The ‘D’ in PhD stands for ‘Dilemma’

Shortly before Christmas, my wife had a conversation with a friend of hers whose husband is an assistant professor at the school where I am earning my MBA.  She presented a very positive assessment of what it was like to be a college professor – particularly at a Business School, and it was suggested that I give her husband a call to ask about his experience.

It didn’t take much to get me excited about the idea of pursuing a business PhD.  In my undergraduate school, I had some professors suggest to me that I might someday want to pursue a career as a professor.  That idea has been in the back of my mind for the past six years.  But I decided that, business being a practical field of study more than a pure theoretical field, it would be useful even as a future educator to have ample practical experience to draw from.  Ergo, whether I wanted to become a professor or not, I should get some real-world work under my belt first.

But the school where I am currently earning my MBA – and the one where I’d likely want to go to get a PhD, if I went that route – is a top-notch research institution.  So, this was almost a whole new idea.  I talked to the professor, and then to another friend who is pursuing a PhD at the same school, and got a pretty well-rounded but overall positive assessment of the career choice. 

There’s a lot that’s attractive about the idea of being a professor: the relative autonomy, the concept of being, as my friend put it, a “net producer of new knowledge” as opposed to merely a “consumer of knowledge”, and the value and satisfaction of knowing that what you do makes a difference are all positives.  It’s also very demanding: research institutions have a high expectation that professors will produce and publish new research on a regular basis.  Those who do, it seems, are often compensated for those efforts.  Granted, this is based on a very narrow sample set of professors and PhDs. 

The “Dilemma” I mention comes in the form of significantly more financial debt – on top of what I’ve taken on to pursue an MBA – and deferral of compensation until after the degree is completed in another 4 to 5 years, combined with a potentially significant adverse impact on my family in the intervening years.  Added to that is the fact that these programs are highly competitive, and though I’ve done quite well in my education and very well on the entrance exam (which I could reuse if I applied for a PhD next year, but would have to retake if I applied in the following year), there are confounding factors against me, such as my lack of experience in a research-based field.

In all honesty, the idea got me excited, but since I started looking at the numbers, I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of my ability to make this work financially.  Many PhD programs are paid for with stipends, but these stipends are so small that they would not meet my growing family’s financial needs over the duration of the program, which without some other source of financial assistance would be crippling.  With my already outstanding student debt from the MBA, taking on further loans seems pretty unconscionable.  It would also mean deferring further retirement savings for those years – and every year lost saving for retirement is another year that you have to continue working before you shed your mortal coil.

It’s left me in a bit of an emotional tizzy contemplating it all.  Initially, when these conversations started, it was with the idea in mind that the deadline for applying for the next year was looming.  I soon realized it wasn’t possible for me to make an effective application in a few short weeks, much less decide whether this was a viable career choice for me.

Over the next few months, I’ll continue thinking about the possibility of pursuing a PhD, and trying to learn all I can about the career, its viability, and what it would take to succeed.   Only time will tell whether I eventually apply for the program, or decide that my MBA alone will be sufficient for the career I want to pursue.

One thought on “The ‘D’ in PhD stands for ‘Dilemma’

  1. Pingback: A Study of Genius « The Undiscovered Author

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