The concept of graduate school is undergoing some MAJOR changes, y’all. Anyone who is currently a grad student knows this more than anyone. From student loan debt to job prospects to tax reform, there’s so much to consider before embarking on a graduate degree.
I remember hearing the stories about how long it took my former anthropology professors to earn their PhDs and how they got their tenure-track faculty positions, and let me tell you–times have CHANGED! I can recall my professors chronicling their grad school experiences and finally being hired as tenure-track faculty. I use the word “finally” loosely, as I never had a professor who had as difficult time obtaining a tenure-track position as PhDs do now. I even remember how long it took for my undergrad advisor to complete her PhD in anthropology…4 YEARS!
How crazy is that? It ONLY took 4 years for one of my professors to earn her PhD, and this wasn’t so abnormal decades ago. Times have changed, indeed. According to Grad School Hub and the New York Times, a PhD in the U.S. takes, on average, 8.2 years to complete. That figure does not count an undergraduate degree. Of course, the time of completion varies depending on the discipline. For example, degrees in the hard sciences usually take less time than the humanities. On average it takes 5 years for a PhD in physics, while psychology can take 5-7 years, history and english 8 years, and education 13 years!
Obviously, I opted to cut this time short and decided to choose a different life path altogether. However, if I could do things differently, I would have gone into my PhD with one thing.
A 5 YEAR PLAN.
When I say “5 Year Plan”, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a 5 Year Plan. It could be a 2 Year Plan or a 6 Year Plan–basically the amount of time you are willing to devote to your degree. I think this is especially important when entering a PhD program because Master’s programs are more likely to follow a stricter (and shorter) timeline. The goal is to have a plan to reduce the risk that you will spend years on end slogging through your degree, wake up 10 years later, and wonder what happened.
I kind of had a 4 Year Plan, except I didn’t realize it until the end of my third year when I hit a crisis, reevaluated by life goals, and decided a PhD no longer fit into my plan. However, it’s something I strongly suggest to anyone embarking on a graduate degree, especially a PhD!
Why You Need a 5 Year Plan
Everyone needs a plan. Whether it’s planning a career move or making a grocery list, creating a plan puts you one step closer to achieving your goals. This is especially true with PhD programs.
For some reason, it’s much more difficult to stay on track and complete a PhD in a reasonable period of time than it is for someone to complete a Master’s degree. Maybe it’s the depth of research, maybe it’s the inconsistent funding (although this also exists with Master’s programs), but it’s very easy to toil away for years on end without realizing it.
You need a 5 Year Plan for a few specific, and very important, reasons:
1) A salary
3) Career advancement
4) Building wealth
Staying in grad school guarantees you none of these things, so it’s best that you put your nose to the grindstone, work hard, and work with a purpose to earn that degree as fast as possible.
But what should you include in your 5 Year Plan?
How Long Should it Take You to Complete Your Degree?
Consider how long it should reasonably take to finish your degree.
How old are you now and what do you hope to accomplish personally and professionally? Everyone’s life plan is different, and a 5 Year Plan for your education is no different. Do some research and talk to your departments to find out the average length of time it takes for students to earn their degree in your prospective program. Don’t be afraid to reach out to current students with this question.
Asking this question of an academic department can be eye-opening, as the responses you receive can be anything from straight-forward and direct to completely vague. Some programs might offer you specific timelines with details about funding and stories about recent graduates with successful careers in their field. However, if you receive a vague response devoid of any specific information, then that could be a major red flag.
Consider this: Programs with low graduation rates and high numbers of students who have been in the program for an inordinate amount of time (make sure to check the average times for your discipline) are probably not where you want to be.
Consider the Cost of Your Degree
Are you paying out of pocket? Will you receive department or university funding? Is your employer paying for your education?
The idea that a grad student should live life as an indentured servant for nearly a decade is about as ridiculous as it is to assume you’ll score a cushy tenure-track job right out of grad school. This isn’t to say you’re not smart enough. The good news is that according to Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, authors of “Higher Education?”, 100,000 people earned their PhDs in the U.S. between 2005 and 2009. The bad news is that during that same time, only 16,000 new professor positions were created.
There are many ways to fund education, and it’s best that student loans are NOT one of them!
A faculty member, who shall remain nameless, once advised me to take out more student loans because I was worried about funding and making ends meet while working my university job. Suffice it to say, I told the department to kick rocks and left the program to start a real career instead.
Make sure you’ve exhausted all funding options for grad school! This can include grants, scholarships, departmental funding, or even extending your time at the program in order to cash flow your education.
If you are considering student loans as an option, it’s important to consider whether the ROI (Return on Investment) is equal to or greater than the cost of your education. Will the career you have after graduation pay as much or greater than the cost of your education? This can help you decide whether your specific degree is worth taking out student loans (so you can pay them off ASAP!).
But, seriously–DON’T TAKE OUT STUDENT LOANS.
Lay Out Your Goals
What do you want to accomplish in the program and after you graduate?
If you want to pursue a PhD, there has to be a reason, right? If you have a solid reason for wanting this degree, you’re more likely to stay motivated and stick to your 5 Year Plan. So, think about it:
Why did you choose this degree program?
What knowledge and type of skills will you gain from earning this degree?
How will these skills help you achieve your career goals?
Something as direct as “I want a PhD in chemistry so I qualify for this bomb-ass position at work that pays $50,000 more than I make now” is a pretty legit reason for wanting a PhD! Pinpoint the reason you want this degree and how it applies to your future aspirations.
Also devise a couple of back-up plans for your goals. The danger of a PhD is that if you’re not careful, you can be overqualified and overspecialized for just about anything else. Striving for only one job title in one industry is dangerous. Make sure your degree is marketable in a variety of ways and does not end up hindering you professionally when it should be helping you!
Consult Your Advisor About the Feasibility of Your Plan
This is where you need to start collaborating. If you and your advisor–AKA the person who signs off on your academic life–aren’t on the same page, then earning your degree will be a lot more difficult than it needs to be. Advisors can either be your best friend or your worst enemy, so it’s important to figure out whether your goals are compatible BEFORE class starts.
By now, you should have an idea of, on average, how long it takes students in your program to earn their degree. Meet with your advisor to present your 5 Year Plan, which includes the following points:
1) Why you want this degree and what your goals are after completing it
2) How much time you are willing to spend on this degree
3) How much money you are willing to spend on this degree
4) How you can track your progress with your advisor to meet your goals
Write all of this information down for your advisor to see. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but presenting an organized, well thought out plan will not only help you convey your concerns, but lets your advisor know that you’re serious about your education.
In discussing these points, you will be able to gauge the feasibility of your 5 Year Plan. If you’re ever unsure during the course of this discussion, come right out and ask, “Do you think this plan is feasible?” It’s best to be as up-front and direct as possible. After all, your time and money are at stake.
Lay Out Your “Terms and Conditions”
What Do You Want to Do With Your Plan?
You’d be hard-pressed to find any department chair or faculty member who would treat your 5 Year Plan as any kind of binding document. However, if you are awarded funding for X number of years, create a plan to achieve your goal within that time frame, and have specific terms dictating what will happen if you are not able to achieve those goals (by your own accord or not), then you should at least draw some attention from any department worth their salt.
I had a clear plan regarding how long I was willing to spend in a PhD program, and how much money I was willing to spend on my degree. Once I surpassed those two things, I was out. OUT.
This is probably one of the most difficult things you’ll have to consider, especially if you REALLY want this degree. However, if you don’t have clear boundaries and continue to slog your way through a program with an uncooperative department, it will only hurt you in the end.
There’s a lot of discussion revolving around the exploitation of grad students and adjunct faculty by universities all over the U.S. But what would happen if, all of a sudden, everyone decided not to tolerate it anymore? Yes, it would mean making some very uncomfortable and unfortunate decisions, but by creating a 5 Year Plan now, you are taking the first step in preventing exploitation.
Taking control of your own educational path–even if it means not completing your degree–shows not only professionalism, but financial responsibility.
You might be asking yourself, “Can I do this?”
YES, you CAN do this. It might not be popular and you might not get the response you would like, but you CAN demand accountability and dictate your own life because YOUR TIME AND MONEY AND SANITY ARE IMPORTANT.
There are plenty of brilliant and intelligent people who earn their PhDs. However, having a solid “5 Year Plan” in place before beginning your graduate program will increase your chances of staying on track, keeping your program accountable, and entering the workforce with confidence!