1. Doing a PhD by joining a predetermined research problem
  2. Doing a PhD by formulating one's own research problem

is it possible to say that option #1 is a more advantageous choice in terms of future career?

Why or why not?

  • 6
    How would anyone ever know which route you went? Oct 22, 2018 at 0:11
  • @AustinHenley, I didn't.
    – user84565
    Oct 22, 2018 at 6:06

3 Answers 3


By selecting route one you are taking advantage of the potential that as your supervisor is more knowledgable of the field and so will know:

  1. What the important/fundable/publishable problems in the field are.

  2. Be able to judge if a project is likely to be successful

  3. If a problem presents the correct amount of challenge to a graduate student.

Thus if you choose option one, your project could be more likely to be successful and produce publications and lead to fundable options in the future. This does of course rely on the supervisor actaully being better at these things than you. While not all supervisors will be (or will care enough to think about them), on average this will be true.

On the other hand, if you choose route 2, then you will be able to demonstrate independence and initiative, which are highly valued attributes in the postdoc job market. A stock postdoc interview question, at least for me, is: "Name a situation where you had an idea independently of your supervisor and followed this idea through to its conclusion".


The criteria you set are not determinative in any way. What matters, actually, is the significance of the problem you research and the quality of the results you produce. Those things can be more or less for either of your options.

If you want a great career, solve hard problems and help future students to follow in your lead. Whether you or someone else sets the original problem has little significance.

You don't know much about the significance of a problem until you attack it, unless it is a classic, unsolved, problem in which case it is hard almost by definition. Not taking the lead from someone who has more experience than yourself leaves you open to working on an insignificant (even if hard) problem.


Within the context of my own experience (engineering), here are some thoughts:

  1. PhD is overrated. Consider going to your chosen industry. Work for five years. Understand the problems and work on your favorite problem (on your own time if need be) while getting paid instead of accruing loans. If you can't live without a PhD, do go back to the graduate purgatory by all means.

  2. Later career depends on the country you reside in and your subject area. For example, your PhD in journalism is not going to be very helpful in the Middle East. I can't think of a clear answer to this question. Usually people with advanced degrees in engineering require extensive company support to achieve something important (The company keeps the patents and all you have is a salary and bragging rights until the job ends). Even this can't be done remotely, so be prepared to relocate and compete with the rest of the world's PhDs with similar plans.

  3. People in the software business can do somewhat better, but require significantly more time, if the group they are working with has fewer members. Nevertheless, they can collaborate more efficiently and don't need to relocate as much.

  4. Humanities and other fields are often region- or language-specific. Advanced degrees in law are even more constrained. A degree is economics would be fairly globally accepted at job interview with a large bank or a multinational. This discussion will become subjective quickly.

Not many in the engineering industry care about your publications, or whether you came up with your own (challenging but impractical) problem and managed to solve the same. Here we are not discussing problems that end with ominous words such as 'conjecture'. It would be a folly to choose something that challenging for your PhD work. Your supervisor will often forget to mention that since they will have nothing to lose by cheering you on. Not everyone will be this cruel though. Supervisors with limited industrial funding would be more focused and goal-oriented. Those with tenured careers and stable sources of funding would let you dabble for years as long as publications keep coming. Choose wisely.

  1. If you have the ability and understanding to come up with your own practical problem to solve, then start a company. Let others work for you. Don't work for others. You can start small.
  2. Pre-determined problems are dished out by industry or other financially stable parties looking for cheap labor, mostly. On the other hand, getting a job in a similar setup remains a possibility afterwards; unless of course, you want to explore the postdoc market further and eat canned food.
  3. World is an increasingly job-unstable place as far as engineering goes. Consider how relevant, stable and global your particular industry is or will be in the next 25 years, so that relocation/online work remains a possibility.
  4. Excuse my ignorance about other fields.
  • 1
    This does not really seem to even attempt to answer the question. Note that engineering tends to be a field where the finished product is often the only focus. There is much more to getting a PhD than just trying to maximize your earning potential. And even there, I earn significantly more with a PhD than I would with a master's degree.
    – Vladhagen
    Oct 23, 2018 at 15:01

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