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So I am considering pursuing a PhD in robotics (or a related field) after spending a year in the industry. I want to make an informed decision about my career path and be reasonable about things. The thing is, frequently when presented with a potential reason for why graduate education is a bad idea, I seem to dismiss it thinking: "but engineering is different!.."

In particular, people saying that there is no point in going for a PhD, unless one wants to pursue a career in academia, seem to strike me as not relevant to the engineering disciplines. In the end there is plenty of technical R&D going on around, and even my medium-sized company employs their fair share of wise folk whose only job is to come up with ideas and research into them to see if anything interesting comes out.

Somehow, in my mind, engineering PhD's are applicable, employable, can quit it half-way to return back to industry with no harm to their CV, etc. etc. (not to mention there's always funding for them!).

I do acknowledge that there exist some pretty theoretical or not-applicable technical fields out there, but they don't really come into my calculation as my interests lay elsewhere.

Where is the flaw in my thinking? Where am I most likely to get burned with my expectations?

  • I edited the title to ask about the specific aspect of engineering PhDs that you seem to wonder about. (The previous version was very, very broad, as there may be many differences between engineering and science PhDs). However, you should also specify what you are thinking of when you say "science", because there is tremendous variety of science PhDs from medical research (which FYI also has major applications in the pharmaceutical industry, among others) to theoretical physics to social sciences... – ff524 Jun 29 '16 at 22:19
  • One possible 'burning' point: Say you spend 2 years pursuing Ph. D. before dropping out. You could have spent these 2 years earning a salary and gaining employment experience. – J. Roibal - BlockchainEng Jun 30 '16 at 0:35
  • I think the best answer to your question is another question: Have you read the What are the goals and benefits of doing a PhD? question yet? – Mad Jack Jun 30 '16 at 0:48
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I have a PhD in Aerospace Engineering and work at a university, but I'm not really on a traditional academic track. So non-academic jobs are possible for PhDs with engineering degree. I work for UT Austin's computing center, and while I publish some, it's not my primary focus nor do I teach often. There are jobs at large centers of knowledge production and problem solving for engineers and technical non-engineers alike!

Also, everyone who quits a PhD program probably takes a small knock to their CV or resume. Physicists and chemists who don't complete a PhD also have lots of options for employment, but there's a risk that they will also have trouble finding a job because they may be seen as unable to complete a hard task by sticking to the work. I think you are being to glib or flip when you assume that you can bail out of an engineering PhD program and land softly immediately after in an industry job. Maybe, maybe not.

Also the idea that PhDs employed by industry are the wise men(!!!) who come up with the ideas is both quite sexist and shows that you have some thinking about the world still to do. Non-PhDs and non-men often come up with good ideas and solve research problems in industry and academia both.

You are likely to get burned because your thinking doesn't really reflect the world. Men and women both, engineers and scientists both, can all solve hard research problems inside and outside academia both.

  • Thanks for your answer. Just to clarify - I only used the word 'wise men' because I was referring to the situation in my company. Unfortunately gender balance in the engineering environment in the UK still leaves a lot to be desired and so the research portion of the firm is just a room ful of, well, men. I do wish that wasn't the case. – SaladButt Jun 29 '16 at 22:50
  • @SaladButt, that's nice, though it wasn't clear from you writing at all. You should be careful how you present yourself. – Bill Barth Jun 29 '16 at 22:53
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I answer as a comment, because my intuition tells me this is answer is relative. I too have (engineering) professors who told me this during my undergrad, and nearly swears by the fact that engineers command more, have more flexibility and thinks more applicably in research. In my limited experience, being an engineering researcher doing basic/ fundamental research, I have noticed more of these values, but again...my engineering professors has emphasized those traits every week, whereas they're not usually mentioned as often to non-engineers, say traditional science majors. That being said, doing a Ph.D isn't about thinking that you could "back out half way," more importantly, it's about your commitment to solve an unknown truth. Be qualified, be passionate, speak about real applicable aspects of your work, that will ultimately determine your reputation, engineer or not. What do you think?

From my experience in industry, Ph.Ds have been hired from across the spectrum, perhaps it may be safer to say, if the company is primarily mechanical engineers, they would tend to favor the Ph.Ds with similar training and experiences. One thing to keep in mind is make sure you know the "tools of the trade." Ph.Ds in industry would really benefit, though some pretend to stand on a pedestal anyways.

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