I have a BSc in Software Engineering, and I am now doing an MS in Software Engineering (taking more advanced courses and such).

Once I am done with my MS I would like to do a PhD in a software engineering related research topic, but I am not sure if I should get a job for a few years after my MS - or jump straight into a PhD?

With regards to long term goals I do not think I will want to do full-time teaching but I would like to do some part-time teaching (at University level, not picky about graduate vs undergraduate) alongside a professional career.

At this point I am not considering the monetary aspect of a PhD vs. a job. I would simply like to know if one approach is academically and professionally better than the other.

Thank you.

Ideally, I would like to work with new, cutting edge technologies, and be an "expert" in my field - hence why I thought of doing a PhD. I would love to perform research as long as I can then apply the results in an industrial setting. At this moment I do not think I am interested in a pure research career.

Thanks to everyone for their answers, it'l help me a lot. This isn't really a right/wrong answer question so unless an answer gets a huge amount of upvotes I won't be picking an answer.

I guess I should also add what I am currently leaning towards.
Bearing in mind I still have one year to make up my mind, right now I am thinking about one, maximum two, years of work then back to school for a PhD.
...but time will tell!

  • A PhD is primarily for training you to do research. You haven't mentioned whether you are interested in a research-oriented career (in academia or in industry)?
    – ff524
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 19:22
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    I've updated my question!
    – user91198
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 20:03

6 Answers 6


Work first. There're many reasons for this:

  1. It's not true that you can't work with cutting-edge technologies without a PhD. You certainly can, and it might even be a better use of your time since you avoid the administrative processes that you must do with a PhD. Check out the various graduate programs that employers offer. There might be high entry requirements, but if you can do PhD studies you can clear that bar also.
  2. You likely earn more. It's not just for the next 3-5 years that you need for a PhD. If you do a PhD, after you graduate, you'll need to find a job. If you get a job now, you'll already have a job. If you do well you might even command a higher salary in 5 years' time compared to entering the market as a fresh PhD.
  3. You might find you don't need a PhD. This could especially be the case if you work with other PhD-holders. You might find that you have the same duties, or that you're already capable of doing what they do. In this case a PhD is not very useful for your career and you might as well stay put.
  4. If #3 doesn't happen, then you have a better idea why you're doing a PhD. You know what you want to learn, why you want to learn it, and how that skill is going to be useful for you after you graduate.

It's my observation that people who work first and then go to a PhD are much more likely to have thought seriously about why they're studying. That is a good thing. I'm not saying you shouldn't do a PhD, but you should have good, clear reasons for why you're doing it to avoid possible future regret.

  • 1
    Nice answer, is it valid enough if the field is something like Physics or Maths and not engineering?
    – justauser
    Commented Aug 20, 2021 at 17:18
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    @justauser I don't see why it wouldn't be valid. Is there any reason you think you won't?
    – Allure
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 0:47
  • I thought there could be a difference since engineering is more applied than Physics/Maths. There aren't many Physics/Maths jobs out there.
    – justauser
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 4:05

On a cautionary note regarding working first - I decided to work first, as there are a number of advantages. I am now 33 and have finally applied a second time this past month (the first time was 8 years ago, and much less coordinated). I no longer have strong academic connections which I can use as references. Ultimately, life got complicated and busy, and it took me 12 years to apply for the doctorate I've long sought.

I believe I am no longer an ideal candidate as a result - while I've extensive work experience, am (more) mature and know how to work hard, I have been too busy working to demonstrate serious research ability. Additionally, should a program accept me, I have fewer work years left to return to the field than a younger individual with stronger references.

As a further note, I frankly don't need a PhD - only if I'd like to continue along my current career track (web developer, just switched to embedded systems due to tremendous preparation and good fortune). My father (an academic himself) calls it "an expensive hobby", and additionally points out there are a lot more PhDs than jobs for them.

I still feel there are substantial advantages to working for a time first - just, be aware that you will need a specific actionable plan for keeping strong ties to academia, or you will face increased challenges getting accepted in the future.

Edit 2.7 years later: I am now in a program and making progress towards my PhD. I've found the work and time management skills involved in research to be very different than those involved in production programming, and it has been a time consuming shift in mentality (though perhaps no worse than student to researcher). It is a career change (developer to researcher), and I am a novice again, which is sometimes frustrating compared the the honed skillset I am using much less frequently than before. For me the shift is worth obtaining my personal goals - but I would never recommend it to everyone :).

Regarding keeping ties to academia - it is hard to stand in two boats. Employers expect real commitment, and academics are busy. With a "publish or perish" mindset it is hard to devote resources to a long term long shot with low payoff. There might be no easy answer.

Perhaps a series of internships is the best route forward if some industry experience is desired. However it is unlikely you'd become a principal or lead software engineer and put in charge of large and important projects without significant time and commitment. My experience is difficult (and likely undesirable) to replicate.


In some ways it is easier to continue directly to the doctorate. The letters you get in support of an application will be fresher and academically oriented. You won't have to deal with getting "rusty" on concepts or behind the times on theory.

It can also be difficult to return to life as a student if you get used to living off a better salary and also gain some obligations that might be hard to deal with as a student.

You can, of course, use either path to explore whether it is the right path, but it is, I think easier to move from academia to industry than the other way.

In some fields, of course, industrial experience is valued and if you had the right position, say at Google or similar, it would be helpful. But most of the people reading your application will be more familiar with situations of people moving to a higher level in academia than moving from industry to academia.

That said, a decision you make now doesn't have to be your final answer for your life.

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    "It can also be difficult to return to life as a student if you get used to living off a better salary and also gain some obligations that might be hard to deal with as a student." That's true. But can look at it the other way on "obligations". Deferring family, marriage, house is a frequent down side of grad school. The infertile 20s...
    – guest
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 21:27

Many schools will allow you to teach part time with a masters. So this argues for the work experience.

Fields differ. In chemistry or physics, I would say push on to the Ph.D. For one thing it is more the norm to go through, for another it is sometimes perceived as the entry level degree (big chemical companies like to hire Ph.D. chemist vs. BS/MS chemE.

In engineering, I would lean more to the work option versus the advanced degree. Software probably even more so. Many great coders have no degree.

Finally, while you asked us to factor out money, there are a lot of social rewards from being an earner versus a student. It's a good thing to learn what work is like.

Give what you have said about yourself and the field, I would lean towards getting a job. Can go back later (if you miss it). Also, if you get burnt out or need a break or stalled out for promotions or laid off during a recession, you can consider further schooling at that time.


Work first.

The practical experience will guide your thoughts and interests as a Ph.D. You'll also known your attainable market worth before the doctorate. Between BSc and MSc should be a noticeable difference. Same with between MSc and PhD, but you'll never be able to gauge this (and know confident where you stand) if you haven't worked a full-time job with the MSc first. One year is enough. Any longer then 3 years, and the great pay may become a deterrent (opportunity cost). Sounds strange, but maybe two 18 month stints at 2 different companies, for proper contrast, if you can pull it off.

Consider full-time work after the MSc, as research. You cannot understand industry form the outside. Get in there. Collect info. Understand the good and bad sides. Work on production-level projects, and in teams (good or bad). In short. Don't just jump from MSc to PhD.

Was going to end there, but... have you looked into what school you would attend? I get the sense this isn't about prestige. Therefore, I suggest taking time (i.e. while you work) to look into programs abroad.(MSc and PhD programs in many countries can be cheap. Especially if you've saved you own money - from working!) Great opportunity to combine additional study with a different life experience.

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    I am already doing my MS in a different continent than my BSc so doing a PhD in another country still would be even better! I don't really care about where the school is or what it's called - I'm just looking for good quality study/research. Thank you for you answer!
    – user91198
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 23:55
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    @Goofynose. Sweet. Hope you're enjoying it. This site may provide some inspiration for locations: findaphd.com
    – VISQL
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 0:09

In my opinion (as a non-studying BSc post grad with a view to attain MSc and PhD) there are a couple of contradictory answers.

One, it is easier to continue your academia non-stop so the self education and acquired knowledge doesn't stagnate (use it or lose it).

Two, it is a very valuable skill set to have experience in the field of a workplace, even one unrelated to your studies.

Best compromise is a year as an intern at a placing relevant to your chosen area of study. That way you get the best of both worlds. Your knowledge doesn't stagnate, in fact it may likely proliferate, and two you can show real world experience on your CV/resume.

Some employers are known to look with disdain on pure academics, especially those who 'worked their way up the ranks'.


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