I'm 36 years old and work as systems administrator and lab instructor for a computer science department at a small liberal arts college. I'm also an adjunct math instructor for a community college. I have 1 BA and 2 masters, all from Ivy League Universities. I started college late, at the age of 25.

I always wanted to have a PhD in applied math and do research, but after undergrad, I felt burnt out and instead chose to work so I could pay off my student loans, which did not go well for me, because the economy was terrible in 2012. Two masters and several jobs later, I landed my current position, which I enjoy more than any other full-time job I've had, but would still rather be a full-time mathematics researcher/professor.

So I began applying to PhD programs last December. I was offered two TAships. I'll be attending the one I chose starting this Fall. It's at an R2 university. I'm excited but I'm now experiencing cold feet, because my current student loan balance is about $150K. I'm now beginning to think getting a PhD isn't such a smart idea. In fact, if I don't pursue a PhD, I could pay off $65,000 in about 3 years.

My plan prior to last December was to work at my current job for about 3 years and then find a full-time professor position at a community college or technical college, or to find a full-time lecturer position at a four-year college. I'm thinking I should forego the PhD and stick to this plan instead. Sure I won't be a researcher mathematician as I would love, but it's the smart and safe option. And maybe I can pursue a PhD once my loans are paid off. I'll probably be in my mid-40's by then, but who cares. I don't have kids and I'm not planning on having kids. My girlfriend of 6 years, who I'll probably marry, is unable to have kids anyway.

Any thoughts/advice? Thanks.

  • Seems like you know the pros/cons well enough, only you can decide. My 2 cents: "[I] would still rather be a full-time mathematics researcher/professor" -- so would everyone else. Such jobs are insanely competitive; allowing your tab to accrue still higher to pursue such a long shot seems very unwise. OTOH, if there is a more realistic job you would like that requires a math PhD, that's a different matter. With two masters degrees already, though, that seems unlikely, most industry jobs in my experience consider MS + 5 years experience equivalent to a PhD – cag51 Jun 25 '19 at 20:22
  • From my own perspective as an about-to-finish grad student I wish I had saved up more money before starting. I thought you can be a community college professor with a Masters. Before you do a PhD you should have a backup plan of what you will do afterwards. What if you don't end up finishing? Someone in my grad program started grad school in his forties. He didn't have much money saved, and he never finished after several years. When he left he was 50, with little in savings. – Grad student Jun 25 '19 at 20:47
  • About being a full time professor... Do you have any data how much time you will be able to research and how many percent other duties? Maybe check it out. – mathreadler Jun 26 '19 at 11:12

First, taking on a large amount of debt at this point could be a big problem. However, several candidates for president are currently discussing forgiving student debt, a good thing to do in my view. It will be seriously discussed over the next 15 months, at least. It may be that your debt problem will get erased. Whoopie.

Second, spending your life doing something you aren't happy with is a terrible existence, but you say you are relatively happy now. There is no guarantee that you will land something better, but having already gone to ivy league places that seems like less of a problem.

Third, ignore any issues about age. You will (hopefully) reach 45 with or without your degree in any case. Graduating after 50 is an accomplishment, just as is graduating at 30.

My suggestion, worth about two cents, of course, is to continue on applying and see what happens. For a degree program in applied math you probably don't need to make an unbreakable commitment and can keep flexible as you see what happens, both in the general political/educational scene and in your life personally.

Of course your future spouse has a say in how she wants to live her life, so don't forget to factor that in as well.

But none of your impediments seem to be actual blocks. Be your best.


My advice is to maximize income and reduce debt. Not do more schooling. You only have so many productive years. Your energy will not be as high at 50 as it is at 35.

The only place they really need Ph.D.s is if you want to be a professor. And who would want that. Oh...and many are called but few are chosen. Just look at all the physics postdocs.

Go get a job with the NSA instead. I am not joking. If you are smart, you can figure out the applied math stuff without formal schooling. And they hire non Ph.D.s often and have good internal training.

[This is going to seem like a troll...but you need to consider iconoclastic viewpoints. Also realize that many people on a site called Academia Stack Exchange may be biased by their affiliation...just look at all the encouragement to kids to get Ph.D.'s when they know the graduates struggle to land jobs.]

  • There's nothing iconoclastic about either ageism or the idea that you can learn on the job. – Elizabeth Henning Jun 25 '19 at 21:26
  • It's the discouragement of schooling. Or at least considering to not do it. "just look at all the encouragement to kids to get Ph.D.'s when they know the graduates struggle to land jobs." – guest Jun 25 '19 at 22:17
  • Thanks for your suggestion! It was very helpful! – ARatherConcernedPerson Jun 26 '19 at 3:23

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.