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  • Writer's pictureEmily Ellis

My path to a PhD

By Emily Ellis, PhD Student, Virginia Tech Geosciences

This blog post originally appeared in the AGU H3S professional development blog:

“You won’t like working a 9 to 5 job.”

“No! You need to stay and get your PhD – you’re such a promising academic.”

“You’ll get bored and be back in academics in three years.”

“You need to stay and represent women in STEM.”

“But you love school!”

Whether or not I asked for advice, these were the types of comments I received when I decided during my master's program that I did not want to immediately continue onto a Ph.D. program. Even though most of my closest supporters were incredibly understanding of my decision, these remarks echoed in my ears at every turn. I couldn’t escape them. But the one that was by far the most common:

“If you leave now you’ll never come back!”

While this sentiment can be true for some people, I find it odd that this is often something that is just accepted as fact in academia. Although progressing straight through from undergraduate to graduate studies could arguably be the most common route, it doesn’t mean it is the only “right” way to do it. After all, there is no ONE path to getting a Ph.D. And I don't think this is acknowledged enough in the academic realm.

Ultimately, choosing to continue on to higher education is a very personal decision and one that you have to come to on your own terms. As a graduate student who just finished her 2nd year of Ph.D. after taking off almost 4 years to work in industry, I wanted to provide a bit of my perspective on breaking the norm and following the “Industry to Ph.D. Pipeline”.

Moving into my first grad student office.

My Story and Why I Made the Decision to Take Time Off:

I’ve always been an extremely goal-oriented go-getter. I can honestly say I don't remember the last time I didn't have some sort of plan for my life. I knew going into college I wanted to get a master’s degree. I would get it all done as quickly and efficiently as possible. I would make it happen and figure out the rest when I got there. Through a freshman research program my university offered, I started my geography degree and undergraduate research in my first semester. I never looked back. Next thing I knew, 5 years later, I had stacked up two degrees, a minor, a certificate, and several publications. It was everything I needed to get into a competitive Ph.D. program, yet, I was left with an overwhelming sense of burnout and the daunting question of “now what?”

Like most 23-year-olds, I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. All I knew was that taking on a Ph.D. was a big life commitment, both socially and financially. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 4 years of “life” can look very different at 24-28 than at 28-32. Also, I had never worked in a corporate setting before and couldn’t rule out enjoying working an industry job. After a lot of consideration, I decided that finding some solid ground in a stable, non-academic job was likely the best choice for me at that time. I could save money while assessing what I really wanted my next big goal to be. If I was going to do a Ph.D. I wanted it to be something I truly desired and was prepared for mentally and financially. I decided I would revisit the idea of Grad School 2.0 in 2020 when my GRE scores were set to expire.

Taking a work trip into the field to test GIS applications.

What Drew Me Back to Graduate School:

After my master's, I worked as a GIS Technician/Analyst in the oil and gas industry. It was a great job. I really enjoyed the hands-on experience of applying what I learned about in the classroom to real-world problems. However, my desire for a Ph.D. never fully went away. I found myself still having that curiosity and drive for knowledge. I missed having discussions with people, looking for cutting-edge technology solutions, and having the agency to choose what I was working on. I also found myself still actively keeping up with all my peers in academia and updating my CV.

Enter 2020. The world was turned upside down by a global pandemic. I experienced the loss of one of my close friends. I was becoming bored and restless with my industry job. I was slowly inching closer to that self-imposed deadline to revisit the idea of grad school. The reality was at my doorstep. This was definitely a tough decision, but if there ever was a time for a change, now was the time. As one of my friends told me,

“Don’t fail to do something because you’re scared to take a risk. You’ll have a hard time forgiving yourself if you don’t go for it.”

How I Went About Starting the Application Process 2.0:

While I never fully let go of the “scientist” or “academic” titles in my mind, the idea of starting over again in school at almost 28 was a bit of a mental hurdle. I needed to figure out the process of looking for programs, talking to people, and applying while working a full-time job. I initially felt pretty alone in the early stages of this process. I stayed at my undergraduate institution for my master's. So, the idea of searching for programs was new to me. Most of my friends were either staying in industry, finishing up graduate or professional degrees, or well-established in academia. Here are some of the basic steps I followed that are valuable for anyone considering graduate school:

  1. Make a Pro/Con List It may seem silly, but this was a big help for my decision-making. The further out I got from my first grad school experience, the more aware I became about the cost of living, living expenses, what I valued in life, etc. This helped me put things into perspective.

  2. Reach Out To Old Advisors, Committee Members, and/or Mentors for Advice In my process, I sent many emails and had several calls with my academic support system. I wanted to get their advice on getting back into academics. This was very helpful in understanding how I needed to frame things and approach potential advisors after taking time away from academics. This is also a key step if you are looking for people to write reference letters! As a general piece of advice, keeping in touch with your mentors is a great practice.

  3. Start Drafting a Personal Statement Writing is like using a muscle you haven’t thought about in a while – painful until you get used to working it again. While I was doing plenty of writing in my corporate job, it was mainly technical documents, progress reports, and emails. My first draft of a personal statement was very rusty and took me much longer to write than I thought it would. However, I allowed plenty of time to edit and work through my thoughts on this statement. I also found it incredibly important to really bring in elements of why I wanted to come back to school. A personal statement was an excellent opportunity to explain why and how taking that time off from school benefited me and my goals. Articulating these ideas was also helpful when I started reaching out to potential advisors, and I could fully justify how I was prepared to make a major life shift.

  4. Start Researching Programs and People Once I did the above, it became a matter of researching universities, programs, and people. I also tried to narrow down my research interests to something more specific. Knowing that you want to research and knowing what you want to research are two different things. So, searching for the right program allowed me to explore what research topics excited me. Having the agency to choose what I worked on was something I hadn’t been able to do in my industry job.

Overall, I'm glad I made the decision to return to graduate school for a Ph.D. I can also say that I learned a lot from working in Industry that helped with my academic career.

Making a water quality assessment at Natural Bridge State Park, Virginia.

What I Learned Working In The Corporate World:

Overall, working in industry was well worth the time invested. It provided me with a lot of hands-on experience that I likely would not have gotten if I had continued straight on to more graduate work. Here are a few of the major things I learned:

  • Setting a Schedule and Boundaries: One of the most important things I took away from working a job with a more set schedule is the importance of work-life balance. In my first graduate school degree, I didn’t define clear boundaries and placed my grad school responsibilities above everything else to the detriment of my mental health and well-being. While working in industry, I learned to prioritize my mental health and define my identity outside of my work. Additionally, I quickly learned to define what is and is not inside the scope of my job description.

When I made the decision to come back to grad school, I made the conscious decision to try to keep that industry mindset and view getting a Ph.D. as a job. While I am by no means perfect at balancing everything, I do attempt to keep a fairly normal schedule. It looks like not working late into the night or all weekend, prioritizing sleep, being active, and visiting friends. I try to remind myself that I am much more than the job I am currently doing. I have big goals and dreams, but I refuse to lose myself in the process. Working corporate, especially in an hourly or billable hour setting, I learned how to value my time and contributions.

  • Real-World Applications: Working in a customer-facing IT group, I quickly learned that new technology is only as good as its usability! I could make the neatest, fanciest application out there, but if it isn’t practical or beneficial, no one will use it. This can be applied in my science career by recognizing the need to make our work relatable.

  • Essential Skills: The corporate world is big on professional development. When I was working, I had training opportunities to develop professional skills (e.g., communication, and emotional intelligence) that were immensely helpful for returning to academia. Being in a more business-orientated environment, I had to be able to maintain a balance of understanding highly technical concepts while being able to explain them quickly to non-experts. These kinds of communication skills are invaluable and directly transferable to science communication.

  • Project Management: While project management is often seen as this explicitly corporate term, being able to gather requirements, define project scope, and organize time and resources are all very important skills for Ph.D. students (as well as those continuing on to careers in higher education or scientific research). Taking a business approach can be incredibly beneficial.

  • Financial Considerations: It would be very remiss of me not to also mention the financial aspect of taking time off to work in industry. By working and saving money for several years between graduate programs, I am in a much more comfortable position financially than I was the first time. Having a stable job following my master’s allowed me to really understand my finances and when I made the decision to come back to graduate school I knew what was feasible for me in terms of cost of living, benefits, and stipends. Finances and financial security are personal and dependent on many factors, so everyone has to assess their situation for themselves.

Preparing for Making the Transition Back:

For the most part, I’ve enjoyed transitioning back to an academic environment. However, after taking time off, there were definitely some obstacles that I had to overcome and things I wish I had mentally prepared for before getting back into student mode.

Things I’d wish I’d known:

  • Structuring My Time: Coming from a corporate setting, I initially found a difference in how time is structured to be an adjustment. I went from having incredibly routine days to having free-form schedules. This can be a blessing for those who desire freedom and a curse for those who thrive on structure. I’ve tried to keep a standard workday approach when possible to keep some normalcy and maintain healthy working hours

  • Social Dynamics: Returning to graduate school can change the social dynamic with your friend group(s). This is not necessarily positive or negative. Still, I have noticed I’ve had to navigate being back in the student stage of life when most of my non-academic friends are buying homes, getting married, having children, taking vacations, and contributing to their 401k. Meanwhile, much of my new cohort is younger and adjusting to the jump between undergraduate to graduate studies. It’s fun to relate to both groups in very different stages of life.

  • Changes in Technology: Things are not the same as the last time I did grad school. I was naive in thinking, “I’ve done it before. I’ll jump right back into grad school. It’s like nothing has changed!” While this may not be as much of an issue moving forward, I was utterly shocked by the changes in technology – the difference between 2017 and 2021 was huge! As a millennial, my whole life I have watched the rapid change in technology, but when I left graduate school I was taking paper notes, doing most things manually, and using external hard drives. Now I’m constantly trying to get up to speed on Canvas, citation managers, different cloud storage options, and collaborative documents for group projects primarily done online. It was a learning curve!

Deciding to do a Ph.D. can and will be a tough decision no matter when you make it; you’ll just have to consider different sets of life’s circumstances. Ultimately, I don’t have any regrets about taking time off or making the decision to come back. Having 4 years to regroup was absolutely necessary for my journey, and I’m not convinced that I would have finished a Ph.D. if I’d continued on immediately. Whatever choice you make – whether it is to continue on or to take time between degrees – the most important piece of advice I have is that your decision needs to be for you. Consider what best suits you in your current season of life and go for it.

Emily Ellis is a PhD Student at Virginia Tech, Department of Geosciences, Global Rivers Group.

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