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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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?  

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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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  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.

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