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Thread: The pros and cons of grad school

  1. #1

    Default The pros and cons of grad school

    I am debating returning to school.

    I have a job, and I hate it. I never wanted to work where I do, but I also never knew precisely what I wanted to do with my life. I knew this wasn't it, but I had student loans to pay, and this is what was available.

    Now that I've worked nearly a decade and gotten my student loans down to manageable levels (my family kind of screwed me with them, I had to pay for college myself despite my parents having money to spend on themselves), I feel more ready to pursue my dreams. Which of course means defining them more precisely...

    I think I know more or less what I want to study. I am quite fascinated by the concept of swarm intelligence, particularly as it applies to such things as the human immune system.

    I would have gone on to graduate school sooner, if I could have afforded to. At this point, it would in many ways need to be considered a "career change" even though I have never regarded my current job as part of my career -- it only pays the bills. But leaving it means starting over, and even if I land a fellowship somewhere, that could be expensive. And I don't really have any money saved up -- what extra I've made I threw at my loans.

    And at this stage of my life I am far less tolerant to BS than I used to be. For example, I did earn a Master's degree, in Mathematics, and it involved an oral exam. One of the three professors conducting the exam spent a good portion of it harassing me about my penmanship (e.g., "That is not how you write the letter U! The letter U has a tail on it! Write it again!"). I would not have the patience to deal with similar antics gracefully anymore, but I am gathering that they are about par for the course. Earning advanced degrees seems to require a thick skin. There's some hazing involved before you can join the club. I'm not sure I still have the patience to endure it, yet on the other hand, it seems to be a prerequisite for a more meaningful career.

    I apologize for the somewhat disjointed post -- I just needed to bounce my thoughts off someone.

  2. #2

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    My opinion is yes, get the PHD. You've already got a masters in mathematics, and the one thing you didn't bring up is any hesitation in doing the actual work. That, to me, says you have the mind and the tenacity to do some really good work and from there get into the possibility of working on some sort of cutting edge science. That's cool stuff, especially if it fascinates you and makes you happy.

    Also, coming out of that, the jobs, whether teaching in academia or working in industry, generally pay enough to mean you don't have to worry too much about paying off remaining debts, and you get to live comfortably in addition to doing cool stuff.

    The major question to ask is commitment, though. Unlike college or a masters, PHDs take a while to earn and that time is variable. Make sure you're ready to go for this thing and will be happy studying the topic you're interested in. Because it will suck a ton if you get to year 5, you're not done, and you hate what you're doing.

  3. #3

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sapphyre View Post
    I would have gone on to graduate school sooner, if I could have afforded to. At this point, it would in many ways need to be considered a "career change" even though I have never regarded my current job as part of my career -- it only pays the bills. But leaving it means starting over, and even if I land a fellowship somewhere, that could be expensive. And I don't really have any money saved up -- what extra I've made I threw at my loans.
    Without knowing your financial situation, I would say that any decent STEM PhD program will carry a stipend (at least in the US), and it will generally be enough to actually cover modest living expenses.

  4. #4

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    Quote Originally Posted by ArchieRoni View Post
    My opinion is yes, get the PHD. You've already got a masters in mathematics, and the one thing you didn't bring up is any hesitation in doing the actual work. That, to me, says you have the mind and the tenacity to do some really good work and from there get into the possibility of working on some sort of cutting edge science. That's cool stuff, especially if it fascinates you and makes you happy.

    Also, coming out of that, the jobs, whether teaching in academia or working in industry, generally pay enough to mean you don't have to worry too much about paying off remaining debts, and you get to live comfortably in addition to doing cool stuff.

    The major question to ask is commitment, though. Unlike college or a masters, PHDs take a while to earn and that time is variable. Make sure you're ready to go for this thing and will be happy studying the topic you're interested in. Because it will suck a ton if you get to year 5, you're not done, and you hate what you're doing.
    Thanks for the input. ^_^ I think for me it's mostly a financial consideration -- not earning a real income for so many years -- and the fact that it is a risk. If it doesn't work out for any reason it's just lost time. I don't want to find myself flat broke and desperate for a job like I was the first time I graduated... but sooner or later, I'll have to take the plunge, if I want a more interesting career.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Fruitkitty View Post
    Without knowing your financial situation, I would say that any decent STEM PhD program will carry a stipend (at least in the US), and it will generally be enough to actually cover modest living expenses.
    At this point I'd be almost in the same boat as any other student who hasn't really worked. I have student loans but they are (now) reasonable, but I've not much in the way of savings or rainy-day money. Financially it probably makes sense to wait just a bit longer... but then, it always will.

  5. #5

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    Sapphyre, what would be your area of concentration/thesis subject if you went for a Ph.D. in math? Can you earn good $ once you graduate or would you get a job teaching undergraduate mathematics? Or, if whatever job you got/education would make you happy, it is definitely something you should do.

  6. #6

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    Quote Originally Posted by chuck View Post
    Sapphyre, what would be your area of concentration/thesis subject if you went for a Ph.D. in math? Can you earn good $ once you graduate or would you get a job teaching undergraduate mathematics? Or, if whatever job you got/education would make you happy, it is definitely something you should do.
    Depending on the school, and the extent to which I focused on the human immune system specifically, it would probably either fall under Computer Science or Computational Biology. In theory I could earn a competitive income as a research scientist, but of course the economy has the final say... I do think I would get much more satisfaction out of my work though, which for me is becoming the more important factor. It's just a risky career / financial move, and I'm not sure if I will still handle all the stresses involved as well as I did several years earlier.

  7. #7

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    It's definitely worth it. As Fruitkitty said, at least in the US if you get accepted into a graduate position the university will usually find a way to help you pay for it.

    On a side note, I don't think I've ever seen an actual computational biology concentration, but if you can find one that's awesome. I'm in the computer science field myself, and the few people I know doing computational biology have both a computer science and biology degree.

  8. #8

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    Quote Originally Posted by FaelanGalanti View Post
    It's definitely worth it. As Fruitkitty said, at least in the US if you get accepted into a graduate position the university will usually find a way to help you pay for it.

    On a side note, I don't think I've ever seen an actual computational biology concentration, but if you can find one that's awesome. I'm in the computer science field myself, and the few people I know doing computational biology have both a computer science and biology degree.
    I've seen a good handful of such programs, but it is apparently still an "emerging field." I am short on the biology side -- my degrees are in Computer Science and Mathematics. However, I am interested in studying immunology from a swarm intelligence / AI perspective, since the immune system is arguably one of the best examples of an intelligent swarm that makes critical decisions, and certainly one worthy of study in general. It would be interesting to try to simulate it accurately.

  9. #9

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    If you are considering Ph.D. programs, find out everything you can about the job market and about programs' placement history. What percentage of graduates eventually get tenure-track jobs? Other academic positions? If a significant percentage of graduates are getting jobs outside of academia, what sorts of jobs are they getting? (Are their jobs relevant to their research, or are they effectively quitting their field and pursuing another career?)

    If you are interested in an academic career, be aware that getting a tenure-track or other long-term position will almost certainly involve moving. It may involve moving to someplace that is not an ideal location. It may be necessary to move more than once (e.g. to take a post-doc before getting a long-term job).

  10. #10

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    Definitely. There's a whole bunch of stuff that comes together there. Best of luck, let us know when you develop an artificial immune system. :p

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