Pursuing an academic career involves risk, including financial risk. My question is: what factors should one consider when deciding whether these financial risks are worth it in one's personal situation?

As an example, consider my situation:

  • I am 38, have a liberal arts degree, and am considering a master's degree in a humanities field.
  • I have some undergraduate student debt and no financial safety net or retirement savings
  • I currently live with and am primarily supported by my mother, and I have no children/dependents.
  • I am not open to relocating

Some thoughts:

  • Most graduate assistantships pay poverty level wages. As long as I continue living at home, it's okay, provided that my mother remains in decent health. However, I would not be able to support myself on that wage if I had to. Alternatively, I could forgo funding and take out more loans for my graduate education, but that would leave me with exorbitant debt.
  • I would be entering the job market around my late 40s, possibly early 50. Tenure track positions straight out of grad. school are rare, and many newly-minted PhDs end up with part-time adjunct positions or post-docs, neither offering financial security.
  • Tenure track positions (particularly in the humanities) are scarce, and there's a chance I could never achieve tenure, even if I completed a PhD.
  • I'm passionate about this area of research and can't think of anything else I would like to do.
  • Perhaps "odds of success" are something that should be considered, but this is hard to measure at such an early stage in my career.
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    You do only have one life, at least as far as is easily discerned. Don't spend toooooo much of it doing things you don't want to do, deferring things you do. You may not get another chance, etc. Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 21:24
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    @BernhardDöbler-The OP of that post was studying engineering, which isn't comparable to the humanities. There are fewer humanities job prospects in academia, lower starting salaries, and virtually nothing to fall back on in industry if academia doesn't pan out. So my situation is riskier than theirs.
    – user124395
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 22:13
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    Do you understand why you have not been able to keep a job or build a career? Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 0:25
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    Also, do you expect to need to support your mother financially in the future? Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 1:29
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    Many of the responses to this question (not just the comments here) have are casting doubt on whether the OP is really as "passionate" about research as they claim to be. I think that line of reasoning is in bad faith. While it's difficult to discern the OP's "true" motivation from reading their question, we shouldn't demand an overture to the joys of research as proof of their interest. Treat the OP's passion as a given.
    – Max
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 5:34

6 Answers 6


Based on your description, getting a Masters degree is not a good idea. Several reasons:

  • You can't be sure your mother will remain healthy.
  • You currently have no savings, and you're already 38. There's not much time left to build up a retirement fund - and as you point out, academia does not pay well.
  • You already have student loans to pay for.
  • Getting a job in academia is hard. "There's a chance I could never achieve tenure" is a very calm way to put things; the real odds of you never achieving tenure is probably in the vicinity of 80% in the humanities.

Let's take the rosiest result that you could possibly get by pursuing an academic career. Your mother remains healthy. You are able to fully fund your studies, without incurring extra debt. Your current debt is paused until you finish studying, after which the interest rate is 4%. You finish in 6 years. After graduating you immediately land a tenured professorship paying $60k a year, from which you are able to save $30k a year. You use the savings to first pay down the debt, then invest all of it into the S&P 500, which returns 10% a year (this itself is risky, since you need to save some money for a rainy day, but we are considering the rosiest possible result).

  1. Six years from now: you are 44 years old, net worth -$25,000.
  2. Seven years from now: you are 45 years old, net worth $4,000.
  3. Twenty two years from now: you are 60 years old, net worth $1,065,200.89.

If we further assume that $1 million is enough to retire on in 22 years' time (itself a shaky assumption), then in the rosiest scenario, you are just barely across the finish line.

You could make the model more complicated of course. Perhaps your $60k/year salary will also increase at the rate of inflation (although if taking inflation into account, your expenses would also increase), perhaps you are willing to delay retirement to 65, etc. But the margin of safety you have is tight, even in the rosiest possible scenario. What if your mother falls sick? What if the stock market crashes right as she does? What if you are involved in a car accident and need surgery? What if you can't live on $30k a year (note you have to pay taxes out of this number; further, even if you can, what about your spouse/children)? What if you can't land a tenured position?

tl; dr: don't do it.

Edit: in the more general case, one would modify the model above to take on more realistic assumptions. For example you could say that immediately after graduating, you do a postdoc that only pays $40k a year for 6 years, during which you save $20k a year, before landing a tenured position. This changes your net worth in 8 years' time to $13,760, your net worth in 12 years' time to $122,248.02, and your net worth in 22 years' time to $843,014.89.

Perhaps you decide that when you become a professor, you'll buy your own house for $100k. This further modifies the calculation above to make your net worth in 12 years' time $22,248.02, and your net worth in 22 years' time will be $583,640.65 (+ however much the house is worth).

If you then decide that you will work longer before retiring, your net worth in 27 years' time will be $1,141,427.40. In fact, if you play around with the calculator, you'll find that time really is money. 10% more time beats earning 10% more salary! That's why 23-year olds can follow their hearts while older people must be more conservative if they want to retire comfortably.

You ask further about how to model probability of success in becoming a professor. To do this, search up an alternative career option (preferably several) for people with your intended degree. Next, use your local jobs portal to look for jobs for people with that degree. Finally, check salary websites for how much these jobs earn. Now instead of the $60k/year salary assumed in the calculations above, you put in whatever your new salary is, and rerun the calculations. Remember there's an ~80% chance you never become a tenured professor, so a plan B is important.

If after running all the calculations with realistic assumptions, you find that you can reach the finish line with room to spare (how much margin of safety depends on your risk appetite, but you can always make more pessimistic assumptions and see if you still get there), then a PhD is financially feasible.

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    I would say "Don't do it unless you have a really solid plan B.", a plan for what to do if any of the favorable assumptions does not come true. Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 12:56

Humanities is specifically high risk unfortunately Gemini, so the simple answer is yes, the financial risk is disappointing massive, no matter the yearning. Allure's point about your mother's health raises another important issue, one of mobility and flexibility. In a very scarce and competitive academic environment, extreme flexibility and mobility tends to be the number in order to capitalise the rare opportunities which pop up all over the world. Those opportunities tend to be important building blocks to increase your chances of tenure, something which would likely be very difficult with an unwell parent understandably.

I am gonna be voted down but sorry Gemini, your question is framed as a financial risk question, but you then you minimised the issue of money later on in the piece too. If you are financially secure, it is much easier to establish a career compared to struggling with student loans. However, the inner contradictions in your piece echos the lack of detail around your previous work history or career development. Success in finances can be different from success in academia, and vice versa. Most of the time skills from one can help the other.

My worry is that you may have an idealistic impression of academia and its more secure lifestyle, which may not reflect the tough financial realities, especially in the humanities. Its highly contested and arduous inner workings is usually very invisible the public and most students. So I agree with Buffy, despite the passing mention of "passion and interest", there needs to be more focus on demonstrating that passion and interest. Focus on developing those skills now which can only support your academic endeavours.

So if you can't imagine another career other than academia, then the focus of your work and attention needs to be to broaden those opportunities rather than the Masters and PhD only. Just about every academic have blogged, written, spoke, run a consultancy or developed their opportunities in other ways, rather than in the usual academic journal article/conference sense? The humanities can demand much much more unfortunately, as it has I would argue smaller areas of international and public interest, making it much harder to carve out an academic career.

Everyone here seem very genuine and keen for you to succeed, but I think there is a serious concern that the path is only going to get tougher for you rather than easier.

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    -1 age bias...... Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 2:09
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    @Gemini This may be true, but you need to figure out how you will address it. We ask faculty interviewees how they can use pre-PhD job experience to help advise students and help them network to get jobs post-graduation.
    – Dawn
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 4:07
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    The problem is that you may be competing with people with work history and a solid outside experience that may demonstrate effective research competencies and skills.
    – Poidah
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 6:15
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    @Gemini: Reasonably paid academic positions in the Humanities are notoriously scarce. Usually such scarcity means that you need to have an exceptionally strong resume to stand out; presumably a solid history would be necessary (but not sufficient).
    – Nat
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 11:13
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    A solid academic history is usually only one piece of the puzzle unfortunately, hence the persistent focus and worry about your work history. Even commission work can be relevant and demonstrate skills that you may not appreciate. There are quite relevant skills in sales and many other roles that does not seem relevant on first glance.
    – Poidah
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 2:42

I would recommend you check out the salaries of humanities faculty at your local state university to see the expected salaries for those who actually land jobs. (Usually available with some clever googling via a newspaper website.) Then try to look at the website of your relevant professional association to see the percentage of PhD graduates who land those types of jobs.

Overall, jobs in the humanities are rare and not well paid. If you are not able to move, you are very unlikely to get a job beyond an adjunct position, which is typically paid below minimum wage.

One additional consideration: individual departments will have different probabilities of placing students in full-time academic (tenure-track) jobs. It would be helpful to look at the recent placement rate of students at your target institution (since you don’t want to move). These may range from 5% in TT roles to 50% at the most elite departments— the department-level variation is very important.

  • data.chronicle.com Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 4:00
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    Yes, this is useful, but also the state school information is available for individual faculty. You want to make sure some strange outliers are not inflating salaries.
    – Dawn
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 4:04
  • Willingness to move does seem to be an essential consideration. It's tough sledding for a humanities PhD in general, but if you're geographically confined your odds are drastically diminished.
    – commscho
    Commented Jul 4, 2020 at 16:50
  • Faculty salaries at many US public universities (like mine) are public record, accessible over the web, either separately or as part of a broader state-employee database. For example: California, New York, and Illinois.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 14:48

It's tricky to answer this question because you did not clearly state what your actual goal is.

If your goal is to become a tenured professor in the humanities, the truth is that this is an implausible goal for almost everyone. There are very many qualified people and very few universities hiring. There is no reason to think the underlying economic causes of the situation will ever change for the better.

If your goal is to get a PhD, this is something that most people can achieve if they work hard on it for a long time. If you do it, expect short-term financial disadvantage.

If your goal is to have an "academic career" by being an expert in a field of the humanities and publishing frequently, you can achieve that. But do not expect to earn any money at all from it. Have another job.

I think academia offers the perfect balance of autonomy and job security (if you're able to get tenure).

The job security part is a myth. There are no jobs that are secure. Having tenure provides no protection if your university is unable to pay you. It is more secure than many other kinds of employment, but it is not secure.

  • "If your goal is to get a PhD, this is something that most people can achieve if they work hard on it for a long time." Most people can get a PhD?
    – user39093
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 16:02
  • @ssquidd Yes, that is what I said. Can does not imply that they should choose to, or that they "deserve" to. The PhD degree does not magically separate good people from bad people. Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 0:30

I think it depends on your backup plan.

As others have pointed out, there is a very high risk that your first choice will not work. You need some other way of supporting yourself, possibly supporting your mother if she needs your help, meeting financial obligations such as repaying student debt, and providing for your retirement through some combination of savings and social security history.

It is difficult to see a backup plan that would instantly get you enough income. Most careers have an initial low earning period. It sounds as though your bachelor's degree is not one that opens up a lot of opportunities immediately, so you may need to get e.g. some certificates before you can start earning much. You need to get past any training, probation, or low earning for inexperience as soon as possible so that you can quickly use the backup plan to earn enough if necessary.

Ideally, you would pursue the master's degree studies and implementing your backup plan in parallel. I have known several people who have completed a master's degree while holding a full time job. If that is not possible in your situation you cannot afford, from where you are now, to start the master's degree immediately. You need to work the backup plan first, if you have to choose.


I do not know, if it is feasible in your field. I do not know, if it is feasible in your country. I also do not know, if you are willing to do it.

Industry, for a while

I have seen such careers multiple times, in Germany, around computer science. You should have a PhD (which is a separate problem tackled below). Basically, people in the management of larger companies are quite well accepted as professors, especially at FHs (the English term is "University of applied sciences", a typical one educates engineers).

So, a PhD and about 10 years at Rolls Royce would probably boost your chances for a tenure – provided you'd still want it then. Also, it's more attractive financially.

PhD, in the industry

Again, in Germany, there is also a chance to get a PhD in the industry. Either with a collaboration project or with a topic interesting to a company or with company's funding at the university.

They are sometimes officially hiring PhD candidates, but the topics are mostly very special and you don't get to choose one. (Again, choosing one's topic completely freely in the academia might not be best for a academic career. Your advisor would probably know better. But I digress.)


It might be doable, but please consider all the issues in your life and the future outcomes. The benefit of my suggestion is that you'd still have a good paying job, even if getting a professorship fails.

  • The OP plans to study "humanities". It does not sounds like this answer is relevant.
    – user39093
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 3:44
  • Even Rolls Royce needs a PR report writer, a contributor for an internal magazine, or someone who creates names for new products. Yes, it would be harder, but it might still work. Imagine OP in 10 years being an editor in chief of a major newspaper. My argument still holds. Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 10:17
  • In what way experience as a PR report writer help to land a professor position? This answer may be a good answer for STEM fields, but does not fit OP's question.
    – user39093
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 16:00
  • Okay, okay, I tried to generalize from computer science and this generalization might not work in humanities. Not that I would know, what works there. Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 17:52

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