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I'm a 28 year old Ph.D. student in CS (databases), in my first year of study - I have completed a research-based Master's program and published a couple of papers as well.

I love research, and my current school + supervisor. However, I'm under severe financial pressures, and the stipend isn't cutting it (I'm unable to take up part-time work, since I'm on a visa). I have standing offers from great companies. The logical step is for me to take up a job at one of these places, since my plan was to work in industry after a Ph.D. anyway.

However, I wish to return to academia (as a professor) at some point, perhaps in my 40s. My choices are:

  1. Continue in my current program (very stressful personally)
  2. Re-apply (after I'm financially settled) to a Ph.D. program, in my mid-late thirties.
  3. Try and publish from industry (collaborate with my current advisor) and apply for a position in academia later on (as a researcher/tenure-track professor).

Questions for you guys:

  • General advice on any other options I don't know about?
  • Is (2) worthwhile, will I get into a good program (mainly concerned by the age factor)

  • Is (3) even possible? If so, how rare is it that academic positions are offered to non-Ph.D.'s? My field is closely tied to industry, so there will be chances for me to work and publish research, but I'm not sure how pedantic academia is as far as requiring the terminal Ph.D. degree.

  • How many person-years of research have you completed? (That is, number of years into PhD less number of years of classes if any.) – user2768 Nov 16 '17 at 14:02
  • please see updated info – aspen100 Nov 16 '17 at 14:06
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    (2) is definitely possible, commonly done, and age is not a problem at all. At the last conference I visited, one of the papers was presented by a PhD student in his early seventies who had gone back to get the degree because his retirement was boring. – nengel Nov 16 '17 at 14:18
  • @nengel : That's encouraging. Was this in CS? Which area of research is he working on? – aspen100 Nov 16 '17 at 14:25
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    Computer Engineering, the student in question had a long career as a hardware engineer and is now working on some accelerators for near data computing. – nengel Nov 16 '17 at 14:31
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In deciding between Options 1 and 2, be sure to think about what your personal situation might be like ten years from now. In particular, do you want to get married? Do you want to have children? If you have a supportive spouse who makes a large income and no children at that time, quitting your job and restarting your Ph.D. will probably be relatively easy. If you're the sole breadwinner for a household of five, and your spouse's income prospects are limited, it may be nearly impossible for you to do this; you're probably better off toughing it out now.


Concerning Option 3: as a general rule, one has to be truly exceptional to get hired as a full-time professor without a Ph.D. in the USA. This is because of two factors:

  • Universities are judged on what fraction of their faculty have "terminal degrees". This is one of the metrics used in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, for example.

  • In almost every field, the number of Ph.D.s granted each year is far greater than the number of full-time academic jobs that become available. This means that every academic job vacancy in the US could be filled several times over and still leave many Ph.D.s without employment in academia.

All of this means that if you apply for such a job without a Ph.D., and all other things being equal, it is unlikely that a hiring committee will seriously consider your application over the dozens/hundreds of candidates with a doctorate. The situation may not be as bad in CS as it is in other fields, since CS Ph.D.s can (presumably) more easily find employment outside of academia; but it's still a factor that's working against you. Neither of these factors is likely to lessen over the next decade or so; if anything, universities have been steadily moving away from employing full-time professors and towards employing adjunct professors, so the latter point is likely to get worse.

This is not to say that you can't teach at the college/university level without a Ph.D. However, your options will probably be limited to two types of jobs. One is two-year colleges, where it is expected that teaching will take up all of your time and so the research experience & credentials conferred by a Ph.D. are of minimal importance. However, you mention that you want to be a "researcher" at a university, so this is probably not the sort of job you want.

The other is adjunct professorships: piecemeal employment which is not full-time. If teaching one course per semester at the local college/university as a "side hustle" while holding down a full-time job in industry appeals to you, then this might be a viable option; the above-mentioned growth of adjunct faculty positions could even work in your favor here. Some people try to cobble together multiple adjunct positions into full-time employment, but honestly, this is a recipe for stress and heartbreak and I cannot recommend it as a career plan.

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    Bullet #2 seems to make bullet #1 irrelevant. If there are more PhDs than positions it should be trivial to fill all positions with PhDs, so it ends up just being a measure of how many total faculty members individual institutions have. – JAB Nov 16 '17 at 15:25
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    it should be trivial to fill all positions with PhDs — Only if PhDs apply. Many faculty at community colleges don't have doctorates. – JeffE Nov 16 '17 at 18:51
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  • (2) is totally possible, in particular when you are in CS. System skills and industrial experience are highly valuable. Many research labs want to develop industrial-strength tools. I know plenty of examples.
  • (3) is also very common. Search for positions such as "Research Engineer" in industrial research labs. You can still publish papers, even as lead author. Check some websites of research groups at NASA Ames, you will find many people without a PhD.

Another option is to do PhD part-time and work in industry at the same time. In Switzerland (and perhaps Germany), it is called external Phd students. You do PhD part-time, the company pays for your tuition fee, but often requires you to work for them for a number of year after PhD. Note that there is no difference between part-time PhD and full-time PhD in the degree.

NASA Ames has this policy. Many universities have campus inside Ames, e.g. CMU, UCSC,... and many of their employees are doing part-time PhD in these campus. In particular, I know a Moroccan guy who is working at Ames, and doing PhD remotely in France. The reason is that his supervisor is a collaborator in a project at Ames.

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