Hello from impostor syndrome land!
I do not mention it a lot on this blog, but the 4 year contract I keep mentioning as my current job is actually as a PhD student within natural science. In Norway, you are considered an employee as a PhD student, and you get a very real paycheck. Mine represents almost $50 000 annually before taxes, which is a whole lot of money to someone from a working class background who is used to making ends meet with a lot less.
It could’ve been a great tool on the path to financial independence. After all I have a four year contract of promised paychecks and flexibility unheard of in many other jobs. But don’t be fooled.
While full and tenured professors might make a decent side-income from publishing books and, in some fields, patenting, those jobs are few and far between – and they take decades to get to. For those of us aiming to be pursuing nothing but our own projects and passions after 10-20 years in the workforce, you wouldn’t even get close.
Don’t believe me? At least 2 other personal finance bloggers I know jumped ship from the personal hell which PhD life can be:
And I will admit the same thought has struck me, more than once. But I am the breadwinner of our little household at the moment.
(Though I must admit, hard though it is, it can be a hell of a lot of fun controlling a million dollar instrument from the remote desktop in my own office. Or from the couch at home, or anywhere. But I digress.)
Read on for 4 reasons why getting a PhD is a terrible idea if you are pursuing financial independence.
When you can work from anywhere, you will inadvertedly be haunted by the feeling that you should be working from anywhere. With the laptop as your weapon, you can log onto the university VPN and have a world of articles and journals virtually at your fingertips. With remote desktop solutions and folders shared across multiple devices, you always have that draft you were working on within easy reach.
This amazing accessibility is great for the ambitious researcher, who can work even while on conferences, home sick, or during the weekend. For anyone striving for a semblance of a work-life balance and might want to build a sidehustle an hour or two each week? It can be tough. The guilt is always there at the back of your mind, niggling at you to write that draft, process those samples, or grade those lab journals.
Of course, this is a struggle a lot of millennials of the “burnout generation” are facing, and is not necessarily limited to academia. But academia is especially famous for it, even priding itself in how all-consuming a PhD is supposed to be.
I cannot tell you how often I have been told that my husband just has to accept that he will have to take care of the majority of the cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping at home. And while he graciously does so, it is no wonder most PhD students are either single, male or otherwise entrenched in old fashioned gender roles.
A PhD will never be “just a job”. That is just not the name of the game
As I mentioned in the beginning, PhD positions are considered (entry level) jobs in Norway, and you are on payroll even if you can’t log hours or overtime. Contracts vary but generally fall into four year contracts paid by the university/projects your professor got funding for (25% or 1 year of this time has to be teaching, as payback to the university), or 3 years with no teaching obligations if the position is funded by the industry.
No matter the contract, your annual pay is set in stone. You follow inflation based raises of around 2% every year, but that. is. it.
No negotiation skills in the world will change the fact that for the next 3-4 years, your pay will not change significantly, no matter your performance. For industrious young career professionals who want to reach financial independence by advancing rapidly in the workplace, well… you’re stuck. Post Docs are no better either. If you stay in academia, you have to at least reach assistant professor before you get any sort of negotiating power, but that is at least 10 years down the line. If you’re lucky.
Of course, I live in cushy Scandinavia. If you’re in the US… well…
I have honestly lost track of all the times my friends or significant other have been giving me the stink eye when my answer to when I am going to do something is “after my PhD”.
Honeymoon trip to Japan? After my PhD. Much needed therapy for seasonal depression? Gotta wait until after my PhD. Writing short stories and ramping up my sidehustle efforts? That certainly has to take a backseat!
Anything to do with physical health like a dentist appointment or pulling those bothersome wisdom teeth? OK, maybe not after my PhD, but it certainly has to wait until summer when I don’t have a massive pile of teaching to do and students to take care of.
In short, it can be really difficult to make time for normal, real-life events while in the middle of a PhD bubble. Maybe it’s because all I’ve ever had have been temporary contracts, but I’m far too used to postponing appointments and trips until I’ve finished said contract.
The problem is that all my previous contracts were 6 months or shorter. 4 years to postpone life is… not healthy, to say the least.
Now, if you manage to persevere and come out at the other side with a PhD – go you, you deserve that diploma!
But the other side of the coin is that… if you were difficult to employ before. It’s even more difficult now. I graduated with a master of science in 2012. Pshaw, you say, that was years after the great 2008 recession! You were fine!
Except Norway is a tiny country in the backwater of the world. Like a tiny, unimportant piece of gaming design we suffered a few years of lag. 2008 wasn’t so bad for us, a few international companies did suffer, but what really hit tiny-oil-nation Norway was when the oil price plummeted in 2012.
I tried entering the workforce just as thousands of skilled oil workers with years of experience and the sympathy of the masses were let go and countless sad stories were published in media outlets of the poor family man who could not pay his mortgage or provide for his children.
Us poor graduates with no family and limited financial responsibility? Yeah, we were passed over like yesterday’s news. I worked whatever and wherever I could, first a year as a kindergarten assistant and cantine worker, then as a temp in the big city of London with my partner. When three years had passed and I still had no permanent position, I got desperate and applied for a PhD position back in good old Norway. By this time though, my trust in employers to provide a job, even when you studied the “right” fields like science, was permanently scarred.
The problem? While it provides us much needed stability at the moment, I am permanently ruining my general employability within a plethora of fields. Most hiring managers will consider you overqualified if you graduate with a PhD. People who will assume you will get bored and subsequently leave after only a short time on the job. And while my current position is secure, it is temporary, and we know a recession is coming.
If you stay in academia, you are looking at many more temporary contracts in the years ahead, many of which might force you to change city and country multiple times over.
When you are overqualified, especially if you are a woman, a lot of people will be intimidated by you, hiring managers included. Of course, that does not mean you should be ashamed of your achievements – but it is a very real challenge which can make it more difficult to get a job further down the line.
Of course, it isn’t all bad. As I’ve mentioned, I enjoy the highest annual salary I have ever seen in a field which is, historically, more shielded than most from recession and financial uproar. It can also be a lot of fun to see the light go off on the face of a student who finally got it, or getting lovely thank-you notes after a successfully completed laboratory course.
And of course, going from 3-6 month temporary contracts to a whooping 4 years has done wonders to our financial stability and mental health. Even if I have to pay for it in crippling impostor syndrome, late nights and existential crises.
Is there anything I have forgotten to add to the list? Anything you want to add from your own experience? Curious minds want to know!
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