I spent ten years getting a Ph.D. unrelated to my job. Was it worth it?
Academics often assume that the only reason to earn a doctorate is to get a full time teaching job. I have never planned on a tenure track job at a college or university, and am not looking for one now. In fact, I got a Ph.D. in Public Administration while working in private industry.
The journey was worth the it, personally, professionally, and financially. I hope my experience provides food for thought whether you are considering a doctorate, are a non-traditional student, or maybe an ABD considering a change in direction.
I graduated the United States Air Force Academy with underwhelming grades, and started a career as a cop in the Air Force. I pursued a master’s degree because as an officer in the Air Force, I would eventually need one for promotion. My GPA was better and I enjoyed it, but I when I graduated remotely from Bowie State University, I did a happy dance because I thought would be done with education.
I left the Air Force after seven years to work at General Motors as a Quality Engineer, notwithstanding that my undergraduate degree was in Political Science and my master’s was in Public Administration. I also took a job in the Air Force Reserve.
After September 11th, 2001 I was recalled to active duty. All of the regular members of the Air Force were pulled from their classes, but I was mobilized in a knee jerk reaction before I was really needed. I fell into an opportunity to attend the Air Force’s police operations course, 9 graduate hours in six weeks at Eastern Kentucky University. I learned a lot, and for the first time in my life I was learning just to learn.
One of the requirements of the course was to write a final paper. I didn’t just write a paper to fill the box, I wrote it as if I was going to get it published. I wrote it well enough that some of the professors were happy to write recommendation letters, and a year later I enrolled in a PhD program in Public Administration at the University of Texas at Arlington.
The UTA program, taught at night, targets professionals in government. My classmates were teachers, police officers, or other government employees. I worked in manufacturing. Almost none studied solely to get a professor job; most wanted to enhance their careers. I was the only private sector employee I remember meeting in the program, and a PhD in Public and Urban Administration did not look like it would really help me much. I didn’t care.
I loved the classes; sometimes I would actually feel charged up by the end of the evening. I enjoyed my once or twice a week routine…dinner after work at the Greek drive-through that learned my order by heart, or at the Mexican seafood place with the shrimp tostadas. Then I had three or four hours just talking about how government works. Even the comprehensive exams were exciting on some level; they sucked, but there was a thrill in studying to the absolute peak of your knowledge, then being successful.
I never even talked with any of my professors about the academic job market until after graduating. I had a vague idea that somewhere in the future I wanted to work as an adjunct, but it wasn’t a burning issue.
The more important problem my department did not talk to the students about was our attrition rate. At one point I counted 70 mailboxes color-coded for PhD students, but we only graduated 2–4 per year, which had to put our wash-out rate well north of 50%, probably 75–80%.
Eventually the school modified the program to bring it in line with other universities and established a cohort system to address the completion rate. (I want to give a shout out to my faculty at UTA — fantastic professors that gave me a great education and expanded my horizons!)
The Costs and the Benefits
So, was my TEN YEARS of Ph.D. study worth it? Yes…But first, the costs…
Time. I gave up hobbies and most leisure time. At peak, I worked full time plus Saturdays every other weekend, and a third weekend per month with the Air Force. I had classes two nights per week, and worked for the Air Force or visited my Dad in a nursing home on the other two weeknights. My wife asked if I could dial it back a little, so I went to one class per semester, which is part of the reason it took a decade. I also took a break to deploy to Iraq and later foundered a little on my dissertation topic.
Money. It costs money. I was lucky that I could fund most of my education with veterans’ benefits and employer tuition assistance, but a few hundred dollars in books still hurts when you have a young family. Could I ultimately have afforded the $25–30K out of pocket? Yes, but I’m damn glad I didn’t have to.
In fact, without veterans benefits and my employer program, I don’t know whether I would have finished. You have to make a cold-blooded assessment on the Return on Investment (ROI); marginal future earnings vs dollar cost. I had low revenue expectations, but didn’t spend too much either.
Teaching as an adjunct. As a student of the public sector, I understand market distortion and the race to the bottom. I sympathize with adjuncts trying to support themselves on starvation wages and claw their way into full-time employment.
But if you have a regular job, teaching as a side gig is great. Salaries generally pay $2–4K per class. If you have a Master’s and teach undergraduate, you make less money, while Ph.D.s teaching graduate classes for large schools may be towards the upper end. The first semester was overwhelming, but as I gained experience, it became easier.
That first paycheck made it all worthwhile, and having another stream of income provides financial peace of mind. Even teaching online, adjunct work keeps me fresh in my field, gives me satisfaction in touching students’ lives, and allows access to the library. My leaders at Tarleton State University invite adjuncts to meetings and training, value our input, and treat us as peers.
Professional Credibility. Even if not working strictly in your area of study, a doctorate shows that you are intelligent, tenacious, and that you know how to research. Plus, there may be more crossover than you think. Studying Public Administration I learned advanced statistics, organizational theory, survey methodology, and a host of other skills.
I never introduce myself as ‘Doctor,’ or work it into conversation unless it is immediately relevant. I don’t ask my coworkers to call me Doctor, but once in a while they do anyway. Where it really helps is that I have studied an issue and bring an opinion to the table, they know that I have really studied the issue.
Confidence. I have done technical presentations to my local chapter of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and at the ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement. I’ve published general interest articles on RealClearDefense.com, and done a book review for a journal. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do any of this without going through the Ph.D. process.
If you can earn a Ph.D. you can run a marathon. If you can earn a Ph.D. and run a marathon, you can do anything. All in all, it was worth it. Knowing what I know now, I’m glad I ground through the slog. But I’m glad I don’t have to do it twice.