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Okay guys, I'm 29 and confused and on top of that I'm having to swtich jobs at the end of the yar. Several of my coworkers have suggested that I consider going back for my Ph.D.

I am interested in going back to school, and I have a pretty good idea of the faculty and academics in my area of specialization (transportation). However, I don't really have a feel of what it's like to attend from a student perspective.

So if you have finished your Ph.D. recently in City/Urban Planning at either MIT or Berkeley, let me know what you think:

1) Did getting your Ph.D. help you go where you wanted to professionaly?
2) What did you enjoy most?
3) What was most frustrating?
4) Woudl you do it again if you had to make the decision all over again?


A friend just e-mailed me the following article from the Chicago Trubune this morning:

The PhD candidate marathon

Students face a long, difficult road in writing dissertations

By Dean Geroulis
Special to the Tribune

October 7, 2001

Thomas Kim has just entered the final stretch in pursuit of his goal.

He gave up a potentially lucrative career in engineering to earn a
doctorate in English literature from the University of Chicago, and now
the only thing between him and that doctorate is his dissertation. It's
a long stretch, one that Kim expects will take three years.

And for the first time in his educational career, he is truly working

There is no longer the comfort of a classroom setting with classmates
and an instructor to lean on, nor is he simply studying and reacting to
the work of scholars who came before him. Kim must break new ground and
establish his own credentials as a scholar.

"I actually love it," said Kim, 28. "In the classroom environment there
are a lot of discussions that are productive, but there's often a lot of
negotiating with what the instructor is trying to teach you, and you're
sort of emulating and exhibiting some sort of expertise on what you just
learned. I'm actually looking forward to taking more accountability for
my ideas."

The crowning achievement

It's an exciting time for Kim and others like him. Whether driven by
pride, career ambitions or a deep love for the subject they're studying,
PhD candidates devote years of their lives living off grants, stipends
or part-time jobs to earn the rank of "doctor" in their field.

The dissertation may be the crowning achievement in a graduate student's
academic career. "The whole point of a dissertation is that the student
is becoming an independent producer of knowledge," said Clark Hulse,
dean of the Graduate School at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"They move into an entirely different relationship with the discipline.
They have to move to the cutting edge."

To complete the process, students have to find a new way of thinking and
approaching problems. They have to get accustomed to working in
isolation with limited structure, and they have to cultivate
relationships with an adviser and committee that oversee their work.

Lives of sacrifice

Income is meager, and many live off a small stipend while working as
teaching or research assistants, or if they're lucky they can pick up a
fellowship or research grant that allows them to work exclusively on
their dissertation. And they have to postpone other milestones.

Kim, for example, earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering
from Cornell University in 1995. After graduation, he went to Boston
College to begin a two-year master's program in English. He interned for
a summer with Motorola in Phoenix in 1996, then came back to Boston
College in the fall to complete the program. After graduating in 1997,
he began working full time for Motorola until he realized his real love
was English literature. He started the doctoral program at the U. of C.
in fall 1998.

Although he has no regrets, Kim said he would probably be earning the
salary of a tenured professor had he stayed in engineering. Friends in
the field are buying homes while he lives in university housing and
spends much of his time studying.

Joell Gills, 33, a PhD candidate in pharmacognosy (the science that
deals with the medicinal products of plants, animals and minerals) at
UIC, can attest to the amount of time it takes. She has devoted three
years to her dissertation--which is looking at the cancer treatment
properties of a compound derived from a plant--and hopes to defend it in
the spring.

"It takes so much energy and focus and time," Gills said. "I don't do a
very good job of balance, and I don't know very many of my friends who
do either because we want to graduate before we're on Social Security.
It's a choice. If you want to balance your life, it seems like it's
going to take that much longer."

Gills estimates she spends 60 to 70 hours a week in the lab working on
her dissertation and earning about $1,400 a month take-home as a
research assistant. But she knows the degree is vital to get the kind of
job some day--whether on a university campus or in private industry--in
which she would set the agenda for the lab research.

"I'm sure in the end it will be worth it, and I definitely learned a
lot, but I don't think I could have comprehended before coming here just
how much work it was going to be," Gills said.

Others have a harder time sticking it out. Communications major Kathryn
Kelley, 32, put a year into her dissertation on "Rhetoric of Heritage
Tourism" at the Ohio State University before opting to join the
workforce in 1997. Originally from an impoverished coal-mining region in
Virginia, Kelley placed a high premium on education. But the $12,000 to
$14,000 a year stipend she earned as a teaching assistant wasn't enough
to pay off mounting debts. Also, relationships with some advisers left
her disenchanted with the process.

"There's a lot of psychological baggage that goes with writing a
dissertation," Kelley said, telling of one friend at OSU who lost 40
percent of the strength in his right arm for reasons doctors couldn't
identify. The strength returned the day after he finished the

Returning to thesis

So she went to work part time in the mayor's office in Columbus, Ohio,
in 1997, and now works as an external relations coordinator at the Ohio
Supercomputer Center in Columbus. But she never forgot about the PhD and
kept all her research through the years. This school year Kelley has
applied to Ohio State to resume work on the dissertation.

"It's personal," Kelley said, adding that she has no intention of
pursuing a career in academia. "It's the guilt of knowing I didn't
finish what I started."

While career advancement in the academic community demands a doctorate,
it is not the only motivating force for doctoral candidates. Thomas M.
Melena, 54, was recently named city manager of Rolling Meadows. He has
been steadily employed in city administration since the early 1970s, so
when he decided in 1993 to enroll in a new doctoral program in public
administration from Hamline University in St. Paul, career had little to
do with it.

"I enjoy getting into the classroom and being on top of new things that
are happening in the field," Melena said. "I enjoy the challenge of
learning. It got to be a major hobby for me."

An academic vacation

Melena said he finds the experience as refreshing as a vacation. He is
about two-thirds of the way through his dissertation on the multiethnic
municipal relationships in Brcko, Bosnia, where he was assigned as a
lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve in 1997 and '98. Melena had set a
one-year timetable to complete the thesis but concedes the recent job
change may delay matters.

Distractions can be numerous. For the more traditional students with an
eye toward academic careers, the delays come from pressure to be
published along the way.

At the national level, there has been some discussion about the growing
amount of time it is taking students to finish their dissertations,
particularly in the humanities. The delay is attributed to the need to
publish along the way so that peers and potential employers know who the
student is, and to ensure the dissertation becomes a significant body of

"In the '50s, '60s and into the '70s, dissertations were not the big,
bulky things they have become," said Bill Brown, an English professor
and master of the Humanities Collegiate Division at the U. of C., noting
that they can run from 200 to 600 pages.

"Now, they really are thought of as the basis for a book. It's important
that they be good and they be substantial, because if somebody is coming
up for tenure and they don't have something that is good enough to
become a book, they're not going to get tenure. It's a professional

At the University of Chicago, the English department made some changes
in the PhD program five years ago to help accelerate the process by
allowing students to get a head start on the dissertation while studying
for the oral exams that wrap up the PhD course work, said Brown, Kim's
thesis adviser.

Students find different ways to cope with the demands. Some might try to
squeeze in an hour or two when they can. Others find regular exercise or
other recreation to be helpful. And all agree that maintaining human
contact is vital, so they attend conferences, form study groups or just
get together informally to discuss their projects.

Schools provide support

Some campuses, including UIC and the U. of C., offer added support in
the form of workshops, and the Internet has opened up a new worldwide
community for graduate students.

At Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Frank J. Elgar, a PhD
candidate in psychology, created The Dead Thesis Society in 1998 to help
graduate students who have stalled on their dissertations. Many of these
students will move on and lose their connection with the campus, Elgar
said, putting them at higher risk of not completing their dissertations.
His listserv--an electronic mailing list--has about 200 subscribers,
mostly from the United States and Canada, but some from the United
Kingdom and Australia. The listserv can be found at

The Dead Thesis Society has a physical presence on three campuses in
Canada and the U.S., where it organizes workshops, and Elgar's Web site
offers tips on how to start a chapter. Anybody is welcome to use the
name, he said.

Making connections online

The Association for Support of Graduate Students, based in Incline
Village, Nev., has about 2,000 subscribers to its Doc.talk listserv,
which went online in 1995, according to Ronda Dave, president, listserv
moderator and the group's only full-time employee. Dave founded the
association in 1991 with her late husband, Del Ticer. The association
offers various services to an audience Dave believes is
underserved--older students established in their professions who have
been drawn into graduate programs through university marketing efforts.

These students, she said, are often misled into thinking they can
complete the doctorate while working full time, that they will have
ongoing contact with the professors when the course work is done and
that the process will differ little from taking on a project at work.

With or without support, what may determine the success of a PhD
candidate is what drives that person to take on the job of pushing back
the frontiers of knowledge in a particular field and how he views the
consequences of not finishing what he started.

Copyright (c) 2001, Chicago Tribune


I just wanted to revive this thread (is that ok?). I am looking for answers to the original questions by the thread poster (but not to be school specific).

Thanks. :)