A Fresh PhD’s Career Decision Tree

Given that Yannick and I stayed in graduate school for such a long time, we made many friends who got PhD’s in various fields–economics, business, engineering, science… Some went for academic career and are already titled professors; some are still struggling for their tenure; some went to industry and become millionaires from IPOs; some got laid off and came back to school. And those fresh ones, seeing footsteps from their senior fellows, feel confused. They seek help, from advisors and professors, from fellow PhD students, from friends, from families. And the truth is: the more people they ask, the more information they gather, the more difficult the decision becomes.

After our discussion with mOOm about the value of a graduate degree and seeing the struggle many of our friends are facing, I decided to draw a decision tree to help people go through the process. This is, by no means, a replacement for advice from an academic advisor, or your career development help center. This is just my little game to find out whether what I learned in textbook can really find some use in real life.

I am not an engineering and science major, but I find PhDs in engineering and science often face a more complicated choices. They can choose to do a post-doctoral fellowship, just like residency for MD. People from economics or business school normally do not have to go through this. So I decided to draw a decision tree for Sisi, a fresh PhD from science and engineering.

Sisi got her PhD in applied math from a top school. As a fresh PhD, Sisi does have some options, and that’s exactly what she and her family are struggling with.
(1) She can get an assistant professor position in a 2nd or 3rd tier university right now, which pays about $60-80k.
(2) She can work in the industry, which pays six figures right away.
(3) She can wait for another year or two as a post-doc fellow, and shoot for a faculty position in a1st tier university.

Here is a very Simplified version of a pseudo-decision-tree.

Two main reasons make this tree “pseudo”. First, Sisi is struggling with assigning probabilities to each branch. What’s the probability of getting unemployed in 2 years? Sisi had a friend who joined a very big and profitable company 2 years ago, and come back to school now due to company re-structure. What’s probability of building a successful business of her own? Go to any bar in Silicon valley any day, Sisi will find 1/2 of people there dreaming of building another google, or at least a youtube. But we had only one Google, one youtube. Sisi believes that she has a technical edge to build his own business, but how can she assign a probability on this?

Second, Sisi puts only monetary value in stead of utility on each node. What makes this decision even more complicated is that Sisi and her family assign different utility to each outcome. Sisi’s husband wants her to go to a 2nd -3rd tier schools, so she can has less pressure and get a baby soon. He also puts higher utility on going to industry, since he has the same dream as a valley girl and wants Sisi to join him.

However, as a female who window-shops designer clothing from time to time, Sisi puts higher utility on “brand names”. Practically speaking, option-3 is the least ‘economical one. Doing a post-doc costs another 2-3 years with minimum pay. After that, if she gets to a 1st tier university, the pay is generally lower than 2nd tier university. Top universities always have higher bargaining power, in accepting students, in recruiting faculty. However, how many 1st tier universities can you find? Supply and demand determine the price. If Sisi wants to get the brand equity of 1st tier universities, Sisi has to pay the premium. Sisi is ready to pay for it, her husband is still hesitating.

And as a female, Sisi puts higher utility on security (on this part, Sisi is not alone ). Getting tenure in whatever university will give Sisi’s family low but guaranteed income and legal status. As immigrants without a green card, Sisi’s first priority is: Security! Security!! Security!!!

Still, the problem of assigning probability remains. I know that many fresh PhDs are facing Sisi’s decision tree. In fact, many friends of ours are on the same boat right now. Assigning these probabilities requires experience, across time, across people. I hope that senior readers who have experienced all these can help Sisi fill in the probability in the tree. If we can get a large sample, the law of large number will work for us.



Emergency fund? How much?

Moom started his Asset Allocation Series. So I guess it is not surprising for him to write about Emergency Fund (EF), and introduced us to English Major Money’s (EMM) post. This was also our first time to participate in Carnival with a post on getting more tax returns for international students. I happened to find a controversial post by “Broke Now, Rick Later” (BNRL) in the Carnival. So I will share my thoughts here.

First, no emergency fund needed? I have to say that I admire BNRL’s courage. For a single-income household with 2 kids and a mortgage to pay, he has extremely low liquidity of $282. And he was advocating NO emergency fund needed. Make no mistake, he is stacking away 20% of his income in retirement savings, which is unlikely to be ready available for emergency. So he is trading his emergency fund as extra investments in retirement account. Before reading his post, I thought there were few people as described in moom’s comment. Now I think that there might be quite a few.

BNRL has 50% income to cover monthly necessities and 20% for retirement account. Considering tax withholdings and other expenses, the remaining 30% is unlikely to have any significant portion left. BNRL argued that you can always count on 0% APR installment payment combined with a delay in payment to pull the cash you need from either your salary or disability income. However, he maybe forgot that sometimes, “when it rains, it pours”. What if there were two or three unexpected on his list on going at the same time?

Second, how much emergency fund do you need? I stand by the standard recommendation of 3-6 month expense and suggest everyone to look at his/her own situation like EMM did. The amount will depend on both your needs and your risk attitude.
Needs (expenses): take a look at the monthly necessary expense. For renters like Jacqui and I, ours is less than 20% of our gross income. Two months’ salary gets us covered for a year.
Risk attitude (or personal preference): remember, everyone get unlucky some day in life. That’s why we’re paying for health and car insurance. I am very conservative, thus, may want to insure for situations of very small probability, say three or four unfortunate incidents happening at the same time; you may be more optimistic and want to just insure up to two. However, you really do not want to have no or poor preparations for them as they do happen.

Last, I think having an EF is one necessary step for anyone to get started on investment and retirement savings. I will share my experience later.

Cooking skills and personal finance.

Just read my money blog (MMB) expenses. As a housewife, the first thing I noticed is grocery spending. MMB’s budget for grocery is $300, dining out is $250. Last year, our budget for grocery was a poor $250. I hit budget several times, which made me very unhappy. I consider myself a deal shopper, which is one of the attributes of a “good” housewife (my definition). When MS Money showed that I always hit budget for grocery shopping, I felt… hurt!!!

So I negotiated with Yannick to increase the grocery budget to $300 this year. I know this is a little like “cheating”, but at that time, psychologically, I really need it.

Now, reading MMB, I just found a new solution to solve the budget problem. Our dining out expense is almost zero! I am attributing this to my successful grocery shopping — I do not just shop for deals, I shop for deals of good quality products. I feed Yannick with premium food from organic food store, so he does not want to dine out any more!

I presented this argument to Yannick immediately, and got an instant budget re-allocation approval– we will allocate $100 out of our $150 dining out budget to my grocery shopping! Now, I will always spend below budget. “Exceed expectation”, that’s the review I want to get for my work!

My next mission–improve my cooking skills. I heard that many famous chefs actually used very common ingredients — such as Heinz ketchup, Morton salt…Why can’t I? Someday, I want to hear Yannick saying: “I would rather have Jacqui’s cabbage soup than Arby’s roasted beef burger” (he sometimes indicates that he wants to go to Wendy’s, but dismissed by me for “health” reasons. 🙂

Improving cooking is one of the most rewarding investments a housewife can make: it keeps the family stay at home, it keeps the family healthy, it keeps the family money in the investment account grow… it keeps the whole family happy!

Carnival of Personal Finance

Check out this week’s Carnival of Personal Finance, where you’ll find a collection of articles from variouis PF blogs. Some interesting ones are:

Visit the Carnival’s homepage you are surely to be benefited “financialy”.

What investments to hold in your IRA?

What investments to hold in your IRA?

I wrote a post to recommend Roth IRA earlier. Another article The Best Investments for Your IRA let me recall a class I took.

I took a PhD level tax class cross-listed in the finance department two years ago. I’ve forgotten most things learned in the class, since it’s pretty theoretical. However, sometimes the professor discussed some very practical questions at the request of the students. Think finance or economics PhD students are all financially savvy? Some students didn’t know what IRA was and asked this question to the professor.

There is no absolute answer. The common wisdom is to hold bonds and CDs in tax sheltered account since dividends and interests are usually not deferrable and taxed as ordinary income’s higher marginal rate. On the other hand, a buy-and-hold strategy for stock investments could defer the capital gain from price appreciation almost forever, which is much more tax efficient (same effect as a 401K type of tax deferment without employer matching). As a famous example, Warren Buffet argues that dividend is much worse to a shareholder than stock price appreciation, thus Berkshire Hathaway does not distribute any dividends despite being one the most profitable companies in the world.

However, some people argue that stocks should be kept in tax sheltered account because the expected annualized return for stocks is much higher than savings and bonds over the long term (>20 years). Given same contributions, stocks grow much faster. Therefore, this strategy gives more assets the tax benefit. This strategy makes even better sense for Roth IRA, since its future earning is tax-free, not tax deferred.

Assuming you have a portfolio of $10,000 bonds and $10000 stocks, with a marginal tax bracket of 33% (including both Federal and state income tax). The long term annualized return of bonds and stocks are 6% and 9% respectively. Compare strategy 1 of holding bonds in Roth, and stocks in regular account, and strategy 2 the opposite, what’s the outcome in 30 years? To simplify, let’s assume a passive stock investment using a highly tax-efficient ETF on market index, with 0.5% taxed on capital gain and dividends annually. Capital gains and dividends are reinvested.

Strategy 1 = 10000*1.06^30+10000*((1.085^30-1)*0.67+1) = 57.4K+80.7K=138.1K
Strategy 2 = 10000*1.09^30+10000*1.04^30 = 132.6K+32.4K = 165.1K

So keeping stocks in Roth IRA will win (Strategy 2). There are a few caveats on this conclusion:
This conclusion relies upon the 3% difference in annualized return between stocks and bonds. If as some authors have argued in their books that the future difference between the rate of return of stocks and bonds are about the same at 6-7%, you should hold bonds in Roth, and use a buy-and-hold strategy to defer taxes on capital gains from stock price appreciations.
The stock investment strategy is also critical. If we assume that the difference in the rates of return of the two are not that large, however, if you really trade your stocks frequently, then it’s still advantageous to keep your stocks in Roth.
I also learned both in class and from my experience how tax policy exerted distortion in your trading decision. I had hold stocks just to get the long-term capital-gain tax rate even though the market condition for that stock had turned south. If you want pure undistorted trading decision for yourself, hold stocks in Roth. On the other hand, you lose the leverage on claiming loss on your trades as well.

I hold stocks in my Roth and have done some trading. I really love the tax-free capital gains. Roth IRA is really a very powerful tool for us to catch up.

I only discussed bonds versus stocks. People have used IRA holding to buy futures, options, land contracts etc., which enable them to have larger leverage and gain larger tax-free earnings. However, if you are old enough to believe no free lunch, you will probably want to think about the risk carefully before shooting for the “big gain”.

Any questions and comments?

Win a free 2006 TaxCut Premium with e-file by sharing your tax filing experience

Our dear readers:

Thank you for visiting our blog. Yannick and I shared our tax filing experience on various topics such as filing as a non-resident alien or resident alien, claiming tax treaty benefits after becoming a resident alien for international students, an unpleasant experience with encrypted pdf tax forms, contributing to a 2006 Roth IRA and most recently how to deal with incomes from two states as a double-income couple.

Now here is the fun part. Someone from TaxCut came across my last post and thought my sharing was good. He has kindly given me a free coupon code to download a copy of TaxCut Premium (Federal + State + efile) , retail value of $64.99. I have no use of it and will give it away to one lucky reader through a lottery.

Here is how to enter the lottery:
You can either
1. Comment on this post and leave your email and nickname to enter the lottery for one chance to win,
or better yet, 2. share your tax filing method (manual, TaxCut, Turbo Tax, Turbo Tax+Quicken, or TaxCut+MS Money like us) to double your chance to win,
or the best, 3. share with us your experience briefly on how well the approach works for three times your chance to win.
You can enter the lottery before Noon Sunday (03/25) PT and the winner will be announced by Sunday night.

How to decide the winner:
Each entry will be assigned to 1, 2 or 3 unique numbers sequentially starting from 0. I will use a random number generator to generate a winner from the above numbers.

We were really satisfied with the TaxCut interview process and how seamless it generated 1040, Schedule A, B, Ds after pulling data out of MS Money. We are curious about how well the other approaches work.

Questions and comments? Good luck!!!

Free 2006 TaxCut Premium with e-file at latestartersblog.com!

Please enter a lottery before Noon Sunday (03/25) PT, for a free download of TaxCut Premium (Federal + State + efile) , retail value of $64.99. at my other web site: http://www.latestartersblog.com. I have only one copy to give away, thus, it’s only hosted there.

Good luck!