Author Topic: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?  (Read 11951 times)

Chranstronaut

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Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« on: July 15, 2014, 08:59:34 AM »
I was looking for some information about Mustachians with doctorates and found this older thread:
http://forum.mrmoneymustache.com/welcome-to-the-forum/calling-all-frugal-phd-students/msg129093/#msg129093

I found a lot of really interesting information there and was pleased to see how well some people are still able to take advantage of a small income to work toward FI goals while in school.

But my goals are the the opposite of the commenters in that thread.  One of my main motivations for achieving FI is to feel free to pursue a PhD full time without worrying about getting enough stipend or feeling forced to steer my career afterward based on salary.  I truly enjoy the research environment, but in my field, it seems as though it usually offers lower pay and more competition for positions.  I don't want to pressured to "get the most out of my degree" at a particular job if my heart doesn't agree.

My story: I am currently 2 years out from my Bachelor's in Engineering and am taking some Master's courses online-- fully funded by my employer.  I'm lucky enough to be working in R&D at a large private company, so the pay is good while having a more relaxed environment compared to the production groups.   Based on my experience with my current classes and my personality type, I think I would get the most out of my degree program and find greater success with the freedom to pursue it independent of income.  I never planned to get my PhD right after school, and my current job is pretty close to my dream research job, so I'm not in a hurry to go back for at least another 5 years.  I'm approximately 8-9 years out from FI.

Is anyone else looking to use FI as a vehicle for an advanced degree?  If so, what are your goals and why are you waiting?

RyanHesson

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #1 on: July 15, 2014, 09:20:59 AM »
I might if I get to FIRE before 2025 or so. I double majored in college, really liked and was very good at one, good pay in the other. A professor I did research with in undergrad encouraged me to do a PhD (in the major I liked), but I decided I needed money instead. The stipend is 23K a year (and I think it goes up as you progress though the program) which I can survive on as my wealth builds, but I can't really save money on that.

Let me take a guess, Industrial Engineering?

Exflyboy

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #2 on: July 15, 2014, 10:50:09 AM »
I have thought about this at length.

I have a batchelor's in Engineering, and MBA, a professional engineering license and I'm FIRED. I also love learning.

I have a couple of friends, both have Phd's one is a prof at Oregon State in Computer Science.

their response to the idea of me doing a Phd was "WTH do you want to do that for?"

When I really thought about it there was just no good reason to do it.. right now I can study just about any subject I want to (I rather want to study quantum mechanics) , but the work required to get Phd for no career benefit (after ER in my case) just doesn't make sense.

Frank

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #3 on: July 15, 2014, 11:22:26 AM »
I'd go for the undergrad degrees myself :S unless I really like the field, a phD wouldn't mean much for me since I'd not be looking for a job anymore. The learning, well I like the variety of undergrad classes a bit more. PhD, I could see myself getting one but I'm not really looking to progress research/science so much as personal learning which I could still do as an undergrad.

plus I might feel bad taking up a more limited phD spot to a younger person who really might progress the field more than me learning for personal reasons. But I'm at least 13 years from FI so a lot can change by then
« Last Edit: July 15, 2014, 11:30:49 AM by eyem »

bop

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #4 on: July 15, 2014, 03:08:22 PM »
I happen to have a PhD (in Computer Science), though my degree is 28 years old (yikes so long ago).  I recently retired, and we're about to move near a top university, where I hope to sit in on seminars and classes and do research with folks there.  So while I'm not entering a PhD program, I consider what I'm about to do a free alternative.  Of course, many online classes are free these days too, but I prefer in-person learning and interacting.   

Chranstronaut

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #5 on: July 16, 2014, 08:35:48 AM »
I happen to have a PhD (in Computer Science), though my degree is 28 years old (yikes so long ago).  I recently retired, and we're about to move near a top university, where I hope to sit in on seminars and classes and do research with folks there.  So while I'm not entering a PhD program, I consider what I'm about to do a free alternative.  Of course, many online classes are free these days too, but I prefer in-person learning and interacting.   

Are you planning to work for the university when you say "do research" or are you just planning to informally support people inside your network?  If you don't mind sharing, I'd like to know more about how you are making this kind of connection at the university and get permission/invitation to do research.

I've definitely considered sitting in on courses outside my field of study, but I never really thought about doing that for engineering.  In my experience, a person outside of the degree program would not be able to slip in unnoticed for a lecture (usually 20-50 people take all their classes together), but I don't know if anyone would ask them to leave if they're not actually a student...

eccdogg

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #6 on: July 16, 2014, 08:55:42 AM »
I have given a lot of thought to this.

I started a PHD in my twenties and left with a masters when I got married.  I am now knocking on the door of 40 and pretty close to FI (actually probably there if I controlled spending better).  I am contemplating going back and finishing up the PHD as I would enjoy the classes/research and probably could get a teaching assistanceship that would make it free/+ cash flow positive.

I live in the research triangle region of North Carolina and there are tons of colleges, universities, community colleges that I could teach at within a reasonable commute.  Being an adjunct while also FI might be a nice flexible post retirement career.  Plus I think my career skills might be valuable for teaching certain classes.

clarkfan1979

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #7 on: July 16, 2014, 09:35:50 AM »
I didn't have a great experience in grad school. The most common model for the department seemed to work all the graduate students to death. I think the faculty considered it a rite of passage or something. The threat to keep everyone working to the max is that you will need a letter of recommendation from the faculty to get a job. If you don't need a job at the end I don't see you putting up with it. A PhD is not like undergrad where you are there for yourself. A big part of your job is helping your advisor be productive with papers, grants and teaching. You are their worker bee and get very little credit. Then when you graduate and get a job you can benefit by doing the same to another graduate student. Your advisors projects come first. 

clarkfan1979

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #8 on: July 16, 2014, 09:46:21 AM »
You will also most likely have to move. I have a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. Although a social science, we conduct experiments and spend most of our time in the lab. When I applied in 2005 for starting in 2006 they usually accepted 3-5 students out of a pool of about 75. This was when the economy was doing better and they had more funding. Now they accept about 2-3 students and have over 100 applications. I had to apply to 10 programs all of the country. It's possible to stay local but not likely. I wouldn't mention being FI and not needing a stipend. I can't image any prof thinking of that being a plus because then they wouldn't have any leverage to work you to the bone.

bop

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #9 on: July 16, 2014, 10:17:31 AM »
I happen to have a PhD (in Computer Science), though my degree is 28 years old (yikes so long ago).  I recently retired, and we're about to move near a top university, where I hope to sit in on seminars and classes and do research with folks there.  So while I'm not entering a PhD program, I consider what I'm about to do a free alternative.  Of course, many online classes are free these days too, but I prefer in-person learning and interacting.   

Are you planning to work for the university when you say "do research" or are you just planning to informally support people inside your network?  If you don't mind sharing, I'd like to know more about how you are making this kind of connection at the university and get permission/invitation to do research.

I've definitely considered sitting in on courses outside my field of study, but I never really thought about doing that for engineering.  In my experience, a person outside of the degree program would not be able to slip in unnoticed for a lecture (usually 20-50 people take all their classes together), but I don't know if anyone would ask them to leave if they're not actually a student...
I'm not planning to work for the university.  My field is the mathematical side of computer science, so research in it can be done with just paper and blackboards, no lab required.  Such research can be done as an individual or in collaboration with another person or two in the field.  The university I'll be going to happens to be where I got my PhD, so I still have a network there.  Plus I was a professor elsewhere for 12 years after, so again I have connections from being in the same field. 

When I was a professor, I had folks sitting in on my classes who weren't registered, and I was perfectly happy to have them there.  It might be a different story if they wanted their work to be graded, but just auditing the class was fine.  So even without a network you can do it.

It's interesting how much high-school students and their parents sweat about getting into an Ivy League college, even though a student who wants an Ivy League education can often just show up.  It's the credential that is hard to get. 

CarDude

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #10 on: July 16, 2014, 10:30:41 AM »
^ I think most parents know that; they're sweating so their kids can get into schools where the names will (hopefully) take them anywhere. : ^ )

garth

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #11 on: July 16, 2014, 10:35:18 AM »
I'm taking the opposite approach, where a PhD is part of my plan to achieve FI. I've certainly learned to live on a small paycheck. And our household income should more than double when I take a job next year. The opportunity cost was pretty large, but within a couple of years, maybe three, we'll be ahead.

Sounds like you could be a good candidate for a PhD. You really have to want it though. It's no picnic.

rpr

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #12 on: July 16, 2014, 11:08:23 AM »
ChransStache, awesome. If you are really interested, go for it.

tylerlekang

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #13 on: July 16, 2014, 12:16:55 PM »
Let me take a guess, Industrial Engineering?

I'm keeping this close to my chest; my employer would be too easily identified if I said.  Sorry.

I'm sure I could live just fine on a 20k stipend, but you're right, I wouldn't save much.  I still live mostly like a college student; aggressively paying off my student loans really helped prevent hedonic adaptation the last few years. I am also quite frugal by nature.  I don't anticipate my lifestyle inflating or deflating as a result of FI or a PhD, so I feel as though it makes more sense to go for FI first.

I suppose I didn't mention it in my original post, but another major factor in waiting for a PhD was also that I want to have real experience to guide my research interests.  The things I was interested in at the end of my BS are not the same as I have now.  I want to solve a real-world problem in my field, rather than a convenient one, which is why I want to be free to take as much time as needed and avoid the more voracious "publish or perish" attitudes.  I also might just say "Screw it" and quit engineering altogether.  I'm trying to give Future ChransStache a lot of freedom.

Do you enjoy Engineering? Because most people with PhD's in Engineering fields who are doing research are not really engineers, they're scientists.

In my opinion, a true engineer doesn't really "care" about the scientific exactness under the hood of the models he/she uses to design a system. If it works, then it works - even if the physics aren't really "correct" in the model.

A scientist, on the other hand, seeks to create new knowledge (and broaden existing), through ideas, simulations and (depending on funding and the field) physical experiments.


Although from reading your post, it appears your not designing anything but you're already doing research for your company. So perhaps it's a perfect fit for you.


But it will probably take you five years to obtain the PhD. Even at a public university, I would guess that costs you at least $80k.

Unless you're truly brilliant and able to be awarded a fellowship directly to pursue your own research, I think you'll want to have a relationship with a professor and work for him/her in order to get funding for your degree. That means you'll either have to be a research assistant or a teaching assistant.

Cassie

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #14 on: July 16, 2014, 01:50:27 PM »
I obtained my Ph.D 16 years ago and now that I retired I am using it to teach online courses that I really enjoy.  It is a nice way to make $ while having fun. I say do it if you would enjoy the journey.

tylerlekang

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #15 on: July 16, 2014, 02:31:53 PM »

Haha, this point could be argued to death, I think.  My opinion is that most engineers are also scientists and most scientists are also engineers.  Design engineers are only one focus.  My role as a research engineer involves work in both testing and analysis, so I am VERY concerned with both developing and applying new models and simulations.  I don't think my role is incredibly unusual, but I am not a CAD jockey.


I'm okay schleping around as an RA or TA as long as the subject matter is related to my interests and the lead is not a demon.  I saw some really significant abuse of graduate students when I worked in a lab during my undergraduate years, so it's something I strongly consider when looking around at programs and professors. It became clear quickly who had hardworking, but decent labs and who had dysfunctional and abused labs.  I'd prefer my degree to be cost neutral, with my 'stache covering my living expenses, but not my tuition.   I plan to work hard for it, but I like to work hard for someone that deserves it.

- In my opinion, an engineer is someone who designs a system.

(Ideally the system should work well and perform a useful task, but that of course is not always the case.

Without question, there are many, many other positions in most companies that have "engineer" in the title which are not directly related to designing a system.)

- Also in my opinion, a scientist is someone who seeks to prove or disprove a concept or idea using the scientific method.

As I said, these are only my opinions. But I also think they are pretty close to being correct and I consider them to be two very different things.



But anyway, I was mostly just wondering how aware you were of what PhD's in Engineering within academia are really about (research and being published) and how you felt about that.

It does take a special person to perform research on a very specific subject and then write about their findings as a career.

Seems like you have a good grasp and are committed to it.

Exflyboy

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #16 on: July 16, 2014, 04:21:07 PM »
Let me take a guess, Industrial Engineering?

I'm keeping this close to my chest; my employer would be too easily identified if I said.  Sorry.

I'm sure I could live just fine on a 20k stipend, but you're right, I wouldn't save much.  I still live mostly like a college student; aggressively paying off my student loans really helped prevent hedonic adaptation the last few years. I am also quite frugal by nature.  I don't anticipate my lifestyle inflating or deflating as a result of FI or a PhD, so I feel as though it makes more sense to go for FI first.

I suppose I didn't mention it in my original post, but another major factor in waiting for a PhD was also that I want to have real experience to guide my research interests.  The things I was interested in at the end of my BS are not the same as I have now.  I want to solve a real-world problem in my field, rather than a convenient one, which is why I want to be free to take as much time as needed and avoid the more voracious "publish or perish" attitudes.  I also might just say "Screw it" and quit engineering altogether.  I'm trying to give Future ChransStache a lot of freedom.

Do you enjoy Engineering? Because most people with PhD's in Engineering fields who are doing research are not really engineers, they're scientists.

In my opinion, a true engineer doesn't really "care" about the scientific exactness under the hood of the models he/she uses to design a system. If it works, then it works - even if the physics aren't really "correct" in the model.

A scientist, on the other hand, seeks to create new knowledge (and broaden existing), through ideas, simulations and (depending on funding and the field) physical experiments.


Although from reading your post, it appears your not designing anything but you're already doing research for your company. So perhaps it's a perfect fit for you.


But it will probably take you five years to obtain the PhD. Even at a public university, I would guess that costs you at least $80k.

Unless you're truly brilliant and able to be awarded a fellowship directly to pursue your own research, I think you'll want to have a relationship with a professor and work for him/her in order to get funding for your degree. That means you'll either have to be a research assistant or a teaching assistant.

Spoken like a scientist...;)

Frank

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #17 on: July 16, 2014, 04:36:34 PM »
I was looking for some information about Mustachians with doctorates and found this older thread:
http://forum.mrmoneymustache.com/welcome-to-the-forum/calling-all-frugal-phd-students/msg129093/#msg129093

I found a lot of really interesting information there and was pleased to see how well some people are still able to take advantage of a small income to work toward FI goals while in school.

But my goals are the the opposite of the commenters in that thread.  One of my main motivations for achieving FI is to feel free to pursue a PhD full time without worrying about getting enough stipend or feeling forced to steer my career afterward based on salary.  I truly enjoy the research environment, but in my field, it seems as though it usually offers lower pay and more competition for positions.  I don't want to pressured to "get the most out of my degree" at a particular job if my heart doesn't agree.

My story: I am currently 2 years out from my Bachelor's in Engineering and am taking some Master's courses online-- fully funded by my employer.  I'm lucky enough to be working in R&D at a large private company, so the pay is good while having a more relaxed environment compared to the production groups.   Based on my experience with my current classes and my personality type, I think I would get the most out of my degree program and find greater success with the freedom to pursue it independent of income.  I never planned to get my PhD right after school, and my current job is pretty close to my dream research job, so I'm not in a hurry to go back for at least another 5 years.  I'm approximately 8-9 years out from FI.

Is anyone else looking to use FI as a vehicle for an advanced degree?  If so, what are your goals and why are you waiting?

That's a good question.  I stopped my graduate studies because I wanted to have kids at one point, and wanted to be able to support them.  Looking back, I would have been fine if I'd stayed in grad school.  I am now pursuing teaching at the university level, and once I get the kids through college, sure, I would pursue a PhD.  I think it would be a very good way to keep my brain active and stave off dementia in old age, for one thing.  For another, it would be fun.  I'm 44 and will probably be FI in 10 years. 

DecD

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #18 on: July 16, 2014, 06:52:30 PM »
Well, I did it backwards.  ER wasn't ever on my radar, cause I didn't realize it was possible or something strive for.  I'm an engineer, and I went back for my PhD for a few reasons- bored with my job (I got a masters straight out of undergrad and then went to work), it was a personal goal, and I wanted a way to have a flexible job to have kids without giving up my career.

It worked great- I got a nice fellowship and we lived a very mustachian lifestyle in grad school.  6 years and two kids later, I had my PhD.  I look back with (mostly) fond memories.  I now have a good job that pays me very well, and we'll hit FI in 5 years or so.  I'm 37 now.  However, we'd have hit FI already if it had been the goal from the beginning!  On the other hand, I've achieved a lot of goals and done and learned some really fun stuff in the meantime. 

I'd suggest that you get some kind of "ship"- assistantship or fellowship- that will cover tuition.  If you're in any kind of science or engineering, that shouldn't be an issue.  Paying for a PhD is just crazy if you ask me.  I probably brought in ~$30K/year with my fellowship, and in our little,
Low COL college town we were rolling in wealth :)

I'm starting to wonder if I won't go back for another once we're FI.  I probably won't, but the idea is intriguing.  My Dad always said if he could have found a way to be a professional student, he'd have done it.  I came pretty close (two masters degrees and a PhD!)  School is fun.  Or, I may look for a research job where I can really pursue my own interests.  I'm currently working to get some of my research funded through R&D initiatives at work, but that's a topic for another post.
« Last Edit: July 16, 2014, 06:58:51 PM by DecD »

MsRichLife

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #19 on: July 16, 2014, 07:35:42 PM »
I'm considering this. I'm 37, have a bachelors degree in Engineering, an MBA and I'm currently completing an MPhil (sponsored by my employer). I am enjoying research so much that I am considering undertaking a PhD when I reach FI in a few years time. (I could retire now, but want to build a bigger buffer)

I have no desire to undertake more undergraduate study, preferring the self direction that comes with research. I admit, I also like the idea of a small stipend which will allow us to continue adding to the stash for a few more years. I don't really have a desire to start a new career in Academia, but feel that the PhD may open some other doors down the track.

Most people I speak to ask why I would want to get a PhD, noting the hard work, and to be honest I need to give it some more thought. I'm very interested in the thoughts of you all.

MRL


tylerlekang

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #20 on: July 16, 2014, 10:31:18 PM »
Well, I did it backwards.  ER wasn't ever on my radar, cause I didn't realize it was possible or something strive for.  I'm an engineer, and I went back for my PhD for a few reasons- bored with my job (I got a masters straight out of undergrad and then went to work), it was a personal goal, and I wanted a way to have a flexible job to have kids without giving up my career.

It worked great- I got a nice fellowship and we lived a very mustachian lifestyle in grad school.  6 years and two kids later, I had my PhD.  I look back with (mostly) fond memories.  I now have a good job that pays me very well, and we'll hit FI in 5 years or so.  I'm 37 now.  However, we'd have hit FI already if it had been the goal from the beginning!  On the other hand, I've achieved a lot of goals and done and learned some really fun stuff in the meantime. 

I'd suggest that you get some kind of "ship"- assistantship or fellowship- that will cover tuition.  If you're in any kind of science or engineering, that shouldn't be an issue.  Paying for a PhD is just crazy if you ask me.  I probably brought in ~$30K/year with my fellowship, and in our little,
Low COL college town we were rolling in wealth :)

I'm starting to wonder if I won't go back for another once we're FI.  I probably won't, but the idea is intriguing.  My Dad always said if he could have found a way to be a professional student, he'd have done it.  I came pretty close (two masters degrees and a PhD!)  School is fun.  Or, I may look for a research job where I can really pursue my own interests.  I'm currently working to get some of my research funded through R&D initiatives at work, but that's a topic for another post.

You must be a talented researcher. I don't think full funding fellowships (30k/year, as you put it) are as plentiful as you make them out to be. Assistantships, yes - I would expect any PhD candidate to at least receive a tuition waiver and some kind of stipend (though it may not be much to live on) in exchange for working at least 20 hours a week on the Prof's research or grading papers & holding office hours to help students with homework questions.

I agree though, if you could get someone to give you a bunch of money for free ... yeah sure, why not be a professional PhD candidate? You can take interesting, advanced courses and work on your own research, in your own time.

And depending on the field and the topic, you don't even really need a lab because simulation data seems to do just fine in getting published and physical experiments may well cost too much money anyway.


One question I have for you though, what kind of engineering position do you hold where a PhD was actually applicable in the sense of needing a specific, highly advanced expertise, rather than in the sense of being experienced at researching and writing papers?

Are you an integrated circuit designer?

clarkfan1979

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #21 on: July 17, 2014, 11:41:32 AM »
I think there are three parts to getting a Ph.D. Hard work, living on a small wage and not having an independent life for 5 years. The first two parts would fit great with this forum. However, I don't see people that are FI putting up with the lack of independent life that is often required to get a Ph.D. A lot of it is shitty busy work given to you by your advisor because they don't want to do it. Consider yourself an academic janitor for 5 years.

When I was a MA student I worked on a federal funded project and got paid hourly, which was awesome. The project involved partnering with another university which had a PhD student in Sociology as part of their team. My fellow MA student was doing the budget and was concerned about the hours being put in by the Ph.D. student which might put us over budget. My MA advisor stopped her and said, "You two are getting paid hourly because we don't have a stipend. The Ph.D. student gets a monthly stipend so they are not being paid directly from the grant. Consider his hours unlimited when doing the budget." I was like, "unlimited?... really?" That was my first wake-up call when considering what a PhD program was going to be like. I finished and I'm glad that I did it. However, if I was already FI there is no way I would have finished. If I had any FU money, I would have exercised that play almost on a daily basis.   

Chranstronaut

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #22 on: July 17, 2014, 12:02:46 PM »
Thanks for all the discussion so far, I'm enjoying everyone's comments.  I'm interested in people's motivations for seeking both FI and high achievement/recognition in their fields.  Is anyone seeking something besides a PhD after FI that is also prestigious/difficult/exclusive?

Someone mentioned being a perpetual student-- I'm starting to wonder if that will be me!  I love learning, but I also have enough vanity in wanting the credentials to back it up.  I sometimes wonder if getting a PhD when "retired" or FI is nothing but pure vanity.  Like one poster said, is it okay to take limited positions or funding from someone that might work more years than you or "need" the money more?  Personally, I say everyone should do what they want -- the value of the research is still being added to the world whether the person performing it needs the money more or less.

Chranstronaut

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #23 on: July 17, 2014, 12:12:12 PM »
I think there are three parts to getting a Ph.D. Hard work, living on a small wage and not having an independent life for 5 years. The first two parts would fit great with this forum. However, I don't see people that are FI putting up with the lack of independent life that is often required to get a Ph.D. A lot of it is shitty busy work given to you by your advisor because they don't want to do it. Consider yourself an academic janitor for 5 years.

When I was a MA student I worked on a federal funded project and got paid hourly, which was awesome. The project involved partnering with another university which had a PhD student in Sociology as part of their team. My fellow MA student was doing the budget and was concerned about the hours being put in by the Ph.D. student which might put us over budget. My MA advisor stopped her and said, "You two are getting paid hourly because we don't have a stipend. The Ph.D. student gets a monthly stipend so they are not being paid directly from the grant. Consider his hours unlimited when doing the budget." I was like, "unlimited?... really?" That was my first wake-up call when considering what a PhD program was going to be like. I finished and I'm glad that I did it. However, if I was already FI there is no way I would have finished. If I had any FU money, I would have exercised that play almost on a daily basis.

This is a great reply, thank you.  I was hoping you might expand on your other comment about grad school not being a great experience.  This sounds VERY typical based on my friends that went to grad school.

Quote
"The Ph.D. student gets a monthly stipend so they are not being paid directly from the grant. Consider his hours unlimited when doing the budget." I was like, "unlimited?... really?" That was my first wake-up call when considering what a PhD program was going to be like."

This really spoke to me and is a HUGE reason I want to FI before doing a PhD.  Do students like this ever push back on expectations?  I've never heard a story like that, just students keeping their heads down and surviving.  We talk a lot in the Mustachian world about how having FU money can make a work environment better by refusing to do work that is unreasonable.  Is there a way we can do this in academia and change the culture that says "grad student" = "free slave"?  I don't know if it's possible, but I plan to try. 

That all sounds very noble, but I also wonder if I will be like you, clarkfan, and say FU because I know I'm financially secure...  I'm excited to find out :)

Trudie

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #24 on: July 17, 2014, 01:46:26 PM »
Of all the pros and cons I've read here one thing really sticks out:  if you do it, make sure you enjoy the journey.  I am not in your field and so can't speak to the prospects you might have and what specifically the Ph.D. will do in your case.  But, I know people who've loved the journey and others who -- trapped in academic politics -- ended up becoming indentured servants.  I remember friends who felt that one person could make or break their career.  But, if you can swing it financially and you enjoy the journey, why not?

My husband has his Ph.D. (education) and works for a university.  I suspect that since you would take your degree to work in the private sector you will not suffer the frustrations (minimal rewards) that some do.  You are also in a practical field.  Personally, I would go crazy.  The academic ego can be a very fragile thing and working alongside people who are in their heads (sometimes absorbed with very esoteric interests) just isn't my thing.  But then, this isn't about me:-)

Good luck with whatever you decide.

clarkfan1979

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #25 on: July 17, 2014, 03:22:55 PM »
To put a positive spin on it, I think it's doable, however you are going to need to go the atypical route because your situation is atypical. You are going to need to speak with a potential advisor at great length about your situation and what you hope to accomplish. I would guess that this is going to someone later in their career that has tenure and is no longer worried about publishing papers or getting grants. This type of advisor would not be good for a typical grad student. A typical grad student would need a hungry advisor to help them get papers and grants to help them get a job. However, if you don't need a job you might be a good fit for a late career advisor that will not work you to the bone. These type of advisors can be very fun to "work with" but they will not be able to help you get an academic job when you are done. Many late career profs enter the stage of "no longer accepting grad students" within 5-10 years of retiring. Based on your situation, they might take you on because they won't feel the pressure to help you get a job.

When I finished my degree I almost kind of felt like it was a scam. I was not a teaching assistant. I actually taught the classes. However, I was listed as a TA for many of the courses. The prof that was occasionally listed as the instructor was never in the class room. The only thing that they did was approve "overrides" if the class was full. That was it. Grad students are much cheaper but they need 65-70% of classes taught by full-time faculty. Because I was rarely listed as an instructor I think they were "cooking the books"

There is a book that came out a couple years ago called, "Professors behaving badly"  I bought it when it came out but I haven't read it yet. Many Universities are starting to phase out tenure because the profs have too much power and not enough accountability.

When I tell my story to others I get the sense that I was one of the "lucky one's" I have heard many stories worse than mine. Not being allowed to work on my dissertation so I could leave was probably the worst thing. They wanted a couple more semesters of free labor before I left.


Cassie

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #26 on: July 17, 2014, 03:55:09 PM »
I have 2 master's & a Ph.D.  My first masters was not a good experience but the last 2 were wonderful & I would definitely do it again!  I loved learning & I loved the journey.

Gray Matter

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #27 on: July 17, 2014, 05:11:21 PM »
This really spoke to me and is a HUGE reason I want to FI before doing a PhD.  Do students like this ever push back on expectations?  I've never heard a story like that, just students keeping their heads down and surviving.  We talk a lot in the Mustachian world about how having FU money can make a work environment better by refusing to do work that is unreasonable.  Is there a way we can do this in academia and change the culture that says "grad student" = "free slave"?  I don't know if it's possible, but I plan to try. 

I'm going to guess that it's not possible to change at this point.  What leverage do you have?  You personally can refuse to work as much as everyone else, but I'm guessing your assistantship would not be renewed.  There are many other people lined up behind you waiting to be slave labor.

For the OP, this is something only you can decide, but I'll share my experience.  I always loved school and when I came home from  my last class for my Masters, I was blue because it was over.  So then I thought, "But wait!  There's more!" and I went on for my Ph.D.  It was essentially the same students and the same professors and the same classes, so I thought I knew what I was getting into. 

NOT.  The Ph.D. program just felt different, even with the same players.  It was very political, with a lot of pressure to create models and get published, form alliances, take care of your own, etc.  And as far as I could tell, people weren't all that interested in whether there was actual learning going on, or meaningful contributions to the field, or any practical application to what they were writing about.  It was just a lot of regurgitation of pre-existing ideas with some "new" spin on it.  Quite distasteful, actually, and it felt like a lot of people trying to justify their own existence rather than focusing on making a difference in the world.

Now, you might say that this was just a particular department or group of people, but these were (almost) all good people that I liked and respected individually, there was just something about the academic setting.  I'm not saying it's everywhere, but I think it's pretty common.  I was quite young back then and idealistic, and have since discovered that there is a lot of work in industry that goes nowhere and has little to no impact, but still, I think academia takes it to a whole different level.

That didn't stop me from contemplating going back for a second Ph.D. a few years ago when I had gotten really interested in emerging research in a different field and wanted to change fields.  I took one graduate level class to test things out and by the second session I was, "no way in hell!"  I'd forgotten how excruciating it is to read academic writing, I'm too old to read something or write something just because someone else told me to, and I no longer have any patience for spending hours writing a 20-page paper that gets read by one person and then (hopefully) recycled, which is what happens to the majority of your papers.  I want my work to impact people, not just count for a credit.

I determined that if I have a love of learning that I want to indulge at this stage of my life (I do!), the last place I belong is in a Ph.D. program.  I'm not saying that's everyone's experience in grad school, and if you develop a specific research agenda that you build upon, your work is more likely to be disseminated and have an impact, and you may have a higher tolerance for politics than I do, so it may be just perfect for you.


acorn

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #28 on: July 17, 2014, 05:36:21 PM »
I never planned to get my PhD right after school, and my current job is pretty close to my dream research job, so I'm not in a hurry to go back for at least another 5 years. 

If your job already involves doing research in something you're interested in, why do you want to go back to school for a PhD? Is it so you have greater control over what kind of research you're working on? You'll still need to find a professor who shares your interests and is willing to fund your work. And even then, your professor will still direct your work somewhat to fit the interests of the lab.

As many have mentioned before, a PhD is not just pure research; it comes with classes, required TAships, etc.

Not sure if going from a paid research job in industry to a a low-wage PhD is really the best choice. Can you collaborate with research labs through your company? Or after FI, join a lab as a lab technician or a research assistant?

Chranstronaut

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #29 on: July 18, 2014, 08:37:24 AM »
I never planned to get my PhD right after school, and my current job is pretty close to my dream research job, so I'm not in a hurry to go back for at least another 5 years. 

...why do you want to go back to school for a PhD? Is it so you have greater control over what kind of research you're working on?
...Can you collaborate with research labs through your company? Or after FI, join a lab as a lab technician or a research assistant?

These are very good questions acorn, thank you.  I suppose it might be time for revealing a little more about myself.  My reasons for wanting a PhD are varied, but come down to three fundamentals:

1) I just want one.  I might not want one as badly in the future, but currently I do.  I believe I have the temperament and personality to excel in academia, I've always loved school and I really enjoy the university environment.  I like challenges, so I see a difficult PhD with hope and determination, rather than reluctance or fear.  I also have some vanity in wanting recognition of being a high achiever-- it's true.
2) I want more authority over my work and my future prospects.  I DO have a great job, but it comes with all the problems of large corporations: little control over work flow, bureaucratic red tape and thick layers of middle management.  It's hard to move between areas and people like me are "groomed" in various ways I don't necessarily enjoy.  I want to groom myself, and I believe I'm capable of that.  I work in an area that I enjoy and on projects that are related to my current interests, but my real passions are odd and not accessible from my current position.  I need the authority and autonomy to either move within my company or strike out outside of it. (Sorry, I don't want to say exactly what I do here on the forum).
3) I want to open up doors for myself and follow my interests.  I will apply to be a US astronaut.  It's by no means necessary to have a PhD, but it's really important to have proper training and experience in research to be a good Mission Specialist.  I plan for my future career and academic experiences support this goal.


Yes, acorn, I may have the ability to collaborate with universities and the same government agencies I might like to work for with a PhD.  But it goes back to autonomy: I have none.  I could probably get some without a PhD, but it appears to me that it would take a longer career than I want to obligate myself to having.

Trudie

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #30 on: July 18, 2014, 09:06:13 AM »
Now, you might say that this was just a particular department or group of people, but these were (almost) all good people that I liked and respected individually, there was just something about the academic setting.  I'm not saying it's everywhere, but I think it's pretty common.  I was quite young back then and idealistic, and have since discovered that there is a lot of work in industry that goes nowhere and has little to no impact, but still, I think academia takes it to a whole different level.

I have found this to be so true in the academic community in which my husband works... I like people individually and respect them (lots of upstanding folks), but get them in a room together sometimes and I want to bang my head against a wall.  Some of the interests are just so esoteric.

I read the OP's last response to why s(he) wants to do this though and now that I understand more would say definitely do it.  There are some huge goals there and I can understand why this would be the necessary path.

But to someone more undecided about their career goals... definitely not.  My husband's academic dean told him once that 50% of his time is spent on HR issues, most of which are medical and mental health related.  He wasn't making fun of people, just trying to stress how the academic world can be difficult, especially for people who spend so much time in their heads.
« Last Edit: July 18, 2014, 09:07:57 AM by Trudie »

DecD

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #31 on: July 20, 2014, 05:09:54 PM »
Well, I did it backwards.  ER wasn't ever on my radar, cause I didn't realize it was possible or something strive for.  I'm an engineer, and I went back for my PhD for a few reasons- bored with my job (I got a masters straight out of undergrad and then went to work), it was a personal goal, and I wanted a way to have a flexible job to have kids without giving up my career.

It worked great- I got a nice fellowship and we lived a very mustachian lifestyle in grad school.  6 years and two kids later, I had my PhD.  I look back with (mostly) fond memories.  I now have a good job that pays me very well, and we'll hit FI in 5 years or so.  I'm 37 now.  However, we'd have hit FI already if it had been the goal from the beginning!  On the other hand, I've achieved a lot of goals and done and learned some really fun stuff in the meantime. 

I'd suggest that you get some kind of "ship"- assistantship or fellowship- that will cover tuition.  If you're in any kind of science or engineering, that shouldn't be an issue.  Paying for a PhD is just crazy if you ask me.  I probably brought in ~$30K/year with my fellowship, and in our little,
Low COL college town we were rolling in wealth :)

I'm starting to wonder if I won't go back for another once we're FI.  I probably won't, but the idea is intriguing.  My Dad always said if he could have found a way to be a professional student, he'd have done it.  I came pretty close (two masters degrees and a PhD!)  School is fun.  Or, I may look for a research job where I can really pursue my own interests.  I'm currently working to get some of my research funded through R&D initiatives at work, but that's a topic for another post.

You must be a talented researcher. I don't think full funding fellowships (30k/year, as you put it) are as plentiful as you make them out to be. Assistantships, yes - I would expect any PhD candidate to at least receive a tuition waiver and some kind of stipend (though it may not be much to live on) in exchange for working at least 20 hours a week on the Prof's research or grading papers & holding office hours to help students with homework questions.

I agree though, if you could get someone to give you a bunch of money for free ... yeah sure, why not be a professional PhD candidate? You can take interesting, advanced courses and work on your own research, in your own time.

And depending on the field and the topic, you don't even really need a lab because simulation data seems to do just fine in getting published and physical experiments may well cost too much money anyway.


One question I have for you though, what kind of engineering position do you hold where a PhD was actually applicable in the sense of needing a specific, highly advanced expertise, rather than in the sense of being experienced at researching and writing papers?

Are you an integrated circuit designer?

Tyler,

You are right, my fellowship was unusually large, and it was a big deciding factor in which school I chose for my PhD.  $20-25K would have been expected at the other universities I was looking at, and all of them in higher COL areas, so the stipend went a particularly long way.  A few of my fellow students had fellowships, a few more had research assistantships, but most had teaching assistantships.  None were paying their own way.

I didn't need a lab- just a decent computer.  I'm in aerospace engineering.  A PhD was not required for the position I hold, though it doesn't hurt.  My day-to-day work is in the same field but not directly related to my research. 

Gin1984

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #32 on: July 20, 2014, 05:40:19 PM »
I'd like to point out that in my field, neuroscience, where you work in a lab, you need approval from the PI to get in his or her lab.  If you are older and they don't think you will go far in field because of that, it can be held against you.

stripey

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #33 on: July 20, 2014, 08:24:09 PM »
Thanks for all the discussion so far, I'm enjoying everyone's comments.  I'm interested in people's motivations for seeking both FI and high achievement/recognition in their fields.  Is anyone seeking something besides a PhD after FI that is also prestigious/difficult/exclusive?

Post FI I am consideering eithee a PhD or something else roughly equivalent in trickiness/prestige in my field. I will not elaborate on what the alternative pursuit is, because I value my anonymity and any form of elaboration would narrow me down to one of about 300 individuals worldwide (less if other things mentioned on this form are taken into account).
I am working in a situation with relatively high research output already, and becoming acceptd as a PhD candidate will not be difficult. I like research and I some ways I think ai would quite like the challenge of some very focussed investigation.


tylerlekang

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #34 on: July 20, 2014, 10:02:39 PM »
Tyler,

You are right, my fellowship was unusually large, and it was a big deciding factor in which school I chose for my PhD.  $20-25K would have been expected at the other universities I was looking at, and all of them in higher COL areas, so the stipend went a particularly long way.  A few of my fellow students had fellowships, a few more had research assistantships, but most had teaching assistantships.  None were paying their own way.

I didn't need a lab- just a decent computer.  I'm in aerospace engineering.  A PhD was not required for the position I hold, though it doesn't hurt.  My day-to-day work is in the same field but not directly related to my research.

Ah, Aero. Yes that is one of the top ranked departments in the college at the U of MN. Doesn't surprise me that at your college you were award a nice fellowship in that field.

Do you mind if I ask what you job and research interests are related to? Is it within the realm of controls? Or something more of a mechanical eng/physics nature?

Gerard

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #35 on: July 21, 2014, 08:55:01 AM »
I'm in the social sciences, where the lab model is different but the exploitation of grad students is similar. So everything I say here may be only variably relevant to anyone else's situation.

If you don't need the money (because you have a 'stash) and you don't need the reference letter (because you're not expecting to work in the field), you have a lot of FU power. You can also find a supervisor who will help you learn and grow, without necessarily having superstar name recognition. That superstar status often has as much to do with ambition and luck as with ability or decency. My own ludicrously sweet position has as much to do with fit and timing as with ability.

Another advantage, of course, is that if you're fully FI, you can move wherever you find the sweetest programme/supervisor and the lowest living and tuition costs, and spend small because that's what the people around you do.

WRT stealing a position from a deserving young student, there's a definite spectrum of awesomeness in grad school applicants. Your enrolment would steal the position from the worst of the people who'd otherwise be accepted, a candidate who's the most likely to flame out or mess up other people and the least likely to later find work. I hereby absolve you of guilt.

arebelspy

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #36 on: August 12, 2014, 09:33:02 PM »
Getting more degrees (phd or otherwise) is definitely one of my potential FIRE plans.  Learning just for fun, and delving into neat things, with all the time in the world?  Yes please!
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FIPurpose

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #37 on: August 12, 2014, 11:45:26 PM »
I've thought about this topic a lot lately. But unlike several here I would go in a completely different direction. In school I had several teachers tell me to not go into classics as a PhD student since there's no money and more grads than jobs. But with getting a job not being a requirement I would be able to study without the stress of having a useless degree.

chesebert

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #38 on: August 13, 2014, 12:51:30 AM »
I have a similar plan. I want to get my masters in EE and design ASIC/DSP chips for all sorts of neat applications. I was quite good at DSP in my undergrad but life took a turn and I am no longer an engineer and had forgotten all the stuff I learned and worked on :(

I can always teach part time to get the tuition waiver if necessary.


Albert

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #39 on: August 13, 2014, 05:57:08 AM »
To put a positive spin on it, I think it's doable, however you are going to need to go the atypical route because your situation is atypical. You are going to need to speak with a potential advisor at great length about your situation and what you hope to accomplish. I would guess that this is going to someone later in their career that has tenure and is no longer worried about publishing papers or getting grants. This type of advisor would not be good for a typical grad student. A typical grad student would need a hungry advisor to help them get papers and grants to help them get a job. However, if you don't need a job you might be a good fit for a late career advisor that will not work you to the bone. These type of advisors can be very fun to "work with" but they will not be able to help you get an academic job when you are done. Many late career profs enter the stage of "no longer accepting grad students" within 5-10 years of retiring. Based on your situation, they might take you on because they won't feel the pressure to help you get a job.

That's not necessarily true. First of all some professors stay "hungry" until well past retirement age and second an older guy with an accomplished career behind him will have more contacts in both industry and academia and thus more ability to help you with references and job opportunities. I did my postdoc with just such a person (early 60-ties) in an Ivy League University and he was great at finding jobs for his people. Most got the highly coveted big pharma positions or academic jobs (not many wanted). The downside of course is that he/she is not pushing you as much and it's your own responsibility to work hard.

Albert

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #40 on: August 13, 2014, 06:29:02 AM »
The advice below is valid for lab based sciences, might not be that important if all you need is a bit upgraded computer or access to a good library (social sciences)

- The choice of your academic advisor is the extremely important. As already mentioned above I wouldn't go for a very young guy (<40) still looking to establish himself. It's also unlikely that he/she would accept nontraditional grad students. The cost of any mistakes in hiring people if your group is only 4-5 is larger than if it's 20-30.
- even if you get fellowships/assistantships to cover your needs entirely and don't need any funding from a professor you are still consuming his grant money (consumables, space in the lab). Therefore you need to convince him that you'll work hard just like a younger person would. Don't brag that you have a lot of money and need nothing from him, but also be honest about your career goals or lack of them and your motivation for pursuing PhD degree. He'll find out later anyway…
- If you are doing PhD in roughly the same area in which you worked before your experience could be an asset for a professor (careful about not damaging his ego, though!). Most of them have never seen anything other than university environment.

To do it or not is an individual choice. You could learn a lot, but it's also true that science is a young persons environment and you'll probably find it difficult to keep up with guys in their mid 20-ties. Won't be easy to find a motivation to keep going for years.

chasesfish

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #41 on: August 13, 2014, 08:12:58 AM »
This is something I think about constantly, partly because I'm in a college town.  I have a desire to have a second career in academics, but it will require a business related PhD.  I enjoy the academics and history of business and hope I can find a PhD program that would accept a bachelors and 15 years of industry experience

ThirdTimer

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #42 on: August 13, 2014, 01:27:30 PM »
In my experience, PhD students tend to be far more anxious and stressed-out than people in regular jobs, which used to surprise me, because you generally have more autonomy and flexibility in your schedule than in a regular job, you're much less likely to get fired than in a regular job, and often you work lighter hours than in a regular job (although this can vary hugely by field--in my experience fields like math and literature where you pretty much sit in a room and read and do your own thing are the ones where hours are shorter, whereas in fields like chemistry and biochemistry where there's a lot of concern about findings getting "scooped" and the work requires a lot of very time-intensive experiments, the hours can be extremely long).

But in about year 4 or 5 of my PhD program, I finally generated a grand holistic theory about why grad students are so damn stressed out: it's because most of them desperately want to be professors, most of them won't be able to get jobs as professors (because there are vastly more grad students who want those jobs than jobs available), and whether or not they actually get one of those jobs is largely due to factors outside of their control, a major one of which is the opinion of them held by one person--their PhD adviser. So it's a very interesting culture--unlike regular jobs, where people won't say FU to their bosses because they don't want to get fired and they desperately need the money, in grad school people won't say FU to their bosses because they desperately need their boss to think highly of them so they have a hope of getting a job as a professor.

That means that if your post-FI career ambitions don't involve getting a job in academia, you have more latitude to say FU than most students. But if you do desperately want the PhD for bragging rights/for your NASA plans, you still can't totally say FU because your boss still determines whether or not you can get that PhD, and you still have to keep working with said boss for the five-ish years it'll take you to get that degree.

Also, I know that you mentioned that one of the reasons that you want to get a PhD is because you want more freedom to pursue your own research interests. I don't know engineering specifically, but in any field that's largely lab-based (ie, any field where you do experiments where you have to get grant money to pay for those experiments), your research is going to be very restricted by the kind of research that your adviser is interested in/has funding to do. Of course, if you know exactly the kind of research you want to do, you can find an adviser who's doing that kind of research and make it happen that way. If you're a professor at a research university, then you can do any kind of research that you can convince a grant committee to give you money for, but, again, it's often a hard and anxiety-ridden process to get those jobs. In the paper-and-pencil fields, my understanding is that PhD students get a lot more latitude in choosing their research projects. And in the lab-based fields, my experience is that very senior, well-established and well-funded professors tend to offer their students more research freedom than more junior professors who might only have grants for one or two small projects and are really working to establish themselves as a name in a particular area.

So, my biggest piece of advice is, if you're going to do it, pick your adviser very, very, very carefully. Find someone who a) is doing the kind of research that you want to be doing, b) is willing to give you a fair amount of freedom, and c) won't make your life miserable. A lot of what FI is about for many people is that great feeling of knowing that you're not beholden to a boss. When you enter a PhD program, as long as actually getting that credential matters to you, you will be beholden to a boss again, because she'll determine whether or not you can get it. So the best thing you can do is find a boss that will make you feel as comfortable with that situation as possible (that is, one who you think will let you do what's as close as possible to what you actually want to be doing).

Cassie

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #43 on: August 13, 2014, 01:42:58 PM »
I have a Ph.D and 2 master's and I was an older student (30's).  I found without exception at 3 different schools that faculty was willing to help & provide support to students that were serious about getting their degrees.  The experiences were awesome and earning a degree is a huge accomplishment and something that can never be taken away from you.  If you have a desire to do this definitely do it.  Having a faculty adviser is very different from having a boss at work- a lot less stressful.  I liked going to school much better then working.

Albert

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #44 on: August 13, 2014, 01:49:02 PM »

So, my biggest piece of advice is, if you're going to do it, pick your adviser very, very, very carefully. Find someone who a) is doing the kind of research that you want to be doing, b) is willing to give you a fair amount of freedom, and c) won't make your life miserable. A lot of what FI is about for many people is that great feeling of knowing that you're not beholden to a boss. When you enter a PhD program, as long as actually getting that credential matters to you, you will be beholden to a boss again, because she'll determine whether or not you can get it. So the best thing you can do is find a boss that will make you feel as comfortable with that situation as possible (that is, one who you think will let you do what's as close as possible to what you actually want to be doing).

That's a good advice, but difficult to follow. I'm in industry now, but have regular interactions with academics (collaborations, consulting, conferences etc). Most of them, including known slave drivers, can be quite charming when they want to be and need something from you instead of vice versa. The only viable way would be to talk with some recent grad students from his/her group. Preferably more than one to eliminate bias. I've seen weak students put most of the blame for their failure on their advisors...

ThirdTimer

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Re: Getting a PhD after achieving FI?
« Reply #45 on: August 13, 2014, 02:55:33 PM »
That's a good advice, but difficult to follow. I'm in industry now, but have regular interactions with academics (collaborations, consulting, conferences etc). Most of them, including known slave drivers, can be quite charming when they want to be and need something from you instead of vice versa. The only viable way would be to talk with some recent grad students from his/her group. Preferably more than one to eliminate bias. I've seen weak students put most of the blame for their failure on their advisors...

Yes, totally agree, it's much easier said than done. I agree that the only way to do it is to talk to current/former students, preferably away from the lab, and ask them very specific questions--what is your schedule like? what project(s) are you working on? how did you end up working on that project? what is [Adviser's] management style like? what do you find most challenging about working with [Adviser]? Have there been students who have left the lab without completing their PhD? Why did they end up leaving? Also, just try to get a read on whether the students generally seem happy and relaxed or stressed and anxious. But it's far from a perfect approach.