I’ve been on a path to a PhD in Applied Economics for a long time. I’ve decided to call it off, after weeks of thought and talking it out. It has been a big part of my life and who I am, so it’s not an easy decision for me. I feel like I have some explaining to do so everyone knows where I’m going with this. Including the future me, should I need to be reminded.
Let’s start at the very beginning. I could go back farther than when I started the program at OSU, but this is a very fine place to start. When we moved to Corvallis, I was fresh from law school and working for Farmers’ Legal Action Group. My main interest was and continues to be public policy for a healthy and safe food supply, environmental quality, supporting vibrate farm businesses, and flourishing rural communities. My experience in legal advocacy taught me that economic arguments are at the heart of public policy decision-making. I made an appointment to talk with then-department head Greg Perry, who was ready to welcome me into the MS program as soon as possible, and threw in jobs teaching Agricultural Law and Environmental Law to boot. Exciting and right in my wheelhouse.
Economics and math-based disciples were difficult for me because I did not have much experience with math or economics in college, but I’m a pretty sharp pencil and made it work. Even so, I have not loved that aspect of my studies. I always loved the meaning behind the math. I could get excited about econometrics (of all things) when the math was taught along side the intuition. I was encouraged to take the econometrics preliminary exam, a requirement for the PhD program. I passed it and bought my ticket to a PhD. I studied hard while always maintaining that I would get off that train if I failed it.
Thankfully, I finished an MS along the way, with a non-mathy project that drew from economic theory and legal expertise to analyze relaxing food safety regulations at Oregon farmers’ markets and other direct marketing. More in my wheelhouse.
And then there was the rest of my life. Nora’s epilepsy. Continuing to teach. The joys and responsibilities of being a parent of two lovely children and a partner to Ted, friend, sister, daughter… we are all many things to many people. Let’s not forget that life is more than school/work/career goals. I took a leave of absence from student life while we worked to get Nora’s epilepsy under control. Then came back to student life last year to continue to chip away at my PhD coursework.
This year I had to take on the other big hurdle: PhD microeconomics and another preliminary exam to pass. At the moment of this writing I’m taking a break from doing some PhD microeconomics homework. I’m still in the midst of it. I’m making it. It is stressful and difficult and math-heavy but I’m doing it.
Except that something changed a few weeks ago. Ironically, getting deeper into microeconomics made me reevaluate my decision-making process regarding finishing this PhD. On re-calculation, I realized that it is not rational to finish this. And my heart isn’t in it. Both fronts were moving in the same direction so I went through an exploratory phase in the last three weeks and made a decision to change course.
First the rational part: In microeconomics we learn that we should not make decisions based on sunk costs. It is very human to look at all of our investments of time and energy toward a goal and feel like we are wasting or giving something up. But the definition of “sunk” is that those costs are gone, we can’t get them back, and we should not hold our future hostage to them. Let go of those sunk costs and make a decision based on the present and future costs and benefits. I need to decide if a PhD is in my best interest for my future without regard to the time and energy spent already. And it’s not all lost. I’ve certainly gained a lot from those investments, they just don’t need to turn into more letters behind my name.
The other lesson from microeconomics is that we should make decisions based on opportunity costs. Think of this as trade-offs of our limited resources: We should invest our current time and energy in the activities that gives us the best return on that investment. When I invest my current time and energy in studying, I’m stressed and unable to fully enjoy the time I do have with my kids, Ted, or by myself. And there is precious little time to spend on myself. When the homework, teaching, housework, kid activities, etc., are done, all I have left to do is go to sleep. Thankfully I’m very good about that. At the end of the day, I give up a lot of myself to work toward my PhD and there are many hours, days, months left to go.
From a cold-hard career calculation, I need to decide if that investment today will pay off for me in the future. To do so, I need to also know what kind of a career I can have now, with a JD and MS. I finally went to the OSU human resources website and researched the job classifications that I can have with and without a PhD. I’ve also talked to a lot of friends working here at OSU in various professor-type positions. Turns out that I qualify to be a “Professor of Practice,” a fixed-term (non-tenure track) position for people with professional degrees, such as my JD, mainly involved in teaching and mentoring students at all levels with a smaller part of the appointment going to research and scholarship. It sounds exactly like the teaching job I have been doing for the last 7 years, with better pay, benefits, a title and no studying for tests. My future without a PhD is looking pretty good with that knowledge.
But I had to think about what I could have with a PhD: a tenure-track professorship in applied economics or related field. But here’s the thing: I don’t want a tenure-track professorship. I’ve seen Ted and many friends run that gauntlet. I decided some time ago that the tenure track world was not for me. Running the PhD gauntlet has been enough.
To add to that argument, major universities like OSU do not hire their own grads into tenure-track jobs. It would be an uphill battle that I would be likely to lose, even if I wanted it. Getting the PhD for a shot at a tenure-track job requires moving to another university, which is unlikely to happen within a timeframe that would even put me in the running for such a job. Even if I wanted it. Based on the career opportunity cost calculation, the PhD looks completely unnecessary for me.
Now, on to my heart. I was sitting in microeconomics class one day and realized that I’m just not loving this. I’m doing fine in my classes, but I don’t have a passion for doing economics at a PhD level for a career. I am very practical and applied. My heart (or more specifically, my ego) is into finishing what I start and being called “Dr. Brekken.” Those are things I need to let go of, made slightly easier knowing that I will officially be “Prof. Brekken.” If my heart isn’t in the work, I can’t say that a title and personal achievement is worth the time, stress and lost opportunities of the present.
Many people gave me very good advice: focus on my unique abilities and experience. What do I have to offer this department that other people can’t provide? That’s my legal expertise. It is a necessary part of the education we provide to our undergrad and grads. My classes are full and students enjoy them. I love staying up to date on the latest cases in environmental law, especially those that intersect with agricultural and food issues. Every year I have students who want to go to law school and I am an advisor, mentor, and letter of recommendation writer for them. I’ve spent 7 years doing this work, and I want to focus on it and make it even better. It has taken a backseat to my studies for many years. I keep promising myself that I will update a course, or create better course materials, or write a paper about that interesting aspect that came up in class, but I just can’t do it with tests and homework bearing down on me.
From a career perspective, all of those things that I cannot do while being a student are adding up to huge opportunity costs. Everything I enjoy about teaching in the intersection of law, economics and public policy is a lost opportunity right now.
The good news is that a Professor of Practice job is in the works for me. Contracts have not been signed yet, but my department head told me to write my “dream job description” and we negotiated a great job that fits my life and expertise. I will work 0.8 FTE during the school year and 0.2 FTE in the summer. I will keep teaching my classes and be available to develop new ones in the future. I will be a mentor to our E-campus students in particular. Each year I will be involved with some projects that will fund part of my salary, but they are opportunities that I will choose for myself. Next year I will be updating my Agricultural Law class and working on a farm and ranch succession planning project. Although my contract is technically year-to-year, I plan to continue to make myself indispensible to our department.
When I realized that I didn’t need a PhD to have a fulfilling job that focuses on my strengths and passions, it was a relief. My heart had been feeling it for a long time, but I could not put together a positive vision of a career without it. Now I can and the decision is much easier. I need to keep this positive vision in mind, because it is so easy for me to be swayed by those sunk costs, to feel like I’m giving something up, to not live up to what I (and others) see as my potential. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. It’s time to get off the PhD train and walk away unscathed. It was a good ride, I went a long way, and I’m happy with this destination. I’ll walk from here. Actually, I’ll ride bike from here, I still like the feeling of speed, just a more reasonable speed that is under my control.
P.S. I will still successfully finish the classes I am taking this term, which means I still have a final exam to take on Thursday. But I will not take the microecon preliminary exam the following week. It’s not necessary for the future I’ve made for myself and I can put that down. The kids and I will finish school this week. Welcome summer vacation!