It's been five and half years since I got my degree. Time flies! I've had time to reflect on the pros and cons of a PhD for a while now. I wanted to write about this topic since the day I graduated. But back then I had a very emotional reaction to it and a very cynical opinion. This post wouldn't have been written from a position of detachment and reflection as I can now do. Maybe my future experience will teach me something new. But so far, here's what I've learned about what a PhD is good for and what it is not.
But first, let's dispel some common misconceptions about PhDs.
- A PhD doesn't make you smart (or smarter). There are smart people with PhDs and without it. Likewise, there are dumb people with PhD and dumb people without one. The correlation I've seen and experienced is an absolute zero. And even if there was a small positive correlation it wouldn't have been a causation, but a simple self-selection. You're not smarter than anyone because you have a PhD. Get over it.
- You don't make more money with a PhD. Most employers treat a PhD for what it is: 5 years of experience. If you have nothing else to show for but a PhD degree, it's roughly equivalent to having worked somewhere for 5 years. I've seen full professors get paid the same as people with two years of experience and a masters or people with just one or two years of experience with great accomplishments. So, if you go for a PhD, make it count and choose a job that can leverage your experience. It won't help much to have a PhD in network routing if you're going to be developing front ends for web applications.
- A PhD doesn't make you a theoretical person. Contrary to what some critics of PhDs claim, this is not true. Here again I've seen both types, theoretical people with and without a PhD and vice-versa. There's definitely a small bias, but it's not automatic and not all theoretical types are bad. More on this a little below.
Two Reasons To Get a PhD
Inevitably, every time I try to categorize things in coarse "buckets" I get it wrong or forget the corner cases. So, at the risk of over-generalizing and pissing some people off, here are the only two reasons I can think of why anyone should go for a PhD:
- You want to become a professor.
- You want to study some topic or acquire some skill that you can't get otherwise.
Number 1 is clear. You can't be an university professor without a PhD, so you need to seek to get one first. The degree will teach you all you need to know about being a professor except for the teaching part, which is kind of surprising and sad, but it's true, knowing how to teach is optional. But if you want to do research and advise students on how to do research, that's the way to go. End of story.
Number 2 is not so obvious. The other reason to get a PhD is to learn something very specific that you can't learn by reading on you own, interacting with others in your job or from jobs leading up to the job you aspire. The truth is that jobs don't really teach you anything, people do (mentors, colleagues and sometimes good managers). And finding people who know and do the stuff you want to know and do sometimes requires going to school for a PhD. If you can find these mentors at jobs, get a job and try to learn from them. If not, the PhD is an option.
Now, I hear you scream: what if I want to become a researcher? Isn't that a reason to get a PhD?
My answer is no. You can get that by doing a masters and focusing on the research process itself instead of focusing on the actual results of the research or the degree. Two years under a good professor will teach you all you need to know to become a good researcher. The rest of the time spent on a PhD is time practicing and re-learning the same lessons.
What PhD Schools Should Do
If you want to change the world, start a company. If you want to deploy your great and revolutionary idea, find a way to make that into a product or service and start a company. Rarely will the results of your research become a great product, great new technology or a company. And that's because most schools and most advisors focus on publishing papers, not on turning great ideas into great businesses. They are focusing on reason number one above, turning you into a professor.
What universities should do is foster an environment where great talent and great ideas and inventions can be turned into usable technology. Some great schools do that. I'm sure there are good companies that were created as a result of great ideas from any university. But it's not consistent. I truly believe most ideas and efforts are wasted during PhDs. Not every idea or research topic can become a business, but I'm sure a lot more could and aren't because professors and universities are not spending enough time and effort into making this happen.
Here are a few simple things universities can do to encourage more businesses to be created out of their PhD programs:
- Offer an assortment of entrepreneurial classes. Make at least one required for all PhD programs.
- Have incubators. Make it a requirement that every PhD candidate apply for it. Most won't be selected, but if all applied, a lot more good stuff would come out.
- Have a business panel read or scan technical reports, papers and research grants being produced by their departments. If professors and students can't recognize a monetizable idea, maybe some business folks could. Pay them to keep an eye on your academic production.
- Make it easy for dropouts to get their degrees if they quit to launch companies. Many people fear leaving the PhD program early to start companies because they think their efforts towards their PhD will be wasted. If schools made it a little easier to graduate after proving a research point with a company, maybe more people would try starting companies. I have no doubt Larry Page and Sergey Brin deserve PhDs. Give them their PhDs and maybe other folks like them won't fear taking the same entrepreneurial path 4 years into their research.
What A PhD Is Good For
So far I've made it seem like knowing someone has a PhD doesn't help much. But it can actually help in one specific area: hiring.
A PhD is a great hiring tool. But in some twisted ways.
If I'm hiring a person, I like to use the fact that they have a PhD to quickly categorize them into two broad buckets (and again, I apologize for the generalizations, but I've found this works remarkably well).
Generally speaking, there are two types of PhD people:
- The ones who persevere.
- The ones who procrastinate.
As I said before, there are smart people and dumb people and one can't separate them by whether they have a PhD or not. But the PhD is still a great filtering tool because at the end of the tunnel, there are only these two types and it's relatively easy to tell them apart. I explain.
In general, getting a PhD is a long and arduous process. Many people decide it's not for them early in the game and go do something else. Some go all the way to the end. At the end, there these two types.
The ones who persevered and surpassed all obstacles. They worked hard because they really wanted to get that PhD. They made a point of finishing, no matter how hard it was. These are the survivors. They persist on almost every situation. You should hire these.
And then there are the ones who simply were not too bothered to quit and liked the lifestyle. I call these the "eternal students". They simply were comfortable being poor, living in dorms or in a closet in someone else's home and didn't see the need to look for a real job or do any work of meaningful substance. Eating cold pizza was enough for these non-ambitious types. They probably didn't care to have a social life or if they did they were happy to renew their friends every couple of years when they graduated. They probably complained about everyone and everything ("they system" they'd say, was against them).They just lingered around long enough until the university or their professors threatened to expel them. They're not necessarily dumb types, they're just comfortable doing close to nothing. And this is the key to avoiding hiring them.
So, how do you tell them apart?
Generally speaking the procrastinators, unambitious types won't have anything practical to show for. They typically haven't accomplished anything of value other than having published a few papers or book chapters (and they typically co-author papers mostly).
They are the ones who point faults in any idea and who claim that project X or concept Y is not worthy because it's not challenging enough. In computer science these are the types who claim that they are too good to code, that they're above and beyond these mundane tasks that "any college freshman could do" (and rest assured they themselves could not).
You'll hear them say that you shouldn't waste their talents and knowledge on trivial tasks such as writing code, debugging or testing. That they're best suited for generating ideas (which they inevitably have none) and working on "challenging projects" (whatever that means).
Ask them questions and they'll probably answer them satisfactorily. Ask them to do stuff and they'll probably come up with excuses. There are the theoretical folks I talked about earlier. Put enough of these together and they'll find creative ways of proving why something can't be done, just as they watch others do it. Or they design solutions so complex and over-engineered that no one can ever implement. They boast about their degree and insist on listing "PhD" after their names and a comma on their resumes and business cards.
So, there you have it: My full discourse on getting a PhD, why and when to do it, what can be made of people who have it and common misconceptions. All of that with the full power of hindsight and experience with having worked with hundreds of people who have it and hundreds who don't.
I hope this was useful in some way or another. Please comment below and let me know if you find it useful, if you disagree, or if you think I missed or overlooked something. Just be nice in case I offended you in anyway.