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I have a Master's in Computer Science and I currently work in a manufacturing company. My current role is IT Manufacturing Technical Leader with responsibilities split between technical and business tasks evenly. I've always wanted to move closer to more-technical-less-business tasks.

So my questions are:

  1. Given I want to be more on the technical side, is it wise to pursue a PhD in Computer Science? I am not sure how a PhD will help or affect my future roles (in this company or otherwise).
  2. Another conflict I have is regarding the PhD itself. I am not really sure what I would like to research. Is this something I should know and be ambitious about BEFORE applying to my PhD? My wife is currently in her Master's and she is really passionate about a lot of different topics in her respective field. She intends on pursuing her PhD. Seeing where she stands, it makes me question my desire to get into a PhD program when I have no idea what it is I want to be an expert in or research on. So to repeat my question, should I need to know what I want out of the PhD now or will it come to me while I am in the program?

I have always wanted to get a PhD and I am afraid I shouldn't. I would appreciate some guidance on this.

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Think of a PhD as a funded research post. Its primary purpose isn't to get you a job but to give you a space to do academic research (with the minor caveat that I am not a computer scientist, and I understand that there are some job listings which ask for PhD graduates). Your research will be on an extremely narrow question, and these are usually not directed at an industry-relevant task. It is highly unlikely that the research output will make you any better at your job.

If you want to do the research, and there is a topic that motivates you so much that you could work on it exclusively, even if nobody else really cared about it, for many years, then a PhD may be right for you. Many PhD students discover that this isn't really the case for them, however, and you could be at a high risk of this if you begin without a reasonably specific topic in mind. Sometimes people phrase this in some sort of macho framing, as though PhDs are there to show you are tough - while toughness matters, intrisic motivation towards a potentially extremely obscure research topic is an absolute prerequisite. There is no point doing it for title, bragging rights etc.

I would suggest that if you aren't highly motivated by research in and of itself, you would do a lot better not to do a PhD. Nobody will think the less of you for not being Dr. Crazy Cucumber.

Edit: typo

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  • This is very well put. Thank you. I guess a part of me does want the bragging rights more than anything. But there is still a part of me that would like to be an absolute expert at a very specific topic. I am afraid if I actually want a PhD since I don't know what that specific topic is. I've been racking my brain to think of something I am so passionate about that I want a PhD in it. I haven't found it. This is why I am not in the program yet, I didn't think it was wise and the bragging rights just wasn't worth failing in the most prestigious degree! Sep 9, 2020 at 16:09
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    @CrazyCucumber thanks for your kind comment. My 2 cents on being an 'absolute expert': it will only feel worth it if you enjoy that topic for what it is. If you work hard a niche in many parts of life you can get the respect given to a very competent/knowledgable person (which is, I suspect, what you want) - that isn't limited to academia. In fact a lot of academics feel a bit put out that the rest of the world isn't that interested in their area of expertise, and so doesn't regard them as highly as they want. The research has to be its own reward for the slog of academia to be worth it.
    – SDS0
    Sep 9, 2020 at 16:30
  • @CrazyCucumber At least at my university there are non-degree seeking graduate positions. You won't get funded, but if you can get funded through work or self-fund if your program (not possible in many schools I know) you could take a few classes in various subjects and choose one you enjoy. Or, on the contrary, decide it isn't for you. Nothing with PhD programs is really set in stone as you will find out. I would HIGHLY suggest not leaving your job and trying instead to do it part time. It will take a while but you will likely regret being a GA given you have tasted actual livable money.
    – user117751
    Sep 10, 2020 at 6:57
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An important piece of advice missing from other answers: ask PhD students what PhD life is like. Preferably current students but recent graduates will do (first-year students are still in the honeymoon phase, and last-year students will probably decline). If you do not know any, ask a professor to put you in touch (do not ask the professor themselves: survivor bias means they like academia a lot more than is standard, and nostalgia embellished PhD memories after a certain age).

Notice that I do not mean "what is your research topic", but more "what is your every day routine". One hour of time and a couple of beers (or your culture-appropriate or pandemic-times equivalent) will save you hundreds of hours of internet searches.

That advice really applies to other work-life choices, but a PhD is a really special kind of job (more reason to check) and the info is fairly easy to get (unlike typical jobs where employees are harder to invite for a chat and more tight-lipped about the boss).

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  • This is a smart idea. I do have a friend who is in his PhD currently, but when we talk, he just jokes around about how much he hates his life. I've really not had a serious discussion about his day-to-day. I will get in touch with him again and talk a bit! Thank you Sep 9, 2020 at 20:13
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A PhD is about research. Not so much about being "on the technical side." So, I'll doubt that a PhD is right for you if those are your only goals. Many of us in mathematics and even in CS got a Phd (mine in math) because we were driven to it. There is a saying: "You don't choose mathematics. Mathematics chooses you."

On the other hand, there are doctorates other than the PhD that are focused on other things. The NSF in the US recognizes research doctorates, but notes that there are others as well.

Wikipedia has a useful list of different kinds of doctorates, and one of these might meet your stated objective better.

Of course you may have other goals, not stated here, that would suggest that a PhD is appropriate. Moving in to the research group at your current (or another employer) might be enough. Certainly in Academia, the PhD is the most recognized terminal degree - with some exceptions, depending on field.

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  • I am looking into the list you linked me to. But thank you for your answer, I have more things to think about now Sep 9, 2020 at 16:15

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