I will finish my Master degree in electrical engineering (in Germany) soon, but at the moment I am quite unsure about my future after that. Quite some of my fellow students just joined the institutes of the university whose professors supervised their Master's Theses. There they will work as assistants of the professor and go for the PhD. I have to do an industrial internship during the next months to finish my Master. After that, I would have the opportunity to join my institute as PhD candidate as well (I know that because one of my friends already told me that they are looking for staff at the moment). Now I am stuck with the decision whether to go for a PhD or to start working in the industry. Usually I really enjoy research and solving problems while exploring some new topics, like I did in my Master's Thesis. But when I think back to the time of my thesis, there were several problems and "wrong" results (that partly contradicted theory, like wrong simulations) that caused a lot of frustration. Back then, it took half a year to write my thesis, but a German PhD in engineering will take 5-6 years. To be honest, I was really relieved when this half year of writing the Master's Thesis was over and I achieved to submit a really good thesis. Another thing that discourages me is the way that scientists seem to work these days: The university/faculty/professor wants you to publish at least one paper during a certain period of time. But that contradicts my vision of science: You should publish papers if you discovered something new or at least relevant in a field of study, not because some schedule tells you to. My supervisor at work (who has a PhD) told me that you should never go for a PhD just for having the title or having better career options. He said that you should truly enjoy research because those 5 or 6 years will be a very tough and often frustrating time. If you lack the passion of research you should not go for it. I am quite clueless at the moment. My basic goal in life is to be happy in general, not necessarily obtaining the highest educational degree. I really do not know if I have the frustration tolerance to find joy in these 5-6 years of doing a PhD.

Long story short: Which advice would you give any Master graduate who is facing the choice of whether he should start an industrial career or go for a PhD? Can you provide some experiences of your time as PhD candidate? Which questions would you see as most important to be answered to make this decision?

Best regards!

  • 1
    What are your ideas about an industry career? – Patricia Shanahan Mar 25 '18 at 23:25
  • I am in a different field and live in the US, so this may not be completely relevant, but I tell everyone who asks about doing PhD to consider the following: pursuing a PhD is a significant financial set back, and it drastically reduces your career opportunities – stochastic Mar 25 '18 at 23:33
  • @stochastic In Germany this is better. During your time as PhD candidate you have a full-time job at the institute. It is not as well-paid as in the industry but far better than minimum wage and in addition to that, having a PhD usually means that you get access to very high salaries in the industry after finishing your PhD. So from a financial point of view, the PhD is mostly the best option if you look at it from a long-term perspective (I can only speak about the situation in Germany). But as I said above: My top priority would be happiness in life, not only money. – Geralt Mar 26 '18 at 19:59

There's a big personal component to this question - what you enjoy and what you don't - so only you can really answer this question. Still, some factors:

  • Assuming you want to pursue an academic career, then you must get a PhD. No real option there.
  • Assuming you want to work in industry, then I don't agree with your supervisor. A PhD really is about the title and better career prospects. A PhD gives you greater responsibilities, better starting pay, and (hopefully) a better ability to respond to unexpected situations at work. If you are able to find a job afterwards, then you can look forward to a better life.

So having a PhD is never bad as long as you're able to find a job afterwards. Then the question becomes "is it worth it?". To answer this one needs to look at what the PhD costs.

  • Time. You need to invest 5-6 years of your life (likely the best years of your life too) into the PhD. If you don't actually enjoy research, this will be a painful time, and it gets even worse if you don't finish the PhD since it'll go to waste.
  • Money. Odds are you can find a paid PhD position, but you won't be paid well. You can try checking websites like salary.com and comparing vs. what you are likely to get as a PhD student. Salaries vary depending on where you are of course, but in most of the world outside of some European countries, a PhD student is paid barely above minimum wage. It's enough to survive, but savings will be minimal. Again depending on your field + location, you might be able to earn a lot more by joining the workforce at once.
  • To add on to the above, not all money is created equal either. If you've seen charts of exponential growth or guides on how to retire early, you'll know that the sooner you start saving the better. Taking five extra years to start saving can impact your retirement funds by a massive amount. Viewed from this perspective, doing a PhD delays the time when you can start saving with the hope that you will eventually be able to save a larger amount per unit time. Whether this is worth it depends on the specifics, but I would suggest doing the calculations to see in concrete terms what you are going into.
  • The last thing I'd consider is the logistics of PhD study. You might have to move cities to do PhD studies, or possibly move after completion to find a suitable job. Are you OK with this (be sure to factor in any significant others or children)?

Finally I glossed over finding a job after getting a PhD. You can overqualify yourself out of many jobs by getting a PhD. Take a look at the job market, again keeping in mind whether you're OK with moving cities, and check out the jobs that require a PhD in electrical engineering. Compare them against the jobs that only require a Masters degree. Are the jobs requiring a PhD also jobs that you find more desirable, enough so to commit the time and money to get it?

  • Thanks for the good answer! The financial aspect is not that dire in Germany, as I mentioned in the comment under my original post: The salaries as PhD candidate are far better than minimum wage. And I think my supervisor at work referred to the frustration tolerance when he mentioned that enjoying research is the most important thing about PhD. – Geralt Mar 26 '18 at 20:05

Doing a PhD is a wonderful experience. It requires from you to become monomaniacal and obsessive with a very narrow topic in your discipline. There are many highs and many lows while you work on your doctorate. But the motivation should be your very own desire to learn and deeply engage in our discipline. Doing a doctorate for any other reason (e.g. professional opportunity,social status), will not keep you motivated enough -- let alone guarantee professional attainment. If your Master's thesis or your understanding of how academia works ("publish or perish") did not invigorate you to go for a doctorate, I would discourage you from spending your time and effort in pursuing it. Whatever you decide, good luck!

  • This ^. Do a PhD if you want to do research. Ask yourself, if i do a PhD, and not finish my thesis, will i consider that time lost or will i be happy that i got to spend time on research? – Ivana Apr 16 '18 at 20:25

If you're uncertain right now, then take a job in industry. I concur with Allure's cost-benefit analysis.

  • You've seen a lot of academia, and you may as well get paid more reasonably while you examine what industry is like.
  • If you want to go back for a PhD after a few years in industry, you may be a better candidate: you will have valuable experience and a better sense of what part of the field you want to specialize in and why. (Ideally, you'll be taking note of questions you run across in industry that don't have satisfactory answers, or limitations on current practices that could be eased by further research.) You may also have better time management and clearer goals, allowing you to complete your degree more quickly.
  • Perhaps this is different in the European context, but I doubt that spending time in industry would be a negative factor when you seek a PhD position. (In contrast, common wisdom says that if you get a PhD and then work in industry, it is harder to then get an academic job.)

However, on the negative side, it is often harder to uproot your life to go back to university (and live on a doctoral student salary) after other parts of your life are more established, if you go into industry first.

  • 1
    "common wisdom says that if you get a PhD and then work in industry, it is harder to then get an academic job"... Depends, for example in Germany you are required to have several years of industry experience if you want to become a Professor at a university of applied sciences. – asquared Mar 26 '18 at 13:08

Which advice would you give any Master graduate who is facing the choice of whether he should start an industrial career or go for a Ph.D.? Can you provide some experiences of your time as a Ph.D. candidate? Which questions would you see as most important to be answered to make this decision?

Well, it depends on your likes and dislikes. According to my opinion, I would suggest one go for a Ph.D. if and only if

  • He/She has a deep passion for doing research. one should be very interested and take that as a fun, otherwise it is going to be like hell, like many people in my lab are feeling.
  • Ready to accept challenges/failure. one should be ready to accept the success/failure. Research is something that you are exploring something which is not known before and sometimes it is going to be very challenging and should take that easy.
  • Ready to spend at least 5 years in research, because good research takes time.
  • Very important, aim to become a researcher. One's aim to do Ph.D. should be towards achieving a research career. It should not be done to get a good position in the industry because for that you don't need a Ph.D.

else go for a job.

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