Question for Ph. D.s and prospective Ph. D.s

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    Oct 16, 2007 9:57 PM GMT
    So I'm at that point in my life where I have to choose if I want to take the Ph. D. path or not in some science. In an ideal world it would be an easy choice... of course I would. But here's a few things that are making the decision difficult:

    Earning a Ph. D. can take 5-6 years during which you get minimal pay. After this, you have another 2-4 years of postdocs, which are generally not great pay, but decent. That's 7 to 10 years of crappy to decent pay. On the other hand, getting a masters in an engineering field, or going for an MBA yields salaries of $60K to $80K per year to start, and these are merely two year programs. So in two years you can have pretty good pay.

    Second, getting a tenure-track position seems pretty tough these days from what I've seen. The appeal Ph. D.s have at least in academia (other than bragging rights) is job security due to tenure. But I've seen many young professors who are not able to get tenure because of limited funding for research. It makes me a bit afraid to spend 7 to 10 years and have very little to show for it.

    On the other hand, studying sciences is fairly enjoyable, probably more than other job occupations. I'd still enjoy other jobs that are mentally stimulating, such as engineering or management that I gave as examples above, but probably a little less so than doing research. But that doesn't necessarily mean I'll be happier doing research, if for example I have to go from school to school in search for tenure and the like.

    I'm also afraid that if I don't pursue a Ph. D. I might regret it later, or if I do pursue it it might end up not being worth it and a huge waste of time that I could have used to start building my life.

    So... what are your thoughts on this? Any input is appreciated since the time has come for me to make this decision. When it was far away it was easy to be idealistic about it and say "yeah, sure Ph. D.!!" but now that it's comming closer and I actually have to consider the effects of these things on my life... hmm not as easy any more icon_smile.gif
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    Oct 16, 2007 10:26 PM GMT

    The comics are great (and a bit of what you'd expect) and there's a forum on there with a bunch of really helpful people.
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    Oct 16, 2007 10:33 PM GMT
    I have never regreted it. I have my own view of whether obtaining the PhD actually is an indication of any particular ability to have insight. But it does mean you become "expert" in a relatively narrow area.

    All that aside, no matter what you feel about it, getting the PhD has a certain "cachet", especially in science. For example, I do consulting on the side, and in my field, having the PhD allows you to really "cash in." Sorry to be frank, but as Rune pointed out, while you are on the road to the degree, you will encounter years of hard work, low pay, frustration, despair etc.

    Knowing that there is a "hard" reward for that makes the goal seem more worthwhile, beyond the intellectual pleasure and achievement.

    Then I used that PhD to get a tenure-track teaching position. All major universities pretty much require a PhD to get a position. It's a wonderful life. I am at an institution that is half teaching/half research (unlike so-called research-1 institutions like Cal, Harvard, Stanford, in which teaching takes the far back seat).

    I love teaching, I love the unstructured time (meaning, I have to be present for office hours, classes, meetings, committee work....but everything else is done when I want to do it). I love one month off in winter and two in summer.

    The salaries are not half bad anymore (and, remember, they are 9 month salaries). I love working with young minds, and colleagues, and, in my institution, thankfully, politics is at a minimum.

    No question it's worth it for me. But, you have to evaluate your own field may NOT be worth it in your field.

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    Oct 16, 2007 10:47 PM GMT
    Thanks for your viewpoint John. If you don't mind me asking, how difficult is it to get a tenure track position at a half-and-half teaching/research university, and how well do they pay? I've only known researchers from a university focused mainly on research first, and it seems tenure track is very hard to get.
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    Oct 16, 2007 10:52 PM GMT
    I was in your shoes when I finished undergrad, so here is my take on the situation.

    The first questions that I would ask you are ...
    What is your opinion regarding research?
    WHY do you want your Ph.D.? (Is it necessary for your career?)

    If you aren't a fan of benchwork, getting a Ph.D. shouldn't be in the cards. A few students who started my program left after their 1st semester because they didn't like research. (Why they even started the program was beyond my comprehension at the time.)

    While I've always found Chemistry stimulating and exciting, however, there were days ... *smirk*, MANY days, where you are forced to deal with a scenario similar to the following...

    1. Your project is frustrating the crap out of you because your data makes absolutely NO sense
    2. Since your project is on the cutting edge of *insert random topic here*, so you can't consult a journal to figure out why things aren't working
    3. Your PI is at a conference or, even worse, is having one of THOSE days where he wants to berate you for a few hours because he was rejected for a grant proposal
    4. Your UV Oxidation apparatus was destroyed by an undergraduate

    Graduate school definately changes your life ... You can expect to work 50-70 hours a week in the lab (possibly more or less, depending on your research advisor), the pay is rather meh (fellowships or RA's can make things easier), and it's incredibly high stress. I was a raging asshole for the final months before my oral comp, my thesis defense, my thesis dissertation ... *bows head in shame*. It can be a very lonely existance, which is hard for some people to take. At times, I wish that I would have opted out after my Master's, but for the positions that I want in biotech/pharma, a PhD is necessary.

    As for pursuing a post-doc, it's not always necessary ... although, if you want a career in academia or certain industry positions, it's strongly recommended.

    Since I have absolutely NO interest in pursuing a career in academia, I'm not well versed in the tenure department. Tenure positions can be difficult to come by, but ... you can work your way up the academic hierarchy by starting at a smaller institution and proceeding from there. At my institution, the faculty are extremely successful at receiving tenure, but that's neither here nor there.

    At the end of the day ... You should decide whetheryou are genuinely interested in research. (How much research have you performed?) If you like research ... successfully completing a Ph.D. requires finding a project which excites you, a research advisor who suits your style of management, a penchant for LIT's, etc.
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    Oct 16, 2007 11:03 PM GMT
    The personal payoff is one matter, the financial payoff is another. Probably, it depends on exactly what your field is. Also, you're gambling on what the situation will be five years from now. Tenure may pretty much be a thing of the past. In the biosciences, many people get stuck in an endless cycle of low-paying post-doc or 2-year contract positions for another decade or more. Some people find the nomadic lifestyle attractive and some don't.

    The fact is the current research establishment in the US is a pyramid scheme. Most research is only possible under the available budgets because the actual work is done by students and post-docs working for little or no salary. An endless supply of grad students and post-docs is needed to keep the scheme going, but once they graduate, they cannot expect to draw a decent salary and still compete against the big groups that have "free" labor, unless they draw in even more students... Obviously, this only works as long as there is exponential growth in research funding.

    As for teaching, increasingly universities hire part-time contract faculty at ridiculous wages. Many of them spend half the day driving from campus to campus to teach a few credits here, a few credits there. I recently (temporarily)helped out a local college by teaching a required class that they didn't have covered. The token "salary" that they offered was less than what they pay their janitors.

    Of course, there are possibilities outside of academia. Presumably, someone who earns a Ph.D. should be capable of devising some way to make a living. But then the question becomes, do you really need a Ph.D. to do that?
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    Oct 16, 2007 11:03 PM GMT
    1.5 to 2 years from my Ph.D. in Biochemistry now...

    Remember that Ph.D.'s are useful in other jobs than as a Professor. There are jobs with pharma, NIH, and the DOD for example, as well as publishing.

    Do it because you want to, do it because you *need* to (need as in need sleep, not as in "so I can get x job.")

    Do not do it because you should, or it will get you x job, or as a thing to hang on the wall.

    Getting a Ph.D., frankly, sucks. It's long, hard, and exhausting no matter your field. The shortest of Ph.D.'s are still interminable and miserable.

    There are rewards during the doing, and while I regret some choices, the choice of grad school itself is not one of them.

    While an individual post-doc is 2-4 years, many people are now doing two or even three post-docs before getting a faculty position.
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    Oct 16, 2007 11:04 PM GMT
    Unless you are certain you want to teach at a major university I see no need for an immediate Phd in the real world of science and engeineering.

    Most people I know in these fields - commercially - who do have Phd's got them later on in their careers or while working in industry. There is no substitute in my opinion for real world experience; and in many instances a Phd will knock you out of the running for some industry jobs because the employer will think that you require a substantially higher salary. Many companies would rather higher a bright post grad and groom them in company - and many will provide educational opportunities for finishing your advanced degrees

    I earned my first AS mostly by distance learning in the Army, my BA and my BS likewise, then got my MS the traditional way. My MA and CAS I earned part time at night and through distance programs again. My Phd I again mostly did in a more traditional setting. The only thing that is missing from my PHD application is my final Thesis project (I have another year to turn it in, but frankly have become ambivalent about it).

    Yes - a VERY non traditional path, but my degrees are still from major universities.

    In Industry I don't think it matters much, ability is much more important.

    If you are planning on governmental research, pure research at the university level, or teaching at a major university then it's a different story.

    You do not NEED a Phd just to teach at a college or university if you have real world experience. I have been sought after for the last 10 years simply because of my experience, not because of my degrees.

    I tell young employees who come to work for me to plan on spending the rest of their lives and careers in persuit of advanced education. At the current rate of technological change there is about a four year turnover. In other words, what you learn this year will probably be obbsolete in four years. If you wish to stay ahead of the curve, you have to resign yourself to a future in persuit of changes in technical knowledge.

    Food for thought:

    Welcome to the 21st Century


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    Oct 16, 2007 11:06 PM GMT
    Rune, I have been where you are now, but without the following knowledge. So I pass this onto you as "been there, done that."

    In 5 - 7 years (between when you are 28 and 30), you are going to go thru a psychological change during which you will reexamine your life. At that time, you may suddenly decide to ditch all that you have been doing and go off in an entirely new field.

    So my advice is be very careful that the field you are going for a PhD in is one you really, really love. Altho that might now help much, cuz you could still dump it.

    Unless you are really compelled to go for that PhD, I think I would hold off and wait a bit longer.
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    Oct 16, 2007 11:12 PM GMT
    Rune queried: "...If you don't mind me asking, how difficult is it to get a tenure track position at a half-and-half teaching/research university, and how well do they pay? I've only known researchers from a university focused mainly on research first, and it seems tenure track is very hard to get..."

    Depends upon the field. Meteorology, oceanography, and to a certain extent, geology, are not "impacted" fields. This means, there are not an overabundance of PhDs being graduated, particularly in oceanography and meteorology. Hence, the applicant pool for positions in the latter two, particularly, is small.

    While 100s of people may apply for a position in organic chemistry at my university, we may only get 10 applicants for a position in physical oceanography. Still, there are more applicants than there are positions to fill.

    At my university, the nine-month salary for a full professor, top rank averages around $90,000 now, but that will be about $110,000 under the current contract by the year 2011. However, that salary can be higher depending upon the terms of your original employment (you might be given an augmentation if you are in a highly competitive field)

    However, keep in mind that the benefits are outrageously good. At my university, 5% of my gross salary I am required to contribute to my retirement account. The university contributes 5 times that amount. It is set up so that if you retire after 40 years of service, you get 100% of your salary, plus health benefits etc. for the rest of your life.

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    Oct 16, 2007 11:23 PM GMT
    Wow a lot of great replies. Mindgarden you pretty much outline my observations and concerns about pursuing a Ph. D. What you say is exactly what I have observed. I have done a substantial amount of research for three different labs and this is what I have come to realize about how they work. Don't get me wrong, I have enjoyed the research immensely, but that's easy to do when my parents are the ones worrying about finances and I don't have to worry about that ;) I'm not sure how enjoyable it would be to work 60 hour weeks for minimal pay, regardless of the job. Actually you are right of how you describe it. It really is a question of personal payoff vs. financial payoff. And that's what makes the decision so hard.

    In fact I think your closing comment is exactly where I am stuck at. Do I really need a Ph. D.? No, I imagine my life will be easier both financially and when it comes to stress if I just go for the Master's and work in industry or for an MBA and work in some sort of management position. But then, I worry that I might regret it later, just because having one seems like a significant accomplishment, and because my main interests do lie in science. I guess the question becomes, do i want to sacrifice money and a nice comfortable life for that accomplishment and that indulgence?.. hmm tough one hehe.

    Also as ITJock points out I suppose it can be done at a later time. But is it more difficult once you get out of the academic setting to get back in? I would imagine so. And then, what happens to your career? How easy is it to put that on hold?

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    Oct 16, 2007 11:23 PM GMT

    Pay scale varies HUGELY. Partially because at some schools you get higher pay and others you're allowed to take up to a third of your grants as salary. But ranges (with grants) from 40kish to 150kish

    As for getting a faculty position? In Bio it REALLY depends. If you're established in RNA, then right now it's easy. By the time you would be done? Who knows what will be hot. It depends a lot on what organism you work in and what your area is. I've known people to get rejected because the dept already had too many fly people, for example. And people who were accepted because, "Ooh, he does mass spec on in vivo purified proteins? That would help these 6 labs!"

    So you gotta get lucky. The broader your experience and skill set the more likely you'll be able to easily interface with more of a department, so the easier it is to get hired.
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    Oct 16, 2007 11:32 PM GMT
    I have a Ph.D. and I now have a job that is not in academia. I can definitely say that having a Ph.D. made it easier to get a job outside of academia and I'm being paid more than I probably would if I didn't have a Ph.D.

    However, none of that is why I got the Ph.D., and I wouldn't suggest getting a Ph.D. for those reasons.

    I got a Ph.D. because I love the field that I got the Ph.D. in. Maybe I'm naive, but view a Ph.D. in a similar way to how I view a college degree... study something you love, and if you don't love it so much that you want to dedicate years of your life to it, then DON'T DO THAT.

    On the other hand, if you are in love with the field, and you decide not to get a Ph.D. for "practical" concerns, you WILL regret it later.
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    Oct 17, 2007 12:43 AM GMT
    You mention finding a job or getting tenure, but what about starting a company or being an independent expert?

    If you started your own company doing something you like to do, would you need a PhD to have the expertise to do the job?

    I'm currently struggling with the idea of going back to school to get an MBA or MS in mathematics heading toward a PhD in economics. But I also have a concept for a company and at this point, I don't need a PhD to pursue forming the company. There might be some customers or contacts who would look more favorably on a CEO/Owner who was a PhD in Economics - maybe that would impress the lenders or big clients - but do I want to delay starting the company for 5-6 years for that. Some companies go from start to multi-national in that time.

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    Oct 17, 2007 12:50 AM GMT
    While I don't have a Ph.D. myself, I do counsel a lot of people who are looking to get Ph.D.'s. I'd agree with just about everything that's been said here, but would add that you should have a realistic understanding of what you would get out of having it. Will the academic jobs (and I mean full time, not the academic slavery of adjunct work) going to actually be there when you finish? Is your particular Ph.D. valued in an industry of interest if academia is not the route you'd go?

    If you go through with it, it should be something that you love and worth the time, effort, pain, and suffering that it will inevitably be. When I finished my masters, I thought about a Ph.D. for me, but couldn't think of what more I would get out of it than being called Doctor. I told people that if I started to talk about it seriously to tie me down and slap me until I came to my senses.

    Granted, this is because of my particular field and where I'm looking to go professionally. As a career counselor, getting an MBA would be a better addition than a Ph.D., as then I'd have more credibility with certain populations. Working on that one (possibly!)
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    Oct 17, 2007 1:02 AM GMT
    Oh go ahead and go for it. But you might enjoy eating a big bowl of ground glass and setting your hair on fire instead.
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    Oct 17, 2007 1:04 AM GMT
    There are some really good replies already, so I'll try to put in an alternative point of view. I have a PhD in Physics.

    Firstly, the skills required to complete a PhD are rather different to those required for the undergraduate degree. Undergrad work is frenetic but largely confined to a few late nighters for homework and definitely bounded by long holidays. Grad school is rather a long uphill slog: There will be entire weeks at the end of which you feel as if you accomplished nothing. The largest project you had to handle as an undergrad may have lasted the best part of a year, but you probably only spent two days a week on it at most. Your PhD will be a lot longer than that. What chemguy was saying about spending 50 hours a week in the lab is possibly rather field or lab-specific; I certainly never put in those hours in the lab. On the other hand the REAL problem is that it is IMPOSSIBLE to put your PhD work down... it does tend to fill your head even when you're trying to relax. You need hobbies to distract you!

    I would advise people to do a PhD if they are near the top of their class, self-motivated and generate their own ideas within fields they know something about. You also need communication skills and time management, but these can be learnt.

    Secondly, the overwhelmingly important factor in your PhD is your supervisor/advisor. You are very very dependent on them to complete your PhD; you need them for motivation, ideas, funding for equipment, funding to let you go to conferences, signing of forms etc. Those students that do not have a good supervisor or who do not have a good relationship with them inevitably have far more difficulties. You should be very selective about who you choose, and moreover you should be careful about the school you choose. Remember that those people at the top of their game, sadly, may have little time to dedicate to their students. Remember that at some very prestigious institutions in some groups the grad students are so numerous as to be slave labour!

    So why do it? Frankly there is nothing better. Why do you want to waste your life in industry if you can instead turn your mind to the fascinating things that underpin life and nature? Where else are you allowed to think as you wish, to pursue what interests you, to grapple with hard problems that reality, and not the constructs of man, pose?

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    Oct 17, 2007 1:19 AM GMT
    QUOTE:Oh go ahead and go for it. But you might enjoy eating a big bowl of ground glass and setting your hair on fire instead.

    LOL how encouraging

    The message I seem to be getting from all this is to go for a Ph. D. but make sure I can use it to benefit things I do outside of academia if need be so that it's not a total waste if I don't stay in academia.. hmm..

    My undergrad is in physics, and my other undergrad is in psych with a focus on quantitative/cognitive stuff, so my options (and interests) include Ph. D. in:

    Physics - Big in both industry applications and academia but I'm not sure I'm interested in learning more specifics than what I learned in undergrad.

    Cognitive Psych/Neuroscience - Very interesting, but I don't see many industry applications.

    Engineering - Not interested in Ph. D. here, if I do this it'll be master's and a job.

    Industrial/Organizational Psychology - Decent pay in industry and can also do academia but not as interesting as the other fields.

    Will have to think about this and the input from this thread, I appreciate it guys icon_smile.gif Seems like I need to get used to making decisions that will affect large chunks of my life. Getting older sucks icon_sad.gif
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    Oct 17, 2007 1:23 AM GMT


    My Ph.D. is in Cognitive Psychology, with a focus on computational and mathematical modeling.

    Just FYI.

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    Oct 17, 2007 1:34 AM GMT
    Interesting icon_smile.gif Would have been nice to have known you a few months ago when I was working on figuring out Signal Detection Theory Models (mostly Gaussian but High Threshold and Serial Processing also) and trying to match Graham's and Kramer's predictions before expanding them and changing the detectability index used. I swear a lot of these researchers do everything in their power to prevent you from figuring out what they did.

    But since you have experience in the field, what programs are good in Cognitive Psych and / or Neuroscience? I'm still trying to check those programs out. This time around I'm trying to find more brain related stuff to study (e.g. neural circuitry, maybe with some biology component, or maybe just theoretical networks, and other such things). A lot of these program descriptions are very vague.
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    Oct 17, 2007 1:58 AM GMT
    Interesting! I've done some work on comparing multidimensional signal detection theory and neural network models (and other information-accumulator models) in assessing perceptual independence (i.e. independence in the processing of different perceptual dimensions).

    And you're right, there are certainly personalities in the field who are more interested in being admired than understood.

    I had a very good experience in the program at University of Michigan, and would definitely recommend their graduate program if you're looking at Cognitive Psychology.
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    Oct 17, 2007 3:29 AM GMT
    I'd advise that you be positive about a lab before you join it. The first PhD program I started, I was split halfway between two different professors. 3 years into it, one of them left the university. My stuff didn't fit all that easily into the other lab, and the advisor who was leaving was shifting his research focus away from the type of work I was doing, so I ended up just getting an MS out of it and having to start over where I am now. True, I'll get out a little faster from here than the other people who started at the same time as I did here, as I had some projects which I can transfer in part, but still, it's not an ideal situation. If I had been completely within a single lab, that likely would not have happened to me.

    Beyond the academic work of the lab is the social environment. Recognize that being a grad student is nothing like being an undergraduate. 65 hour weeks are common, chasing nebulous goals and not being able to simply read a book to learn what you need to know. There is often very little direction given to you--you need to figure out yourself what you need to learn, and then how to do it. And you'll be paid less per hour than the janitors, while your friends who got MBAs will be buying new cars. That gets to some people.

    That being said, there are some absolutely great things about it. Though it varies from one professor to another, most often you've got a very flexible schedule--you need to work a ridiculous number of hours, but it's up to you which hours those are during the week. You'll be learning things which *no one currently knows*. Your whole job is to learn and then communicate this info to others. There are also certain advantages to being on a college campus: nice greenery, good athletic facilities, hordes of 20year-olds running around shirtless when the weather gets warm. ;)

    Whether it's required for your career depends a lot on your specific field and what type of position you want. Most community colleges will gladly take someone with an MS. Many 4 year universities will accept such from adjunct professors in certain fields, most notably business and some forms of engineering. It's very rare in most sciences for a 4 year university to accept anyone with less than a PhD, and most require a post doc or two, or else a sabbatical replacement position or two.

    I'm doing it because it's obviously the right choice for me. I don't see myself doing anything outside of academia, pretty much ever. I love the thrill at the moment that I have data which supports a very surprising result, and I have a bunch of ideas popping of ways to even further support it. Things don't always go so great, and at those times it's quite helpful to know why I'm slogging through this.

    And, incidentally, neuroscience has a number of industry applications, but mostly in the biomedical corridors of coastal CA, Boston, Chicago, and the Research Triangle.
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    Oct 17, 2007 4:05 AM GMT
    I have to say, this has been a really interesting thread to read... thanks Rune for posting it.

    I completed my MA program in East Asian Langauges and Civilizations, but I decided not to go on to the PhD for a variety of reasons... not the least of which was that I was only 25 and I just felt that I needed to get the hell out of the library and live for a while. As much as I loved what I was working on (intellectual history of modern Japan), I just knew somehow that I would have regrets if I dedicated the next ten years to a dissertation. It turned out to be the right decision at the time.... and I am still working in a related field now at a job I really love. But every once in a while, I think about going back so that I could actually be qualified to _teach_ these college kids something about Japan rather than just sending them there.
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    Oct 17, 2007 4:29 AM GMT
    Hey Rune,
    Cog Psych is pretty cool. I hear UMich and UCSD have really good departments in those field. Have a coworker who has a PhD in that as well from UCLA, and he's a pretty smart guy. If you want to get into computers, I recommend Carnegie Mellon in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Psychology is used in this interdisciplinary field to understand how people think about computers to help inform better designs.

    Having said all that, what I really wanted to say is that it sounds like you're not really dead set on any one particular field with all those options listed, which concerns me because I think successful PhD students are more certain that they want to devote the next 5-7 years of their life to specializing in this one area. When I was at this crossroads, I was so sure I wanted a PhD, but in the end, schoolwise, it seemed the best program I got into was a Masters. Now that I'm done, I'm so thankful I chose the path I took. It was a one year Masters program that I took two years to do and the skills I've learned have served me very well in the job I do now.

    Anyhow, just wanted to throw out a non-PhD data point. Best of luck!
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    Oct 17, 2007 4:41 AM GMT
    Who knew there were so many PhDs on this site??? I spent 13 years in academia with 2 BAs, 2MA and the PhD--all in social sciences. While I was writing my dissertation my roommate and I re-wrote the words to the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore song....I won't bore you with the whole thing but the first lines were:

    I can tell you that I rue the day.
    The day I said, "hey Ph.D" instead of saying "hey, MBA"

    We were at Columbia and all of our friends were working on Wall Street during the internet boom. BUT, I loved learning and loved the atmosphere and the people--and I was good at it so it never cost anything.

    I don't work in the academy now but in marketing for a fitness company (funny how political theory doesn't translate directly to corporate america) but find applications of my academic work to corporate situations all the time. What I am saying is that it was fun and the friends from those days are still good friends. Yeah, you would make more money going another way but when you are through you will have something that most people in the world do not have and the experience is worth it.

    Also, as I know from experience, even if you haven't put the years into the corporate career, with an advanced degree you don't start on the serving line and the advancement is faster.

    Go for it.