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Apologies if this question is not entirely fitting for this Exchange, but I didn't know where else to ask.

I am currently working through my Masters, and while talking with one of my professors the question "Would you be interested in continuing with a PhD" came up. I have thought about this frequently over the last few months, but I can't seem to come to a proper answer. I believe the problem here lies in the fact that with a Bachelor or Masters you kind of know what you're getting into and what will be expected of you, while for a PhD it is kinda hard to find information (at least for me / in my country).

I have already gained some industry experience before coming back to University, and thus I know for certain that I would not like spending my life doing boring, repetitive office tasks; I plan on taking on as many extra-curricular activities during my Masters that can expose me to the 'department life', or at least give me a glimpse of what working in Academia is like.

However, despite all this, I keep coming back to the original question and not knowing what to think: Would a PhD hold my interest for however long it takes me to complete it? Would I enjoy working in Academia afterwards? What should I expect from a PhD in my field? Would I get one just to (possibly) be hired by a top-tier company doing cutting-edge/research work?

I don't know if I'm conveying my thought clearly here, but what I am trying to say is that there is virtually no information on what is expected of a PhD student, what Academia life is like and all this kind of stuff. How does one know if doing research would be a good fit for him/her if there's no prior exposure to this kind of work? Would I be good at teaching in case I decide to stay in Academia? How do I assess this?

I feel like there must be a way to clear my thoughts and get some answers before I decide to enroll in a multi-year PhD program and possibly waste years of my life leading up to nothing, having to fall back to an everyday industry job with less experience than someone of my age.

Again, I realise how general and convoluted this post is, and I won't mind deleting it if it is deemed unfit for this Exchange, but I'm honestly at a loss on where to go next and would like to hear opinions coming from people that are/have been in the field.

Thanks in advance for taking the time to read all of this!

As pointed out in guest's answer, I'm specifying that my field is STEM (Bachelors in CS, Masters in Data Science). You can read more details and my reply to his answer in the comment section, which might give a little bit of insight into what I initially wrote here.

  • Welcome to Ac. St. Ex.! Nice to have you here! I do think this is too opinion-based. – user104541 Feb 18 at 17:29
  • Thanks for your welcoming message! I understand (and agree) with your point of view; If the powers-that-be of the Exchange deem it too opinion-based I will take it down promptly! – Luca Giorgi Feb 18 at 17:35
  • I wish you good luck - sometimes they have mercy! – user104541 Feb 18 at 17:37
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  1. You will get a more helpful answer if you add the field you work in. Perhaps leaving the question general, but "sneaking in" some info on your field.

  2. I have worked in several industries and never been bored. Certainly more routine jobs do exist. But I would not exaggerate the stereotype of industry boring or even of academic research being exciting (it is not, always). New products, initiatives, markets, etc give many private sector jobs plenty of excitement.

  3. I urge you not to do the Ph.D. unless you see yourself as top 25-50% in your field (a higher percentage correlating to subjects with more industrial hiring of Ph.D.'s). It is very important to realize that there is a glut of Ph.D.'s on the market. At least in STEM, the number of doctoral slots is determined by the amount of (mostly federal) funding for research. It is NOT determined by the number of high paying jobs needing graduates. [I laugh at C&EN exhorting more kids to go into STEM in the same issue they talk about the intense competition at job fairs...and chemistry is actually better than math or physics.]

    This is not to say don't do it. But go in with your eyes wide open. At a minimum talk to kids looking for jobs in their final year. (Or about advisor relations, thesis writing, etc.) I do think the experience can be OK but you really need to look out for number 1. Don't just do it because you don't know what you want to do, prof talked you into it, etc. At a minimum, do a job search in parallel (you don't need to let each "side" know you are doing this).

  • The last paragraph is really great! – user104541 Feb 18 at 17:44
  • Thanks for your answer. I'll try to address some of your points; 1) the field is STEM, CS specifically and a Masters in Data Science. 2) I didn' want to imply that industry is always boring, it was more of a personal reflection on my country's market and specific job I did (consulting) which to me was not fulfilling. However, when I did an internship abroad in a world-famous company I did find the experience very interesting and motivating. I believe here every company/team would be wildly different. 3) I do not see myself as a top-anything in my field and I think it would be foolish to (cont. – Luca Giorgi Feb 18 at 19:45
  • presume otherwise. I see myself as a diligent student but certainly not better than anyone else willing to put the work in. I've consistently been in the top percentage of my courses, but I feel like the pool of people to compare myself with is too small to draw meaningful conclusions when compared to the whole field (especially in CS, which is full of very smart people). I particularly appreciate your last paragraph, however that seems to apply only in cases where you expect to do your PhD in the same institution where you're doing your masters, or when you at least know people doing (cont. – Luca Giorgi Feb 18 at 19:48
  • a PhD where you would like to apply, which is not always the case (and most likely wouldn't be my case). I feel like the problem stands that hopeful PhD students don't really know what they're getting themselves into until well after they've made their choice, at which point it might be too late to back out (well, not too late since it's never too late IMHO, but still, could end up costing you a lot in term of industry experience and whatnot). – Luca Giorgi Feb 18 at 19:50
  • We are all trying to find a path, with limited information, and with no ability to do it over to try to " (at least in the Western religions). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_Not_Taken Given what you have said so far (field, masters, ability, the two jobs), I recommend to work. Try some different jobs. Computers are an immense, still growing, industry (compare where we were 50 years ago). Don't do a Ph.D. when you are half hearted about it. And (Buffy will kill me), I think CS is a field where industry is much more relevant than academia. – guest Feb 18 at 19:52
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The academic life is mostly about research and teaching. The balance between the two depends on where you work. At large research institutions, mostly research and advising grad students (researchers). At (usually) small teaching institutions, mostly teaching.

The only way, I think, to learn if it is a life for you is not to think about it, balancing out the various factors, but to actually try it. You are in a good position to do so if you take a PhD in most fields. You will mostly be involved in research, of course, but you can probably TA for a professor and get a taste of teaching. Initially the taste of teaching is pretty small, but advanced students are often offered to teach a course completely.

But if you start a program you can end your commitment at any time that you learn it isn't right for you. It probably isn't good psychologically to be too tentative about it, but it is a process that plays out.

Your attitude as expressed in your post seems particularly good for making a good go of it, with evaluation along the way (trying lots of things). I'd suggest that you are a candidate for success.

Contrary to another answer/comment here, while there may be a glut of people in STEM fields at the moment there is also, currently a massive hiring push in CS. I get many announcements every day. And, as has been true in the past, today's glut can be tomorrow's dearth. Literally, tomorrow. And the reverse, of course.

Do what you want to do. Evaluate what you are doing. If it isn't right, do something different. Life is too short to leave opportunities unexplored.

  • I agree that the student seems strong (mentally and emotionally) and is capable of success in various arenas. I disagree that the market rewards Ph.D.s in CS. This article mentions the foregone income AS WELL as the on the job raises you get from experience. pgbovine.net/practical-reason-to-pursue-PhD.htm Really, I think the key thing is for Luca to find something that satisfies him. This of course, is tricky. However, even within CS, hard core academic jobs (e.g. R1 with good funding) are very hard to get. "Tournament" is the term I hear used. – guest Feb 18 at 20:26
  • Thanks a lot for your answer! When you suggest trying it, do you mean going for a PhD and evaluating after actually experiencing the program? What I am quite scared of is trying it just to have to back out of it, which to me feels like a defeat (I unfortunately have a mentality where when I start something I try to push through it until the end). The professor I spoke with also told me that there might be chances to TA as a Masters student, which is something I should definitely explore more in depth since it would bring a better perspective to the whole situation. – Luca Giorgi Feb 18 at 20:26
  • CS industry is a hairy subject to touch IMHO, there's people grossly overpaid because they got in early, there's people underpaid (either by choice or forced by their market), there are researchers making millions in FAANG companies and others making a cent on the dollar in public institutions. I believe it comes down to luck & personal preference, regardless of any study on the market and income vs. years of experience/education. Might as well throw in that satisfaction is not necessarily the biggest paycheck :) – Luca Giorgi Feb 18 at 20:30
  • I think you would be better served to just start a doctorate. The research experience will be better. You don't need to make a 7 year commitment on the first day. – Buffy Feb 18 at 20:30
  • @guest, frankly I think money is overrated as a life motivator. I started out not making a lot but ended up doing very well as a CS prof and have a very healthy retirement account and expect to leave a pile of money to my kids. But that just happened. It was never a driver. But if money is your main thing then, no, academia probably isn't where you want to go. Banking and finance these days. – Buffy Feb 18 at 20:34

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