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I'm a master computer science student in a German university and I will be graduating soon. I'm in a situation between accepting a PhD position or leaving academia to start looking for job. This is a very hard decision to make so I need some advice.

I see most of the people who do a PhD leave academia afterwards and start looking for jobs (is it also the same in the US?). Very few people continue with a postdoc and remain in academia after getting the PhD.

My question is then, what is the point of doing a PhD (especially if one gets a job in industry afterwards)? What are the benefits of spending 3-5 years obtaining a PhD? What kind of goals should a person enrolling in a PhD program have?

From the point of view of industry, I realize that after a PhD they might start with a high position in the company. But, on the other hand, in those 5 years they could have started a small tech company and make it somehow medium or even a bit successful. Instead of doing a PhD, after 5 years of investing in their own company, they could be paid for working for themselves and not for others, having their own companies.

From the point of view of obtaining knowledge, if someone is curious about knowing, they could learn new things by themselves. After graduation, finding a job or starting a company, knowledge could be obtained by buying books and reading during one's free time, or following extra courses. I don't think you don't need a university for this.

Am I right in my analysis? Is it true most people go to the industry after the PhD (I'm especially curious about people in the US from top universities)?

If my analysis is at least partially right, and since there is other viable ways to become successful in industry and to obtain knowledge, what are the benefits of doing a PhD? Is it only a good idea for people with strong plans to continue in academia, or are there other goals one can achieve (better) by obtaining a PhD? I am afraid that doing a PhD might be a waste of time if I plan to continue in industry.

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    This is pretty subjective. It depends what you consider a waste of time. Do you actually want to ask the concrete, answerable question 'Do most people who do a PhD leave academia afterwards?' or the more subjective question you are asking? I don't think most people I know who completed their PhD and then left academia would consider the time spent doing their PhD wasted, thought certainly from a purely financial point of view it probably was. – Tara B Jan 5 '14 at 14:51
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    Honestly, it sounds like you've already made up your mind. – JeffE Jan 5 '14 at 15:19
  • @JeffE I would be really thankful if you can give me some opinion. Like the one from Peter. I'm interested in hearing what you think. – Jack Twain Jan 5 '14 at 15:50
  • @TaraB I agree, from a knowledge point of view it was totally worth it. But my argument was that a person could potentially just study at home through out the years to gain knowledge if he or she is not interested in continuing for the academia afterwards. – Jack Twain Jan 5 '14 at 15:52
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    Is climbing a mountain a waste of time? For most people, yes, of course. But for a few, it's the opposite; the mountain is part of them, and they have no choice but to climb it. Getting a PhD (and more generally, doing research) is the same. – JeffE Jan 5 '14 at 23:50
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most of the people who do a PhD leave the academia afterwards and start looking for jobs (is it also the same in the US?)

Depends on how you see "most". In my experience, about 50% of the students in top-tier graduate schools leave academia; most students in lower-tier graduate schools leave academia. In Europe, this percentage increases quite a bit, since the Europeans generally enter a PhD program to become a professor (In the US, some people enter the program with the intention of getting a PhD, and nothing more.) You can judge for yourself where you fit, since I don't know which school you are thinking of attending.

in those 5 years they could have started a small tech company and make it somehow medium or even a bit successful.

Sure. But in those 5 years, your tech company could have gone out of business, too! Perhaps you will say that you learn from your mistakes, so that was a valuable period of time. But you learn from doing a PhD too. I'm not necessarily talking about technical things, but the fact that you are able to learn things faster than the non-PhDs (since that's one of the basic skills that research requires.) If you do a CS PhD, depending on how you choose your research topic, it could be useful in real life too.

I mean you could definitely graduate, find a job or start a company and buy books and read all night or weekends! You don't need a university for this.

True. But grad students are reading all day, then all night or weekends (in theory; in reality they don't actually do this, but they still would have more time than you). You would learn slower. Not to mention that not having a mentor would make things much harder for you (you could tell your PhD supervisor about the courses that you liked, and particular ideas that you liked; from there, she could tell you about some papers that you might like. As an independent research, that's not an option).

Last bit of advice: my father, who is also an academic, always told me not to go into academia unless I loved research. He told me that there are easier ways to obtain everything else in life; money, fame, etc. can all be obtained without being an academic, and more easily at that. And what he said was true for me. Being in academia extremely strenuous -- you'll deal with competitive peers in graduate school, maybe you won't get along with your supervisor, jealous colleagues, people who try to steal your work, thesis gone wrong, error in your paper, etc. I have encountered some of these, and each of these is enough to make you want to quit. The only reason I was able to hold on was because I found that I genuinely loved research. I knew that I couldn't have a job like this elsewhere, so I had to hold on. Any other reason will eventually drive you out of academia, though.

FYI, I attended a top US institution.

  • One of the best answers. This is exactly the kind of answers I'm looking for. But I still want to hear more from people. One question, you said you "attended", does that mean you are out of academia now? – Jack Twain Jan 5 '14 at 16:00
  • @AlexTwain No, I'm not. – user10269 Jan 5 '14 at 16:02
  • Well, I don't +1 the father's advice. I don't see how anyone can know what research actually is before he is actually doing it. Some time ago I read something along the lines of: don't set your goal to go into academia and do research unless you don't see yourself doing anything else. – Bruno Stonek Mar 11 '15 at 21:26
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You state that:

Of course they might get a high position in the company, but in those 5 years they could have started a small tech company and make it somehow medium or even a bit successful. After 5 years with doing that, they are being paid by working for themselves not for others and having their own companies.

The big obstacle here is that people need to have a strategy and an idea in order to found a start-up. If you don't have the "next big idea," what are you going to do to convince outside investors and customers to do their business with you instead of someone else? The challenge is that many people finish their bachelor's or master's degrees and still don't really have a strong sense of what they want to do, in part because they don't know what their options are.

Moreover, in many fields, what kind of company can people found? What kind of company would a chemist or economist going to found after undergraduate training? In many fields, training at the PhD level is often needed in order to develop the ideas needed for bigger ideas to take root.

Now, this isn't universally true—perhaps you have found what your big idea will be through experiences at an internship or in a bachelor's or master's thesis. If that's what motivates you, great.

However, you also equate leaving academia as "failure." There are many people who do a PhD—including some of my own students—who do not want careers in academia; however, they want the extra training to broaden their horizons and prepare themselves for a career in research and development in industry. For them, it's not a failure if they don't choose academia as a career, it's them achieving their desired objective!

The only way the PhD is a waste of time is if recipients choose to pursue a career that does not take any advantage of what they did as a PhD student, and those are relatively few and far between (at least in fields that what we consider "professions" instead of "jobs"). The reason for this is that a PhD (at least in the sciences) recognizes the ability to learn how to solve problems in an original and independent manner. In the humanities, a PhD tends to represent the ability to synthesize and analyze information in a meaningful way. The specific thesis project is the vehicle for expressing this ability, rather than the exclusive "goal" of doing the PhD.

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standard disclaimer: my experience is with computer science, and in general I have familiarity with STEM, but I know almost nothing about Ph.D training and skills acquired in other areas

There are a number of misconceptions implicit in your question that other answers have picked up on, but that I thought I'd distill out here:

Very few people continue with a postdoc and remain in academia after getting the PhD. My argument is that wasn't the PhD just a waste of time for them? I mean they spent 5 years on it and then they left to look for a job in the industry.

The assumption here is that the topic you do research on is the main consequence of doing a Ph.D. In a literal sense that is true: your dissertation is on a particular topic. But as @aeismail points out, the dissertation (and a Ph.D) is a vehicle for training you in a certain way of thinking: analytical, critical, and inventive. These skills are what get you hired at jobs 'outside academia', and it's fair to say that without the training you get during a Ph.D, you will find these skills difficult to acquire (I'll never say it's impossible).

In that respect, it's not a waste at all. You spend some number years learning how to approach ill-structured, ill-defined problems, break them down, and figure out ways to solve them by yourself with no direction. This is a very valuable job skill that employers love to have.

Of course they might get a high position in the company, but in those 5 years they could have started a small tech company and make it somehow medium or even a bit successful. After 5 years with doing that, they are being paid by working for themselves not for others and having their own companies

As others have pointed out, starting a company requires a different set of skills. In the tech world, having tech skills definitely helps to run a company, but there are thousands, if not millions, of people with the requisite tech skills, and very few of them become successful entrepreneurs. So it's not enough just to have some technical knowledge, and so it's not the case that you can swap out X years of a Ph.D with X years of working and expect to achieve some degree of success. Again, not impossible but certainly not guaranteed.

My other idea is that if someone is curious about knowing and getting knowledge. I mean you could definitely graduate, find a job or start a company and buy books and read all night or weekends! You don't need a university for this.

You don't need a Ph.D for this either. If you think that a Ph.D involves learning and reading, you're very mistaken. A Ph.D involves doing. You learn to reach the cutting edge so that you can do something new and creative yourself. Reading and reading will not get you a Ph.D - it might not even get you a single creative work !

p.s I've worked both in industry and (now) academia after doing a Ph.D from the US.

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I would say, for people who enter a PhD program with defined and established goals, and with at least some understanding of what they are getting into, obtaining a PhD is almost never a waste of their time. Some great advice on what is good to know before dabbling in research, take a look here.

The thing is, a primary goal of a PhD is not to obtain knowledge. I also know that from the industry point of view, it is sometimes viewed as equal to X years of work experience, but that's not completely correct either: a PhD is about learning how to do research independently. While it is possible to get those skills alone, (usually by a lengthy trial-and-error process), the best way is under supervision and with advice of an experienced researcher: a thesis adviser/supervisor.

A PhD is kind of a stepping stone for academia: you don't have to continue if you don't want to. If you have an aptitude for research, it is an valid option to explore. Research, while closely related to academia, is not only performed in academia. It is a time to taste research and academic life. If it is something that you are interested in, even trying and deciding you don't really enjoy it is not a waste.

Finally, after obtaining a PhD, if you decide to leave academia, you will be qualified for different types of jobs in industry than somebody with just a Master degree. Somebody with a lot of knowledge might know which known approach to apply to solve a well defined problem. On the other hand, when developing a new application/product, it will be the job of an researcher to think of a best approach to a loosely defined goal.

Actually, as a personal side-note, when I just started my PhD my supervisors asked me if I wanted to continue in academia or go to industry afterwards. They said they could help me shape my CV and research activity so it's better suited for my choice: I told them I had no idea and had to see for myself for a while longer. A year after, I told them that unless something drastically changes, I want to stay in academia, but I'm sure they would equally accept me wanting to go to industry.

And lastly, to comment on your "starting a small company"... doing a PhD, investing in a career in a company, or trying to start your own company are, in my opinion, all "business ventures" of the same type, and equally valid or equally a waste: if you do something you don't have an aptitude for and what you don't have motivation for, it's a waste of time. Doing a PhD is as valid for a career beginning as any other job. It's just that not everybody wants the same career.

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    I'd like to second the notion that "you will be qualified for different types of jobs in industry". A PhD doesn't teach you how to be a code monkey, as many of the PhD students I've worked with have found out when employed as, erm, code monkeys. It teaches you other, deeper, computer science and research skills that can be applied to more specialised software/industry roles. Usually roles that are more fulfilling tbh. – tom Jan 7 '14 at 15:46
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I believe the problem lies in that you view a job outside of academia as a failure, it is not. There are jobs that require a PhD in industry and elsewhere outside academia as well. What is a failure is foremost a question of the personal goals of the person in question. Industry and academia compete for the graduates to a large degree. It is obvious that how severe this competition is, depends on the subject but in technical areas it is definitely the case. In my own department it is very clear that people who finish a PhD end up in very good jobs. This, despite the fact that it is not a world were industry jobs are plenty, instead it is consulting businesses and government positions that are the norm.

There is not room for every PhD in academia. Not everyone is interested in an academic career nor suited. In general a person with a Phd has deep understanding and skills to solve problems, disseminate results and communicate these to others. There are thus many positions that require such insights to take on positions of responsibility in organizations, be it private or public.

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When you start a PHD, you are not sure if actually doing the research required for getting that PHD, will be fun enough (you do not do it for the money anyway). After finishing it (for those who do) then you know if you really like to be in academia or not. Previous answers (mainly of user14449) already highlighted the problems associated with academia, which are only visible from INSIDE academia.

Also a PHD does not neccessarily has to be another step in your ladder of "success". There are many who are doing a PHD because a) they WANT to do it b) they know it in their hearts that they CAN do it. Even if they "waste" 5 years of their lives (as you put it) they want to do it, regardless if they get a job in academia, get a better job or become rich. It is like playing with a rock band. If you do it for becoming a rock star you will never become one. If you like music, you might actually have a chance.

On the other hand, only MSc students have the misconception that if they are going to create a new start-up company, they will become the new Steve Jobs and be rich beyond belief. The truth is that 99% of the start-ups actually fail (once external funding is spent) and only 1% survive. You say you are from Germany. How many CS start-ups are from Germany? Even there, most successful industries cooperate with reseach institutions like Fraunhofer or DLR which a) are connected to academia b) having a PHD certainly helps you to get a job there.

So the real question is: What do you really WANT to do? If you like to do research regardless of money, go for the PHD. If not, go to industry. If in doubt, stick with industry.

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I'm not from the US, let alone from a US elite University. However, once I faced the same question. It's a decision you have to make yourself. Some notes:

  • When choosing between an industry job or a PhD, there is no wrong decision.
  • Other matters in life are way more important.
  • I chose the industry and I'm happy with my life.
  • I saw top-notch stock trading jobs passing by because I have no PhD. You just don't notice right now.
  • I see peers failing their PhDs.
  • It's about what you want to do the next years, not after that.

EDIT in response to your question:

From childhood on we've invested in our futures. By going for higher education, we thought in the long term. At some point we'll need to reap the rewards. Nobody ever wished he had worked more in his life when he was dying. Working should be a means (imho), not a goal. So to continue following a working strategy for life, you'll need to value the SHORT term more as you get older. Otherwise you risk never being happy with what you have and always working for something that will never come. Slowly switching from long term thinking to short term thinking may start by looking at a 5-year timespan. You don't want to be unhappy for the next 5 years in order to hopefully have a better life after that. If you can be happy with less money and more interesting work, THAT should be the reason to go for a PhD.

  • Can you explain further the second and last points? – Jack Twain Jan 8 '14 at 17:07
  • I like what you said – Jack Twain Apr 25 '14 at 15:01
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There are a number of subjective terms in your question so answering the overarching question if pursuing a Ph.d is a waste of time creates a few questions within itself, however, a few points:

I'm in a situation between accepting a PhD position or leave the academia and start looking for job.

If the position in question pays the bills and allows you to gain work experience (assuming that you do not have any), then accepting a position for a year or two and then going out into the corporate realm may make sense.

I mean they spent 5 years on it and then they left to look for a job in the industry.

In the US, university professors with tenure or on the tenure track tend to see the better rates of pay and benefits -of course there are a number of caveats since some schools can be considered more elite than others and location is a factor. There are companies such as Google and IBM that pay Ph.d graduates very well to solve real world problems and to further their business objectives.

in those 5 years they could have started a small tech company and make it somehow medium or even a bit successful.

Running your own business usually requires a lot of time and effort -if you wish to be successful anyway. So folks may not wish to put in that type of commitment especially after surviving 5 years of Ph.d work, a relaxing 30 - 40 hour work week with paid time off and benefits could look appealing especially if there is a family with children involved or caring for an aging parent.

My other idea is that if someone is curious about knowing and getting knowledge.

This depends on if there is a genuine interest in research. If one wishes to see the fruits of their labor see the light of day in a commercial sense,then going to the private sector may allows one to see their research come to life and touch the masses. Another commenter made mention of potential issues with jealous colleagues, people that try to steal your work, etc -these elements also apply in the corporate world especially if there is some sort of compensation at stake (it is not always financial by the way) so each avenue (academia vs. corporate) has its on rewards and pitfalls.

So, I suppose it comes down to your original motivation for school. Was the plan to work in academia, private industry or a combination of the two? Either way you go, you will gain a life experience that you did not possess before so, its comes down to how you wish to make it work for yourself.

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Your question reminded me of the blog post linked below. See what you make of it! Generally speaking, existential decisions that are based on binary alternatives can easily be wrong, since there are usually many more alternative pathways in reality. Thinking in terms of binary options is just not the best way of coping with life, I think, if you excuse my binary assertion... ;-)

http://alexandreafonso.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/how-academia-resembles-a-drug-gang/

protected by Alexandros Feb 4 at 19:41

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