A 70 percent cut in pay — that’s what my next career move would cost me. And yet it was an opportunity I knew I couldn’t pass up, and it was possibly the best thing I could for my career. Still, a 70% pay cut would definitely change my idea of a vacation for the next few years…
When I started my first job after undergrad at a nuclear engineering consulting firm, I quickly found that the working world was very different than school. I worked 8 am to 6 pm, plus an occasional late night or weekend when project deadlines were close. I was in a pretty formal environment (jeans and a hoodie were never acceptable office wear), and there were different standards for work quality (95% correct is not “good enough” when it comes to safety at nuclear power plants). It took some getting used to, but I was able to settle into what I thought would be an interesting career in nuclear power.
But after about two years of work, I started to see things that really frustrated me. I saw an industry that could be an important part of a clean, reliable, low-cost power grid getting bogged down by the same discussions about safety, waste, and cost that they have been having for decades. While these discussions were important, it didn’t seem like anyone was making real progress on them. Issues of regulation and economics kept coming up, but engineers just wanted to focus on the technical problems and there weren’t qualified people talking about how to solve the economic and regulatory issues. The nuclear industry was stalling out and I wanted to figure out how to fix it. The common theme of all the problems was a communication gap between nuclear engineers, policy makers, and the public. Figuring out how to bridge that gap seemed like a good place to start fixing nuclear power.
I knew what problem I wanted to solve, but I had no idea how to go about doing it. I looked up “experts” who were doing policy and technical advising in other fields and looked into their career paths. Their “expert” status was usually based on either decades of technical work in the field, or a PhD. If I really wanted to do the work I knew was important, I had two choices: work twenty-five more years until I had enough experience to be considered an “expert”, or go back to school to get a PhD. I didn’t want to wait until I was 50 to start my real career, so I looked at going back to graduate school…
First came the realization about the 70% cut in pay. Second, I would be giving up the retirement plans, paid vacation time, and job security that I had come to expect from my engineering career. Third, I would effectively be hitting the pause button on my life for the next five years. While many of my friends were getting married, buying houses, and starting families, I would be focusing on research and filling out grant applications. While it is possible to do all of those things while in graduate school, it’s certainly not as easy. It looked like I’d be giving up a lot to be a graduate student. I’d be lucky to graduate and restart my career and my personal life by 30.
So why did I do it?
For me, the ability to leapfrog ahead in my career and spend five years immersed in research and discussion about a field I’m passionate about sounded like a dream. While I’d be giving up a lot of things, the opportunities it would create and the professional fulfillment I'd have both during and after seemed worth the cost (or investment, if you want to look it more positively!). I’d also get a much more flexible work schedule; so while it wasn’t paid time off, coming into lab at 10 am was suddenly acceptable, as long as the work got done.
Leaving a full time job to go back to school for a PhD can be a hard decision, but it helps to know why you’re going back and what you want to get out of it. While it may be one of the most fulfilling intellectual experiences of your life and a great career decision, you are putting a “normal” life on hold for (at least) five years, so think carefully about what that means for you and what you want out of life. And while I do still miss having long paid vacations and a 401k plan, it’s more than worth it for the experiences and opportunities I’ve gained already at MIT.