Why Get a Ph.D.?

Occasionally professors wear suits on the job.

Someone once told me that he got his Ph.D. so that his job would never involve having to wear a suit or being at work by 9 a.m.  The statement is interesting for a couple of reasons.  On the one hand, the statement captures the career autonomy that having a Ph.D. can afford.  On the other, in my experience, the statement appears to be false.  Since finishing my Ph.D., I have sometimes needed to arrive at work well before 9 a.m., and below is a photo of me in a suit as proof that I didn’t manage to avoid that fate, either (in fairness, I don’t have to wear a suit very often, but the need sometimes arises).

What is a Ph.D.?

As new students arrive on campus this week, it’s a good time to discuss the nature of the journey that many Ph.D. students are about to begin.  It is not really possible to describe exactly what the Ph.D. experience will be like, since every Ph.D. program is different and, more importantly, everyone’s Ph.D. experience is quite personal.  Nevertheless, I wanted to write a little bit about what the Ph.D. is, some good reasons to get a Ph.D., and some good reasons not to get a Ph.D.

  • A degree signifying expertise (and experience). The Ph.D. acts as a signal to others that you have been through the particular process of writing a dissertation.  The process of creating knowledge and codifying it so that others can learn from your discoveries is something that every Ph.D. graduate goes through.  It signifies that you have acquired a particular skill set, hopefully involving the ability to identify important problems that are worth solving, a particular set problem solving skills, creativity, and the ability to clearly communicate your ideas.  It signifies that you have been through a unique process of creating new knowledge (see below).  If you wonder why certain employers favor Ph.D. graduates even when the job description does not involve research, this is one particular reason why.
  • An opportunity for a certain lifestyle. When I was a graduate student, I always thought that I had the best job in the world (the pay notwithstanding).  Perhaps being a postdoc is the best job in the world, because it has all of the perks of being a Ph.D. student, with considerably better pay.  As a graduate student (or postdoc), you have a unique opportunity to work on whatever problems you find interesting.  And, unlike your advisor, you can work on only one or two things at once and dive deep into those problems, hopefully unearthing new discoveries.  The autonomy that a life in research brings and the ability to work at the limits of your own creativity and ambition are rare privileges that many people do not enjoy in life.  Throughout life, you will meet many people who are unhappy in their jobs.  I can honestly say that I have never dreaded a day of work, and even though professors work very hard, you will be hard-pressed to find a professor who does not like his or her job.  I’m not sure I’ve met one.  I believe the reason for this is that we have jobs that never get boring, and if we are bored, we really have only ourselves to blame, since we can work on whatever we choose.  Being a professor carries certain perks over being a postdoc (e.g., more cachet, more autonomy, more pay), but it also brings with it more responsibility, more committees, and more work that can distract from research.  Despite the fact that professors often have three or more jobs (e.g., teaching, research, committees, and other service work), we are generally a very happy bunch.
  • A process.  As I mentioned above, the Ph.D. is a process of creating knowledge.  For the first time in your life, you have a chance to work on a problem that nobody has ever worked on before.  The answers are certainly not in a textbook, and the problem itself may not even be written down anywhere.  You are working at the frontier of human knowledge and understanding and trying to bump that frontier just a little bit further out.  The process of creating knowledge can be lonely and frightening, but many people (myself included) find it very exciting.  When you embark on a new project, you often have no idea what you will find, or whether what you are doing will even work.  The only thing you can be reasonably sure of is that you will learn something.  If that sounds exciting to you, you will probably enjoy the Ph.D.  If working outside the lines without someone telling you what to do and without a clear path to a known end goal makes you uncomfortable, you may find that the Ph.D. is not for you.

What can you do with a Ph.D.?

Academia. Although many people might assume that the main career path after gaining a Ph.D. is to become a professor, the truth of the matter is that most Ph.D. graduates do not become professors.  Yet, having a Ph.D. opens a wealth of opportunities.  Having been through the process I described above gives you an important set of skills that not many other people have acquired through such a long process.  Thus, a tenure-track faculty position is really only one possibility for post-graduate employment.  Many other employers are looking for the skill set that a Ph.D. graduate has acquired.  As a Ph.D. graduate, you have the unique opportunity to become research faculty, or faculty at a teaching university or college.  In fact, the main reason I decided to get my Ph.D. was because I deeply admired my undergraduate university professors and I wanted to emulate them—I thought I would like teaching, and I wanted to teach at the university level.  As I went down the path of getting my Ph.D., I discovered that I loved research as much, if not more, than teaching.  (In fact, I believe that research and teaching are extremely closely related to one another.  More on that in a later post.)

Industrial research labs. In addition to ensconcing yourself in the ivory tower, you can get a job at an industrial research lab (e.g., Microsoft Research).  A job at an industrial research lab often affords much of the autonomy of being a researcher in academia, although there are a few important differences.  One of the main differences is that you are not teaching courses on a regular basis.  Some consider this to be a bonus, as teaching is a significant time commitment; some believe that it disrupts their ability to do research.  On the other hand, I love teaching and I believe that the process of teaching (transferring knowledge) has an important feedback loop with research (creating knowledge), and I think I would really miss teaching if I were in a research lab.  Another important difference is that you are mainly working with your peers (other Ph.D. graduates, often within your own discipline), as opposed to working with a group of apprentices (i.e., your own students) and peers from other areas of computer science and even other disciplines.  Finally, another difference is that you typically do not have to apply for funding when you are working in an industrial research lab.  Many people do not like writing proposals and consider this a bonus.  I personally like writing proposals and consider it part of the research process—writing a proposal is the “planning” stage of research, where you outline a multi-year story and try to convince others that what you want to work on is a frontier of knowledge worth pursuing.  I view proposal writing as a useful tool to make sure that I’m not gaining tunnel vision and merely working “paper to paper”.  Others may find this process burdensome and find a job in an industrial lab more appealing.  Still, it is worth remembering that autonomy does not come for free: someone is paying for it.  If you are not writing the proposals to bring in the funding to determine what you are working on, someone else is bringing in that funding and ultimately may have some sway over what you can work on.  Many times, I have seen industrial research labs having to align their research projects with business units; sometimes the research labs are ultimately swallowed by the business units entirely (or worse, eliminated).  This is less of a danger at well-established research labs, but it can happen even there.

Government research labs. In addition to research jobs, another track you can pursue is a job at national government labs, which are like industrial research labs in some sense but receive their funding from the government, rather than the private sector.  Sometimes, government research work ends up being classified and difficult to publish, but sometimes it is not.  And, many people can find it exciting to work on classified projects.  I wouldn’t know much about this, as I don’t have a security clearance, although we have collaborated on one classified project before (which was an interesting process, since we were contributing to a classified project without being privy to the classified information).

A company of your own. In addition, you can start a company. Google began from Stanford’s Digital Library research project, for example.  Of course, Sergey Brin and Larry Page never finished their Ph.D.  You may find that this path turns out to be right for you.  Sometimes people say that you should work on your second-best idea for your Ph.D. and save the best one for your startup.  I think you should always be working on your best idea, for better ones are probably yet to come.  Needless to say, many startup ideas have come out of the Ph.D. process, and many of the skills acquired during the Ph.D. (creativity, working with uncertainty, communicating ideas, etc.) do transfer well to entrepreneurship.

What a Ph.D. is Not

A chance to take more classes. Some people enter the Ph.D. program as a chance to take more classes.  I have heard of cases of students getting bachelor’s degrees in other areas while completing their Ph.D. in computer science.  This is ridiculous; it is not what you come for, and if your advisor finds out you are doing this, he or she will likely not be pleased.  If you want to take more classes and get another degree, you should just go do that.  The research will be a distraction from your main goal.  I tend to encourage my students to complete their coursework as quickly as possible so that they can focus on research.

A “meanwhile” activity. If you enter a Ph.D. program simply because you do not like the “real world” or the thought of having a “real job”, or because you liked school but can’t figure out what you’d like to do with your life, you will almost certainly strongly dislike your Ph.D. experience, and you will probably not succeed.  A Ph.D. is not well defined.  There are no assignments and checklists.  There is no “homework” in the traditional sense.  Although you have an advisor whose job it is to guide you along your path, the path you take in your Ph.D. is ultimately deeply personal, and it is driven by your passions and interests (or lack thereof).  If you do not have a strong passion or the initiative to carry through your Ph.D. to completion, you will find the process to be very painful.  Your success (or failure) ultimately rests on your shoulders.

It is worth mentioning that obtaining the Ph.D. presents a serious financial opportunity cost.  For five (or more) years, you will be making about 20% of what your peers are making in industry out of college.  Furthermore, you will miss out of five years of raises and promotions on top of that higher salary that you could have been already making.  Ultimately, fifteen or twenty years later, you might close this gap, when you become a tenured professor and consulting and startup opportunities present themselves in abundance (should you decide that you want to spend your time on that).  Until then, unless you happen to be one of the fortunate few whose Ph.D. leads to the next breakthrough startup, you should plan on being financially set back from your friends and acquaintances who are in industry.  That is not to say that you will experience those setbacks, but if your goal is to become wealthy quickly, a Ph.D. is probably not the right career path for you.

A Personal Choice

Obtaining a Ph.D. is a deeply personal experience.  Your advisor will make sure that you are making progress (if he or she is doing the job well), but ultimately it is up to you to shape your experience.  To do well in the Ph.D. program, you need the passion for creating new knowledge and the tenacity to push your visions through to conclusions when the going gets tough.  Many people love the Ph.D. process.  For me, it was one of the best experiences in my life, and it has certainly shaped everything I’ve done going forward.  I would recommend it to anyone who shares many of the same attributes and goals that I have.  But, it’s also important to realize that the Ph.D. is not for everyone.  It might even take you some time and experience going through the process to realize that the Ph.D. is not for you; that is also perfectly alright.  There is absolutely no stigma in avoiding further sunk costs; at any time, you should be setting yourself on a path that gives you the best opportunities for success and happiness.  I hope these thoughts have helped you determine whether the Ph.D. is that path for you, but ultimately, it is difficult to know for sure until you have been through (or at least tried) the process yourself.