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If you do work that requires a technical skillset (ex. programming, data science) and plan to work in the private sector. Is completing the Ph.D. degree a disadvantage in terms of what opportunities are available to you? Or, do the additional publications, work completed, and everything else that goes into a dissertation count as valuable experience? Is the degree viewed as valuable in and of itself? Additionally, is any increase in pay or job stability enough to offset the opportunity cost of making a graduate student stipend for 2-3 years?

I've wound up in a situation where I'll probably be financially unable to take a postdoc position upon graduation, and will likely be forced into the private sector anyway (which functionally closes me off from an academic career-track), so am considering the option of leaving my program after advancing to candidacy.

closed as off-topic by RoboKaren, David Richerby, Peter Jansson, Fomite, D.W. May 8 '15 at 5:00

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    This question is probably better suited for the Workplace SE, and, coincidentally, there is already a question there which seems relevant to what you are asking: Can a Ph.D. have a negative impact on your career in the software industry? – Mad Jack May 6 '15 at 18:14
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    And, while I'm at it, another related question found on this SE: What are the potential pitfalls of having a PhD? – Mad Jack May 6 '15 at 18:17
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    @RoboKaren If a question is on-topic here, being a better fit for another site is not a good reason for closure / migration. – Mangara May 6 '15 at 19:25
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    While I am not very familiar with workplace.se, I find it hard to believe it could be a much better fit for the question. To be qualified to answer the question, it seems to me that one needs to have: (i) a PhD and (ii) experience with a fair number of students at various levels of academia and their career trajectories. So in particular one has to have substantial (probably post-PhD) academic experience...which make this site a good fit. – Pete L. Clark May 7 '15 at 4:21
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    Or more simply: it seems very unhealthy to me to say "Don't ask us whether you should get a PhD: we're academics." I think that's exactly the sort of question we should be more than happy to answer, in particular from a practical or career standpoint. – Pete L. Clark May 7 '15 at 4:26

11 Answers 11

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As someone with a PhD who did a regular postdoc and now works in the private sector, the answer is definitely probably not...maybe. As with all things, it depends on the job and your field.

I have a PhD in Computer Science. I did research for a couple of years as a postdoc. I enjoyed my postdoc, but a great offer came along for a private sector job. In my field (high performance computing), having a PhD is valuable whether you're in research or industry. In fact, we hire fresh PhDs as well as folks with experience.

That being said, if you were to go to a startup in NYC or Silicon Valley with a PhD in CS, I'd imagine that while you would probably have as much chance of getting the job as anyone else, you probably won't be getting what you might call "reimbursed" for your opportunity costs. The big companies will have research arms where they know what to do with PhDs while the small ones won't.

It all depends on what you want to do. If you want to get into research (or get back into it eventually), having a PhD will be a must, even if you take a few years in industry to shore up financially. However, if you don't get your PhD now, the chances of you finishing it later much smaller. There are plenty of people who do it, but if you look around your group right now, you can probably tell me how many you see.

The exception is getting a job where your employer will essentially pay for your PhD (not like an RA position where you make beans). There are some companies or research labs that will allow you to work on your PhD while you work for them, often using a project with your company as a part of your thesis if your interests align with those of your employers. You might be able to find a position like that.

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    +1, although I'd like to point out that doing a Ph.D. "besides" a regular job is not for the faint of heart. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica May 6 '15 at 22:17
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    @StephanKolassa definitely true. I've known a few people that have don't this and we basically didn't see them for a few years. – Wesley Bland May 6 '15 at 22:18
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    I would like to add that this also highly depends on the country you work. In France, it's usually better to have 2-3 years work experience than a PhD, unless the company is looking for an expert. In Germany, having a PhD is more appreciated. I think the situation in the US is between the two. – Maxime May 7 '15 at 9:16
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A Ph.D. means that you are suitable for different work than if you did not have a Ph.D.

Generally, it means you are well suited for jobs requiring initiative and creativity, and poorly suited for jobs that require reliable and precise performance. This is because a Ph.D. program trains you to want to take things apart, understand how they work, and improve the situation. This is good for creative jobs and bad for jobs where you just need to follow a procedure reliably.

This is great for some types of industrial work, such as R&D, product development, consulting, etc. It is terrible for others, like being a line programmer working on little modules in a gigantic code base. Smart employers know this and hire accordingly.

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    My employers are under the impression that PhDs make good senior programmers with code review responsibilities. (On the other hand, the team leader doesn't even have an associates degree.) – Andrew Lazarus May 6 '15 at 19:33
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    I think that's an over general description of a PhD. I'd say it trains you to do research, and possibly you may pick up ancillary skills supporting research. (many other degrees train you to "take things apart") – Superbest May 6 '15 at 20:32
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My experience was that a PhD made it more difficult to get a job because I was frequently told that I was "over-qualified". My PhD was in pure mathematics (in particular, no programming was involved.) However, I have friends who did PhDs in CS and Electricial Engineering, and their PhDs helped them to get jobs. So I think that if you are working in a more practical field, it probably helps but if you are doing the kind of PhD that only really lends itself to an academic career, e.g. humanities, it can hurt.

One thing I tried to do was re-train as an actuary, but I think that once you have a PhD, you are no longer seen as a blank slate and people do not think you are capable of working in a relatively menial role. Like the mouse in the fable, you are perceived as having cut down your options and doomed yourself to follow the chosen course.

For the work experience question, none of the employers to whom I applied viewed my PhD studies as work experience. Again, this might be different in a technical field like CS or Biology or Engineering, in which you might have produced something other than a thesis during your PhD, or been involved in commercial activity of some kind.

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I work as a consultant in industrial automation, so I've had a chance to see a fairly wide range of different corporate cultures. Among those with PhDs on staff, I've noticed a tendency for the PhDs and BS/MS engineers to group up into separate political factions. Amongst the engineers, there is a stereotyped perception that the PhDs (especially fresh PhDs) are oblivious to the practical considerations of building a product.

Many companies talk about wanting to encourage innovation in principle but, in practice, they generally favor lower-risk tried-and-true methods that complete the projects as efficiently as possible, in order to maximize profits. Research is inherently a high-risk endeavor; it appears as a red line item on the company ledger, with a return on investment that is tricky to quantify.

Since PhDs are trained as researchers, I suspect they will often approach projects from a research perspective, in order to study the problem and find good solutions. Engineers are more likely to dig through an existing box of solutions, find the ones that are 'good enough' for the requirements, then design/implement accordingly. There is some crossover of course, especially in the companies with healthy cross-culture dynamics, but this 'gap' does create some challenges.

If I were a hiring manager for a non-research position, I'd generally have a few concerns when interviewing a PhD candidate. a) How much more will they want to be paid? b) How much work experience do they have outside research? c) Will they want to stay in this position or will they move on as soon as a research opportunity pops up?

Basically, if applying for an entry-level technical position in industry, expect to face the same biases as any other 'green' candidate looking for their first job, but amplified by the perception that a PhD is going to want to earn more and possibly won't stick around. If applying for a research position, you'll likely have fewer hurdles to overcome, but I don't have much experience in this area to say for certain.

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I worked as a quant in a bank for a while. It is very hard even to get an interview if you don't have a PhD in a quantitative subject. The worst signal on a cv was an unfinished PhD since it marked you as a non-completer finisher. The PhD in this case definitely increased future salary prospects.

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I don't have a PhD but I employ PhDs and work with PhDs.

As others have said, it does depend somewhat on the field and the company. However, in my experience, if you have a PhD in a reasonably related field to the one that you'r applying for then it will probably be a positive if you've received your PhD.

The last bit is important. Unless you are very lucky (or very forward thinking) it is likely to be the skills you acquired/demonstrated to get the PhD (independence, commitment, communication etc) that will be seen to be valuable rather than the papers/conferences/citations etc themselves.

If you don't complete the degree then it'll be an uphill battle to demonstrate that you acquired those skills. Not impossible but you may well struggle to get in front of someone with a sympathetic ear.

On a related note to the last point, (probably not helpful to you and probably not popular with some readers) but the next best thing to completing the PhD will be to drop out early. Saying that you started a PhD but it wasn't for you shows maturity. Hanging on for a few years is distinctly more problematic in my experience.

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I run a career website - Tapwage.com.

It really depends on the type of job you are looking for. The vast majority of software / technology jobs don't require PhDs and look for education / experience geared towards specific tools and skills. You will be eligible for those types of positions, but you will have to be prepared to address the question on whether you are "over-qualified" and if you your PhD skills are transferable.

That said, we are increasingly seeing a greater demand for PhD candidates in computer science / electrical engineering across the board as companies look to tackle more complex engineering problems like data science and analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Three key categories of industries that are specifically looking for Phd's that you should consider in a job search:

  1. Finance companies looking to tackle AI / machine learning and big data. These roles can be really interesting and very financially remunerative (especially relative to academia). A sample of such jobs is collected here: http://tapwage.com/channel/artificial-intelligence-meets-financial-intelligence

  2. Niche areas like space technology (spaceX, Virgin Galactic, NASA), automotive tech (Telsa) that are bulking up on technology Phds across the board. A sampling of jobs here: http://tapwage.com/channel/space-doctor

  3. Startups looking for PhDs - the startup environment is vibrant and as companies are looking to tackle complex solutions, PhDs are in meaningful demand. These may not pay as much cash compensation as corporate jobs, they do pay more competitively than post-doctoral positions and the equity could be valuable if you have conviction in the idea and the prospects

  4. Large technology companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter are all increasingly seeking PhD candidates in areas ranging from natural language processing to digital signal processing.

We feature these types of roles extensively and if need specific guidance, feel free to reach out.

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In addition to the other answers, the country also plays a key role.

If you look at the board of a German company, you will notice that the academic titles are prominent. Example: Siemens. When you get emails from Germany, the signatures often include basic titles (Dipl.-Ing). Another example is BMW.

Same goes for Poland (mgr. inz - the engineering title is often added, particularly for large and older companies)

In contrast, when looking at the board of Cisco you do not see tiles (even though P. Warrior has a PhD for instance). Or Oracle.

Sure, these are only few examples but there are more.

In my initial answer I mentioned France, where it does not hurt to have a PhD, particularly if it is awarded via a Grande Ecole (~Ivy League).

From experience, you will have in Europe and Asia, if not an advantage, a head start if you have a PhD.

  • I don't think that's generally true in France. – Relaxed May 7 '15 at 15:56
  • @Relaxed: I expanded my answer - there are no hard rules for France but this is not something which is likely to hurt you here. – WoJ May 7 '15 at 17:07
  • @WoJ Well, that has not been my experience. It would be more accurate to say that coming from a grande école is very valuable, whether you get a PhD or not. If you do, that's fine, it might be marginally helpful to get a R&D job in a handful of large French companies but if you don't you are still a graduate from a grande école. As someone who holds a PhD (from a top-rated Dutch university), speaks French and German fluently and has applied for jobs in both countries, I can tell you that they are worlds apart in this respect. – Relaxed May 7 '15 at 17:21
  • Incidentally, the US might be less title-oriented than Germany but I have had interviews with some very well-known US companies as a fresh PhD whereas French companies have shown basically no interest in my profile. If you have a PhD from a grande école yourself or have colleagues/acquaintances who have, I suspect you might be underestimating how much the grande école aspect dominates French hiring practices. University graduates are considered second-tier applicants and a PhD from a university is just more of the same. – Relaxed May 7 '15 at 17:26
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Certainly it depends on the field and the location. Comp Sci, Sciences, Engineering, Statistics and similar PhDs are in outrageous demand in Silicon Valley. In my experience in e.g. Washington DC you'll run into some latent reverse snobbery. Maybe other places as well.

The opportunity cost, however is probably the bigger consideration. You'd make somewhat more in a few years hence with a PhD, but if you're a top performer and just get to work now it's unlikely the credential will make a huge difference in terms of dollars.

Can you do both? Apply for jobs now and see what comes of it while plugging away at school.

  • I do contract work on the side, but I'm only allowed to work 10 hours a week outside of my current position, so I'm limited in how far I can go with it. And, once I start applying for positions, I'll need to bring my adviser into the loop for recommendations, so I don't want to start the process without being a little more sure about what I want for myself – Jezibelle May 7 '15 at 11:54
  • you should talk to your advisor now. s/he should be a mentor in this as well. – BradP May 7 '15 at 21:12
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I am obtaining a second graduate degree, and yes, over qualification is a major problem for technical careers..the hiring person may in fact have less education than you, and this scares people from hiring you...I would avoid a PhD if you want a working career in a technical field..only get a PhD if you want to teach at university/do research.

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    -1 This depends entirely on what sort of technical work you are trying to do. – jakebeal May 7 '15 at 4:56
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PhD is worthless. Employers will not pay for it. Very very very few recs are written exclusively for PhD's and if they are, they are either in education, meaning you'll be a teacher, or you'll be forced into management. Just because you have a PhD doesn't mean you can manage. I've been in the technical field my entire career and I make the same if not more than my PhD counterparts. I've seen some employers flipping through resumes and throwing out PhDs because they feel if they hired the PhD the person would expect more money than their counterparts and become unhappy when they don't and then ultimately leave. An employer looks more for experience. Can this guy make these two machines talk to each other? Can this guy get this thing coded in a month? If this guy writes code will it be good code and modular or am I going to be rewriting it in two years. Can this guy write code that someone else will understand? In case he leaves because he's pissed I won't pay him 15-20K more than his counterparts like he was expecting when he got his paper. Take the paper, burn it.

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    Welcome to Academia.SE! Can you please try to turn this less into a rant and more into a reasoned presentation of your case? – jakebeal May 7 '15 at 20:04

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