Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is the opportunity cost we're missing out on by getting our PhDs?

I want to discuss the opportunity cost of staying in a PhD program that you're unhappy with.

It's something I never really thought about until now, as I begin to think about where I could go from here if I just quit tomorrow. What would I be doing if I weren't doing my PhD? I'm not even thinking of the money I could be making (not much to think about, it would obviously be more than I'm making now). What I've been wondering is...have I cost myself half of my 20's doing something that makes me somewhat happy (and often miserable), when I could have been discovering what makes me really happy?

Pursuing my PhD has given me so much - it has sent me around the world more than once, it has provided me with the opportunity to meet amazing people and it has given me a Master's free of charge.

What my PhD program has not done for me, so far, is help me discover what I really want to do with my life. Until now, the comfort of being in the same program for many years has lulled me into a sleepy acceptance of life as usual. Only after some recent shake-ups have I been jolted back into the scary reality that I don't plan on going for a research position when this is all over. If that's the case, then what do I really want to do? I'm thinking now of the cost of those sleepy years and how I could or should have been figuring these things out instead of trudging through the PhD program, scared that if I found out what I really loved I would desert this goal I had.

This bout of PhD Depression has been a really excruciating and, yet, invigorating time. As I examine my life and where I want it to go, I feel like I'm emerging from a long period of stagnation.

Back to the question of opportunity cost. Although grad school has given me great things, what I feel I have missed out on are "the first jobs". Most of my friends are on job 2 or 3 at this point and I feel like every time they quit (or get fired) they're moving towards figuring out what they really want. So if I was really brave I could just quit and start figuring things out, but I'm not that brave or ready to give up on this degree that I'm so close to obtaining. So, in lieu of that, I have decided to continue in the program but with the set intention to stop wasting my time outside the lab wallowing in or drowning my sorrows and start discovering my passions.

I know so far that:
  1. I need to talk. All of this quiet working time drives me up a wall, I need interaction.
  2. I need to move. Ditto on the quiet working time, I cannot sit in front of a computer all day long.
  3. I love to learn. Not necessarily this deep, one-subject type learning that a PhD entails - but a high-level, jack-of-all-trades type. That's what's tricky about loving college and the new-subject-every-semester system, it lures some of us into thinking "I love school, why not do more school?!" And off we go to graduate school, when it may be the worst place possible for people who thrived in that environment.
  4. I enjoy writing. Probably a subset of #1.
  5. I enjoy teaching, organizing groups, leading discussions. This is the most valuable thing grad school has taught me. All of the forced teaching helped me to discover something I would have never guessed in a million years! (I had severe public speaking anxiety before grad school)
  6. I'd like to have money. Ok I guess I was thinking a little about the monetary cost of my PhD. It's a dirty and uncouth thing to say, but I'll admit it. At first I was ok living like I did in college - always frugal, buying and selling on craigslist, running after free food events, cramped apartment...but I'm tired of living the life of a poor grad student. We are the best and brightest, living in a capitalistic society, where is the monetary reward?! I don't need a ton, and I don't intend to be totally wasteful, but I would really love to have real furniture one day.
One idea that I've been toying with is, if I introduce some of this into my life, can that help soothe the PhD depression? Maybe my problem is just that I have been so narrowly focused on one thing that I've neglected the multi-dimensional human that I am. Thus, the writing of this blog (also see Tip #1-Write it out)...

So that's my list so far. What's yours?