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I just turned 38 and am contemplating pursuing an academic career, but I want to weigh the financial risks before making a decision. I graduated from college in 2018 with a general liberal arts degree, though I plan on studying a humanities field in graduate school. (Because I've mentioned a specific situation with a prof. on other stack exchanges, I'm reluctant to reveal the field, as it would identity her.) My education was paid for with financial aid, though I ended up borrowing $25,000 in federal loans for personal expenses (about 10K of this is unsubsidized accumulating interest). Additionally, I have a spotty employment history (minus a stint of self-employment a decade ago, I've never had a job);thus, I have no retirement savings or financial "safety net." I currently live with and am primarily supported by my mother, and I have no children/dependents.

I'm only at the point of applying for a master's degree, but I want to carefully consider whether this is a viable path for me. First, most graduate assistantships pay poverty level wages. As long as I continue living at home, it's okay, provided that my mother (in her late sixties) remains in decent health (she has medical conditions). However, I would not be able to support myself on that wage if I had to. Alternatively, I could forgo funding and take out more loans for my graduate education, but that would leave me with exorbitant debt.

Next, I would be entering the job market around my late 40's, possibly early fifties. From what I hear, tenure track positions straight out of grad. school are rare, and many newly-minted PhDs end up with part-time adjunct positions or post-docs, neither offering financial security. (I'm also averse to relocating, which limits my options.) Again, I wouldn't be able to build up any savings on the teaching or research assistantship (or I'd have exorbitant debt from loans), so I would be graduating in a precarious financial situation.

Lastly, tenure track positions (particularly in the humanities), are scarce, and there's a chance I could never achieve tenure, even if I completed a PhD. (My reluctance to relocate is an additional obstacle, as it limits my opportunities.)

Money is not my main motive for pursuing this path. I'm passionate about this area of research, and it's a rewarding and challenging career. Additionally, I think academia offers the perfect balance of autonomy and job security (if you're able to get tenure). However, given my financial situation, I'm not sure if it's viable for me financially. For example, as idealistic as it seems now, I'm trying to imagine being in my 50's, close to the age where most people retire, having no savings, and being thrown into an uncertain job market.

However, there's nothing else that I think I'd enjoying doing, and there aren't any lucrative options with my degree anyway. Moreover, I'll always regret not even trying to pursue my dream. Thus, I want to ask, from a purely financial perspective, is this a viable path for me?

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    Unwillingness to relocate could be a big deal or not a big deal, depending on where you are and what types of academic jobs you're willing to take. If you're in LA and willing to teach at a community college, and if you're good at teaching and know your field, then being unwilling to relocate out of the LA area is not a huge problem. But if you're in Oberlin, Ohio, and are only willing to take a job at a research university, then being unwilling to move is not going to work. – Ben Crowell Jun 15 at 14:15
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This is a difficult question to answer.

Looking at your questions on StackExchange, I'd be more worried about your mental health than your financial situation. I'd encourage you to consider seeing somebody to help you manage your anxiety and explore possible career paths.

To address the specific points of your question:

I just turned 38 and am contemplating pursuing an academic career, but I want to weigh the financial risks before making a decision. I graduated from college in 2018 with a general liberal arts degree, though I plan on studying a humanities field in graduate school.

This means you were already 36 when you graduated, which is also non-traditional. What were you reasons for pursuing this degree, and why do you feel differently about pursuing a Master's degree/PhD?

Also, how have you been spending the time since you graduated?

My education was paid for with financial aid, though I ended up borrowing $25,000 in federal loans for personal expenses (about 10K of this is unsubsidized accumulating interest).

[...]

Alternatively, I could forgo funding and take out more loans for my graduate education, but that would leave me with exorbitant debt.

What's your progress/plan to pay your loans?

Additionally, I have a spotty employment history (minus a stint of self-employment a decade ago; I've never kept a job);thus, I have no retirement savings or financial "safety net." I currently live with and am primarily supported by my mother, and I have no children/dependents.

As long as I continue living home, it's okay, provided that my mother (in her late sixties) remains in decent health (she has medical conditions). However, I would not be able to support myself on that wage if I had to.

Does your mother have life/disability/dependent care insurance? Given that you depend on her and wouldn't be able to support her, it's important to consider making other arrangements.

Next, I would be entering the job market around my late 40's, possibly early fifties. From what I hear, tenure track positions straight out of grad. school are rare, and many newly-minted PhDs end up with part-time adjunct positions or post-docs, neither offering financial security. (I'm also averse to relocating, which limits my options.) Again, I wouldn't be able to build up any savings on the teaching or research assistantship (or I'd have exorbitant debt from loans), so I would be graduating in a precarious financial situation.

Lastly, tenure track positions, particularly in the humanities field, are scarce, and there's a chance I could never achieve tenure, even if I completed a PhD. (My reluctance to relocate is an additional obstacle, as it limits my opportunities.)

[...]

However, given my financial situation, I'm not sure if it's viable for me financially. For example, as idealistic as it seems now, I'm trying to imagine being in my 50's, close to the age where most people retire, having no savings or support system, and being thrown into an uncertain job market.

I think you've answered your own question. To summarize, the odds are stacked against you, and even if you were able to get a tenure-track position, you're income potential could be limited. Thus, chasing your dream comes with significant risks, long-term.

Money is not my main motive for pursuing this path. I'm passionate about this area of research, and it's a rewarding and challenging career. Additionally, I think academia offers the perfect balance of autonomy and job security (if you're able to get tenure).

However, there's nothing else that I think I'd enjoying doing however, and there aren't any lucrative options with my degree anyway. Moreover, I'll always regret not even trying to pursue my dream. Thus, I want to ask, from a purely financial perspective, is this a viable path for me?

It might be worth working with a therapist and/or career coach to explore other options. They can help you identify what kind of job would be a good fit for you.

You might also be able to channel your passion and energy for this area of research in different ways than your day-job (part-time consulting, independent research, volunteering, etc.).

Also, I'd challenge you to look beyond your degree. I'm sure you have transferable skills that would be applicable in a number of fields/roles.

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As was pointed out on your question on Academia SE, regardless of financial considerations, if you are unwilling to relocate it is going to be difficult to pursue an academic career, period. Financial woes will only make it worse, because they'll mean you won't be able to be picky when searching for a job; you'll need to grab anything available so you can pay your loans.

I agree with 0xFEE1DEAD that there seem to be larger issues lurking in the background here. If all aspects of the plan were solid and the only uncertainty were about the finances, it might make sense to focus on that. But it sounds more like there are many separate eventualities that all would have to work out just right for this to turn out well. Given that, it doesn't sound wise to take a large financial risk.

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It's really important to emphasize that many more people receive PhDs than there are jobs in academia. The vast majority of PhD holders work outside academia. Unless you are truly at the top of your field, there is a significant amount of luck involved in securing a position in academia and successfully navigating the tenure process. Universities only open up so many postdoc or tenure track positions, and there may not be any open when you're ready to apply. If they do open one up, you will likely be competing against several similarly or better qualified applicants. As you move up the ladder, you need success in teaching, recruiting students who eventually graduate successfully and (most important!) securing grant money to fund your research. All of these involve some elements that are outside your control.

In short, it's a huge gamble to take so you should actively research what your backup plan would be if you need to pursue a career outside academia with your degree. Are there jobs in your area for PhD holders in the subject area you're interested in? If so, do they interest you? Do they pay well?

A second point to consider: a PhD student is basically a research trainee with some expertise in a particular field. When you graduate, if you get a job where many PhD holders are employed (academia or industry), you will basically be at the "junior researcher" level, not at the top of the field.

So you should also make sure your expectations of autonomy align with the reality of the work you will likely be doing.

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