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Career guidance

  1. Jun 17, 2008 #1
    I'm in need of some honest advice. I have these strong desires for my career(s) and the way my wife and I live, but I also have some serious obstacles. There's a lot of background info, so I hope it's not boring. I'll do my best to put it in bullet form.

    Ready? I'll state my goal and our goals.

    My goal. To get a Ph.D in Mathematics. The research I want ranges from uber-pure to uber-applied, from Algebra to Math-physics and computer science.

    My wifes goal. To get a Ph.D in Neuroscience.

    Our goal. To be financial independent. To never have kids and to never own a house. And importantly, be able to travel and move often (say every 3 to 5 yrs.)

    You'll have to accept our goals. Yes, they're different. No, we're not kids. We're 30, and we're both x-navy too.

    I have a bachelors in pure math. My wife has a bachelors in philosophy, but with a ton of math, physics, engineering.

    Ok. I'm going to graduate school this fall for a masters in computer science. I would like to study AI and applied math, but I am also really wanting to become a strong programmer so that I can make money for us while we're in school. She will be working soon, but we don't know in what.

    Ok, now the bad stuff. Combined, we'll be about 160,000 in debt after my masters.

    We both come from very poor families. We have never had help, it's just been us since the military. Our families have co-signed, but that's all. It is what it is.

    Now. The questions.

    Will we be able to pay off these loans and still succeed at our goals if we both go on to graduate school?

    Does anyone do freelance programming work? and if so what advice could you give me?

    To be absolutely money-minded, what should be studied for my masters to make good money? and equally important what should be studied to be able to be a freelancer or part time programmer?

    The question I hate to ask. Should I work for us for 5 to 10 years and study on my own? If I do this, will I still be accepted into the math community after such a long brake?

    The upside to working would be that I would be able to pay for her masters since she is changing fields, and we don't think she has enough background to apply directly into a Ph.D program.

    Our fear is that 5 to 10 years down the road as post-docs (in our 40s) we won't be able to pay for living with the debts and the cost of simply living. Is there merit to this fear, or is it baseless?

    Any general advice you care to share on this?

    Thanks. Sorry it's so long.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 17, 2008 #2


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    Well I won't sugar coat it. Most grad students earn just enough to keep out of debt (or at least further debt) if they live a freugal lifestyle. The step up to post-doc isn't that much better and even some entry-level professor positions aren't all that great financially. That's not so say there aren't acceptions.

    I wouldn't worry about age. Many of your colleagues will still be fresh out of undergrad, but I don't think that should deter you. I know several mature students - many of whom are more successful than their younger colleagues.

    What I might suggest is just jump in and try it - as it seems you're doing. See what life will be like for the 2-3 years it will take to get the M.Sc. and at the end, re-assess your goals. Pursuing the Ph.D. part time is another option - although this will likely drag out for a very long time.

    I also noticed you never want to own a house. If money is a concern, you may want to re-think this. Rent money is pretty much money thrown away. And you can still own, and move frequently - it's possibly a little more of a hassle than renting, but when you're 65 it will make a substantial difference.
  4. Jun 17, 2008 #3
    From my knowledge, your field of study doesnt seem to be the kind to make you financially independent. Theres low demand for them in the economy, as so much other ppl study the same as you do. Your wages probably won't be very high... It seems really hard to study the mathematics/physical sciences/compu sci and actually be financially well off.
  5. Jun 17, 2008 #4
    Can you get a teaching or research assistant position? These often waive tuition and pay you a stipend. How is it the debt is so high after only two years?

    Are you sure about this? It's generally more common for people in math/science to apply directly to PhD programs rather than masters.
  6. Jun 17, 2008 #5
    I should also say that it may be very difficult for you and your wife to live together during years of post-docs. Also, each of you eventually obtaining professorships at the same university (or two close together) may be difficult as well.
  7. Jun 18, 2008 #6
    Thanks for replies! I know I asked tough questions to give advice on.

    My wife and I discussed for some time last night what to do.

    We've concluded that we'll both work for 5 or so years and pay off the debts. We figure if we keep our lifestyle at 30k a year, and use the other 30 to 50k a year to pay off the debts, then we'll be ok with living on 15k year stipends down the road.

    I see no reason we can't both go to graduate school in the same area. Maybe we can take post docs at separate times.

    But I've been thinking if I get the math training I want and live close enough to a University that does research. Then if I support myself with freelance programming and do research on my own, then I actually really love that idea best. I don't think I'm cut out for professing, but I need a day job. On the same end, I need to do math research to learn what I want to learn.

    And since she wants Neuroscience, then she absolutely needs a lab and to be a part of it directly. Thankfully, many many mathematicians in the past have proven you don't actually have to be apart of the university after your ph.d.

    Thanks again for the advice.
  8. Jun 18, 2008 #7


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    Your wife may be able to start directly into a neuroscience Ph.D. program with her background. Neuroscience programs tend to be very diverse and draw in students with more diverse backgrounds than other science fields. She may need to take an extra class or two to brush up in some areas, but nothing to hinder her in that path. Also, I'm unaware of any neuroscience program that accepts Ph.D. students if they can't fund them fully...that means she would not be accumulating any further debt, and would likely qualify for loan deferments on the student loans she already has.

    Stipends in neuroscience programs are better than that (for Ph.D. students). They're starting around $21K currently (most use NIH's salary scale for their model, but some pay even more to lure in better students and compete with other programs). Plus, if you're sharing living expenses with each of you receiving a stipend, that's more affordable than for students on their own (you only have to split one utility bill, share a single one-bedroom apartment rather than paying more to share a two-bedroom with another person, can share expenses commuting to campus, etc.)

    Rather than delay entering post-docs, you could try to apply for post-docs at the same schools too, or nearby schools. If you look in areas with a higher density of universities, you might be able to find two within commutable distances of a home between them.

    Don't dismiss the possibility of both landing faculty jobs at the same institution. It's challenging, but can be done. If one of you winds up strong enough in your field to make a great impression and for a university to really want to hire you, they may find a job for the other. Our institution is building that model into our hiring process now, realizing this is becoming a more and more common problem. The idea is to include spousal hires as part of the budgeting for newly announced positions, so people don't pass us over because their spouse can't get a job (we have to consider this more than universities in major metropolitan areas, because we don't have as many other industries locally where someone's spouse can get hired if they take a job here, and we know people will look elsewhere if both partners can't be gainfully employed).

    The one thing to contemplate is what happens if/when you get tired of moving every few years? I finally hit that point...landed in a place I want to call home for longer than a few years and am working on ways to stay. And, what if that happens at different stages of life for each of you? That's not something to deter or encourage you, just a "plan for all eventualities" question.
  9. Jun 19, 2008 #8
    Thanks Moonbear.

    Cool. We'll look into this together. Ironically there is another post just added about neuroscience, and a responder said University of Rochester has a great program and they're literally only 2 miles from our apartment.

    You say one could buy a house and move often. Forgive me but that sounds counter-intuitive to me. How could we manage that?

    Funny though, lol. Our school loans are equal to a really nice house (actually, a really really nice house.) It's the home in our heads that we've made together.

    The idea of landing faculty jobs at the same U. sounds awesome. But what's the probability of that? It's already a long shot these days to get tenure, but to add the conditional that we get them at the same school. Sounds really difficult.

    Besides Erdos (a hero of mine) how many active mathematicians are there who don't have a professorship as a day job?

    I think being a freelancer and consultent as a day job would be my cup of tea, but I really want to do research at the same time. Is that a logical absurdity?

    The other idea I've had, is to be split between lab research in AI and Robotics and at the same time be a purish mathematician.

    If you can tell, I don't want to be a professor. I only want to be a researcher. But I love pure theory as much as application so I have a bit of an issue I think.
  10. Jun 19, 2008 #9
    I have another silly question.

    If I get a Ph.D in computer science and simultaneously get my masters in math. Do you think I could get a pure research job in AI and robotics and still do math research on the side?
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