Is it possible to start a PhD at 36 without taking a huge hit financially?

Time4Tea 08/16/2018. 13 answers, 9.455 views
phd funding career-path industry salary

I'm currently working as a Senior Engineer (Mechanical) for a large company. However, I am increasingly finding the work to be dull and lacking in challenge. I don't think I can bear to spend the next 20-30 years like this - I feel that I am not making use of my true abilities and I yearn to be doing something more novel and breaking new ground.

I live in the US (Boston area) and I have been looking around at what other opportunities are available; however, it seems that many of the more interesting-looking positions (which are more research-based) require a PhD. I majored in fluid dynamics and have some experience in CFD, so I am looking at positions that lean towards that area.

So, I am considering whether I should do a PhD, which seems to be a logical choice if I want to be doing more intellectually-challenging work. However, right now I am earning a good salary; I have a big mortgage to pay and a 3 year old kid to support. Doing a PhD seems like it would be a very difficult path to take, from a financial standpoint: not only would I have to give up my healthy salary, but I would also most likely have to pay a lot in tuition fees, in which case I would go from earning ++$ to -$, which would be very difficult to manage.

So, my question is: is it possible to do a PhD at my stage in life, whilst also paying the mortgage and supporting my family? What is the best way to balance this?

I should probably also mention that I have a Masters Degree in Aerospace Engineering from a top UK university (I moved to the US from the UK a few years ago).

13 Answers


Thomas 08/17/2018.

I did my PhD in computer science in the Boston area. Through an RA and a bit of TA, I had my tuition, health insurance, and conference travel expenses covered, plus a stipend which has since risen to $36,800 before tax per year. (With a bit of googling you can look up what financial support various PhD programs offer, as well as health insurance costs for dependents -- for a large family, this might be $10,000.) That was enough for a modest but comfortable single person's lifestyle in expensive Boston, but I would struggle to support a child or mortgage with that. PhD stipends will vary by field (i.e., how much funding professors have) and by university (i.e., local cost of living).

You will know your financial situation and it's up to you to judge whether you can cut your expenses and/or dip into your savings to make that work. PhDs are getting longer, so keep in mind that you probably need to do this for about six years.

There are a few other options to make it better financially:

Ideally you can work something out with an employer where they will pay you while you do your PhD, probably in exchange for some part time work or a promise that you will continue working for them afterwards. Such an arrangement is more common for shorter programs like an MBA.

It's also possible to spend some time during the PhD working in a company that is somehow related to your studies. For example, a lot of computer science PhD students will do internships at companies like Google or Microsoft. A 10-week summer internship could give your annual income a >$10k boost.

If it all gets too much financially, you can take a year or two off your PhD to work and then come back to finish. That's not ideal, because it interrupts your work. However, it's better than needing to drop out entirely.

Overall, however, I think it's unavoidable that a PhD will entail a financial hit. A PhD is almost never a good financial decision, but if you are passionate about research it's definitely worth it.


Arthur Tarasov 08/18/2018.

No. You will take a financial hit. That's the short answer.

It is a good practice though to find out how big of a hit you would take. With such a life-changing decisions you ought to put some work into analysis first. You need to estimate your opportunity cost of doing a PhD. Essentially that will be a measure of your financial hit. How much money you will lose compared to not doing a PhD.

...right now I am earning a good salary; I have a big mortgage to pay and a 3 year old kid to support.

Just from this sentence I can guess that your opportunity costs will be high. Here are some things to take into account:

Possible negatives:

  • reduction or loss of salary
  • tuition costs
  • time you will have to spend studying
  • possibly longer commute
  • resuming a career at the age of 40 possibly starting at a lower salary, despite having a PhD
  • risk of failure at PhD program
  • risk you will not enjoy a PhD as much as you expect to
  • the last but definitely NOT least is graduating from PhD into an economic recession possibly making you unemployed for years into your 40s

Possible positives:

  • More interesting work opportunities upon graduation
  • Higher pay if you successfully resume your career with PhD
  • Higher chance to remain employed doing the job you love into retirement age (a very good thing once you get older)
  • Learn to understand the world better, makes you happier

A very important step before you sum it up is to discount all your future gains and losses and compare their present value. For example, getting a better job in 4 years is less certain so it has less present value, maybe 60% compared to if you got this job today. Losing your job now to start a PhD, if certain, is valued as a loss of 100% of salary. Basically things that may or may not happen in the future are less important than the ones that are guaranteed to happen now. 10% discount rate per year is a good rate, but make it compounded.

Also account for compound interest that would accumulate on your immediate gains/losses. For example, the salary you receive now is way more valuable than the salary you will receive 10 years from now because you can immediately invest it, and not just in stocks or your retirement, but to pay off the mortgage sooner, to get quality early education for your kid, etc.

You don't have to be precise with any of this. Just doing a sketch and reading up on those financial concepts will make the picture much clearer.

Finally, if you decide it is not worth it, there are other options. You can start reading up on research topics that are interesting to you, see if any of that research can help your current employer save/make some money. If yes, perhaps you could even get your company to allocate some R&D budget for a small corporate lab. Perhaps even team up with some academic institution for a join applied science project with corporate funding. It will take you years of reading and studying, but so will a PhD program.


einpoklum 08/17/2018.

Here a few options you and/or your family could consider:

  • A research collaboration at your workplace: If you could marry what your workplace does with academically-interesting research (interesting to some university professor, to be more concrete) - you might be able to engage in such research on company time. This may or may not be within the purview of a PhD program, but it would meet your underlying goal.
  • A part-time/extenal Ph.D. program: If your workplace is willing to let you take down your salary somewhat, but all go down to part-time employment (whether it be 50%, 60% or 80%), and your industrial experience is interesting to a potential advisor, you could work on a PhD at a slower pace, and partially in your spare time (assuming you have any, with small child and a wife). Of course, this would likely take quite a good number of years.
  • Relying on your wife: Your wife may be willing (and able) to find more gainful employment, with yourself and perhaps other family helping with child care, while your salary drops significantly as a Ph.D. candidate. Of course - if you're not an employed/funded Ph.D. candidate, it's quite unlikely your wife could increase her salary by that much.
    You can potentially improve this option with some real-estate-dorm switcheroo: Assuming you get a funded Ph.D. position and couples/family dorm privileges, you could move there with your family - again, if your wife is willing to put up with that - and rent out your existing apartment.

All this goes to show why it's important for junior researcher unions to thrive and struggle to bring the wages up, enough to make it a viable option for adults with families to be able to support their families and shoulder their expenses as Ph.D. candidates. Typical salaries must at least treble, if not quadruple, for the that to be the case. If you do end up as a Ph.D. full-timer, do invest some time in union organizing.


Dave Rose 08/17/2018.

Funny enough I'm opposite of you: got my PhD, did some teaching and now in industry. Ahh the irony! I'm going to be as honest as possible here, I don't think you should start a PhD; here are my reasons:

Engineering is not research: I'm in computing, to this day, I'm impressed by engineers everyday. However here is the truth: doesn't matter how efficient you might be in the engineering department, research has its own struggles. For example, if I create a programming language, it is not research on its own, but if I come up with a theory on a type system of a language that might be a research and publishable. To an engineering mind, it might be a battle, that overtime might force you to say: ahh I don't need this in my life I'm going to leave research.

Loads of reading: you will be reading 80% of time, other people's work to get an idea, where your contribution maybe; but there is no guarantee. For example, in my case, due to lack of good supervision, I was not certain what will be my contribution after a year of reading other people's work. However, and engineer might say: well, I'm calculating my input to this work, and this should be my output; but this is not true in research. You will be wondering "where the idea comes from"; and let me tell you it is a rabbit hole; you might get lucky and get an idea but reading a journal, or you might go through the last 20 years research and journals and get nothing.

Finance and Research You might say, well, I'm senior in my job and I'm bored. I want to do something different, but without getting hit financially. Doesn't matter how you cut it, you will get hit financially: you are changing the trajectory of your career; what do you expect.

What is the end game here?: Imagine this: hello sir, here is your PhD diploma; what will you be doing sir?. You might publish several papers during PhD, then what about after that? Becoming a lecturer? Let me tell you that is also very hard to get and they will pay you probably less than what you are making; research is not for financial gains and stability; you see what I'm trying to say here?

When everything is boring: I think you are bored because there are not so much diversity in your work place, and it is time to move on; but maybe because of family issues you can't. Have you considered outside work projects? Something that you need to push through? That might be the answer your problem.


mathreadler 08/17/2018.

Where I am from, "industrial" PhD students are not unheard of. A private company (which you probably work for) pay part of your time for you to do a PhD on. For example 50% of your working time.

You may get less institutional duties like teaching MSc and undergraduates than ordinary PhD students paid by employment at university or stipend would.

I would guess you would make more money that way but have less "academic freedom" as your "boss" in this case will be the company paying for your degree.


I would think the chances to be allowed to do one of these increase the better network and the more of a name you have made for yourself being skilled at tackling technically difficult things at work (assuming you would do a PhD in some technical field).


Chris H 08/17/2018.

I gave up a job as a senior engineer to start my PhD (at 30). I was very lucky in that (1) my wife at the time was well-paid (better than me in engineering), and (2) PhD stipends in the UK are quite decent -- it sounds like this may be a possibility for you Similarly to you my interesting job had become much less so as our customised systems became much more routine.

You'll have to budget carefully, but being based in Boston should give you a good chance of finding a PhD position without having to move or work away from home for long periods. It's not a purely financial decision by any means, or you probably wouldn't do it, but you need to be financially confident.

If you plan to continue in academia, TA work during your PhD is important experience, and can pay a reasonable hourly rate - but you don't want to do too much and risk your research. This depends heavily on country, institution, funding source etc. but should be taken into account.

Ultimately only you and your partner know how much you can trim from your current spending, and how that balances against what you want to do. You don't sound like you're in a desperate situation, so you could try living a simpler lifestyle for a year or two, perhaps putting the savings against your mortgage to reduce costs when you do start, before looking in earnest for a suitable PhD. Do you expect childcare costs to go up or down? Here UK, pre-school is normally costly, while state primary schools are the norm, so childcare gets cheaper when they start school.

Finally an important non-financial point: only take up a PhD for a supervisor that values your industrial experience. You've got something uncommon to offer, and a good supervisor will understand that; they'll also respect your family life. A poor supervisor will expect you to remember an entire BSc and not to know anything else, while expecting you to work hours to suit them (e.g. expecting you to be available to meet up late in the day, when you're in by 0800 every day and have to pick your child up).


Buffy 08/16/2018.

How simply can you live for a few years? Doctoral students normally live a very simple life outside of their academic work. You know what your mortgage is, of course, and it could be a burden. You may also be facing school fees for your child pretty soon if not now. Can you make your car last for a few more years? Can you give up entertainment, hobbies, etc?

As the comments indicate in many fields the institution will grant you your tuition fees and probably pay you a small salary, not much above a poverty wage if that. It would be a small fraction of what you currently earn.

Have you got retirement savings? Are you willing to spend them now and maybe not make them up later?

People do this, of course. But you have to be very sure that your life goals require it. The academic life has many advantages, but money is seldom one of them. But "challenge" is one of the big positives.

But the short answer to the question is, no, it likely can't be done without a big financial hit.


cag51 08/17/2018.

I can barely believe I'm suggesting this, but....

Have you considered an online PhD? There are a variety of programs, some of which are affiliated with prestigious physical colleges (e.g., Columbia). These would work around your schedule, and wouldn't require you to quit your job. I'm not sure how much work this would entail...I would imagine significantly less than a 'real' grad school (i.e., not full time), though more than enough to keep you busy.

If the goal is to get a (legitimate) piece of paper to 'check the box' and allow your employer to promote you, this seems like a good option. If the goal is actually to learn how to do research, then I would of course suggest going to the best possible grad school and getting the best possible education...but in that case, as others have said, no real way to do so without uprooting your whole life.


Norman Gray 08/18/2018.

Others have mentioned a part-time PhD or ‘industrial’ PhD. A possible scenario there is:

  • You identify a topic which is academically interesting and of at least some interest to your current employer (but which they're not doing because it's not vital to them, or too expensive, or ...)
  • You drop to 50% at your current employer (and add a modest PhD stipend).
  • You line up a supervisor at a local institute, who'll supervise the project.

Advantages to the supervisor/institution:

  • You have a clear (ish) project and are starting with lots of professional background.
  • You have experience of working independently (so you'll need less handholding).
  • You have a commercial network and current commercial knowledge/nous, which the supervisor/institution may be interested in plugging in to (ie, an entirely selfish motivation).

Advantages to your current employer:

  • They still have you around, possibly significantly more motivated.
  • The research outcomes may be useful to them without them having to pay for it.
  • They get to brag about their staff working intimately with Institution X, blah, blah.
  • (Note: you're not asking your employer to significantly fund the PhD here – these are merely payoffs that might sweeten things for them).

Such arrangements are often seen as useful to the larger economy, so there may be support which either you or (more probably, I think) the prospective institution can apply for, to grease the wheels. If you said to a supervisor ‘you can apply for this money, and I can write the bid for you’, then you're talking their language.

In the UK, for example, a company can apply for a CASE studentship, in which the company defines a project jointly with an institution, and EPSRC provides support for the student, thus minimising the cost for the company and the institution. Now, these particular things are principally aimed at full-time recent graduates, you're interested in setting this up ‘backwards’, and of course that refers to the UK rather than the US; but this shows that such a setup does exist, and I'd be surprised if there wasn't something similar in the US (once you know to look for it), which might be bent to your specific case here.

There are a couple of circles to square there, but this might be a start.


Hackenbush 08/17/2018.

I started my PhD at Cornell when I was 39. I had a master in Coastal Engineering plus a BS in physics and the equivalent to a master in solid state electronics + computer Science (all from a public Spanish university). Before that, I was also developing CFD codes.

I got a scholarship so I didn't have to pay for tuition and got a small salary. I knew people in a similar situation that was able to support their families, but, as others have pointed out, you'll probably have to go back to a simpler, student's life.

As far as I know, tuition is rarely paid for PhD programs. People usually have some kind of scholarship.


VH-NZZ 08/18/2018.

If you're going ahead into this venture with a view to tick a box, that's probably too thin a motivation and won't survive the test of both time and cost of opportunity. The latter will hit you hard when you find yourself stuck in a rut.

My advice to you, should you wish to embark on this risky journey, is to be absolutely clear about your goals and carefully ponder whether you want your thesis to be in engineering or in science. Fluid dynamics is broad spectrum with its ends reaching wide into both fields. I mention this because there's a chance you'd find yourself with the wrong audience if you came up with something absolutely brilliant from an engineering viewpoint but that would only carry marginal weight to more basic scientists. And vice-versa.

Of course I don't know you at all but the description of your current situation seems to suggest that you are currently in a comfortable albeit no longer challenging position. Perhaps this is actually an opportunity for you to flip this around and start exploring potential research projects while retaining your day job.

If the financials of it is your main concern, this may or may not be an option for you but consider doing a PhD in Switzerland or Norway. They have indecently competitive salaries and their research ecosystem is excellent plus you can easily get by speaking English alone. In Switzerland semester fees are so (ridiculously) low that student debts are virtually unheard of. I suspect the same can be said of Scandinavian countries.

Norway has many fluid-related research projects linked to their oil and gas platforms activities.

With respect to your seniority, the only flag I'd raise is not to underestimate finding yourself surrounded with younger fellows. If you've gotten accustomed (and perhaps rightly so) to certain life standards and have achieved the status and maturity levels that I suspect, do ask yourself if being back to school with ``kids'' is not going to take an unsuspected toll on your morale. That might sound arrogant and haughty but you'll know what I mean if you get there.

I think most views expressed here will be helpful. At the end of the day, everyone's different and a happy research experience rests on so many factors that no single opinion can possibly accurately summarize.

All the best, I wish you well.


ss321c 08/18/2018.

I am currently doing a masters in CS (not in US) currently at the age of 35 I started it and want to do a phd. I don't live in US but 5 years back I had applied in universities but I was rejected. Upto 2 years back I was rejected in admission process at many places I tried many other places for admissions in phd but some or the other thing did not worked.So I decided to first to a masters and then move to phd. I am lucky I don't have a family as you have. Financially I am hit in masters program itself. So if family liability are there on you money wise things won't be easy to manage but you may need to talk to your professor or guide or department people may help by involving you in some projects which can be paid projects. Though usually working in such projects side by side along with your degree is tough.


Founding Father 08/17/2018.

Basics:

  • You find your current position unchallenging
  • You think R&D is where all the fortune and glory is and the path to R&D is a PhD, but...
  • You don't think you want to take the financial hit because of payments for a house you can't afford and having to support your child

To me, it sounds like you want someone else to handle all of your risk - you've even gone so far as to ask other people to do the thinking for you.

Try this: START YOUR OWN BUSINESS.

You've got untapped abilities? Prove it. That takes research. Think you've found an underserved market? Develop a solution for it, end-to-end.

You're going to take a financial hit either way. But, at least this way, your happiness is yours. Your mistakes are yours. If you find yourself bored, you won't have your employer to blame. You'll also relieve yourself of that terrible fat check you currently get. So, be an engineer: downsize, simplify your life.

If you fail, great! You've learned something: maybe you're not what you thought you were. And - added bonus - when you DO decide to go back to work for someone, you'll have a deeper appreciation of what it takes to get you that fat check you find so unattractive today.

If you succeed, you'll have accomplished more than most PhDs. Oh... and you won't have the PhD debt load, after. So, there's that.


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