phd in the era of the great depression

January 26, 2009

Being in a PhD program makes excellent economic sense in today’s times.  It’s also consumerly fun.  Let me tell you why.

The NYT just posted an article about how suddenly everyone is laying off workers.  Know one sector that’s not laying anyone off?  That’s right, graduate programs.  Know why?  Cause we cost fucking nothing.

According to basic economics, the short term opportunity cost of entering a PhD program is quite high, at least for the natural sciences.  Compare a constant $28k/year stipend to an average 4-6 year salary of at least $120k/year, calculate the accured interest on the difference over a 20 year period, and you know how much money we generally lose going to grad school.  But, er, before we get too excited, consider the economic model at work here.  Our basic assumptions are somewhat faulty in the world of the depression.  First of all, you have to factor in the possibility of losing your job in your first year out of college (also, anyone feel bad for all those finance majors that lost the jobs they were promised on wall street… before they even started?  boo hoo.  should have learned a real fucking trade.).  Then consider the interest rate on even the best CDs (ING Direct and HSBC direct being two notables); you realize that interest is barely keeping up with inflation.  Don’t even get me started on what used to be your stock investments.

Let’s move insufferably along to my second argument about why it’s great to be a PhD student right now.  Job security.  That’s right.  So long as you do MINIMAL WORK towards your PhD (enough to get your adviser off your back), you have guaranteed cash flow and a shit ton of free time (ok, sorry, I work in theory.  experimentalists need not apply.)  I have a fellowship with guaranteed stipend love, and the university adds a teensy bit on top of that.  My second year of grad school, during which I interned at Big Tech Company for 3 months, I worked 10x less and made more cash than my full-time-school-teacher big sister.

The job safety gives me strange urges.  Every time I read about companies closing shop, people getting laid off, or economic misery stories, I suddenly get the urge to shop.  I shit you not.  On a bad financial news day, you’ll find me browsing woot, fatwallet, and spoons’ favorite website (and fatwallet’s archnemesis): slickdeals.  Sometimes I run out of ideas for shit to buy.  At this point, I go to my favorite ideas website, Stuff White People Like.  I know I’ll always get a good recommendation there!

Anyway, in the last couple of months I’ve bought a netbook, about $500 of sporting goods (tennis racquet, backpacking boots, 2 fleecen, a GoreTex Pro shell [at $150 down from $400, i am proud of my deal-finding jewness], woolen socks, long underwears, a balaclava, a daypack, windproof gloves, etc), a DVD player (that plays divx files from USB sticks), and god knows what else.  I’m also about to get a shnazzy new data phone plan.  All this while paying for $2000 worth of maintenance on my car.  And the $120/month for weekly sessions with my psych (worth every fucking penny).  What a consumerwhorish time I’ve had!

Purchasing plans for the upcoming two weeks: A Blackberry Pearl Flip, and a new point&shoot camera.  My trusty Canon S400 has lasted me 5 good years, weathered all the elements known to man, has 4 visible dents and makes me squee every time I see it.  However, it’s time for an upgrade to the new DIGIC version billion processor.