmail); I’m happy to chat. It’s a complicated decision, and like any type of life choice, getting a PhD is the right thing for some people but not for others.
Oh, and by the way…There was one other reason why I was interested in the PhD, one that I’ve been pondering a lot lately. I have to admit that the idea of participating in a pre-designed, predictable program with a clear end result is something that has always appealed to me, and getting a graduate degree is something that more or less falls into that category. But as comfortable as pre-designed programs can sometimes be, I’m very happy to be switching gears and moving beyond that, into the unknown.
Because in reality, life is pretty unpredictable, right? I have no way of knowing what I’ll be doing five years from now—and while that’s a little scary, it’s also incredibly exciting.
Thoughts? Reactions? Got a PhD? Know someone who has a PhD? Want to tell me what you were up to in 2009? Here’s your chance! 🙂