Quit Your Job and Get a PhD


A mathematics lecture, apparently about linear...

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Every once in a while I run across this question from people wanting to get a PhD: "I am interested in going on to the PhD level but I have run into a wall. Most of the traditional schools I have looked into want me to quit my job and attend full-time. I can't do this because of my family and house payment."

There's a reason schools want you to be a full time student at the PhD level: it's the only way it will work. Getting a PhD isn't like getting a BS or MS; it's an apprenticeship to become a professor. One of the most important things you will learn is how to do research and how to publish your results. That's more than a full time job. You won't have time for anything else.

Remember, you're asking a professor to make a BIG commitment to you when he or she takes you on as a student. Understandably, they require that you make a commitment back. Speaking from experience, having a PhD student is like taking on another child. I wouldn't do it for anyone not willing to put some skin in the game.

Your major professor will be the most important factor in determining what you get out of your PhD. Pick your professor, not the school. The good thing about the top 40 schools (roughly the top 20% of PhD granting institutions for Computer Science) is that they'll have multiple stars. You'll likely find someone who you want to work with and who wants to work with you there. But a school further down the list who has a professor doing work you're interested in shouldn't be overlooked.

Whereas, undergraduate and, to a large extent, masters-level study are education on a mass production basis, studying for a PhD is a completely individualized experience that is customized to the person and their interests. The resources necessary to create a single PhD graduate can probably support dozens of undergraduates. You simply can't expect the department to commit those kind of resources to someone who is unwilling to commit to the course of study on a full time basis.

No online PhD program will give you what you want or need: the mentoring that comes from a PhD program. Skip them.

It comes down to this: you can't apprentice one place and work somewhere else full time. If you really want a PhD, then find a way to quit your job, sell your house, and go to school. Keep in mind that in school, you'll get paid as a TA or RA. That plus some faith is enough to get most people through. If you do otherwise, you will cheat yourself out of one of the most tremendous learning experiences that any one can have. I've never been sorry I got a PhD. I heartily recommend it to the curious and committed.