Life After The Private Sector: Should I Get A Ph.D.?

UC BerkeleyPart of my goal during sabbatical is to explore other opportunities.  I’ve been in the private sector for 13 years and I’m looking to do something else.  I’ve been fortunate to save a good chunk of change during this period of intense capitalism.  Furthermore, with the creation of an online business to keep food on the table, there’s no need to do anything just for money anymore.

A key reason why I loved getting my MBA part-time for 3 years was because I didn’t have to worry about getting good grades.  I already had the “dream job” many MBA grads aspired to land.  Going to graduate school was purely for the sake of learning and meeting interesting people in various fields of work.

Once you make enough money to feel comfortable, making more money no longer becomes interesting.  What I’m more interested in is further self-actualization, service, and giving back to the community.

A LIFE IN ACADEMIA

Did you know that Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy?  Philosophy refers to the original Greek meaning “love of wisdom”.  How appropriate a term to describe one that spends years beyond college to gain more knowledge.

When I was a kid, I always told myself I’d love to be wealthy and get a Ph.D. one day.  As I grew older, I realized how much easier it was to dream than to execute!  Sometimes we are forced to choose between something less interesting, but more lucrative and something more interesting but less lucrative.  After four years of toiling away in college, all I wanted to do was make some money so I joined the private sector.

Now that I’m middle aged and no longer have the desire to maximize profits, I’d like to explore research and teaching.  I’ve got to imagine that this is a natural course of action for many people who were good students, but used their talents for profits instead of service.  There’s nothing wrong with this as most of us work for money.

With my online media business, I believe getting a Ph.D. in communications could result in some fantastic synergies.  At the core of any doctoral program is conducting research and publishing.  What better platform to conduct research than with one’s own online media initiatives?

I’m not a 22 year old recent college graduate who isn’t entirely sure what he wants.  I don’t plan to go to get a Ph.D. to delay the inevitable or attend because it’s the thing to do.  I’ve got years of real world experience and have very clear ideas of what I want to do post doctorate.

BENEFITS OF GETTING A Ph.D.

Besides being able to harness a Communications Ph.D. to help  develop my communications business, there are other benefits of getting a Ph.D. as well:

* Credibility.  Anybody who goes to school for this long has to know something.  If you have a Ph.D., you should be an expert in your field of study.  With credibility comes respect.  With respect comes a better sense of well-being.

* Prestige.  The only reason why things are prestigious is because so few people have them.  There’s only one President of The United States for example.  According to the US Census, only 9% of the American population has a Master’s Degree or higher.  In 2000, only 1% of the population had a doctoral degree.  Now that number is close to 3%, but still low.  You may not be rich, but with a Ph.D. you will belong to any of the highest social circles around.

* Opportunity.  Once you get your Ph.D. you will likely have more opportunities granted to you in the form of consulting, publishing, teaching, and speaking.  As an expert in your field, large corporations could hire you as a consultant for a healthy sum to provide insight into a business venture, for example.  With a Ph.D., publishers will have more confidence in signing you to write an authoritative book.  Visiting Professorships are more readily available practically anywhere you go, especially if you get your degree from a top school.  Company Boards always need some Ph.Ds to create at least the illusion of credibility to investors.

* Education.  Education is one of the most important assets one can have.  The things we learn in college amounts to perhaps a grain of sand in an hour glass.  There is so much more to learn.  If you are a “lover of wisdom”, then I suspect you will enjoy getting a Ph.D.  Furthermore, most reputable Ph.D. programs I know pay their students a stipend.  Stanford, for example, pay around $7,500-$8,000 for three quarters a year and all your health care costs.  Not a lot, but not bad at all!

* Community.  I don’t know about you, but I loved my time in college.  The college community is wonderful because everybody is there to learn, support, and nurture.  University is there to test hypotheses and see what becomes of things in a relatively judgemental free environment.  Surrounding yourself with highly educated people can be very rewarding because they will challenge you on your own thinking.

* Achievement.  When I graduated from college, I felt an incredible sense of achievement.  I also swore never to go back until the 2000-2003 downturn happened.  When I graduated from business school, I once again experienced a feeling like no other.  Now, I am an aggressive champion for everyone getting as much education as possible.  I did not understand the benefits of education until I got some myself.  Making money is one thing, but achieving the highest level of education possible is an even more rewarding accomplishment.

THE CONS OF GETTING A Ph.D.

I know at least 15 people with Ph.Ds who are all doing well.  There is no starving Ph.D. graduate on foodstamps like the mass media enjoys highlighting.  I’ve talked to several of them quite extensively and have come to the following negative conclusions:

* Delayed retirement.  A friend is 34 years old and is starting his second one-year fellowship in medicine at Cornell Hospital in NYC.  Granted he’s been making about $60,000 a year as a resident, but that’s nothing compared to the 16 years he’s spent studying, interning and paying tuition after high school!  At 35 years old, he will likely make around $400,000-$500,000 as a specialized cardiologist.  That’s great money, however, he’s just starting his career while I’m at the cusp of retiring!  Furthermore, not all doctors will make so much.  Certainly not Doctors in Communication.

* A test of will and patience.  I know about five Ph.D. candidates who never finished because they gave up, or are on their 7th+ year of a supposedly 4-5 year program!  One candidate is going to school because she doesn’t know what to do.  She has a trust fund and figures why not learn while she figures out life given she has the financial means.  Other candidates gave up mid-way through and decided to just get a Master’s Degree instead.  If you’re going to do anything, you better do it right.

* Opportunity cost.  Some believe with ever rising tuition, college itself is an expensive opportunity cost.  Can you imagine spending another 5 years of your life after college to get your Ph.D.?  You’ll have made no real money and have no real-world work experience.  During your energetic 20s you could have started a company, gotten promoted to a senior position within the firm, traveled the world multiple times over.  My 20s were truly an exciting time of getting my ass kicked at work, speculating in the stock and real estate markets, getting an MBA, and traveling all over.

* Bad for the unhealthy.  If you so happen to die earlier than the median life expectancy of 80, your return on investment for getting a Ph.D. decreases.  I clearly remember when the admissions director asked me in my MBA interview why I wanted to get my MBA so early.  I replied, “Because I know what I want to do, and want to leverage my MBA degree for as long as possible.”  If you get your Ph.D at 30 and die at 40, what a shame!  Worse yet, I know people who get Ph.Ds at 30 and retire and do something totally unrelated with their degree.  Who knows when we will die, but if you’re an unhealthy person, perhaps maximizing fun-time is better than spending another 4-5 years after college to get your doctorate degree.

THE IDEAL Ph.D. CANDIDATE

If you decide that getting a Ph.D. is right for you, then your biggest hurdle is getting in.  I don’t particularly score well on standardized tests, although if I were to take the SAT again, I’m pretty sure I’d crush the verbal section at the very least!  Asking me to figure out the value of the missing variable in a multi-variable equation with a picture of a trapezoid?  Not so much.

Most schools require you to take your GRE graduate exam, get three or more letters of recommendations, write an essay or two, submit relevant research, and send in your college transcripts.  Gathering all this information reminds me of my mortgage refinance experience (nightmare!). An absolute bear that must be done if you want it enough!

After consulting a couple dozen people on getting into a top MBA program, here are my suggestions for what I think will be attributes for the ideal Ph.D. candidate:

* Research and Academia.  It is frowned upon to get your Ph.D. and go work in the private sector.  Getting your Ph.D. for the sake of making more money is a no-no after speaking to admissions directors, professors, and students.  Remember, Ph.D. = Doctor of Philosophy = “Love Of Wisdom”.  The ideal candidate is fully dedicated to staying in the field of academia upon graduation, conducting research in their field, teaching, and proudly representing their university.  In fact, I dare say that an ideal candidate is one who has already experienced over a decade in the private sector, and therefore knows with even more conviction that s/he wants to be in academia.

* A clear vision.  You must want to know what you don’t know yet.  A Ph.D. is the absolute specialization in a particular field.  Without an intense interest in the particular field of study, you won’t be able to last through the program.  If you are getting  Doctorate in Philosophy, hopefully you have read countless philosophy books all around the world and have written numerous papers on the subject already.  If you are getting a Doctorate in Music Theory, hopefully you play several instruments and are a lover of music.  Once your interests are aligned, you should have a vision of what you want to do with your Ph.D.  What problems or mysteries do you want to solve?

* Marketability.  One can’t underestimate the importance of marketability.  If you are an Olympian who is smart, attractive, and famous, you will probably get into any Ph.D. program you want.  Universities compete on recognition and funding.  You’ll have to speak to both tenured and non-tenured professors alike to understand the intense battle for dollars and prestige.  Instead of accepting the brightest college students into your doctoral program, I recommend and believe that doctoral programs should accept more students who have real life experiences.  We can’t all pretend like we’ve stayed at the Holiday Inn Express while discussing world events in the classroom.  We need lovers of wisdom who have been there and can share experiences that only they would know.  Practice and theory must be combined!

SHOULD I GET A Ph.D.?

For those of you who have a Ph.D., are in the process of getting their Ph.D., or are considering getting a Ph.D., I’d love to hear your thoughts.  I’m seriously contemplating getting my Ph.D. as I enter a new phase in my life. Thirteen years in the private sector followed by 5 years getting a Ph.D., and another 20 or more years in academia sounds like a good idea.  I understand getting a Ph.D isn’t a walk in the park, but most good things aren’t anyway.

Readers, would love to hear from those who have their PhD, are getting their PhD, or quit halfway through their PhD.  What are you doing now?  Was it worth it to you?  

Wealth Building Recommendations For Everyone

* Manage Your Finances In One Place: Get a handle on your finances by signing up with Personal Capital. They are a free online software which aggregates all your financial accounts in one place so you can see where you can optimize. Before Personal Capital, I had to log into eight different systems to track 25+ difference accounts (brokerage, multiple banks, 401K, etc) to manage my finances. Now, I can just log into Personal Capital to see how my stock accounts are doing and how my net worth is progressing. I can also see how much I’m spending every month. As a PhD candidate or someone considering a long stint in school, it’s important to develop a habit of monitoring your finances early. Personal Capital takes less than one minute to sign up and it’s free.

* Check Your Credit Score: Everybody needs to check their credit score once every six months given the risk of identity theft and the fact that 30% of credit scores have errors. For over a year, I thought I had a 790ish credit score and was fine, until my mortgage refinance bank on day 80 of my refinance told me they could not go through due to a $8 late payment by my tenants from two years ago! My credit score was hit by 110 points to 680 and I could not get the lowest rate! It’s becoming more commonplace for employers to check your credit score as well. Check your TransUnion score for free at GoFreeCredit.com and protect yourself.

Regards,

Sam

Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship.

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Comments

  1. says

    Before you throw in the towel, here’s my story. I’m 59, and I just passed the oral defense of my dissertation one week ago (Feb. 21, 2014). I started back to grad school in 2009 when I was 55. I went back for three reasons: 1) as a black man with exceptional intellectual ability and academic records, I have always felt that I owed it to myself and the Black community to be the best that I can be; 2) I am not financially wealthy, and a teaching job, which I am positive I can get, eventually, will suit me fine as a retirement gig; and 3) I want the permanent name change and recognition that comes with the title of Doctor of Philosophy.

    I was accepted at one of the most prestigious UC schools in California, and was offered a four year fellowship. Mind you, I only applied to ONE school! If you are good in your verbal skills, focus on that. Most graduate schools want to see a combined score on your verbal and math, but if you are applying for a degree in the social sciences or humanities, they will mainly pay attention to those verbal scores. With two weeks to study for the GRE, I was able to score at the 94% level, higher than required for Harvard, Princeton or Yale, or any institution for that matter! My math score was around 20%, but no one cared! I had a combined score of over 1000 points, and in 2009, that was the bogey, above which the breakdown didn’t matter.

    The biggest hurdle in the program was passing the Written Qualifying Exam (WQE), which is offered once every six months. I failed that exam twice. I was given one more chance to pass, and I passed with the highest score possible. My writing had improved that much. As if that were not enough, I caught up with my cohort, many of whom had passed on the first try, and I raced to complete my dissertation. Needless to say, I am the FIRST in my cohort who has fully completed the program, and has been conferred with the coveted title of Doctor of Philosophy. It’s one week later, and I am still floating on air. Google “calidoscopio brooklyn handicap” if you want to see the outcome of the most amazing horse race ever, and see how it all fits together with this discussion.

    I may be flat broke for the moment, but I have complete Faith that all of this effort was not in vain. I see plenty of opportunities for work, and I am applying for both postdoc and regular jobs. I am going at the job search with the same intensity that I went for the PhD, and I Will absolutely succeed. I am in excellent health, not overweight, and still look, feel and communicate like a much younger person. I have had that corner office and those six figure jobs, but I do really need all that at my age? If I return to that level of income fine. If not, fine. I live for the enjoyment of life, which is fleeting, and money is only a small part of that equation.

    In June, I will don the monastic garb that is academic regalia, and I will be hooded (crowned as I see it) in one of the grandest edifices in all of the academic world. It will feel like a coronation. My school is known for its excellence in every corner of the globe, and I will forever be associated with that institution as a graduate at the highest level. I should also mention that I obtained a Masters degree in 2012 as part of the doctoral program, so should all else fail, I have a professional certificate.

    In closing, I can tell you that my wife, who has been my co-collaborator in this effort, is soooo very proud of me. She has sacrificed from day one, and never wavered in her belief that this was the right thing to do, for both of us. When it’s all said and done, the three letters behind my name on my tombstone will be, PhD. For now, we’ll settle for Dr. and Mrs. This is a legacy that is priceless!!!

    • Galecoker says

      Greetings Visual Theorist!!

      Congrats on your recent acquiring of a PhD degree. I am finishing my Master’s degree from the University of San Francisco (MPA program), and I’m ecstatic. I was mulling the idea of continuing forward to obtain my PhD. I’m 47 years old with two small children, so I’m no spring chicken. Your post is quite compelling……..

      Thank you!!

  2. Smith says

    I am 30yrs old with a masters, and I want a PH.D… I’m hesitant because of the test, evaluations, more student loans, and etc… The bright side is my tenacity to learn and the hope that life will turn out exactly as it should, based on a series of decisions I made, based on my past experiences.

  3. Mohammad Alshahrani says

    I am 37 yrs old, and I would like to go back to the grad school shortly for Ph.D program, and I know it isn’t easy especially for whom has a family and full time secure job . What I say is may ALLAH helps me to making the right step for my family and me :)

  4. says

    I also was accepted to enroll in phd program in computer science. I never liked coding but I learned it and have a master degree Iam 41 with two kids and the age thing makes me think twice if I should start the phd this fall. The college offered scholarship that covers 85% of tuition but I have to have 15 credit every semester full time. Currently i am not working so phd will not make me miss any work, but I am not sure what to do. Should I go for it and become a “Dr” and struggle to make it happen or should I just shut up and go on with life as is and worry about other things in my life and family. I will be 45 or 46 when I finish that is if,,at that age I cant start new thing we only have one shot in life and timing is the essence, I should have done phd in my twenties or early thirties now it is not that time.

    • KN says

      “I never liked coding, but…” is your answer. If you get a Ph.D, get it in something related and make it something you want. I’m going through the same type of thing, and have over 20 years in a career that was my third choice…why get a doctoral in that? I’m leaning back to my original interests or at least finding a way to combine the expertise with something more important to me.

  5. sam says

    Hi Sam,

    Long time reader of your blog and I have to say, looking at the comments, I couldn’t help but chime in with my $0.02.

    I’m a first generation immigrant, 26 y/o, did my bachelors in engineering (biotech) abroad before I joined a PhD program in Biochemistry here. Right now I’m in my 5th year (general duration of grad studies for my lab is around 6.5 – 7 years) and hope to be done next year.

    IF you’re going for a doctoral degree ( from the last couple of your comments, I got the feeling you were opting out), I would recommend looking at the faculty who you want as your advisor instead of the school. A lot of great schools have crap faculty, though the inverse is not always the case. Your PI / advisor ( and to some extent your dissertation committee) is really the only person who has control over your doctoral study, and its excruciatingly important you find one with whom you gel. Everything else is quite frankly irrelevant or will be taken care of.

    What I found most interesting is the accuracy of comments that have been provided by people who actually HAVE a PhD, vs, those from people who would like to have one. This is quite common – non PhDs either treat PhDs with contempt or respect – kinda like Korean car styling – you either love em or you hate em – there’s no middle ground there, and you would hardly take advice on gold smithing from a blacksmith would you ? It sounds clique-y but it is quite true.

    My humble advice to you would be to do a get a PhD only if you feel there is a benefit to it. Just like getting into an MBA program, do a cost/benefit analysis – will your PhD really be worth it ? I say this because if a PhD in communications is anything like doing a PhD in the sciences, then getting a PhD just because you want to learn is an utterly lousy reason to get the degree. IMHO, the only reason you should get a PhD are –
    1. the advanced degree opens job doors for you
    2. you would like to stay in academia,

    of which only the 2nd point has some passing commonality with your reasons as I understood.

    Pros of getting a PhD (my views may be biased towards the experiences I have as a science PhD candidate – this might not be applicable wholly for other fields, especially those that do not deal with a lot of experimentation)
    1. You learn to analyse stuff really quickly
    2. You learn to defend your arguments cogently
    3. You learn to learn & pick up your pieces from DAILY defeats instead of bawling your eyes out
    4. Teaches you tenacity. Look at point 3
    5. If you apply yourself it actually changes the way you think about everything. Not in a metaphysical manner, but in a real life application, day to day manner.
    6. you get to interact with really REALLY intelligent people, often leaving you feeling like a fake, or at the very least humbled.
    7. Instills a really strong work ethic
    8. If you can spin your recently gained soft skills right, you can land a job virtually anywhere.
    9. You learn how to negotiate with someone who holds all the cards while you hold none.
    10. Day to day BS doesn’t fool you most of the time. Refer to point 1

    Cons –
    1. Are you really willing to forego having a social life ?
    2. You must be willing to be ground down under the deluge of negative data, or stuff just not working for you. My PI’s most accomplished PhD graduate published his 400 page thesis, and all of the work he published could be done in 1.5 years. He spent a grand total of 7 years in the program. Where did the rest 5.5 years go ? – Negative/Incomprehensible data, stuff not working, hypothesis’ failing the test, and just plain bad luck. Contrast the amount of ‘good’ data to the amount of ‘bad’ data, and you will see why grad students are perpetually grumpy
    3. I’ll repeat the 2nd point again, since very few seem to appreciate it. You WILL be ground down under the deluge of negative data. Ultimately the only things that will keep you going are your work ethic, discipline and doggedness.
    4. You are EVERYBODY’s bitch. EVERYBODY’s -starting from the dean, right down to the post-docs in your lab. The situation improves slightly once you’ve gained some seniority, but you’re still someone’s whipping boy.
    5. Pay that is just above the poverty line – officially classifying you as slightly better off than food stamp material but still thoroughly unable to afford anything great. In some Uni’s the pay situation is better than most though

    All in all, while the long term benefits are there, you pay a very dear price in terms of time, effort, and mental peace to achieve those dreams.

    Lastly, apologies for the long post and slightly arrogant tone at the beginning.

    Regards,
    Sam

    • says

      Thanks for your perspective! Being “everybody’s bitch” doesn’t sound too appealing at my age (37). As a result, I think you’ve definitely convinced me NOT to do it. It’s OK to be a bitch boy in your 20s, but in your mid to late 30s you tend to want to naturally be your own man.

      • Aaron says

        You only become “everybody’s bitch” if you have no backbone–and even then it’s not all that dramatic (academic environments are very collaborative, at least in my experience). As a mid 30s man, you will be just fine. You may feel like you are at the bottom rung of the ladder sometimes, as many people around you are seasoned PhDs and post-docs, but people tend to be very respectful. If they don’t seem that way, find a different lab. Most of the cons Sam cites are completely exaggerated and are reminiscent of stereotypes perpetuated in our society about what getting a PhD is like.

        I would consider searching further and wider for perspectives and talk to some people in academia, in industry with a PhD, and wherever else you can find PhDs in the fields you are interested in to get their two cents. The commenter above seems cynical (most likely due to nearing the end of their PhD–things probably seem a little darker during this year or two time frame).

    • Aaron says

      You cite many pros of getting a PhD but strictly say it’s only for people who want to stay in Academia. That is simply not true and unsupported by data. People who want to work in all sorts of fields, including business, can benefit from getting a PhD. The benefits you list are ubiquitously important in many technical and problem solving careers, and I don’t think most high-profile employers would scoff at having spent 5 years or more honing your critical thinking and problem solving skills. Yes, industry experience is important, but having shown the potential to be a high-level expert in a field is attractive to many employers as well. The paradigm that a PhD is strictly for entry into academic areas is fading very quickly.
      http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2012/08/what_is_the_value_of_a_science_phd_is_graduate_school_worth_the_effort_.html#

  6. Ava Phipps says

    I wonder if a PH.d is for me. I have my masters degree in Criminal Justice with a dual specialization in Forensic Psychology and Forensic Science with some student loan debt. I plan to work in academia when I retire (I’m 26) but I have been mulling over the opportunity for a PH.d at this time. Would it benefit me in my career endeavors? Probably not. The criminal justice realm mostly relies on experience and not so much education. I wonder what is your perspective? Would it benefit me at this age to go ahead and push through so that when I retire I can reap the benefits of an advanced degree? Or will I be able to market successfully my attributes with a masters degree alone?

  7. says

    Hi All,

    This is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. Pursuing a PhD has been a life goal of since I was a kid. As a 34 old with an MBA I have no illusions about what it takes to get a PhD, and I still want to do it. Specifically I plan on getting a PhD in Economics because it is the most fascinating subject in the world to me, with psychology being a distant yet related second.

    Since you have technically entered your early retirement I think there are really two options to pursue. The entrepreneurial route as you describe, or the academic route. I do believe you can do both. I think the strongest argument for doing the PhD now is that you get more usage out of it now versus getting it later in life.

    The flip side is, as you know, if the motivation isn’t there then its probably not going to be worth it in the long run. If youre like me at all, you just want a challenge. Do them both if you can, but if not just enjoy life.

    Jeremy

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