PhD Student Perspective: The Sunk Costs of a PhD

selective focus photo of stacked coins

Written by Dominique Martin

Finishing up the third year of a dual PhD/MBA, I find myself reflecting more often on the decisions and life events that brought me here. I am both astonished that I made it this far and dreading the fact that I still have a few more years of graduate school to go. It’s becoming harder and harder to explain to my family why I still have homework at 27 years old or why I don’t have a “real” job. Being a graduate student and seeing your peers and friends moving on with their lives can be difficult, and I find myself envious of those with more established careers and more settled lives. 

In one of my MBA classes, I learned about the sunk cost effect, a phenomenon that hit a little too close to home. The sunk cost effect describes people’s tendency to follow through on an endeavor (such as a PhD) if they have already invested time, effort, or money into it, even when the current costs outweigh the benefits. As a third year PhD candidate, I realize how much the sunk cost effect has impacted my decision to not only pursue but stick out grad school. All the costs and sacrifices that went into graduate school come to mind, and I often wonder if it’s all worth it. 

My path to a PhD was not exactly linear. I started out as a naïve undergrad convinced that I wanted to go to vet school. However, after interning with a few vets, realizing that vet school was not the path for me, and deciding I did not want to bury myself in $200,000 of debt, I was left unsure about my future. During my junior year of undergrad, I became involved in research and realized I enjoyed the lab work and research environment. Unsure of what I wanted to do next, I approached my undergraduate research mentor early in my senior year asking for advice. She knew about my decision to give up my dream of becoming a vet and instead offered me the opportunity to stay as a master’s student in her lab.

I went straight into a master’s after undergrad, not really looking into other programs or considering a PhD. During my time as a master’s student I was offered the chance to convert to a PhD track. I turned this opportunity down for a variety of reasons including not being in love with the project as well as worrying that doing all my degrees in the same lab would hinder my career choices going forward. Instead, I chose to complete the master’s in Animal Science and take a year to work in as a lab manager before deciding to go back and get a PhD. When applying to PhD programs I transitioned away from Animal Science and applied to Biomedical Science programs, wanting to focus on more translational research. 

Now, three years into a PhD in Biomedical Science, I often wonder if I made the right decision when I decided to not convert my master’s. I would have already been done with both degrees and in the beginning stages of a career. At the start of my PhD, I was told by my program that having a master’s would cut down the number of classes I had to take and make my time to graduation shorter. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If anything, I took more courses than needed and my time to completion has not been impacted at all. Although I got valuable training during my master’s that made the transition into a PhD program seamless, I think about the sunk costs of deciding to tack on another degree. 

Graduate school has been a time of immense growth for me, and with that comes growing pains. Not only did I switch fields, I joined an immunology lab despite having little experience in the subject. I love the lab I’m in and am passionate about translational aging immunology research. However, switching research fields so drastically definitely made things harder, and on top of that I pursued a dual MBA. I still am playing catch up and often have bouts of imposter syndrome, questioning if I’m truly cut out for this field. I’m also facing many of the challenges grad students have to deal with on a daily basis such as financial insecurity, department politics, failed experiments, and wondering when I will actually be finished with my degree. I’ve put years into this program and sometimes question if it was worth the effort, sacrifice, and sunk costs. 

Despite the sunk costs of graduate school, I appreciate all that I’ve gained. I’ve gained independence as a researcher, a group of peers and mentors, and invaluable training. My research interests definitely took a pivot, but that has made me a more well-rounded scientist. Although the path has been filled with challenges, setbacks, and hurdles, I have learned and grown along the way. Even knowing there are a few more years to go, I look forward to sticking this out, sinking in some more time, and seeing where the journey takes me. 

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