The phd area is Computer Science and the other area can be anything - if this info makes any difference...

I am asking from the practical point of view, specially something that can be evidenced by real examples. Some career that requires/rewards the degree despite of being completely outside its scope would be a good example.

I was worried about asking something a little open, but I see it is pretty common by here, e.g. - the opposite of other more harsh communities.

  • I am definitely not a beginner in research, but I might be missing something while being below a pile of work.
    – dawid
    Jul 29, 2014 at 0:47
  • 3
    Real-world example #1: when I was a postdoc, I shared a house with a physics grad student whose dissertation involved a lot of numerical analysis. After graduation, he got hired almost immediately by a company that runs business feasibility studies for other companies, largely on the strength of his experience doing numerical analysis.
    – Koldito
    Jul 29, 2014 at 7:48
  • 1
    Real-world example #2: one of my wife's friends did his PhD in French Intellectual History, which is a way less transferable set of skills. Either you get a job as a French Intellectual History professor, or you end up doing something totally unrelated.
    – Koldito
    Jul 29, 2014 at 7:51
  • I doubt a PhD in artificial intelligence (e.g. image processing (IP)) may have any (competitive) value in artificial intelligence (e.g. natural language processing (NLP)) when competing (for some position) against other people that do have a PhD on NLP... Have in mind that artificial intelligence is a field of computer science and IP and NLP are part of it...
    – Trylks
    Jul 29, 2014 at 10:05
  • I am happy I decided to post the question. Some comments are really helpful.
    – dawid
    Jul 30, 2014 at 4:34

5 Answers 5


Generally, the answer is "No, the Ph.D. title hardly makes you worth more as you step far from your main area".

Typically, doctorate training prepares you to do research, and by the time you graduate, you will have accumulated research experience in your narrow area. So even in academic CS, you won't be particularly welcome if you did research in compiler theory, and the department is looking to hire somebody in Big Data. Moreover, your compiler theory research experience is hopeleslly useless if you decided to work in medieval German literature or neuropsychology or plant biology. They will hire the specialized Ph.D. in that area any day over you. They will hire a linguist who said they took a CodeAcademy class in Python over you even if the project calls for text mining for unique patterns of word use in XV vs. XVI century.

If you slip out to the big real world outside of academia, you will find that you will have surprisingly little to offer on top of a good MA graduate while wanting a higher price tag. Microsoft or Adobe or any other MakeUpNameSoftMetrics do not develop compilers, and instead they would want you to deliver good quality production code (or, worse, to oversee a team of programmers who do that). So ask yourself again.

Paul said here that Ph.D. develops "the skills to attack virtually any problem very deeply, if given sufficient time". I added emphasis, and I cannot stress this small print enough. My experience in industry is that the deliverable time is often yesterday, and few leaders have the patience for you to develop a perfect peer-reviewed published solution. It may not always have to be quick-and-dirty, but it is always have to be on time, so you need to have a better understanding of what the most important points and priorities in your project are which need to be addressed and accomplished first than academia can teach you.

Virmaior said here that McKinsey happily hires Ph.D.s as consultants. That, of course, is true, but it does not mean that they hire any Ph.D. in any discipline out of charity. They are looking for specific communication and business skills -- essentially for people who made the wrong choice by going to a Ph.D., or had no other pathway to continue with their traning, or in other words who have the mega brains to do really smart work, but may not find themselves happy in academia. The work environment in a consulting firm is anywhere from three to five times as intense as your Ph.D. -- not necessarily in the hours, but more in terms of responsibility. You may be well paid, but you are absolutely required to deliver. McKinsey specifically has an "up-or-out" model: at a time for the regular review, you are either so good that they promote you, or the company will be better off with you working for their competitor. Compare that to "Oh, you worked on this project for two years, and all your mice died because somebody turned the A/C off for the weekend? Ah well. Let's find you another project where I need a qualified technician but I don't want to pay the full time position benefits..." (As a side comment, McKinsey's pricing structure ends up being absolutely, over-the-top ridiculously expensive, may be because they hire so many Ph.D.s that still need to be molded into industry setting.)

To round the picture up, in government of any kind, you will find spending 25% of your time on filling compliance paperwork, be that a job in a public school, an IT support job in state capitol, you name it. This is as far as it can get from being able to come to work in shorts and sandals at noon to work through the night. As far as what Ph.D. is worth there: if you browse some jobs on usajobs.gov, you will find a scale of GS-## (government service at a given level), and the relevant level for a Ph.D. is around 12. I found these two pieces in my area:

In addition to the Basic Requirements:

For the GS-12, applicants must have either (a) one year of specialized experience equivalent in difficulty and responsibility to the GS-11 in the Federal Service or (b) a Ph.D. or equivalent doctoral degree in statistics, biostatistics, computer science, mathematics, or a closely related field.

where in turn level GS-11 means

In order to qualify for Mathematical Statistician, 1529-11/12/13, you must meet the following:

Basic Qualifications

Have at least a bachelor's degree that included 24 semester hours of mathematics and statistics, of which at least 12 semester hours were in mathematics and 6 semester hours were in statistics.


Have a combination of education and experience--at least 24 semester hours in mathematics and statistics, including at least 12 hours in mathematics and 6 hours in statistics, as show in A above, plus appropriate experience or additional education.

Minimum Qualification Requirements for Mathematical Statistician, GS-1529-11/12/13.

Have one year of specialized experience, equivalent to the GS-09 grade level in the Federal service that includes experience performing statistical analyses on biological or biomedical research problems and conducting reviews evaluating statistical methods, procedures, and concepts involved with biological or biomedical applications.

So for that line of work, Ph.D. = Bachelor + 1 year. Don't quote me on this, job requirements keep changing, and I won't even bother putting links as these jobs expire quite quickly by SE standards.

As a silver lining, there are industry jobs where Ph.D. is required. However, these would be leadership positions in research-heavy types of work, and positions would be listed as "15+ years post Ph.D.; experience overseeing 10+ direct reports" or the like. By then, you will have retrained yourself into whatever the job really requires, so the Ph.D. is really just three letters after your name at that point. If leadership role is where your ambitions are, you should start taking classes in Business Administration immediately if your program covers arbitrary credits outside your major department.


Though the topic of your dissertation may be extremely narrow and focused, the process of acquiring a PhD teaches you the skills to attack virtually any problem very deeply, if given sufficient time. Ultimately, the PhD is just a piece of paper. The real value of it is the ability to produce something of value to others (i.e. research, a product, etc...).

  • I realized my increased ability to attack problems, but have not linked it to the ability to attack other areas. Thanks for the answer, rather obvious, but sometimes we need it. I will take a look at the others before accepting.
    – dawid
    Jul 30, 2014 at 4:37
  • Honestly, i think @stask's answer is more realistic than mine:)
    – Paul
    Jul 30, 2014 at 14:40

There are careers where PhD as a degree/piece of paper can be helpful:

  • Higher education. To be a teacher at a university, by rule, you have to have this piece of paper. It doesn't need to be in the same field as your teaching, though.
  • Any business dealing with academics as costumers. Be in policy, salesman for a company or a patent attorney, academics will always welcome you much more warmly if you have that three letter next to your name.
  • Consulting. If you do consulting, especially as a sole entrepreneur, PhD can give a lot of credibility.

Where they will hate it:

  • If you want to work in IT, many programmer seriously despise PhD people.
  • 1
    For programmers despising it, I never found that to be my experience while earning a PhD. But my PhD is in philosophy... Maybe the despised PhDs in C.S.?
    – virmaior
    Jul 29, 2014 at 4:23
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    The margin of negativity in that graph is pretty low to warrant "despise." My experience was that they despise theoretical approaches, and PhD in CS usually means that. E.g., "but it's correct according to the theory" regarding a program that doesn't work or compile...
    – virmaior
    Jul 29, 2014 at 5:22
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    I think your definition of "despise" is somehow off. Yes, many programmers don't value PhDs highly, but I have certainly never talked to somebody who seemed to have anything worse than a slight confusion about my work. And I hold a PhD in software engineering, so I talk to programmers regularly as part of my empirical research.
    – xLeitix
    Jul 29, 2014 at 9:18
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    @virmaior I think the "despise" towards PhDs on CS is the despise towards (alleged) talkers from (self-proclaimed) makers.
    – Trylks
    Jul 29, 2014 at 10:10
  • 1
    @Greg I guess I could be considered a programmer and I mostly agree with that, so I guess a "real programmer" may agree to a further extent.
    – Trylks
    Jul 29, 2014 at 10:14

One way to view it as the the PhD is a signal to employers and others of a certain capacity. This signal can in many countries open doors to other work not immediately related to one's field of inquiry. McKinsey for instance hires PhDs as consultants and hires them at a higher rank than others for that.

A parallel can be said about bachelor's degrees -- at least in the US. A lot of work doesn't really take a bachelor's degree in terms of skills nor does it do anything related to that, but seeing that someone could complete a four year degree signals something about the person's task-completion abilities and willingness to slog through areas they don't like (among other things).


In some countries, there are some legal implications. For example, in the university I did my Master's thesis, you can only be hired for a maximum of six months, except if you are a student (master or PhD) or you hold a PhD, in which case there are no limits.

Also, it is easier to immigrate to the States if you have one, as it can be used as proof of "extraordinary ability" or be an "outstanding researcher" (granting you priority 1), or at least, "exceptional ability" and "advanced degree" (priority 2).


  • 1
    There's nothing in immigration legislation of any of the countries to say about Ph.D. Some of the countries that have point systems, like Australia and New Zealand, may reward you for higher education, but my recollection of these systems (that I last looked at about five years ago) is that you only get points for Bachelor's degree, and the degree above it does not matter. These countries also have lists of priority occupations that give you extra points, but whether your scientific discipline is among these priority disciplines or not is a game not worth playing. Verify your second hand info.
    – StasK
    Jul 31, 2014 at 2:07
  • 1
    @StasK actually, they count. According to this, a PhD holder can be considered priority 1 as a person with "extraordinary ability" or "outstanding researcher" looking for tenure; or priority 2, "advanced degree" and "exceptional ability".
    – Davidmh
    Jul 31, 2014 at 7:38
  • yes and no. Outstanding researcher really means a researcher of internationally recognized stature. No fresh Ph.D. graduate would ever be able to qualify as one, you'd need to be 10+ years out, and really have a stellar publication record comparable to that of a good professor in a good school. The mechanism referenced is typically used for non-tenure track (research) staff; tenure-track professors go through the "second preference" and labor certification because their positions are considered permanent, for immigration purposes, as opposed to the research positions (which aren't).
    – StasK
    Aug 7, 2014 at 4:57

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