(no guarantees that i'll be able to answer via text, though; maybe i'll make a video later. been trying to minimize my computering time off-hours due to increasing wrist pains ... PSA: take care of your wrists, everyone!)
if you can't get on someone's critical path, then you have to make it very easy for them to help you with very little time commitment. e.g.,: http://pgbovine.net/how-to-ask-for-help.htm
I know you had mentioned you could write a whole book on this, so I'm sure there's a lot to the story.
My first impression here is that things aren't too bad. Some people are commenting, for example, about projectors not having enough cables --- obviously a nuisance, but if those are the issues the department is having, great. (Obvious, easy solution and a relatively small problem to begin with)
Second, I don't really think this is a particularly comprehensive survey. I'm surprised there weren't more pointed questions about job intentions (academia vs industry vs not sure), feeling respected by those around you, the prevalence and (separately) severity of the racism, sexism, and general harassment, etc. Not a single question about teaching, nor a question about actions they'd like to see taken. Relatively few culture questions outside of "do you feel like a community" (something like that).
At Harvard physics, there were more pressing concerns regarding sexism, racism, the quality of the required courses, and professional development. The department did reciprocate and make great changes to the required courses, but deeper biases make the other categories much more difficult to tackle.
I have been helping a lot of students deal with considering industry, as in a physics department it's looked down upon to just be considering industry, let alone pursue it. Or, even if not explicitly looked down upon, it's definitely the culture and general feel, and many students and postdocs prefer to discuss it in private. (I did an internship at Waymo last summer, so people are especially keen on asking me about transitioning to industry)
The survey results are unfortunately not public, so I can't share them. Kudos to the group of students or administrators that put together this data! I'd love to hear what they learned from it and changed as a result of it.
In my CS master's programs profs often warned against the PhD, said companies wouldn't hire you, that they'd view you as "too smart" and potentially be bored by everyday work.
Not true for certain disciplines (AI, e.g.) but I don't think every CS PhD is walking out the door with 300K/year offers hitting them in the face.
A PhD might lead to money, but it's hardly the easiest or most rewarding way to do so. You generally finish classes after 1-2 years -- after which point you have a broad overview of problems in your field and a few more years of practice and professionalization -- and the rest of the time is just researching and pushing the frontier on a narrow, deep problem of interest. Some of the frontier pushing is useful in industry, some of it is purely academic. If you finish the PhD and aim for a tenure track position or a few postdocs, you can continue that type of work. If you exit to applied industry, the type of problems you'll get to work on are very different.
I think you should consider a PhD if you enjoy tinkering with problems and pushing your intellectual boundaries, don't particularly care about money, and can see yourself spend several years grinding at something to produce what amounts to a book on the subject (note: a real book, not a "57 Tips To Make Sites in React" ebook to plug on medium blog posts)
In terms of whether companies are bothered by people who have too much education? Sure, some might. Certainly a PhD is not prepping you for the kind of work conditions that exist in tech startups. There's no reason to believe a PhD will be notably better at a problem than someone with an MS in the same field, and if they have 5 years less real-world experience, then there's that consideration too.
There is absolutely no other reason to get a PhD because while there are lots of perks to a PhD - traveling, meeting people who share similar interests, interesting career opportunities, autonomy, collaboration - etc, you can find all of those perks at a different job that isn't so intellectually demanding. The one thing no other job can offer you is proof that you discovered knowledge that is actually new (or whatever way you want to phrase it, there exists no other institution outside of academia that is rigorously structured to ensure you don't get a PhD without doing this at least once).
You can say this is an argument of authority controlling a body of knowledge, I am sure that will be the typical start-up perspective. Unfortunately, a start-up's bottom line is to produce a product. That means that if it comes down to the mark of determining the integrity of some knowledge, or keeping the business running, the start-up is not going to destroy itself for the sanctity of knowledge. Plenty of PhD students, however, do!
You literally will have no life besides your work if you pursue a PhD. There is zero reason to do one unless you have this drive.
If your definition of 'worth it' is purely financial, then you are probably better off hitting the job market with a BS or a Masters.
Disclosure: foreign PhD candidate at an American university here.
That being said, five years in a PhD is probably not as good for your career as five years' experience at $BigNameTech. PhD is probably more fun, though.
To characterize their program is “fun” is a gross mischaracterization, and demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the rigors involved in any technical/science/engineering PhD pursuit.
PhD programs are hard. They’re often lonely. They’re frustrating. They’re tedious. And there’s a tremendous amount of pressure. And it’s academia: highly bureaucratic and political and often unfair.
Unless you possess a serious passion for the subject, you’re unlikely to survive.
On the other hand, my friends getting the PhDs in subjects such as education (Stanford) and conservation biology (Mississippi State) have described it as the highlight of their life. After their first two years, they’re basically getting paid to do whatever they want. They audit classes. Apply to grants. Travel. And they write.
Thanks for the lecture about my Serious Misunderstanding, though.
N.b. I'm in a very lucky position career-wise now. If that were not the case, maybe I would feel more regret.
I tried a PhD in ECE before dropping out with an MS, and the last word I would use to describe my experience is "fun".
I'm lucky in a lot of ways and I sometimes forget that.
I wonder if they have family money.
This is actually not a snide comment. The people I knew who did a PhD and liked it had enough money, typically from families and sometimes from a spouse, to not worry about money, or five+ years at substandard wages. I worked part-time as a grant-writing consultant, so I was fine, but I saw financial privations all around me. To the point I wrote this: https://jakeseliger.com/2012/05/22/what-you-should-know-befo...
Granted, science PhDs are often better funded and more lucrative post-degree, but even among people in the sciences financial factors often loomed.
Not a snide comment. I had two friends who entered into PhD programs, one for Math, the other for engineering.
Both dropped out for financial reasons.
One was married and was getting a lot of pressure from his new wife about starting a family, settling down, getting a real job that pays better than what the college was paying him.
The other had been on his own since he was 16. Bad family situation, he was raised by his grandparents. One of the sharpest guys I knew. Just burned out from trying to work three jobs and keeping up with the program. It was just too much and he needed to get a job that paid him better so he didn't have to work 70 hours a week to get by. The funny part was five years later, he landed at Google, was making a lot of money, and was planning on going back with help from Google to finish his degree.
I mean, should you really get a PhD without a serious passion for the subject? I won't disagree one bit that it's not for everybody.
Speaking as someone wrapping up an engineering PhD from a good school though, I enjoyed it quite a lot and I think most of the people I work with enjoyed doing their PhD. It was not easy, but it was interesting and rewarding. The environment varies a lot depending on the school and the adviser. Some programs are indeed quite toxic, but there are also plenty that are challenging, but fulfilling and nurturing.
I'm not sure why passion is particularly important. I would rate work ethic, diligence, attention to detail, and some character (i.e., not lying in studies) as more important than passion.
Generally, making people jump through hoops to get something done doesn't actually get you the best people. It gets you the people who are good at gaming such systems, and people who don't know what they are getting themselves into.
And I don't really see it as jumping through hoops. A good PhD program has a few checkpoints to pass, but everything else is up to you. I strongly disagree that you don't get good people, at least not the ones who finish. People who don't know what they are getting in to or are only good at "gaming the system" tend to wash out pretty quickly, usually because they are miserable and burn out. It varies from industry to industry, though... maybe other engineering fields are worse than the ones I'm familiar with.
A lot of people make the mistake that you have to have a PhD to prove you're "smart", which is wrong. But that doesn't mean that only people with nothing better to do get one.
highly bureaucratic and political and often unfair.
So, just like working for any Fortune 500 company then.
>Unless you possess a serious passion for the subject, you’re unlikely to survive.
This is mostly a recent phenomenon in engineering. I went to a top school and left almost a decade ago. While advisors like what you described existed, roughly half of them were not like that. It really was fun, and relatively relaxed.
These notes--written by Prof. Comer of Purdue--and over a year of introspection ultimately led me to decide against the PhD path (EE, not CS). To be sure, the words fun, happy, and rich were used precisely zero times. It's a humbling quick read for anyone else out there considering.
Being a PhD student in something like Stanford, MIT, Berkeley can be fun in some way, but in some other ways it's mind blowingly stressful. Working in $BigTech can be boring, but it's usually almost 0 stress.
I haven't pursued a masters degree before, but if I did it wouldn't be for the money. I could never stay involved enough to be successful.
My key reasons for not continuing with the Ph.D.:
- Many problems you study are chosen because you will be able to publish something, not necessarily because they need to be studied.
- You don’t need to be a (Ph.D.)student to learn - you can work and still learn
- A Ph.D. in itself doesn’t make you smart
- Narrow problems vs broad problems - I prefer to work on something where all parts need to be good enough, vs on finding the best possible solution to a very narrow problem.
- Having worked before starting the Ph.D., I could compare working in industry vs studying for a Ph.D., and I realized it was very stimulating in industry.
- Much better pay for 5 years
I've written more on why here: https://henrikwarne.com/2016/03/07/ph-d-or-professional-prog...
As someone with a CS master's I almost wish there was an alternate PhD path where you didn't have to do research, like a Masters++ program. There were many classes I never got to take for my degree, like in category theory or AI or distributed databases.
Some of the PhDs in this thread have said they tried $BigTechCo and found it boring, but to me that just means you were working at the wrong company or on the wrong project.
I feel like my master's equipped me to be able to read and study theoretical computer science at a high level, that the PhD program would be a strain on me and my family without much reward.
Although I do daydream about being independently wealthy and getting a master's in mathematics just for fun
Edit: And most of the bugs seem to be gone now ;)
There are many possible explanations:
1. Most people have their master's degree by third year. There's a sense of "if you're going to drop out, now is the time to do it." If you're miserable in your program but hate quitting stuff, third year might be the year that finally breaks you.
2. Coursework is largely over by 3rd year, and a student should be doing research close to full time. This can be a hard transition. Granted, most Stanford students probably have substantial research experience coming in, but even that is not the same as doing (often very unstructured) research all day every day.
3. The "honeymoon" is over. You're no longer a young student, and pressure is growing to publish, know your area, network, and so on. At the same time you're still quite junior, so you know you're probably not very good at any of these things yet. This can be a frustrating combination. Kind of like adolescence. Also, if you've been unlucky with conference reviewing, you may have a stack of 2-4 papers that have been rejected at least once or twice, and you despair of ever doing anything externally recognized as useful. In the other direction, some of your peers now have half a dozen accepted papers at good conferences, and you feel inferior (never mind that these are small sample sizes, and peer review is noisy).
So some self-selection occurs in the third year, and the group that sticks around to year four is usually smaller and happier (and, of course, some happier fourth years used to be miserable third years).
“I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists, which I consider a great tragedy. So I have opposed it all my life without any success at all.”
From a different interview:
“Well, I think it actually is very destructive. I'm now retired, but when I was a professor here [Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton], my real job was to be a psychiatric nurse. There were all these young people who came to the institute, and my job was to be there so they could cry on my shoulder and tell me what a hard time they were having. And it was a very tough situation for these young people. They come here. They have one or two years and they're supposed to do something brilliant. They're under terrible pressure — not from us, but from them.
So, actually, I've had three of them who I would say were just casualties who I'm responsible for. One of them killed himself, and two of them ended up in mental institutions. And I should've been able to take care of them, but I didn't. I blame the Ph.D. system for these tragedies. And it really does destroy people. If they weren't under that kind of pressure, they could all have been happy people doing useful stuff. Anyhow, so that's my diatribe. But I really have seen that happen.
And also, of course, it wastes a tremendous amount of time — especially for women, it's particularly badly timed.
If they're doing a Ph.D., they have a conflict between raising a family or finishing the degree, which is just at the worst time — between the ages of 25 to 30 or whatever it is. It ruins the five years of their lives.
And I see the difference in the business world. My daughter happens to be a businesswoman, so I meet a lot of her young friends.
The life there is so much easier for women. They start a company when they're 20; they go bust when they're 22. [Laughs] Meanwhile, they have a kid, and nobody condemns them for going bust. If you're in the business world, that's what's expected: You should go bust and then start again on something else. So it's a much more relaxed kind of a culture. It's also competitive, but not in such a vicious way. I think the academic world is actually much more destructive of young people.
[The Ph.D. system] was designed for a job in academics. And it works really well if you really want to be an academic, and the system actually works quite well. So for people who have the gift and like to go spend their lives as scholars, it's fine. But the trouble is that it's become a kind of a meal ticket — you can't get a job if you don't have a Ph.D. So all sorts of people go into it who are quite unsuited to it. [...]
Anyway, so, I'm happy that I've raised six kids, and not one of them is a Ph.D.”
Why do you think this is backwards? Industry often has more resources for research than academia does, so doing an industrial internship is usually a way to supercharge your research and get better data and try more things.
How is that backwards?
Grad school can also help accelerate your career especially if you can program.