After finishing my studies in Electrical and Computer engineering, I worked as a researcher for a few months in the field of my master thesis (developing scientific software for applied physics). I was not quite satisfied with the field, as it was becoming more focused in applied physics rather than computer science, a fact which was highlighted by my former supervisor. This position could lead to a PhD position in applied physics with good salary for 2.5 years, but I didn't want to proceed at that point, because I was interested to continue in computer science and not physics.

So, I tried to transition to industry. In my first job I was working in R&D as junior engineer and I quite liked it. Later on, I moved to pure software engineering and I hated it. Even though I was receiving a good salary for my experience. I couldn't stand the lack of innovation, I couldn't bring my ideas and I didn't even need to solve an algorithmic issue, which is something that I liked from my first year of studies. I wasn't even good enough in my job (this is my personal opinion), I was always bored and after a while the dissatisfaction from my job made me unhappy for my life as a whole. I couldn't imagine myself doing this for the next 40 years. I quit my job and this is my last week, after that I have nothing scheduled regarding my career.

I am really very confused about my next steps and I have been thinking about finally doing a PhD. The reasons behind this is that I want to feel that I can really make contributions, bring my ideas, solve problems and not just write code lines. I would prefer intellectual and time flexibility, as I believe that I am functioning better this way. I had never thought of following an academic career before, now it may not be my ultimate goal, but I could consider it. I know that becoming a professor is very hard, and I am not targeting such a position, but I really want to do research and not just software engineering. I would be mostly interested in doing an R&D job later, either at a company or at a research center. The field I would like to focus on is artificial intelligence and machine learning, and I am planning to go back to the university where I received my degree (in another department and with another professor than the one I did my master thesis with).

I have been reading here that a PhD can be a waste of time for people that do not seek a purely academic position. I have already applied a couple of times for research positions in companies and research centers without success. Thus, I thought that a PhD could make the difference here. What is your opinion regarding my case? Is it a good idea to go for a PhD or can it be a burnout after some bad career decisions until now?

PS: I don't know what's going on with fundings in my university in the AI field

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    If you find research fun and engaging, it can be far more rewarding than to work with something you don't enjoy. As with any studies, you'll learn a lot and develop new skills. Also, depending on where you do your PhD, you can get paid to do it, and thus still have a liveable income while furthering yourself mentally. – Seal Dec 9 '19 at 21:31
  • Could you clarify which country you are in? – Time4Tea Dec 10 '19 at 19:20
  • I am planning to do my PhD in my home country, Greece. Tuition is free, and I won't have to pay for rent as well. So, I won't have an issue if I need to wait for funding. – mar93 Dec 11 '19 at 9:21
  • @mar93 sounds like a bargain! :-) – Time4Tea Dec 11 '19 at 14:30

I strongly disagree with user117219. When I started my PhD, I was not 100% sure that that was what I wanted; the PhD seemed like an OK option to me at the time. Now I'm an assistant professor, loving my job. Your mileage may vary, and it might not. No way of knowing in advance.

If your personal finances can take the salary hit that comes with transitioning from an industry job to PhD research, it can be the right move to make. You indicate that your primary goal is to do intellectually stimulating research, and a PhD is definitely one way to achieve that.

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  • The good part regarding finances is that I will move to my hometown which will reduce dramatically my expenses. I can also use my savings for sometime. Until now my salary was good, but half of it was spent in necessary needs. I hope that targeting a popular sector (AI) there will be a minimum funding. Otherwise (or additionally) I can apply for a scholarship, I had good grades in my masters and a decent CV. Other PhD students in my uni told me that I have high chances of getting the scholarship, but it may take some months. So, if a get some funding, I will save more or less the same money – mar93 Dec 10 '19 at 9:14
  • I was not 100% sure: What percentage sure (roughly) were you? – user2768 Dec 10 '19 at 15:22
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    @user2768 that's a very good question, to which the answer, I'm afraid, will have to be that I do not remember it very accurately, since the event happened a decade ago. I think it may probably have been somewhere around the 75/80% level. Midway through my first year it sank to about 30/40%, and only at the end of my first year it had shot up to 100%. – Wetenschaap Dec 10 '19 at 22:16
  • As a matter of interpretation, I don't believe anyone can be absolutely sure (in this context), so I suspect "100% sure" is probably a metaphor for "around the 75/80% level." I don't think strong disagreement with user117219 is merited, but maybe they really did mean absolutely sure. – user2768 Dec 11 '19 at 9:36
  • @user2768 ah, but it's not only the "100%" that informs my "strongly disagree". Look at the certainty in their final sentence. Look at the certainty in the first half of the same sentence from which the "100%" bit came: "You should only". There is no way of knowing the answer with anywhere near the written degree of certainty. You interpret that they probably mean this as a metaphor, but I say that in that case they could have used words to more accurately represent their viewpoints. So no, I still strongly disagree with that answer. – Wetenschaap Dec 11 '19 at 23:19

I have been reading here that a PhD can be a waste of time for people that do not seek a purely academic position.

I doubt this is entirely true, and I suspect it is dependent on the field. What about research positions in industry or research centers? Here you have made a start ...

I have already applied a couple of times for research positions in companies and research centers without success. Thus, I thought that a PhD could make the difference here.

Presumably the positions you applied for did not require a PhD. Perhaps you might do some preliminary research on-line to see the availabilities of PhD-level research positions in the direction of your interest.

What is your opinion regarding my case? Is it a good idea to go for a PhD or can it be a burnout after some bad career decisions until now?

I would advise to follow your passions with a well-structured Plan B in your back pocket.

I sense that you may not yet have a clear grasp of your passions and perhaps not a sense of the need for a Plan A and Plan B. So ...

Define the problem (bored/unchallenged by my current career path), gather information (what other options exist, where do they lead), and outline the demands for the various options (SWOT, pros/cons, timeline, resources, manpower).

Visit your previous advisor and solicit some insights. Look again for research positions that require a PhD. Talk to your previous boss where you were a junior engineer and solicit some insights.

Also, in the short term ... the transition to a PhD may not happen immediately. Graduate schools have defined schedules to review applications and admit students. Should your PhD dreams fall flat, you may also need to keep yourself open to working so that you do not loose continuity in your employment history in the process.

In this latter regard, perhaps you might even search for a position that will pay you to get a PhD. Such positions are ... few and far between. To be successful, such positions require special arrangements between the industry and university. So, they will not necessarily be up front or immediately in your neighborhood. Are you ready to move locations too?

Finally, when done right, a PhD is an award that you earn by some hard work and sweat equity, it is not a return given for a minimum level of work input. You acknowledge and embrace the joy of having your individual flexibility to learn. That may be the thread that becomes the rope to pull you through the next steps.

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    "The transition to a PhD will not happen immediately. You are posting this at the start of the Christmas holiday and all graduate schools are about done with their applications. Your next best opening to start a PhD will not be until the coming Fall" Depends on location. In places like Australia, he'd be starting at the beginning of the year - though he might have already missed the deadlines for funding. – nick012000 Dec 10 '19 at 5:30
  • Regarding the transition to PhD, I am planning to have a break for a couple of months in order to make sure that I want to go towards a PhD (or not) and possibly examine other options. I am not in the US, in my uni we can start in October or April officially (but unofficially we can start whenever after arranging that with the professor we are going to work with) – mar93 Dec 10 '19 at 9:04
  • I've modified the paragraph about jobs and PhD review schedules accordingly. – Jeffrey J Weimer Dec 10 '19 at 14:52

I seem to be in quite a similar position to you myself. I have been working as a Mechanical Engineer in industry for over 10 years since I graduated and I have found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned by the repetitive nature of the work and lack of challenge. I feel like I am not really using my true abilities and not realizing my potential. Therefore, I have decided to do a PhD and I have been applying to graduate schools in the current cycle (to start in 2020).

I don't think anyone else can tell you whether or not doing a PhD is the right choice for you. It's something you will need to decide for yourself, based on your life/career plans and what you find interesting and motivating. It might also depend to some extent on your financial circumstances (and PhD funding might vary quite a bit between different countries).

If you dislike your current job, it might be possible to find a different job in industry that you find more rewarding. Just because you hate one job doesn't mean you would necessarily hate them all, and you mention that you quite liked the previous R&D job that you had.

However, doing a PhD would certainly be challenging and stimulating, although it is a big commitment and I hear it can be a tough path (especially in the US, where a PhD tends to take 4-5 years). For me, the thing that really made it clear that a PhD is the right path for me was the realization that I'm disillusioned with Engineering in industry in general, not just my current job. I have found jobseeking over the past year and a half to be a fruitless and very frustrating experience, which has only strengthened my desire to go back into academia.

Also, there are definitely jobs out there in industry that do require a PhD. Many of the more advanced technical jobs that I was applying for said they wanted someone with a PhD. So, I don't agree with the statement that a PhD is irrelevant for jobs in industry. It might not necessarily get you a higher salary and/or pay back on the (opportunity cost) investment financially, but I think it would probably give you access to more challenging and motivating research-based technical positions.

I hope this helps you to find the right path and good luck if you decide to apply!

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    I would like to work in research (either academic or preferably industrial) and many positions I have come across require a PhD. With my master I can mainly apply for sw developer jobs, which I don't like so far. What I dislike in such positions is that you cannot implement your ideas, and all tasks are strictly predefined. I feel the difference between 'create' and just 'produce'. I also don't really like pure software engineering itself, but I have not much (practical) experience in machine learning, so a PhD could help me step into the AI field. I feel the same as you about job searching. – mar93 Dec 11 '19 at 9:31
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    @mar93 it seems to me to be part of a general pattern of 'qualification creep'. Qualifications now are seen more as a means of proving you are 'better' than competing candidates, not because you actually need that knowledge to do a particular job. A Master's degree from a well-respected university is no longer enough to be considered for a top technical job in industry. – Time4Tea Dec 11 '19 at 15:28
  • That's true. If they have too many qualified applicants with master, why not request something above that? – mar93 Dec 11 '19 at 16:43

I would strongly recommend against pursuing a PhD. You should only pursue a PhD if you are 100% sure that's what you want. Not because you hate something else, and PhD seems like an OK option.

It is especially hard to go from an industry position to a PhD student. Because you'll be getting paid 5-10 times less even though you'll be working at least twice as hard. And PhD is a 5-year commitment, with no guarantee of an academic job at the end of all this.

Do not pursue a PhD. It will be the biggest mistake of your life.

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    This is too subjective in one direction (negative). Remove the statements of what you feel and replace them with objective statements that speak to the disadvantages of the transition. You may have a kernel of truth, but it is buried in a slew of emotion-driven retorts. – Jeffrey J Weimer Dec 10 '19 at 2:38
  • PhD duration is location-dependent, and he already has a Masters, so it might be more like 3 years than 5. – nick012000 Dec 10 '19 at 5:31

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