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I graduated with a bachelor’s in the humanities last year. I would have preferred to continue studying, but I don’t have the money, and I have found very few opportunities for full funding where I live (in the EU). I’m originally from the States.

I work in IT, and given how the wages are at present, if I buckle down and exclusively focus on work, I could probably save up enough in 5-6 years that I could live completely off of conservative investments (index funds). I would work at a US company (where wages are high) and live in central Europe (where costs are low).

My question is: from an academic point of view, does it seem reasonable that the benefits of self-funding my research would outweigh the disadvantages of delaying my career by at least 5 years?

For the purposes of this question, please assume that my financial assumptions are realistic. I realize I will need to do my due diligence there.

More details / clarifications:

  • The plan would be to attend graduate school in Europe after achieving financial independence, and then self-fund independent research after that. By "self-fund," I mostly mean paying my living expenses; my field does not require expensive equipment, travel, etc.
  • My concern is that at 30, my motivation and ability to re-enter academia will be much less than it is now, both because I’ll be older and because I will have spent all of my youthful energy on non-academic work. Obviously, 30 is young, but still, I’ve been warned that motivation and capacity to learn really decreases from one’s 20s.
  • I think one advantage of this idea is independence. I am in the humanities and have a far-left persuasion. I've heard that junior faculty have to research what their seniors want to see, rather than what they’re interested in. I recognize the need to consult senior colleagues., but having to censor myself would defeat the purpose of doing research in the first place, for me.
  • It seems to me that academics have to waste time and give up autonomy in order to get grants. I could avoid all of this by self-funding.
  • It's unfortunate that my IT work (which requires study and effort) has no overlap with my research interests. So, I would have to put research completely on hold until saving enough money, and then would never use my IT knowledge again.
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    How much are they paying IT people now to be able to retire at 30?? – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 3 at 15:42
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    You are planning on working for a US company while living in Europe? – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 3 at 15:49
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    Also, I recommend making an additional post to Money.SE for a reality check on the financial side. Our advice will necessarily be limited to your questions about the academic side, but it seems like your decision will be heavily influenced by your financial assumptions. – cag51 Aug 3 at 15:58
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    The life of an independent researcher without advanced degrees or collaborative contacts can be pretty bleak, unless you want to be like Darwin and just do it for fun. – Buffy Aug 3 at 16:11
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    Suppose you proceed as planned, but when you turn 40 you no longer want to continue - maybe you are bored with your research, or your investments have collapsed, or living expenses have increased unexpectedly, or you want to support someone else, or you just want a nicer house and more vacations. Now what? Your IT skills are ten years out of date, and with no experience in teaching or any aspect of academic work beyond your specific research, you will not be well qualified for an academic job. – Nate Eldredge Aug 3 at 16:34
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It seems implausible that your plan can work: You can't hope to draw more than 5% off an investment per year, so even a moderate income of $50k (or equivalent in your country) will require you to accumulate about a million dollars. It seems improbable that you will be able to sock away this much money in 5-6 years, post-taxes, unless you have a pre-tax salary on the order of half a million dollars.

So what that means for your current situation is then that you'll have to save for far more than just 5-6 years -- and that you'll miss some of the best years of your life where you can establish a career, a family. In other words, I think that the premise in the title of your question is flawed and that you'll miss out on some of the best parts of your life.

(As a side note: In your 30s, you probably will want to have a partner and family at some point. It's conceivable that you could live of less than $50k per year if you're living by yourself frugally. But you can't do that if you have a family and children: They have needs that may exceed your own, and what's acceptable as a living abode for you may no longer be for your family.)

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    My COL is 12 000 USD. 4% of 300 000 USD is 12 000 USD . With an income of 70 000 USD, which is entry-level in my field, I think I could realistically save at least 45 000 per year, which would be ~7 years. And I think that estimate is somewhat conservative. But I could be wrong. If I have a family, it could complicate things. I guess the missing-out-on-life part is the main issue. – JD_ Aug 3 at 17:35
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    @JD_ Your calculation seems to be based on getting that salary without moving to the US, which seems implausible. Also, remember that 70k is before taxes. – Tobias Kildetoft Aug 3 at 17:46
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    The point I'm trying to make is that when you meet that partner of your dreams, is he/she willing to live in a studio apartment and eat ramen every day? Besides that, as @TobiasKildetoft mentions, saving $45k per year requires you to have an income of $45k to save + $12k to live off + taxes + health insurance. If you're single, you don't have a lot of deductions, so you're already not far from $100k even in low-tax US. If you're in Europe where taxes are generally substantially higher, you're quite easily beyond that. – Wolfgang Bangerth Aug 3 at 23:07
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I would share my perspective, though I am not from humanities but from CS.

Though you have multiple questions, the answer to all of them is actually fundamentally common.

But before going into that, I do not know what index funds are and earning enough in IT in 5 years so that after proper investment, you can retire is an assumption, which with high probability is going to fail. So first you need to carefully rethink that. I do not believe there is any investment without risk and experts advise investments should be diversified. Anyways, that is not a topic I know much of.

To all your questions, at the crux, the answer is you need to match with the right supervisor and find the right topic of research. You seek autonomy and you could get that if you want, which comes with caveats. A PhD requires multiple kinds of skills and you should ensure that you have those skills to complete your work -- something which you will not learn if you work with someone who gives you a lot of autonomy.

You should do a PhD if you feel the need for research as you are excited by an area of study. You say you can wait for 5 years to do that. That raises the question, are you driven enough right now? If so, you should already commence your research while working. Five years is a long time. If you are OK in not doing that for 5 years, you probably should never do it. Moreover, starting you research now could get you a funded PhD position. Though, I do not know how much fieldwork is required in your area as I have little idea about research in humanities. I am a CS guy and can do my research just with a good computer at home.

Other political factors and age are not something you should worry about. There are hundreds of studies and hundreds of opinions. We do not fully understand how our body and mind work. So why worry about something which comes from half-knowledge. You like something, you do it. If you are doing something which requires risk-taking and commitment, you need to ponder if you like it that much. There are hundreds of counter-examples for every study you will go through -- e.g. people finishing PhD in their 40s, 50s and so on.

So, imho, abandon this line of thought. The fundamental question is, are you driven by a research area and the research questions? Dig deeper and identify what motivates you. Only after finding an answer to that should one look for other things like money and age. And then should one consider which supervisor(s) and university you should make your place of research.

Best of luck!

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The financial plan is possible

If you have not already done it, find some related blogs or communities online. "Early retirement extreme" by Jacob Lund Fisker was one of the early ones and the book is still excellent, but generally searching about financial independence and how to achieve it should give plenty of results. Other website are more appropriate for asking for details about this.

It might not be easy, but it is possible. Most people live a very wasteful life. You need not to.

If you want to do a PhD, try to do it

Apply to any funded study programmes you find and grants. I guess getting the master's degree might be the difficult part; PhD students are employed in a number of European countries and therefor paid. Contact possible advisors.

But if not, go get a job

You can also apply to the IT jobs. If you can't get the academic position you want, continue applying while working and saving. Maybe you can do something on your free time to improve your changes of being accepted? Courses via open university studies, some research. Or maybe you can find an IT job that teaches you skills that would be useful in research and that many others do not have.

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It's possible - I know people who did similar things, and knowing that one is on a secure footing financially before going into a poorly-paid academic position is a great reassurance.

However, make sure you can actually bank $50k a year. There could be all sorts of unexpected expense, for example, taxes (this is probably the biggest one), partner/children, house/car, and so on.

A few more things worth pointing out:

  • Your expenses might be different once you're in graduate school - you might have to relocate away from central Europe, for example.
  • If you decide to go for graduate studies, there's a good chance you don't need to self-fund. After all, many programs (especially those in the US) offer their graduate students stipends. Your studies are effectively free in that case, and the $300k you save is simply a backup plan in case you drop out, funding expires, etc.
  • Nothing stops you from drawing down the principal on the $300k. That's a substantial amount of money, much more than you might need as a safety net.
  • Note that being able to self-fund might not be an advantage in graduate admissions.
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