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EDIT:

Thank you to all those who commented asking for more clarity in the question - it pushed me to think harder. My apologies for a lack of clarity, I hope the community would understand as this is my first time here.

Questions:

  1. Return to academia: How can I prepare myself to get into a research oriented graduate program after spending 7+ years in the industry assuming that university admissions and operations return to normal after COVID-19? If you think it won't, what could change?
  2. Sustaining/excelling in academia: What changes do you anticipate in research job prospects in a post COVID-19 world?

Background: I hold a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering and currently work as a data analyst. My goal is to be in a place to conduct cutting edge research (and maybe teach as well). I intended to keep my job and pursue an online MS in Computer Science. After a failed attempt of getting into an online program offered by UT Austin, I’m starting to think I should focus on just one thing and go to school full time, without a safety net job (also for the reason that an online program doesn’t help getting into a PhD program owing to research experience).

The current economic climate is unprecedented and I’m quite sure life wouldn't continue as planned. Pursuing graduate education may require that I borrow money which adds additional stress while navigating an economic slowdown. I’m looking for advice from people who went through similar experiences during the ‘08 crisis. It’s not the same, but possibly there are important lessons.

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    I don't see an actual question here. If it is "what should I do?" then it isn't appropriate here since there are too many variables known only to yourself. – Buffy Apr 16 at 12:45
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    I think the problem is that "I’m looking for a critical assessment from experts" is too broad. Instead of asking for general advice about your situation, try asking something more specific. For example, are you most worried about (1) job prospects due to COVID? (2) whether it is worth going into debt to go into grad school? (3) how to get back into academia after 7 years being in industry? These are all different (and good questions), but right now your post is just a list of a bunch of things about your situation and a request for general advice. – 6005 Apr 16 at 13:40
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    I know this isn't a forum for general advice, but I'll give some anyway. Don't assume that you will have to take on debt. Many programs require PIs to cover tuition and provide living stipends from grants, fellowships, or assistanships. Don't feel pigeonholed into one specific research field just because you have prior experience in that field. Lastly, there are ample opportunities to do cutting edge research outside of academia (e.g. government and even some industry labs), but having an advanced degree will help your chances of finding them. – MikeyC Apr 16 at 15:37
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    Thank you, @MikeyC. Thank you everyone. Apologies for the lack of clarity, I'm a first timer here and will delete my question and make a new pointed and specific one. – shan42nd Apr 16 at 16:04
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    Maybe I missed it, but neither you nor anyone else seems to have pointed out that failing to get into an online Masters program does not bode well (to say the least) for your chances of getting into a non-online Ph.D. program. Perhaps there is some context missing, such as you intend to aim for much lesser ranked programs when applying to a Ph.D. program? – Dave L Renfro Apr 16 at 17:08
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Ok. The path into academia, and especially into a position that emphasizes research, goes through a research doctorate, usually a PhD. With only an undergraduate degree, expect about seven years to achieve it, in the best of times, which these are not. Here are some pros and cons to help you make an informed decision.

First, if you get accepted into a doctoral program in the US, you will probably get a stipend of some form, but usually in the form of a Teaching Assistantship which is something like a quarter to half time position. But it also normally comes with complete tuition forgiveness. People can live on this, but it is harder if you have a family and your spouse isn't employed. Possible.

But, with several years in industry, your expectations about life style might not be especially compatible with such a low income. So, you would probably need to give up something to get something. UTAustin is a pretty big level institution and you would probably find success by casting a wider net.

But, the times in education are very hard right now. Even before coronavirus started to spread, disrupting education everywhere at all levels, the job market in academia wasn't ideal, with people finding it difficult to get permanent (tenure track) positions. There have been more graduates, it seems, than there are jobs. But that can change, both quickly and dramatically.

The coronavirus has made things both difficult and tentative. It is harder to have the direct contact between students and professors that is very helpful to getting a doctorate. In the US, which normally requires quite a lot of advanced coursework past the bachelors degree, it will be difficult in the short term with online classes substituting for face to face instruction.

And, of course, whether you are able to get a position in academia depends quite a lot on yourself and on how you do in a degree program. It is helpful to have an advisor who has a good reputation who can give you a boost in your career, but those same super-star professors can be hard to work with also.

However, if you've stated your motives accurately, then you'd seem to be a good candidate. Don't go into academia for the money. At the end of my career I was well paid, but my friends with similar responsibility in large research organizations like IBM, earned just about twice what I did. For me, it was a good tradeoff since I got to set my own agenda. And, I went into academia in the first place because all other options seemed to be deadly unattractive.

If you want direct advice, I'd suggest you spend a year looking around at institutions and programs of interest and getting financial things in order. Hopefully that will take us past the current pandemic and make planning a bit more rational. If not for the pandemic, I'd suggest starting now. But the crystal ball is very cloudy at the moment.


Update: I doubt that you need to do anything other than apply to get in to a doctoral program in the US. You will need to find letters of recommendation, some from academics, but if your record was good I think you have a chance. Europe requires much more from entering students, of course.

What the world will be like after the pandemic, it is impossible to say, but there will be a strong incentive for academia to return to normal as quickly as possible. Political constraints may get in the way and the economy will take time to recover, but some things underlying research don't change, and likely won't. In many fields, labs are required and expensive. In most fields, face to face research seminars are considered to be superior to the alternative. Momentum has slowed, of course, but the system hasn't been destroyed. There was, for example, a huge growth in higher education at the end of WWII. The system is pretty resilient.

For state sponsored universities in the US, such as UTAustin, the strength of the institution adds to the strength of the economy of the state overall. Without good universities, students and businesses go elsewhere. UTAustin, in particular adds to the special nature of Austin itself.

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  • thank you for your detailed answer! It gives me some points to think about. – shan42nd Apr 16 at 20:08

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