1

I know people have posted LOTS of questions about whether they should apply to PhD programs, but I haven't seen some of the issues I'm currently facing addressed.

I'm currently a master's student in computer science at a top 15 university and am faced with the current pros and cons:

Pros

  • I strongly prefer research to software engineering. Apparently this is the only valid reason to get a CS PhD (other than wanting to become a professor, which I don't), and this reason is certainly true for me. I've worked on 3 research projects, all of which I have found vastly more interesting than the software engineering internships I've had. I'm especially excited about finding solutions to unstructured problems, which apparently is the core of doing research.

Cons

  • According to what I've read, it's likely that even if I get a PhD, I'll end up in software engineering anyway. That's a lot of time and energy spent on something that will end up having little effect on my career. Ideally, I'd like to get an industry research position somewhere like Google, but from what I can tell, only a select number of superstars get those types of positions. I spent my 20s chasing a similarly uber-competitve pipe-dream, and I'd rather not waste my time on another one.

  • I'm 34 years old. This fact has two repercussions:

    1. Continuing to get paid very little for 5-7 more years seems flat-out irresponsible at this stage of my life. I wiped out my savings and took on loads of debt to quit my job and go back to school. I'm afraid that if I don't to make as much money as possible as soon as possible, I'll end up having to resort to eating cat food when I retire.

    2. If and when I do graduate with a PhD, and if I'm unable to secure a research position and go the programming route, I'll be a new entrant to an industry that is notoriously ageist in my 40s rather than my 30s.

  • PhD programs are, infamously, very stressful, and I'm not sure I want to put myself through that. I've had chronic depression for my entire adult life (albeit managed and medicated), and I honestly wonder if I could handle the anxiety that PhD programs apparently bring. The PhD application process alone seems enormously intimidating and demoralizing to me.

  • I frankly just don't think I'm a competitive candidate. My grades are excellent, but I'm not currently at even a top-10 school and I have no publications or good connections to professors at other schools. I also just had a sort of falling out with my current advisor, who's famous in his field, and I'm probably not going to get an LOR from him. I've heard that publications don't really matter in PhD admissions, but I'm looking to apply to top-five schools, where, based on bios I've read and students I've met, they do matter.

Given all these considerations, does it seem obvious that I shouldn't apply to PhD programs? Research seems very alluring and fulfilling to me, but these various drawbacks make it seem like it may not be worth it.

1

Believe it or not, you are facing very common issues. I think it comes down to what your life goals are, keeping in mind that 34 is by no means old, and also keeping in mind that by your statement, the end result is the same (you will 'end up in software engineering anyway').

If the end result is the same, its just a question of whether you want to have that experience and ultimate reward of holding the highest degree offered. Yes, you might lose 6 years of industry-level salary, but given that the salary trajectory of PhDs is somewhat steeper (on average) than Masters, your lifetime earning potential might still be higher with PhD. So don't think about your age (too much).

Also keep in mind that the experience of getting a PhD trains you in "finding solutions to unstructured problems" as you state, making you a very desirable candidate.

Your point on the stress of working on a PhD, plus some depression, is worth some reflection. Its not easy, and its going to poke at your weak points. But you'll also find that depression in PhD students is almost epidemic, so you would not be alone in that. From someone who also struggled with that, I found the process made it worse at times, but ultimately better. I had to learn coping strategies.

Finally, on being a good candidate, publications certainly DO help in PhD applications (it demonstrates you understand the job). If you are not the strongest candidate, don't expect to be considered by top-5 schools. But also know that in industry, those affiliations matter far less than you think.

I generally advocate for 'going for it', but really its just a matter of what life experiences matter to you. At 34, an extra 5 or so years really isn't that much, but if having a PhD isn't that big a deal for you, jumping straight into industry may make sense.

  • Having a PhD is only a big deal for me in the sense that it may open doors in industrial research. However, it will be effectively worthless if it doesn't. I wouldn't get some weird pride out of having it. As you identify, the choice then comes down to whether I'd simply enjoy spending 5 years doing research instead of software engineering. In that case, the choice is obvious. My biggest fear is being bored at work the rest of my life, and it seems that, for all its drawbacks, being a PhD student will at the very least not be boring. – user124384 Sep 13 '17 at 19:29
1

My advice is do a serious job search now of salaries and do a rough "expected value" calculation of how much more money you would make with a PhD compared to without one. Perhaps even ask any contacts you have about this. Then you can see if that amount is worth it to spend four years doing a PhD and the possible better job you might get with one, if it would indeed be better. Money is actually pretty important, so it's a good idea you have an actual figure in mind, even if it is a rough estimate.

My next recommendation is to expand your school applications if you do go for a PhD. If it's enjoyment of research that you're after, the top schools won't necessarily get you a better experience. You'll do better at a less stressful school based on your mental makeup. I did not personally find a PhD very stressful and I think applying might actually be the most difficult part.

I'd also like to say that it's not really necessary to be extremely competitive to get a great career. Most people who will compete with you at all levels of education and career will just go on to do something so different from you that they won't even matter one year down the road.

  • Thanks for the feedback! I'm a bit skeptical about the experience not being better at a top school vs. a not top school. I've done research at 3 different schools of very different ranking, and without a doubt, the better the school, the more important and interesting the research was. Although, of course, I would have some flexibility in what I choose to work on, it appears that I wouldn't have the same level of resources and guidance at a lower tier school vs. a higher tier one. – user124384 Sep 13 '17 at 19:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.