A professional mom named “Abigail” wrote me in the throes of deciding whether to leave her corporate career for an academic one. Here’s a piece of her letter:
I need advice on a career transition. I am in an opposite situation than many of your readers. I’d like to leave the corporate world and pursue a PhD and an academic career. My biggest concern is that I’m 29 (30 in two months), married with a family, and well-established as a professional mechanical engineer. My question for you is this: How can I soundly evaluate this career choice? I feel like I’m insane to want to do this. I don’t know anyone who has left a well-paying career to go back to school full-time.
Abigail then went on to list eight answers to her own question, “why do I think this is a good choice?” — including her belief that research is her true calling, her love of school, and her thoughts that her personality is well-suited for academia and that the timing could work with school-aged kids. She also listed ten answers to her own query, “why do I question the choice?” — such as strain on finances and her marriage, “failing” at academia or hating it and returning to corporate work, and being too old.
So, here is my response to this thought-filled letter:
First of all, Abigail, to answer your question about how to soundly evaluate this career choice: Put on your researcher hat and get to it!
As with any career transition, you want to talk to anyone you can in the field (in your case, current PhD students and former PhD students — both with and without the final degree), professors and researchers. Use friends and family for connections, use the Internet and grad program web pages. Make office or phone appointments with professors. Treat some grad students to tea. Ask them about their experiences and daily life. Call up doctoral program coordinators and ask to sit in on some graduate seminars. Immerse yourself in this career possibility and see how it feels when you have more real information to go on.
Even filling out the applications is a good exercise in exploring what PhD work is all about and how the transition really feels. (In my case, the process of researching programs and filling out several apps led me to realize that I needed another year of working in my corporate job and saving money before I was ready to make the leap; then, the next year it felt more right and I proceeded successfully.)
Check out books such as Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. by Robert Peters, and The Ph.D. Process: A Student's Guide to Graduate School in the Sciences by Bloom, Karp and Cohen. (It’s also worth checking out The Real Guide to Grad School: What You Better Know Before You Choose by Clark and Palettella — written for humanities and social sciences but has useful tips for anyone considering a PhD.) Log on to Next Wave  and read about grad student and postdoc life in the physical sciences. Read IHE (as you obviously do, good start!) and other higher ed publications to get a feel for real life and real-life issues in academe.
You can also work with a career coach or get some books to research yourself more — i.e., clarify your own personality/career fit a bit further. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (search Amazon; there are several books with MBTI tests) and Type Focus  tests are good ones to take. And check out some of the books mentioned in my May 11 post  and following reader comments. This self-assessment work can help you feel more solid in your decision, and learn to self-evaluate as you go forward and continue to make career decisions.
Secondly, to address some of your reasons and doubts: There are many people who leave corporate jobs for academia. Both my parents did, with small children. I did, at 28, with marriage and family still only on the horizon for me. You are actually in a better position, already having gotten through the intense baby/toddler years, to balance parenting and academic work. Studies show women most often drop out when they begin having children early in their academic careers; you’re past that stage.
As for age, the University of Chicago recently awarded a doctorate to a 79-year-old man. My dad completed his PhD at age 36 alongside a nearly 70-year-old classmate, who went on to have a happy, fulfilling 17-year career as a professor until he passed away from cancer last year (teaching, because he loved it, up until a few days before his death). Twenty-nine is not too old to change, or to start a PhD. Starting at 28, I was in the middle of the age range in both of my doctoral programs.
Lastly, as for the prospect of trying it and discovering it’s not for you — well, hopefully doing more research will help you make a more informed decision. But, more importantly, it is simply not a failure in my book if trying it leads you to something else (back to corporate or on to something you’ve never even thought of) that makes you feel fulfilled and satisfied with your work. Isn’t that the whole point?
Be it academia or another path, Abigail, it sounds like you are looking for something different in your career. So, why not get serious in your looking and see where it leads you? Whether you apply or not, stay forever or not, it’s time to get our of your questioning mind and get out there and research some answers to help choose your next step and move forward. All the best to you!
Wishing You Your Own Vision of Success,
P.S. As always, I invite and welcome reader comments on this post, and reader questions at firstname.lastname@example.org