Is a PhD compatible with Financial Independence? Part 2

Part two on my thoughts and experiences on doing a PhD in the UK, and whether or not it is compatible with the desire to be financially independent.


 

Welcome back to (a very belated) part two! In part one I talked about what a PhD involves, and the benefits you receive at the time.

 

In part two, I am going to talk about what you get now that you have this doctorate.

 

There are obviously many many choices to make at the end of your PhD, but I can only comment on my own experiences. I’ve gone into more detail in previous posts, but to sum up, I spent a couple of years working overseas for industry and then a few years working in the UK in academia.

 

Working in academia

  • Wage

The good thing is, there is a decent jump in earnings once you graduate and get your first job. Wages in academia immediately after finishing your PhD seem to be between £29-36,000, depending on experience. My first job in academia in the UK paid about £33,000 in total, and about £1,900 per month after pension contributions, tax, student loan and national insurance.

 

  • Fixed term contracts

One of my biggest issues with working in academia is the job instability. Once you get your PhD, but before you get a permanent position as a lecturer, you’re in that middle ground of being a “post-doc” (a post-doctoral research associate). These are usually fixed term contracts, from one to four years long. I find that the temporary fixed-term contracts are both a blessing and a curse. When I first finished my PhD, I had the opportunity to work in Asia for two years, which was awesome. But now that I want to settle down, it is much more annoying!

 

  • Progression

A further problem is that progression to the next level is difficult. Over the last few decades, the number of PhD positions has risen greatly. However, the number of permanent positions within universities has not risen to match. This means that competition is fierce.

 

  • See the world

If you look at any academic’s employment history, you’ll almost certainly see a few periods of work abroad. A PhD opens up the option to work in a foreign country, which might otherwise be difficult to achieve. I think that spending a few years working in a foreign country is a great experience. It helps you to realise that the world is much smaller than some politicians would have you believe, and that we are all very similar, no matter what country you are from. It encourages you to be independent and adapt to new things. If nothing else, it helps you to appreciate what you left behind in the UK!

 

So, is a PhD compatible with Financial Independence?

As with all things, it depends. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of people out there who got a PhD then moved to America and started earning $100K per year. But I would wager that that is not the norm.

If you’re focused on earning as much money as possible for ten years and then retiring early, I don’t think a PhD is for you. You’ll earn around £15,000 for 3-4 years, with no chance of a pay rise during that time. Then, once you’ve passed and got your first job, you’ll probably earn around £30-34,000 per year for the next few years.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine who graduated from his undergraduate degree the same year as I did with a Bachelors in Accounting is now a chartered accountant. He earns about £40,000 per year, and expects this to steadily increase. I believe this is on the low side for accountants, but then again, he never left his original city, and has never worked in London.

Another friend of mine, about 2-3 years younger than me, is a teacher and also earns about £40K per year.

Ultimately, there are careers out there that offer a much more structured and guaranteed progression.

However, I would argue that financial independence is not all about the money. My job in particular has other benefits. I have a very good work-life balance, and how I spend my time at work is mostly up to me.

 

Do I regret doing my PhD?

Despite my comments so far, I have no regrets!

My PhD was probably the most challenging thing I’ve done so far. Since finishing it, I’ve had an increased level of confidence in my abilities. The sense of pride and satisfaction I felt on completion has rarely been matched since.

Furthermore, my PhD gave me the opportunity to work for a few years in a foreign country. Although it was hard at times, overall it was a fantastic experience.

Finally, I met my girlfriend as a result of my PhD.

If I had decided against doing a PhD, I may well have more money now, but my life would be in a very different place!

However, I’ve been increasingly thinking recently that this career is no longer for me, for reasons mentioned above.

I find myself in the unenviable position of thinking about how one leaves academia… But, that’s beyond the scope of this post. Maybe I’ll write about it in the future.

 


 

Have any readers made the transition from academia to something else, or vice versa? Or worked with someone who has left academia?

6 Responses

  1. Hi Dr F, interesting post. I’m a chartered accountant and 40k is pretty good. I think the mean average salaries are often distorted by those at the top earning six figures or more.

    Having a very good pension is a massive benefit. Also have to factor in time spent commuting, costs of travel, holiday allowance, etc.

    I guess when you factor that in your on a pretty good deal. I’ve sacrificed potentially higher earnings, cause I get other benefits in the job I am in.

    To retire early if course requires saving so what is important is whether you can save or not. My brother has a high income high expenditure lifestyle, which suits him, but won’t allow you to RE.

    Keep up the good work post Brexit! Although according to ardent remoaners we will all be living on food banks in a few weeks 🙂

    • You are quite right, I may have dwelt too much on the negative side of the job. I certainly do have a number of benefits that you alluded to’ I have a pretty generous holiday allowance and a decent pension. For what it’s worth, I would rather they took all the money my employer and I contribute to my pension and instead stick it all in an index fund for the next 10-15 years, and then if I’m still working here, switch back to a career average defined benefit pension! But that’s just me being picky. I also have a very short and cheap commute (i.e. a short walk!) to work, but that’s obviously not something specific to my job role. Plenty of other academics travel long distances every day.

      Overall, yes, I shouldn’t complain too much, I do have a pretty good deal. Doesn’t stop me wanting more though!

      As for Brexit, I hope it all goes well, but it’s impossible to know one way or the other! Hopefully all will become clearer over the next 1-2 months.

  2. Nice article.

    I had always felt attracted by the idea of traveling while working. It isn’t uncommon on the engineering field that we travel to other countries temporally to work on an specific project. The requirement though is the capability of speaking and writing English fluently, hence another reason why I came to the UK and try to learn English properly as I thought it would give me an advantage against others.

    But life is unpredictable, and know I am here, doing what I was doing before but just in an English speaking office as love was met on the way.

    Having a good work-life balance is a luxury in the UK. Although your own career may has its limits, your spare time it’s a great asset that can be used to do something else. whether it provides cash or happiness it is up to you, but still a privilege.

    🙂

    • Thanks Tony.

      I certainly am lucky in being a native English speaker; it made working abroad pretty easy as it was the default language for everyone!

      Good to hear that you found love in the UK :). Hopefully, whatever happens regarding Brexit, your own plans are not hampered!

      I fully agree, a good work-life balance is priceless. I may complain about the job itself, but at least I can go home at 5 and then do whatever I want for the rest of the evening!

  3. The overall achievement of obtaining / working hard towards a PhD will always be with you! I think that’s an excellent achievement and illustrates to employers the effort you’ve gone to to complete such a huge task (even though a new career path may not be related to your PhD).

    • Fully agreed! As I’ve said before, my PhD was the hardest thing I’ve done, and it has given me the confidence to know that I can do whatever I set my mind to. The problem in my case, however, is choosing what to do!

      Hopefully future employers feel the same as you regarding the PhD! I’ve often read that some employers may view a candidate with a PhD as overqualified.

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