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Why some PhDs are quitting academia for unconventional jobs (cbc.ca)
329 points by pseudolus 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 248 comments

There is a joke I like that goes

A professor of mathematics noticed that his kitchen sink at his home leaked. He called a plumber. The plumber came the next day and sealed a few screws, and everything was working as before.

The professor was delighted. However, when the plumber gave him the bill a minute later, he was shocked.

"This is one-third of my monthly salary!" he yelled.

Well, all the same he paid it and then the plumber said to him, "I understand your position as a professor. Why don't you come to our company and apply for a plumber position? You will earn three times as much as a professor. But remember, when you apply, tell them that you completed only seven elementary classes. They don't like educated people."

So it happened. The professor got a job as a plumber and his life significantly improved. He just had to seal a screw or two occasionally, and his salary went up significantly.

One day, the board of the plumbing company decided that every plumber had to go to evening classes to complete the eighth grade. So, our professor had to go there too. It just happened that the first class was math. The evening teacher, to check students' knowledge, asked for a formula for the area of a circle. The person asked was the professor. He jumped to the board, and then he realized that he had forgotten the formula. He started to reason it, and he filled the white board with integrals, differentials, and other advanced formulas to conclude the result he forgot. As a result, he got "minus pi times r square."

He didn't like the minus, so he started all over again. He got the minus again. No matter how many times he tried, he always got a minus. He was frustrated. He gave the class a frightened look and saw all the plumbers whisper: "Switch the limits of the integral!!"

Two mathematicians are in a bar. The first one says to the second that the average person knows very little about basic mathematics. The second one disagrees, and claims that most people can cope with a reasonable amount of mathematics.

The first mathematician goes off to the washroom, and in his absence the second calls over the waitress. He tells her that in a few minutes, after his friend has returned, he will call her over and ask her a question. All she has to do is answer “one third x cubed.”

She repeats “one thir — dex cue”?

He repeats, “one third x cubed”.

She asks, “one thir dex cubed?”

“Yes, that’s right,” he says.

So she agrees, and goes off mumbling to herself, “one thir dex cubed…”.

The first guy returns and the second proposes a bet to prove his point, that most people do know something about basic mathematics. He says he will ask the blonde waitress an integral, and the first laughingly agrees. The second man calls over the waitress and asks “what is the integral of x squared?”.

The waitress says “one third x cubed” and whilst walking away, turns back and says over her shoulder “plus a constant!”


A subtle and strong twist ending!

well told! i've heard this before as https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13587528

the entire HN thread for "CIA Declassified Coldwar Russian Jokes [pdf]" is pretty good value https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13585511

This is a joke about a Soviet engineer, and in that context it makes perfect sense.

I think CS PhD programs in particular can be a little strange. I decided to go back to school to pursue a CS PhD after chatting with a retired mathematician about his PhD. He was talking about how he took classes for two years to explore different areas of mathematics and to pass the general exams, then he decided on a branch of mathematics (topology) and approached a professor in that area to be his advisor. After working through a few textbooks together, this person posed a question to his advisor, spent a few more years working to answer the question, eventually answered it and published the result in his dissertation.

This seemed to be what a PhD was all about, but it's not what I've experienced. I've just completed the first year of grad school, and while the classes have been interesting, the expectation is that you already have an advisor when you arrive (or at the latest at the end of your first year) and you hit the ground running pumping out papers. There seems to be little opportunity to explore computer science as a whole or to work towards one singular result. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Peter Sarnak about CS graduate education. He said that CS is in a weird spot between traditional engineering disciplines and the liberal arts, and that the need for grant funding causes departments to encourage students to work on whatever projects the professors are leading. But even he seemed a little surprised when I told him that our department's general exam is basically a presentation on the research you've accomplished so far.

I think this is unfortunate. First, because it goes against what I wanted out of a PhD. But also because it makes the PhD not much different than working in industry. If in either case I have to write code for some boss and satisfy my curiosities on the nights and weekends, why would I choose to do it for much less money and worse career prospects? I imagine this is causing the best and brightest to avoid academia in computer science, which seems bad for research and technological progress in general.

I think different schools have different philosophies as far as that goes. There are schools that admit to the department and have students do very little research for their first two years, and there are schools that admit by advisor and you start research immediately.

My PhD was the latter, but for me it was actually one of the major selling points for me on the program. I had a pretty good idea of the area that I wanted to work in, and I was always bad at learning from classes as opposed to hands-on self-driven learning. By the end of two years, I'd already gotten a lot of research done and moving towards the end of my PhD I was able to branch out within my area and take my own path in a way I doubt I would have been able to do in a different style program, where I wouldn't have had the same depth of knowledge in my field.

All that to say, I think these are two different philosophies in designing a grad program, and each works better for a different style of student. To those that are still thinking about applying, its something that I think should be a serious consideration when looking at program fit.

With regard to your first paragraph, I don't think there are any American universities that admit students by advisor. As far as I'm aware, your admission is a decision made solely by the graduate admissions committee. Even if you have an advisor ready to take you on the most they can do is recommend you to the committee, not supplant it. When you're admitted there are still criteria aside from research to work on.

I think this is a fundamental difference between American and European universities. In European universities, you can hypothetically join a PhD program without any prior degree at all if an advisor chooses to take you on personally. No such sidestepping can happen in an American institution, and regardless you'll have to take some courses (even if you're only auditing them in effect) before you can begin research. Unsurprisingly, American PhD programs are longer.

I've been on the PhD admissions committee for the Berkeley CS PhD program. Students in many areas are, for all practical purposes, admitted by an advisor. It's not a formal arrangement in the same sense as European programs, but no one gets admitted unless at least one professor will commit to being willing to advise and fund you. For superstar students this is rarely an issue and you have your pick of advisors, but for many admits there is exactly one professor who's identified your background and interests as a good fit, so you're essentially admitted with the expectation you'll work with that professor.

Nothing you say is wrong; you're correct that everyone has to do course requirements. But culturally the course requirements are treated as a distraction from research, and students are expected to start working primarily on research from their first semester. I think this is more or less the case in all top American CS PhD programs, and there are reasons to set things up this way, but it's a very different environment from PhDs in most other fields.

Thank you for the insight. Would you be willing to elaborate a bit on finding a good match for advisor, and perhaps any thoughts on approaching someone about exploring an advisorship?

First step is to be acquainted with their previous research. Understand the direction they are taking and what their interests are. Find advisors whose work you think you can build on through your PhD. Write down what you are interested in working on and how it relates/expands/builds on your potential advisor's. Then contact them sharing just that and start having a conversation - they will surely have feedback and ideas for directions that your research could take.

I'm at an American university, and while technically this is true, an advisor going to the committee and saying "I want this person and I have the grant funding to support them" is profoundly influential, to the point that I would be shocked if the committee said no.

True, but:

1) It's still ultimately up to the graduate committee,

2) Once admitted, students will have requirements outside of research, for better or worse.

I'm not making an indictment of the American PhD system, I'm just pointing out that direct advisor admission and unilateral research focus are very uncommon (non-existant?) in the US.

This is about 180 degrees from what I advise anyone asking advice regarding PhDs in the US. Specifically, I tell them that it is best if they know before they even apply who they want to work with and in what capacity. This accomplishes a few things:

- Removes several potential surprises about what they end up researching. It is very sad to see someone expecting to do research on topic A (which they love) but end up doing research on topic B (one they care about much less) because that’s where the money is or that’s where the open advisor is.

- Helps admissions considerably, especially in competitive schools. If an admissions committee denies an applicant that the professor wants, there will be a lot of explaining to do. I assume that you are not talking about “professional” doctoral degrees like JDs or MDs — those are very different than academic-oriented degrees.

- Helps clarify funding. Will you be a research assistant (the answer should be yes if you want to be an academic), a TA, or what?

- Helps clarify what knowledge needs to be known or learned before entering so they can hit the ground running. This helps with course selection (when there are options), project selection, team selection, etc.

- Know the pluses and minuses of their advisor. The best grad students I have seen have read at least some of the research of all of the tenured professors in the department, and they know who is strong and who is weak. They will also have a feel for the politics. These folks are rare, but they are usually the future big time academics.

As someone alluded to elsewhere in this thread, the biggest winners in the academic game hit the ground running for their phd. The folks who come in with an open mind and are looking to learn often will have extremely dim career prospects.

> I'm not making an indictment of the American PhD system, I'm just pointing out that direct advisor admission and unilateral research focus are very uncommon (non-existant?) in the US.

This might be true in schools or departments with very weak research programs. Even then, an advisor advocating for a specific applicant, even if it is a rare occurrence, would most likely be accommodated.

Note that highly talented (relatively speaking) doctoral students are rare. If a professor can get one that’s a great fit, s/he would not be wise to cross their fingers and hope that person gets in and gets assigned as their advisee. Just thinking of a professor leaving that much up to luck makes me laugh — it would never happen.

"Specifically, I tell them that it is best if they know before they even apply who they want to work with and in what capacity."

I append this with the advice that one should never go to a place where their prospective advisor is the only person they can imagine working with.

Primarily because:

"Know the pluses and minuses of their advisor. The best grad students I have seen have read at least some of the research of all of the tenured professors in the department, and they know who is strong and who is weak. They will also have a feel for the politics. These folks are rare, but they are usually the future big time academics."

Is often something that will only come out in time. You can try to figure these things out, and get a good idea, but there are subtle nuances to people that only comes by knowing them.

"This might be true in schools or departments with very weak research programs. Even then, an advisor advocating for a specific applicant, even if it is a rare occurrence, would most likely be accommodated."

My PhD department worked on the "No specific advisor when admitted, lots of coursework" model, and characterizing it as having a "very weak research program" would make you look like an idiot.

> My PhD department worked on the "No specific advisor when admitted, lots of coursework" model, and characterizing it as having a "very weak research program" would make you look like an idiot.

My comment was a reply to throwawaymath’s comment that US programs usually don’t allow professor admits and don’t have a research focus.

If you went to a good school (as you seem to claim), I am willing to bet that one or more admits were advocated for by a professor and (most likely) ended up as that professor’s advisee. You may not have been told about this, but I bet it happens. As I said elsewhere, strong doctoral students (relatively speaking) are extremely hard to find, and most good professors won’t leave a good fit to chance. Maybe your field is different, but I somehow doubt it.

I will also guess that your school has a strong research focus, since having a strong research focus is almost a defining characteristic of a strong program. Note that OP said “unilateral focus”, and maybe your program does not have a “unilateral focus” (I’m not sure exactly how that would be defined), but that largely seems to be a minor issue of semantics rather than the major issue of throwawaymath’s thesis that US programs don’t usually have a strong focus on research (“non-existent” was the word he used). I know of no good doctoral program that does not have a strong focus on research.

Lastly, note that I didn’t say anything about “lots of coursework” — this is common in US doctoral programs. The issue I commented on is that folks who come in with less focus (I think i said “expecting to be taught” or something similar) tend to have weaker career prospects. This doesn’t doom a less-focused person to failure (not at all), but it does make it tougher than someone who comes in with a more intense focus on research. Again, maybe it’s different in your field, but somehow I doubt it. If you have specific examples, I would genuinely love to hear about them — I personally know of a handful, and they are all due to the fortuitous hire of a new professor.

"If you went to a good school (as you seem to claim), I am willing to bet that one or more admits were advocated for by a professor and (most likely) ended up as that professor’s advisee. You may not have been told about this, but I bet it happens. As I said elsewhere, strong doctoral students (relatively speaking) are extremely hard to find, and most good professors won’t leave a good fit to chance. Maybe your field is different, but I somehow doubt it."

The program doesn't do direct admit like that - I know because I asked. Faculty can advocate, and everyone was matched with an advisor, but for the most part first year funding was not under someone's direct RA line, and a slim majority of students ended up switching advisors (myself included).

Ironically, one of the professors who did recruit the strong doctoral students did so in a way that was a very useful cautionary tale for my own recruiting - namely that it's very hard to actually determine that from an application.

This terribly punishes military servicemen who wish to return to normal life and attempt a phd

Note:just making an observation


If a qualified member (bachelors in physics, within UW Physics' normal acceptance criteria for grades/GRE/etc.) of the armed services stepped up and said to our research group, "I think gravity is the coolest thing in Physics, I'd like to spend the next 5-7 years measuring it, and here's why!", that person would have a big leg up in admissions to our department.

I've worked with a number of current and former military in our group. To a person, they've all been great and know how to get things done. Indeed, one of our research scientists is a former submariner.

Can you explain why you think this? I entered a PhD program at the start of the summer and I can't think of a way that veterans would be punished in the application process.

As some other commenters have stated, I'm not really following your logic.

They may not market it that way, but they definitely do. In my program, you are admitted by a specific professor behind the scenes. You may end up working for someone different during your first year, but there is a specific advisor who said "I think this person is good and I have money for them."

Sorry to be blunt throwawaymath, but that's just wrong. I am very familiar with several American universities (including Ivy League) where the advisor can admit directly.

I don't mind you being blunt at all, but do you mind naming those schools specifically? I'm still skeptical.

Not OP, but Harvard, Yale, and Penn are three that I can speak to with firsthand experience.

I will also say that, depending on the specifics of the applicant, you might be shocked by what admissions standards can be bent/broken based on the desire of a faculty member to have a specific student. It’s not common, but it happens.

For my PhD program, I specifically looked for advisors doing the type of simulations I was interested in. There weren't many (1989-1990 time frame). I found one who on paper looked great: lots of good recent publications, assistant prof (she was working on getting tenure, so she was hungry), she had reasonable grants for a theorist, and she needed an apprentice.

Having that helped my application. I started working for her before starting school.

I still had to take courses. I passed the PhD qual test on entry, and had 2 years worth of courses to take. Transferring in some of the masters courses helped some. I offered to test out of the courses, but it was explained to me that the physics department liked their revenue, even though most of the money coming in was research grant based. The BS I had to go through to take a chemistry course which would have been helpful was a side effect of their love of inbound revenue, and dislike of outbound payments.

Basically, I think the economic model at my alma mater was quite broken. This model generally governs behavior of schools, departments, etc. Having a group to start working with helped me clear some of this BS, but I still had to deal with other crap.

Strictly speaking, you're right, students aren't admitted by an advisor. However, often they are admitted to work with a specific advisor. That is, there are schools where an advisor cannot unilaterally get you in (its up to the grad admissions committee), but unless there's someone that's wants to take you as a grad student, you're not getting in.

It can vary by specialty. A friend applied to several schools for graduate work in geology; the admission process was explicitly admission into a designated professor's research group.

> But also because it makes the PhD not much different than working in industry.

I believe this is viewed as a feature, and not a bug. For the most part, academia serves as one of the few reliable ways to emigrate to the U.S., and exploits that fact to generate a large pool of inexpensive labor. In exchange, these students are rewarded with a US visa and a comparatively well-paying job.

Neither party expects these graduates to stay in academia, so the ability to follow orders, work to a deadline, and solve highly-abstract problems provide a much more tangible benefit than inculcating the creativity, communication skills, and bureaucratic know-how that differentiates successful professors.

In many ways, including these reasons, I think the PhD is starting to be viewed by some as a "super-Masters degree" that simply requires more work or takes longer, rather than as requiring a distinct, different skillset.

Note that this is based only on my observations of a top-50 US graduate program; this might be totally different in a top-4 program, for example. However, one data point I found particularly persuasive is that in our program with ~300 PhD students, we have fewer than 30 (and probably fewer than 10) students with US citizenship or green cards.

I've observed this myself and it's creating a weird dynamic in data science. More often, companies are requiring PhDs for their entry level data science positions. (Because there's a surplus of people who want to enter the field and it's difficult to tell who will ultimately be successful. Possessing a PhD is a good predictor of success.)

But there are very few American-born students going on to get PhDs who are interested in industry because, well, why would they waste another 5 years in school when they can get software engineering jobs with only a BS or MS? According to this study [1], 38% of all data scientists are non-US citizens and nearly half of early-career data scientist are non-US citizens. It's weird that we're pushing US citizens out of data science.

[1] http://burtchworks.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Burtch-Wor...

When you say "data science" does that encompass traditionally educated statisticians and business intelligence folks? If you only count the practitioners out there who self-identify as data scientists you get a pretty incomplete sample of what the field actually is.

What you're describing as what you didn't expect is how PhDs were done traditionally. It's the more recent US model to have classes and exams.

I posed a question to my advisor in order to get onto the PhD, started researching immediately, and my 'general exam' half-way through was a presentation and viva. Obviously the question changed totally by the time I finished, but that's the nature of research and where it takes you.

I'm not sure why you'd expect to explore computer science as a whole on a PhD. The point of a PhD is to become an expert in one part of the field and to push it to expand what we know - not to gain general wide knowledge. I don't think that was ever the idea - that's what a bachelors is for.

I think it depends on the field. In mathematics I think the expectation is that students need to study for a few years to even understand what the open questions are, and only then can they begin the research.

I'm fully aware of what the point of a PhD is. I wasn't expecting to become a generalist, but I was expecting some time to study some recent results and come up with a tractable research proposal. Indeed, if the purpose of a PhD is to expand the totality of human knowledge, why was it expected that I would publish 3-4 conference papers to graduate? Wouldn't one significant result have been enough?

> Indeed, if the purpose of a PhD is to expand the totality of human knowledge, why was it expected that I would publish 3-4 conference papers to graduate?

This is a question that bothers me quite a bit with respect to EECS (electrical engineering and computer science). In mathematics, one's PhD thesis can often serve as one's first paper (once revised). Funnily enough, the same was true for EECS even at the top tier places in the 1980's - I know of a case at Caltech where the student did not have any publications prior to graduation, and yet went on to become a successful professor.

Is it really true that humanity is producing more knowledge in EECS today per student than it was in the 1980's? I seriously doubt this. In my experience, instead what has happened is that the average "delta" in a conference proceeding has gone down significantly, in spite of the vast increase of words like "novel" and "new" being used, and the ballooning of the average paper length.

In mathematics on the other hand, top quality authors freely admit that a lot of their work can be "implicitly" traced back to the "big names" of the past; indeed this has to be done for conceptual and historical clarity.

I see that you mention Peter Sarnak in your top comment. Peter Sarnak has a a wonderful article at the very end of "The Princeton Companion to Mathematics" on his advice for students. Among other things, he stresses the importance of the "history of ideas", and how it often brings clarity to an entire field.

Thanks for the pointer to Peter Sarnak's advice. I believe this is the history of ideas advice you were referring to on pg 1008 (1031 in pdf):

When learning an area, one should combine reading modern treatments with a study of the original papers, especially papers by the masters of our subject. One of the troubles with recent accounts of certain topics is that they can become too slick. As each new author finds cleverer proofs or treatments of a theory, the treatment evolves toward the one that contains the “shortest proofs.” Unfortunately, these are often in a form that causes the new student to ponder, “How did anyone think of this?” By going back to the original sources one can usually see the subject evolving naturally and understand how it has reached its modern form. (There will remain those unexpected and brilliant steps at which one can only marvel at the genius of the inventor, but there are far fewer of these than you might think.)

Often one "significant result" has to be serialized into 3-4 conference papers in order for it to be digestible and reviewable by the referees.

There are exceptions of course, like Gentry's fully homomorphic encryption, but those are increasingly rare.

> What you're describing as what you didn't expect is how PhDs were done traditionally. It's the more recent US model to have classes and exams.

Classes and exams in a PhD programme? I've never heard of this anywhere - I had no idea that was a thing in the US.

There is an ugly trend in the UK to having "credits" for attending workshops as part of your "personal development". You basically have to go and sit in a workshop pretending to listen to someone talking about academic writing so that some admin can tick a box. Considering even postdocs and RAs have to write reports on how their "personal development" is progressing I don't think the powers that be will be happy until everyone can be placed into a spreadsheet.

I think the UK thing is wrapped up in the idea of a CDT, which seems to be trying to make our PhD programme more like the American style.

I really don't like it!

I don't think PhD students should be sitting in a class or going through as a cohort. You're supposed to be a professional, independent researcher.

My first day of my PhD, I was shown my desk at 9 am and told 'get researching, mate'.

It's still the same in the UK as it always was, just plus this credit thing. If you're maverick enough you can dodge it by being a good enough researcher that they aren't going to kick you out for not attending workshops, but that's probably going to get harder. Most people cram enough workshops into one week at the end of each year to get the necessary credits to "progress".

You can also get credits for publications and attending conferences, but the credits you can get like that are capped at about 20% of what you need. So you can have 10 publications in a year and still need to attend workshops.

> It's still the same in the UK as it always was, just plus this credit thing.

CDTs are also causing centralised admissions and making all students start at the same time in a year.

In the US, this is the case because most US PhD programs do not require a master's degree. From my understanding, you are expected to come in with a master's in many European countries.

Also, many first year students do productive research in the US. It very much depends on you're relationship with your advisor and your familiarity with the subject matter.

I think the two subjects are very different. Math has a much longer history. To get to the edge of knowledge you need to know a lot more because people have built proofs upon proofs for much longer. You need an undergrad plus a year or two of grad to get both the depth a breadth of what’s been done in the past.

In CS the edge of the field isn’t as far away. New knowledge invalidates more of the old, and you don’t even need a CS undergrad degree to be near some of the edges.

It's pretty rare that PhD programs let you truly explore what you want to do. PIs (generally profs) get the vast majority of outside funding so you pretty much have to find a way to align yourself with a prof from day one.

In general a professor is an entrepreneur. They are running a small business where they sell their product ("knowledge") to customers (business and industry) by means of sales and marketing (conferences and papers). Grad students are employees of this business, and of course the prof's incentive is to keep the good ones and fire (graduate) the bad ones, thus the reward for the student working hard is more hard work.

Two notes:

1) I am evaluated on the progress of my students. While bad ones will actually be fired, good ones are more useful to me if they go off and get postdocs etc. Some of the most powerful "businesses" in the field are created by the network of people who all trained with the same PI and then went on to found their own labs.

2) A burnt out, trapped graduate student is not actually one that produces good work, in my experience.

3) Several grants, which are how I fund my lab, will look very poorly on trainees making no progress. There's very little exploitation that's worth a program officer at the NSF wondering if I'm worth there time.

Are there bad, exploitative PIs? Absolutely. But these people are assholes, not the only logical outcome of the system.

But no good student who approaches the grad school process in a sane manner is going to work for a professor whose students stay there for 12 years and don't graduate. A common thing for deciding if you want to work with someone is seeing how long their students took to graduate, where they ended up, emailing them, etc.

My experience does not agree with what you wrote in your last paragraph. Writing code as a computer scientist is equivalent to doing lab work as a biologist or to building instruments as an experimental physicist. You can't do research in CS if you don't get your hands dirty, unless your research in theoretical computer science. In exchange for this, many doors open to you after you finish your PhD that would otherwise be closed (unless you did your research in theoretical computer science). And among the best and the brightest that I met in industry, many are in fact PhDs.

As someone who's also pursuing a PhD in CS, I feel your comment doesn't reflect my situation, or my colleagues'. It's true that I started working on one of my advisor's projects, but the difference between the industry and academia is that I can discuss whatever I want about the project with him, and he will care about it. I am in lead of the project and my advisor acts as an advisor, not a boss.

Of course it all depends on many factors, just my personal experience here.

I remember in undergrad I took a class and the topic of the day was the concept of an inflection point. The way the professor demonstrated it was like this:

Based on time spent and potential earnings forgone, a Bachelor's degree is a good investment. A Master's is a good investment. The inflection point happens, and a Phd is not as good of an investment.

That's all the information I needed to decide to stop after a Master's. Have only regretted it once, when I worked at a company that was owned by someone with a Phd in Economics and with many Phd Economists working there. I felt like a second class citizen and in a moment of irrationality, when the entire employment universe seemed to consist of only this company and ones like it, I thought about going and getting a Phd in my late 30s.

Thank God I didn't. Making about 2.5x as much as I was making then, two jobs later, no further education needed (other than Cloud Guru courses).

Part of this difference is due to how departments are funded: math departments teach a lot of "service" courses for non-math majors. So there are enough TAships to fund most students who want them. Most other programs do not have enough TA positions to support all the students they have.

Source: I'm on the math faculty at a large public research university.

Indeed. By way of comparison, my department has zero TA lines.

Too many CS postgraduate programs just feel like engineering ones. This is why chosing a proper advisor is so important as your intentions should be aligned. Even then, there are things you might need to do to satisfy your program requirements that aren't exactly what you want to do.

Anecdoctal experience: I was offered a somewhat decent scholarship for a Master's program backed by an Oil company, but I would work on specific projects chosen by the company. I sincerely prefered to go for a program/advisor that fit my goal (more on the theoretical CS research) and no grant (the program is free here). This meant that I have to work to pay my bills and study on 'free time'. This works for me personally because I make a more than any program scholarship would pay me while acquiring some industry experience. This can work while I am doing my masters, but It is borderline impossible for a PhD program.

i totally know how you feel since i have felt that way in the past as well :) here's something relevant: http://pgbovine.net/practical-reason-to-pursue-PhD.htm

my two cents: find something where the grants align with your interests, or find a brand-new faculty member who has startup money so isn't as bound by grants in the near term. and if things don't work out, simply leave and go to industry -- with a marketable skill set like what you get from being a CS major, there's no way for you to lose. go wherever has work that you like more.

I have experience with both mathematics and CS departments, and I have exactly the opposite opinion. I think the Old School Mathematics model is absolute garbage and often explicitly and intentionally exploitative.

1. It's not like those math Ph.D.s are sitting around reading textbooks with their advisors.

They are TA'ing service courses. A lot of TA'ing. In addition to TA'ing, they are prepping for a high-stakes exam.

The exam will wash out the 50-70% of people who are needed as temp TA labor but whom the department has no intention of advising through to a Ph.D.

After 2 or 3 years, you pass the exam. Yay! But wait. Reading textbooks with your advisor? No! you need to take a whole slew of courses. Why? Because course enrollment == money and easy/interesting teaching assignments. And good luck getting tons of research done in-between your TA'ing and courses...

Now you're done with courses! Yay! After TA duties, you can spend 100% of your time on research (aka 50% of a 40 hour work week aka 80% of a grad student work week). Except you only have 2 years left :-(

So now it's on to 1-3 postdocs so that you can start doing, after 5 years, what that CS phd student was doing when they "hit the ground running": build a research agenda that resonates with a large enough set of researchers that it translates into a research job.


Also, the "one singular result" style of research is unique not just to mathematics, but to a particular subset of mathematics. It's just not a good fit for most research problems, even in Mathematics. I've seen tons of well-composed dissertations focused on a singular, pointless problem.

The hodgepodge dissertations don't have a "beautiful singular result" feel, but almost invariably contribute at least one piece of useful, new knowledge.

Finally, worth noting that the best and brightest don't leave research; they might leave academia, but typically not research.

TL;DR: If you can find an advisor who isn't a slave driver (the majority of them at good places), the CS model is 1000% better than the Math model. You might be hired as a researcher for someone else's research agenda, but at least you don't spend the first 1/3rd of the phd as temp teaching labor stressing over high-stakes exams.

> The exam will wash out the 50-70% of people who are needed as temp TA labor but whom the department has no intention of advising through to a Ph.D.

At which department?

Speaking as a math professor in an American research university -- this is unusual. Pass rates at most places are reasonably high, and professors hope that as many people as possible pass.

It is true that grad students are expected to TA (if they want funding); usually grant funding is not available to support them. But generally the teaching burdens are relatively modest, around ~15 hours a week including grading and office hours.

> rates at most places are reasonably high

If you really believe this, pressure USC's department to start publishing their pass rates each year and pressure your peers at other institutions to do the same. IME departments outright lie on visit days and/or change their definition of "reasonable" any time they accidentally over-admit.

E.g., Berkeley -- one of the few places to actually reveal information of any sort on prelim pass rates -- describes their pass rate as "reasonable" and in the same sentence goes on to clarify that they typically pass 2/3rds of students but of course don't make any promises or anything.

Maybe us Ph.D.s are so damn battle-scarred we don't realize that a 1/3rd attrition rate on a poverty salary is actually really unacceptable and absolutely not normal? Can you name a single software company that works like that?

A few of my colleagues with bio PhD's have started microbreweries with various levels of success. They seem to be much happier than my colleagues and myself who have chosen the post-doc route.

This is a bit of a tangent but it seems to be a common trend now among labs to arrest trainees (particularly phd students and post-docs) in their positions as long as possible. For example, the institute I am at has recently extended the maximum assignment length for post-doctoral fellows to from 4 to 6 years. I can see the PI's reasoning for this but it is incredibly demoralizing and one of the contributing factors for a lot of people I know who have abandoned their careers for unconventional jobs.

In my opinion, that’s what needs to happen. Thin out the ranks of professors as they move to greener pastures in the workforce and eventually you’ll see schools get in a position where they have to work harder to recruit. Better pay, benefits, support, etc.

That's pretty much happening in computer science in the US. Pay for CS faculty members has been rising significantly faster than inflation, and faster than other fields, although still not nearly as fast as in industry. A brain-drain of people at all levels of seniority to high-paid tech jobs is a big part of it, although increase in demand is another part of it (the number of incoming freshmen declaring a CS major is exploding, driving lots of places to expand their departments).

The same effects have also made long postdocs less common, and it's even possible to jump directly to a tenure-track faculty job from a PhD with no postdoc in between. Alternately, people seem to be doing a kind of "industry postdoc". You get an industry job, but one that lets you publish (DeepMind, Facebook Research, some startups, etc.), and after a year or two you either find you like it and stay, or you use that as a springboard to apply for faculty jobs, treating it as having been basically a high-paid postdoc.

Still plenty of stuff to complain about, but the job market looks far different than in the natural sciences or humanities.

> Still plenty of stuff to complain about, but the job market looks far different than in the natural sciences or humanities.

Yup. Economics [0] and comp sci are basically the only doctoral programs worth going into at this point (at least if you're an American citizen). You can debate which one is _more_ worth it, but the fact is that if you're doing anything else, you're in a for a world of pain.

[0] http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com/2013/05/if-you-get-phd-ge...

Tangentially, the author now prefers applied mathematics to economics [0].

[0] https://twitter.com/Noahpinion/status/1015988356184866817

> Alternately, people seem to be doing a kind of "industry postdoc"

This isn't new. I had plenty of professors that worked at e.g. Bell Labs before returning to academia.

Professor is already a very comfortable job. Adjunct lecturer is an awful job, but the requirements for those are already quite low, and frankly generally don't include "is an effective teacher". IMO, the problem here isn't supply-and-demand for the lecturer job; the problem is that the service being provided ("teaching a course") isn't the product the customer (student) is buying! In the common case, the student is buying a degree and doesn't care about the course (because the course is a "distribution requirement" inside or outside of major, or because the whole major/degree is a a pointless arbitrary requirement put in place by employers). On both sides, student and teacher, parties are simply going through the motions to fulfill the illusion of a meaningful degree.

I am skeptical that will ever happen. At least in North America there are a plethora of international students willing to train here for next to nothing and in some cases I've heard rumours of post-docs not taking a salary at all.

The post-doc where I got my PhD was making $5k less than I, or around 17k

His English sucked, his physics PhD in non linear quantum mechanics useless and his resume-writting skills was non existent.

Yet, he's the only person to read my thesis, the cluster worked only thanks to his efforts, and he administered 20~30 workstations while doing his research. I would not have graduated without him and he is more dear to me than anyone I met at school.

I think it's tragic that they low ball international students that way. Many of the ones I have met work exceptionally hard; including doing activities like you mentioned.

> This is a bit of a tangent but it seems to be a common trend now among labs to arrest trainees (particularly phd students and post-docs) in their positions as long as possible

I've witnessed this as well. One of the worst offenses I saw was a master's student in a 1-year master's program (basically supposed to be a post-bac / used for switching fields) who spent around 4 years in the same lab instead.

Chalk me up for another anecdotal "I saw it too" - You would think the upper admins would notice someone on the books for 6-8 years but they didn't do anything. Its a culture that higher education departments perpetuate.

A PhD is a degree in conducting research. Get one if you want a career in research. If you don't like research, don't do a PhD. Any decent program pays students about a $1.5-3K monthly stipend. Don't have being a professor as the only acceptable end-goal.

There are lots of careers that benefit from or require a PhD besides being a professor. People with STEM PhDs are found in great concentration in R&D settings. For example, when I worked at NASA JPL probably about 50%+ of the scientists had PhDs.

Outside of STEM activities, it can still be an enriching life experience. You don't incur significant debt. It does have a high opportunity cost, if one's undergraduate degree is lucrative. On the other hand, you get the privilege to spend your time trying to create new knowledge.

Real PhD Issues (and Cons):

1) Research is hard and it requires a massive time investment to create new knowledge, especially when just starting.

2) High levels of impostor syndrome. You will likely meet people much smarter than you, and those that can work 80+ hours per week for years. If you fall into the trap of comparing yourself to them, your mental health will suffer. You have to just work toward solving your problems. As one old friend put it, he felt like a genius when he worked as a software developer, but throughout his PhD he felt like an underachiever.

3) Jealousy of your friends "getting their lives started" (kids, buying a home, etc.). Very hard to have any work-life balance as a PhD student.

4) Don't expect to get rich after a PhD. Do it because you think a career in research will be satisfying.

5) If you want to be a tenure-track professor running a lab, you have to be very flexible with where you live. Being a professor is also very stressful.

6) If you want to teach in college, a PhD is required but the main thing a PhD teaches is research -- not teaching.

7) Clearly assess your ability to get a professorship if you choose to do a podstoc. There is little point in one unless a professorship is your end-goal. Many don't realistically assess their competitiveness for professorships. I wrote a blog post about this about 6 years ago (it needs updating): http://www.chriskanan.com/planning-for-life-after-your-phd/

>> 2) High levels of impostor syndrome.

I felt this, but was surprised that while there were a few genuine genius-level people in my program, the vast majority spent most of the effort trying to look like a genius but were far from it.

One of the things I tell people when they ask me about grad school is, "I thought everybody would be smarter".

> I felt this, but was surprised that while there were a few genuine genius-level people in my program, the vast majority spent most of the effort trying to look like a genius but were far from it.

An astounding amount of time is wasted in academia on puffery. I'm not sure how it compares to industry because there's never been a systematic comparison (and I don't really believe such a comparison would be feasible). My personal experience was that the "mediocrities" who kept a low profile and stayed out of departmental politics as much as possible seemed to actually be accomplishing the most work with any actual substance. Some of these folks were working in state-sponsored institutions rather than universities. All of them seemed to be in their 50s and 60s, tenured (or tenure-equivalented) before higher ed became a hypercompetitive shitshow.

This pretension really comes through when scholars don't respect the limits of their expertise / properly delegate to specialists. In software and IT especially, you find academics using technologies that are a poor fit for their work, not understanding budgeting and concepts such as total cost of ownership for compute resources, and reinventing the wheel.

>"I thought everybody would be smarter"

I don't remember where I heard it but I think has some truth to it. A bachelor believes he's the smartest A master thinks he's not smart at all A Phd understands no one is smart

If you're not in STEM, if you want a PhD in the humanities, it's going to be a VERY tough path. Many of those students do shell out many thousands of dollars per semester, ending their PhD with very high levels of debt. At the same time, the jobs for people with PhDs in humanities are becoming less frequent, even as the number of PhDs in non-STEM is increasing. Many of these individuals are stuck in adjunct slavery. It's a sad state of affairs that those who want to further their own knowledge can be so mired in debt, yet it has happened to multiple friends of mine who "followed their dreams".

Yeah...my default response for people asking about a PhD in the humanities is "Don't."

I thought the entire appeal of a "liberal arts" college was that the college focuses on quality teaching instead of research. Why on earth would they demand their profressors have PhDs?

Requiring a PhD to teach serves the same purpose as requiring a degree to apply for a job: an arbitrary but easy to apply filter. While PhDs are research-oriented, in reality you can end up in a research or pedagogy track depending on (a) what you want and (b) how your research progresses.

I'm at a SLAC. Here are a couple of reasons that the institutions want this.

1) Teachers should know more than the students. The degree quantifies that.

2) The highest-rated SLAC's have PhD faculty, and so the next-highest aspire to that.

One way this is concrete is that the accrediting agencies put as a point they look for that all faculty have a terminal degree. And people looking at colleges want to go to the highest-rated places (subject to monetary considerations), so it is a major factor in enrollment.

3) It helps keep you alive, and your teaching reflects that.

This third one can sound a little BS but in my experience having a professional activity as a creative output definitely helps keep people from becoming toasted.

The PhD first really became a requirement for professors wanting to teach at SLACs around the 1940s. Prior to that point, it wasn't that uncommon for you to find teachers that "only" had BAs. This transition (a BA being the minimum to a PhD being the minimum) occurred substantially earlier at large universities [0].

During the period between the 1940s and the late 80s-ish, the PhD involved research, but not with nearly the same competitiveness as today. As such, budding candidates were able to devote substantially more time to developing their pedagogical skills (even in the past this viewed more like an extracurricular pursuit, but a lot of PhDs took it seriously enough that they got really good at it).

The folks who came out of this era had dual competencies in teaching and research. The need for research skills primarily was to help more advanced and motivated students (juniors and seniors) to get some limited research experience on-campus.

Sometime between the late 90s and early 2000s, the balance in competencies shifted due to hyper-competitiveness. As a result, almost no PhD students today really focus on pedagogy and it is still treated as an increasingly neglected extra-curricular pursuit. This has become a very big problem for SLACs, since almost all PhDs coming out now are enculturated to feel that they have to create a large research program, and almost view working at a SLAC as a "backup" option if they don't land a large university job rather than a goal in and of itself. SLACs have had to compensate for this by offering increasingly attractive incentives / research starter packages to get new faculty. This trend is also being aggravated by helicopter parents who now insist that their children participate in research at increasingly younger ages (oftentimes high school) so as to pad their resumes for med school.

[0] https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/octopus.html

Disclaimer: Source for some of this is free recall from a temporary job in SLAC archive. Some of it may be wrong. Visit a SLAC archive if you care enough to verify.

If a student wants to get a taste of research, then they will probably need a research mentor with a PhD. Failing that, somebody who has published a few good papers -- but such people usually have PhDs! So it's not unreasonable to have PhDs around for student enrichment, even if having a PhD does little to make you better at teaching undergrad material.

The actual administrative reasoning here is probably a combination of the above and "you just can't be an academic without a PhD!".

8>Some research doctorates require taking instuctor education as part of completion requirements.

Just to offer a bit of a counter to much of the negative views here, I enjoyed my Ph.D very much. I went into it with my eyes open, and realizing that an academic career wasn't the only option that would work for me.

Through scholarships I was paid enough to be comfortable while spending my time on interesting things. The scholarship game is a bit winner-take-all though, and I know the minimum funding level in my department was less than 1/2 of what some of us were making, and that was in a STEM department - my understanding is humanities are a very different thing. You have to decide what is ok for you.

Afterwards I did a post-doc and then a research position. Through a national fellowship (post-doc) and funding guarantees (faculty) I knew I would be able to make something like the low end of what my industry salary would be - and easily chose the academic freedom at least for a few years.

When I was on the academic market, I didn't find a tenure track position I felt was the right fit. Rather than play the waiting game some of my colleagues were doing, and I realized that "any R1 that will take you" wasn't going to make me happy. So I chose to turn down the offers and go to industry. That's also had it's ups and downs.

I guess my point is there where many steps along that path I took a good look at my options and chose to stay. Sure, I could have made a bit more money in some industries, but there are other considerations. I've never worked with a more talented or motivated group of people than I did during graduate and post-doc work. I've never had the time since to just dig into an interesting problem or really swing for the fences. I'm sure it cost me a bit in terms of lifetime earnings, but it's a trade-off I'd make again in a heartbeat. I'm sure I would have been happy teaching somewhere if the parameters had been slightly different, but I'm ok with that too.

What I really don't understand is people who are somehow shocked to find themselves in the position, many years in, of making less than they think their time is worth and without the career prospects they had hoped for, and bitterly complain about it as if someone else made the decisions that put them there.

Graduate programs absolutely aren't for everyone. They are, however, a unique opportunity - if the good parts really appeal to you and the financials etc. make sense for you, by all means do it. Just don't expect it to be something it isn't.

I agree with you, and I think it depends a lot on the department you are in. Too many people just apply for the top N schools for the field they want to go into. There's a huge difference in culture and feels of each school, and how they deal with funding or advising.

My PhD was some of my best years of my life, and I was truly lucky. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and even now I wish I could return to being a PhD student for the rest of my life. I had a great set of friends, all the research freedom I wanted, supportive department, and I did research internships at least once a year so my average salary was pretty decent (about half a software developer salary at that time). If your goal is to make as much money as fast as possible, then you will be disappointed with a PhD.

I was in a department that was in between social science and computer science, and out of the 8 of us that started together, all 8 graduated. 7 of the 8 landed R1 tenure-track faculty positions, most of us directly after the PhD (the remaining 1 was running a successful business).

I enjoyed my PhD too. But I think that in spite of my own experience, I have a strong misgiving about doctoral education because of the attrition risk. Too many things can happen, completely out of your control, that can throw you out on the street with no degree. I've seen...

Your advisor can drop dead, get sent to the hoosegow, lose grant funding, lose tenure, or change jobs without taking you along. Your research topic could turn out to be controversial among feuding members of your committee. You could be subjected to harassment, discrimination, etc. You might have to escalate matters with your advisor in order to get your final thesis approved, meaning you get your PhD but without a vital source of recommendation.

Some of those things can happen to you in a regular day job as well, but at least when you lose a regular job, you haven't lost everything.

Same here. The academic freedom that I had during my PhD combined with the intellectually stimulating environment, I cannot find anywhere else. Also most of my current close friends I made during my PhD.

I'm nearing the end of my PhD in physics and I feel the same way. I've really enjoyed it and I'm absolutely OK not pursuing an academic career. I'm starting to lay out my plan for applying for jobs in industry - and I won't be applying for anything with "physicist" in the job title. I got to work on fun and interesting projects while having the freedom to learn other things that were interesting and enjoyable to me. I've also made amazing friends along the way.

If things go as they should, PhD may not be a bad deal at all.

It's also useful to note that the money and working condition issues are country and field dependent. For instance, in many European countries PhD students in many STEM and also humanities fields are most often employed full-time with standard work contract(s), with OK salary (but less than in industry), and full benefits with excessive unpaid overtime in principle forbidden, small or no tuition, etc.

The situation with academic career prospects after PhD as I understand however is that situation is similar to US everywhere, and going eventually gets tough after that point, and most people are culled before finding a "permanent" position.

I feel the same way about my degree. The money was clearly a fraction of what I could be making in industry, but it was enough to live fairly comfortably. And the freedom I had to pursue my interests was unmatched in any other position I could have gotten instead.

I have a master's degree and I learned early that getting a PhD was not for me. The way things worked at the university made me not stand to be in that environment anymore. This thing that is ridiculous in my opinion is that the advisor would say: "there is this conference coming and we will send a manuscript. We can try this and that to see if it is publishable.". Why the hell should I research for publishing? One should get the results AND THEN publish it.

The experience with academia was very toxic, although I know people who have experienced worse than that, with addition to advisors' ego disputes affecting grad students.

Most incoming grad students enter PhD programs with incorrect assumptions about how grad school works. A decent number of those incorrect assumptions involve the grad student role itself. For instance, I knew of a research assistant headed to grad school who was thrilled because he/she liked to learn in classroom environments, which is only a very small part of what grad school is at best (although coming out of undergrad, you might assume that it's a bigger part of a PhD than it is).

All prospective grad students should read over the following to understand what they're truly getting into / developing realistic expectations before committing a substantial amount of their life to the Ivory Tower. The first link covers toxicity in academia (YMMV), which is more or less what drove me out of lab work and into IT. I personally chose to remain working in academia because I find it meaningful, but in a role that was more insulated from academic politics (vs generic work politics).

[0] http://academiaiskillingmyfriends.tumblr.com/

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Getting-What-You-Came-Students/dp/037...

[2] http://100rsns.blogspot.com/

I think that "Graduate School in the Humanities - Just Don't Go" is a gem of an essay, because it does a good job explaining why students still enter these programs when the data screams out that they shouldn't.


One thing that is often overlooked is that the US does have a very restrictive immigration system for people who don't have relatives here and can't leverage family reunification. In this case, getting advanced STEM degrees provides a path towards residency, work rights, and perhaps eventually a green card or citizenship. So in the US, these folks wouldn't be looking at a choice between getting a PhD and becoming a florist, because it would be illegal to come here and work as a florist. But there's a "shortage" of people getting PhDs in STEM fields, so we allow people to come here under conditions of limited personal freedom provided they agree to work these positions.

This power on the part of universities (the power to bestow residency and limited work right), I think, is one of the reasons STEM PhD programs haven't collapsed or faced the reckoning that would force them to change.

> In this case, getting advanced STEM degrees provides a path towards residency, work rights, and perhaps eventually a green card or citizenship.

At my very first job, nearly all of my coworkers were Indian. As I met more people at work and started adding them on LinkedIn, I noticed one thing in common with all their LinkedIn profiles: they all got their bachelor's in India and their master's in the US.

One day, I was riding either to or from a company lunch with a coworker, and we started talking about our lives. He asks me about my education, and when I told him I only did my undergrad and never went to grad school, he told me that in his case, he had to go to school here as a condition of getting into this country, and since he already had a bachelors in CS, he went for a master's in CS.

This was before I learned how fucked-up our immigration system is. Once I learned that, his words made so much more sense.

> before I learned how fucked-up our immigration system is.

Fucked up because they give higher-educated people preference, or fucked up because corporations lobby for more H1B workers to depress engineering wages industry wide?

It's fucked-up because there are very, very few ways to actually get into the US legally.

And in this case they're not giving educated people preference. They didn't come here on a rule that says that people with postgraduate degrees get to come to the US. They came here on a student visa because coming here on a student visa is one of the few ways to get in at all, and it just so happens that a student visa can be upgraded to an H1-B later if the student lands a job with a company willing to sponsor them.

I'd recommend reading this flowchart which explains in detail how fucked-up our immigration system is:


Interestingly enough, it doesn't mention coming here on a student visa and then upgrading to an H1-B; it's basically the only loophole around that depressing flowchart. Vox's slideshow on immigration, though, does link the flowchart and mention student visas are one of the only other ways to get in (the other is a tourist visa, which is useless for immigration because you can't upgrade, and you'll be denied a tourist visa if the US thinks you're interested in immigrating):


The academic route is basically a form of modern-day indentured servitude, which is another way in which wages for American students who decided upon pursuing a PhD for "the life of the mind" rather than economic reasons are depressed (e.g., Indians are willing to work for much less because it's their only way in, and the money is much better than developing countries). I have little faith that efforts at unionization among grad students and adjuncts will gain any traction until this is addressed.

tl;dr: Immigration reform would be a godsend for restoring some sense of sanity to the system.

It's also fucked up because a vast majority of the people who come via this route are rich kids with parents ready to back them up with cash if shit hits the fan. Lower middle class/lower class students usually don't even dream about taking a 4 million rupee loan, because they realize how fucked they would be if something goes wrong. No wonder what this kind of a sampling bias will do to the average quality of people coming in. It used to be different when a vast majority of students used to come on scholarships, but there are plenty of colleges now who run the MS program like a cash cow.

The quality of the degrees are very different. The US is known from having a good level and it's respected in most places around the world.

Is it that unappealing for US citizens to get a STEM PhD? Especially in the US the private sector ought to offer enough jobs at the PhD level and pay to make the PhD worthwile.

Depends on the particular stem field but in general, if the goal is a well paying job, STEM PhDs are one of the harder ways to get there.

Hard ? Because of getting the PhD in the first place or refocusing your career afterwards ?

Well, again, it depends on the particular field, but both reasons can apply. My study of black holes was hard and didn't exactly make for a ton of usable skills other than knowing how to learn.

Most of academia is toxic. Those who don't see that haven't spent enough time in it.

I believe things can't go well in general in any area where money comes from organized begging ("proposals", "apply for funding"), driven by reputation ("publications", "impact factor") and where the bad eggs can't even be fired ("tenure")

> driver by reputation ("publications", "impact factor") and where the bad eggs can't even be fired ("tenure")

From personal experience, I've always felt as though the existence of "rock star" academics always gave academia a Hollywood-like feel in terms of systemic abuse and candidly bizarre and maladaptive behaviors on the part of researchers.

At least Hollywood has tabloids to keep things reasonable!

Academia does have Retraction Watch [0]. Unfortunately/fortunately, it operates outside the system.

[0] https://retractionwatch.com/

My experience is that some people in academia really have minimal idea of what the world outside it is like. They literally can't imagine anything different and certainly haven't experienced it.

Most of academia is toxic. Those who don't see that haven't spent enough time in it.

Or they’ve spent way too much time in. It’s like people who spend a couple of decades in a prison, they’re fully institutionalized and feel they can’t cope with the real world.

>I believe things can't go well in general in any area where money comes from organized begging ("proposals", "apply for funding"), driven by reputation ("publications", "impact factor") and where the bad eggs can't even be fired ("tenure")

So you're never, ever gonna work with venture capitalists?

Being in crypto, fortunately I won't have to.

One of the few benefits of ICO: you can now raise money without having to bother with VCs. That's a nice evolution.

I have a masters degree, bailed on a phD, and even then I didn't realize it quite quickly enough. My MS program at Berkeley was quite flexible, and it was easy enough to get the requisite math. I dropped courses like Intellectual Property (cross listed with the law school), Product Development (cross listed with the business school), courses I was enjoying and would have done quite well in, to take classes like "advanced nonlinear optimization", which were a bad match for me.

Yes, nonlinear optimization will help you understand how neural nets work, but trust me, you don't need to take an advanced graduate class full of PhD students on the topic. If you have the prerequisites to the prerequisites, you understand math well enough to read about gradient descent on your own.

To be clear, there are people who belonged in this class, I just wasn't one of them.

For a lot of people, the sooner you realize a PhD isn't a good match for you, the better. The problem is, the sort of person who has the grades, test scores, and academic mindset to get into a top PhD program is almost certain to be slow to realize (and accept!) this. Add in the fact that PhD programs have astoundingly high attrition rates compared to professional doctoral programs (atrition at UCSF's med school is below 0.5%, whereas many PhD programs have attrition rates about 50% - yes, literally 100 times higher!) and you start to get a sense of why a lot of seemingly smart people get kind of snookered on PhD programs.

One big difference here is that people who masters out of STEM PhD programs can often still have a career in this field, perhaps a better renumerated one anyway. Though from what I've seen, getting a PhD in lit isn't necessarily a good path for someone who loves literature or theater, either.

> atrition at UCSF's med school is below 0.5%, whereas many PhD programs have attrition rates about 50%

Some of us went through school systems with 50% pass rates for middle school, high school and university, so don't find that either surprising, nor necessarily bad.

In fact, I at least am somewhat confused that a high pass rate is considered "good" - it clearly encourages grade inflation and arguably devalues the received degree...

> Why the hell should I research for publishing?

Because publications pretty much define your scientific contributions, i.e. your productivity as a researcher.

> One should get the results AND THEN publish it.

You must have had a body of work that was just about worthy of publication though, right?

Im not saying 'why publishing?'. Im saying 'why publish if I barely know if what Im doing will have some positive result?

Think of this example: we are researching for a few months whether an arbitrary compound X has relieffing effects on people with headache, but since we are still researching, there is no concrete result or any slight evidence yet. maybe the compound will relief the headache in 30min but maybe it will make your nose bleed.

but there is this conference about headaches that is approaching and why not submit a paper about the work with some results? WHAT RESULTS? You will spend countless hours reading (more) about headaches and compound X to write the background of the manuscript while you still have to figure out the tests you will perform test your assumption.

you will work for weeks (under more pressure) with the hope you could publish something that is very uncertain at the current state.

I don't know why the downvotes. Publishing something takes a lot of directed effort. It's so tough to stop doing (what feels like) the real work, and quickly squeeze out a submission for a conference that has a 10% acceptance rate. Of course publishing is extremely important, but too large a focus on publishing hampers results.

Results that aren't disseminated are functionally useless.

Sure, results need to be published. The problem is that the cart is put before the horse: we decide to publish the results, and where to publish, before we have an inkling of what the results will be.

I'm not necessarily sure this is the cart before the horse.

Deciding to publish the results can just as easily be restated as "Come up with an experiment with a clear and precise scope"

Where to publish is often determining what audience and what questions to ask. For example, targeting a clinical journal means proofs and analytical results may be less compelling, while a simulation of a study might be of active interest.

Both of those help narrow the scope of "All possible interesting questions" to something tractable.

I'm not sure I see what your issue is. It seems the scenario you're describing is just a case of working harder to make a deadline, which there's nothing wrong with per se. If you're talking about fudging results or cutting corners to make a deadline, then that'd be a problem. Otherwise, I'm not sure I see your point.

The OP's point is, I'm afraid a valid one. Attempting to find a statisticallly significant to report on in time to meet a conference deadline means experiments are fudged, results are cherry picked and discrepancies are swept under the rug. Conference and funding deadlines coupled with the need to generate a publication record are almost entirely responsible for the dubious nature of the average scientific article. It's a classic case of Goodhart's Law.

If you have no results, there's nothing you can do.

However, unless you stumble upon something that works out very nicely right before a deadline, a publication requires planning many months in advance what you are going to do.

It's pretty standard in industry to get a deadline by which you need to finish your project when you start working on it.

Because most modern PhD factories are sweat shops that offer a rather dismal career prospect. (If you've been through the process --- I suspect there are a lot on HN --- you know what I mean.)

I bailed out three years into a chemistry PhD and my only regret is that I started it at all.

I'm not saying that going to graduate school is necessarily a mistake but I think a lot of people go because they've done well in school up to that point and aren't sure what else to do with themselves.

When I was an undergrad, there was a PhD candidate who advised me to go to grad school for exactly this reason. He told me it was years I could spend avoiding having to find a job.

Same here. I encountered a lot of students, especially international, who were in grad school because it was a socially acceptable alternative to going home and getting a job.

I worked much, much harder as a graduate student than I ever have as a developer, even at startups. At the lab I worked in putting in anything less than 70 hours a week was considered malingering.

I commend you on your courage. Reminds me of one of my good friends from college, who bailed out in the second year of his PhD program in geochemistry and started anew in a MSc program in Computer Science. He now works happily in a startup company as a SDE and never looks back.

I have another friend that just switched from being an associate professor in chemistry to working as a developer for a bioinformatics lab. He loves it and doesn’t regret making the switch at all.

How much do you practically learn about chemistry in those first three years? Was that knowledge at all valuable in your post-academia life?

Not OP but it absolutely depends on the sub-field, the most glaring difference being between exclusively computational/theoretical research vs "wet" lab, and even withing sub-subfields it can vary a _lot_.

Depending on the PhD program you can be required to take as low as 1 PhD level course per year. The "real" learning takes place by reading papers + lab work.

The transferable knowledge might not be the specific capacities developed (e.g. how to properly plan and manage a multi-step organic synthesis, how to write an SCF routine, etc) but rather to be able to sit down long enough and reason about the world to make hypotheses and test them. That in general is very useful and a skill most workers in the workforce simply lack. I do not say this to be condescending, it is simply my experience that there is a clear divide in the mental processes of people who went through at the very least a Bachelors' vs people who did not. It's not better or worse, it's different.

PS: Anecdotally, I have not completed my graduate degree for reasons of lack of funding. I really enjoyed what I did but TAing 2-3 courses per semester while working a part-time job (or two) to make sure I could get some vacation time once a year, pay the bills and go to the restaurant with my SO just wasn't worth it. As others have commented, money in academia is most definitely a winner takes all game. Experience showed me that in a cohort, it's mostly the top 5 or so students with excellent grades that will get the scholarships. Then you get maybe a dozen or two who live on ~1k a month and the rest well, fend for yourself (even if you have an advisor). I happened to be in a sub-field where professors were broke, so that was it. I eventually quit due to being absorbed in other (boring but paying) work, with now realising it was a mistake but a mistake that brought food on the table. Today I regret and want to go back, but you can't feed a family with $10k a year can you?

I leaned quite a bit but unfortunately I can’t say any of it has been specifically useful. I guess I could say I learned to work very very hard and to teach myself whatever I needed to know. Perhaps the price I paid was that was years before I could sit still and enjoy myself for five minutes without feeling like I was shirking.

Where did you land after leaving the phd program?

I worked as a lab tech for a while and then switched to programming, which I’ve been doing happily ever since. I miss working in the lab a bit but overall I prefer the freedom and more meritocratic culture of working as a developer.

I loved my PhD - had no intention of staying in academia, got paid a decent stipend for the whole time and was in and out in 2 years 10 months and it gave me the prefect spring board in to starting my own business (unrelated topic but the skills I developed and learned in that time have been a huge help) - I treated my PhD like a full time job and avoided the procrastination that many suffer with in the first 18 months.

> most modern PhD factories are sweat shops

I don't know if that is universally true. This type of anecdata tends to be very program specific.

I worked on the computational side of things and got paid a lot to work on (what I thought was) interesting stuff.

Folks who did experimental work (especially on the bio side of things) tended to put in more hours even over the weekends because biological substrates are no respecters of leisure time. On the other hand, it's much easier to publish experimental results than to come up with a new algorithm, so many ended up with quite a few publications than I did when they graduated.

This. My PhD program wasn't a sweat shop, and I actively make an effort to make sure the lab I run isn't either.

Such a waste of potential. It could be the most amazing time of your life, a chance to ask and answer the most interesting questions you can think of. Instead it ends up being a very negative experience for many.

This is statistically true, one of the curious paradoxes of PhD work is that students continually consider themselves to be an except to the statistics.

I say this as a recovering humanities academic who now works in tech; I am really grateful that my parents pushed me to have a STEM major alongside my interest in music.

I'm positive the same thing happens in the US - grad students spend some time teaching courses and see up-close just what it's like for adjunct faculty (which is all a lot of them will ever be able to get to). In a lot of states they also hear about just how bad things are for public school system teachers. I suspect that they also understand that part of the private school system is management/investors that feel that those protesting public school teachers have it too good, so teaching is basically going to be what they do between their gig economy jobs shopping for groceries for delivery companies.

Also, https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/college-level-mathematics

Genuinely shocked that graduate programs remain stuffed to the gills.

You live off a meager stipend for about a decade and then, in your mid-30s, you go on the job market for the first time. Unless you're somehow in the top 0.1% of your field, you're probably going to be fighting for a tenure-track positions at any institution that will take you. Big dreams of teaching in the Pacific Northwest? Too bad, the only place that wants you is a state school in the middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. Once you start, you're now going to spend the next 4 years grinding and busting your ass to make sure you actually get tenure.

Meanwhile your peers are well established in their careers, have families, making 2-3x as much as you.

But they don't get to be Dr. So-and-so, so there's that.

People do a lot of quantitatively-irrational things for love.

Today, as an academic, I get to spend some of my time experimentally asking the universe how gravity works, some of my time working to detect hints of radioactivity in the atmosphere, and a bunch of my time working to help students learn how to make sense of, and thrive in, the world.

P.S. Being Dr. So-and-so isn't worth it as a goal. The title means zero in my daily life (nor should it, almost all the time, IMHO). The skills and experience learned in the process of getting there, however, remain perpetually important. Those don't always come with a degree.

Not this anti-PhD negative nonsense again! It doesn't ring true to me at all.

> You live off a meager stipend for about a decade

I paid a mortgage, supported a family, and built savings while doing my PhD with no issue.

> and then, in your mid-30s, you go on the job market for the first time.

You don't appear on the job market like a newbie. By the time you graduate you should already be well-known enough in your field that you have a reputation, a track-record and several good options. My first job after my PhD was building my own team in industry. It's not like starting a new-grad job.

> Unless you're somehow in the top 0.1% of your field

If you're not in the top 0.1% of your field you shouldn't be doing a PhD in the first place.

> you're probably going to be fighting for a tenure-track positions at any institution that will take you

Why do you assume everyone wants to be in academia? I'm not even sure a majority go into a PhD wanting that. I never did.

> Meanwhile your peers are well established in their careers

Working on a PhD is establishing yourself in your career. But with 1-1 mentorship and a lot of time and space to grow, work with a lot of different people, travel to meet the important people in the field, learn to talk and present your ideas. It's the best way to establish your career that there is.

> have families

You can build a family while doing a PhD just fine. I did. Do you think they bad PhD students from dating or something?

I wasn't even a particularly good PhD student, or at a particularly prestigious institution, and I managed these things.

>If you're not in the top 0.1% of your field you shouldn't be doing a PhD in the first place.

The OP means in the top 0.1% among PhD students in your field.

If you want to get a tenure-track position in a good department, then in many fields, you do have to be that good. (0.1% might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not that much.)

More generally, you should be aware that your post is very specific to the field you worked in. Computer science has a very well established PhD -> industry pipeline, and lots of money to throw at grad students. There are many disciplines where doing a PhD is a very different story.

Where did you go to school that you were able to pay a mortgage and have a family while doing your phd? I'm paying a wee bit more than half my monthly salary on rent alone. Am in Bay Area though.

> Am in Bay Area though.

That's the problem. The housing market isn't literally insane in the whole country.

This. One of my graduate students just bought a house here, because the housing market isn't utterly disconnected from reality. Could they afford to live in the Bay Area? No.

Can I afford to live in the Bay Area? Also no.

The UK, but our base stipend is similar to the US. Internships and part-time research contracts can make up your income to a workable level, and that applies in the US as well. I didn't earn a lot, but it was enough to get on with life like a normal person. I didn't eat dried ramen like the stereotype.

Ahh the UK where health insurance coverage is much easier to attain...

Where in the UK? What field? There are several important details you are leaving out.

Manchester, programming languages. Not superstar machine learning or anything like that.

Hey, I did a PhD in the University of Liverpool some 12 years ago. I had a scolarship from my home country, but had a blast in my 3.6 years in the UK.

I remember seeing colleagues from the UK who got a good stipend. I think in general in the UK doing a PHD was good at that time, specially because it usually lasts only 3 years.

Nevertheless, after spending other 4 years in academia, I turned to Industry and would never go back. Academia is broken at this point in time.

I did my phd in Indiana and had $90k in student loans by the time I was finished (of course that includes my undergrad and masters degree). I was in the humanities though.

>If you're not in the top 0.1% of your field you shouldn't be doing a PhD in the first place.

Oh come on. I'm doing a PhD right now, but it's simply unrealistic to ask everyone admitted to the program to delude themselves into thinking they're in the top 0.1% of those admitted to the program.

This. I have a feeling most of the people who complain about PhDs are those that started one just because they didn't know what else to do. They're not that intelligent, they don't care that much about doing research. But they do it anyways! In my opinion it should be a lot harder to get accepted to do a PhD, that should weed these people out better.

> You live off a meager stipend for about a decade

Keep in mind that this is not necessarily true for schools in countries outside of the US. At my school, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, as a PhD student you are considered an employee of the school and you are paid a living wage with full benefits. The current salary starts at 28600 SEK/month and can reach up to 33500 SEK/month [1] which is definitely a living wage in Stockholm, especially considering that you can live in affordable student accommodation (as long as you have been on the waiting list for at least a year or so for a student dorm). Sure, you can definitely make more money working in the industry, but at least you will not be living in poverty while pursuing your PhD degree.

As far as I know the public schools in Norway and Denmark operate very similarly to this, but I am not sure about other schools in Europe.

[1] https://www.kth.se/en/studies/phd/student/employment-1.52704...

This has been my experience as a CS Ph.D. student at a top US university as well--the pay is way less than industry, but it's enough to have a decent quality of life.

In my department, students make about $40K/year as a base salary, which is not a lot, but enough to get by with. Add a summer internship to this, and your income is not too shabby--I made about $70K this year.

Now, of course, I realize this is half or less of what students would be making in industry. But it's enough that quality of life is pretty decent.

>In my department, students make about $40K/year as a base salary, which is not a lot,

Erm. It's the median personal income and more than like 61% of the country's population makes. More than I make after 12 years on the job.

> It's the median personal income

But below median for a college graduate, much less one with an undergraduate degree in CS or another high-demand technical field, and way below median (and quite possibly poverty level) for some of the local areas where big-name CS graduate programs are located.

I live in a high cost of living area, and starting salaries are usually around $100-140K.

Students in my program usually end up paying 40-60% of the base salary toward rent.

> In my department, students make about $40K/year as a base salary.

That's incredibly high as a base rate! Most departments I know pay between $28k and $32k. The only people I know at $40k have an NSF fellowship.

We make double stipend during the summer, to try to somewhat offset the financial incentive to take a summer internship. I'm including this in the base rate--without, it's probably closer to $32K.

> but I am not sure about other schools in Europe.

For France and Germany, stipend/wages range roughly from 1200€ to 1800€/mont, so a bit over minimal wage, and definitely under what you could do in the private sector.

This is false for Germany.

A full-time position pays around 44.000€/year (varying a bit from state to state) which is ~3.650€/month. This goes up over time, up to around 56.500€/year. All of this is public information, TV-L 13 is the keyword to look for (TV-L stands for "Tarifvertrag der Länder", 13 is the group in which PhD students are typically placed by universities). Source in German: http://oeffentlicher-dienst.info/tv-l/west/ Table for salary per month in Euro (relevant row is E 13): http://oeffentlicher-dienst.info/c/t/rechner/tv-l/west?id=tv...

If you don't get a full-time position, you get proportionally less, obviously. In theory if you only have a 50% position and only get 1.800€/month, you should be able to work somewhere else to make up for it. In reality, though, this isn't happening as the professors are tricking the system and are practically abusing the PhD students' dependency on the professor's good-will as he/she is the one who is deciding whether they graduate or not. So even even if a PhD student is only being paid for 20 hours of work a week (50%), they are still expected to work 40h or more.

In non-STEM fields this is sadly happening all the time, sometimes to the extreme where 4 (or even more!) PhD students are being paid from the budget for a single full-time position. In Computer Science, however, I didn't meet a single PhD student that wasn't employed full-time.

True and wrong at the same time for France. In STEM, that's true. But in humanities, one third of PhD student do not get any stipend.

Also, that's not so much under what you would do in the private sector. In 'industry', you don't so often start over 1800€/month with a master, even less so in humanities. I mean, it is not rare to start with more, but something like half of people will get less, and the other half won't get much more.

I'm sure this varies across disciplines but a lot of PhD students in CS are hired to do their thesis as part of a research project. In these cases they get paid very decent salaries.

lolwat, first year summer students make that in Finland :D Generally speaking, no graduated Bachelors should accept anything under 1800€ from the school and for graduated Masters anything under 2100€ from the school is an insult (in the workforce the numbers are something like 2k€ for first year students and <3k is an insult for Masters).

PhD students definitely earn >=2k1 here.

UK had a couple of options in my day for STEM stuff. Basic research council stipend was an untaxed £13K per year and then it could be upped with industry funding to £18K. I know that the Wellcomme Trust had some cross discipline medical/engineering programs that went up to £24K. Decent money and graduated in 4 years

To my knowledge, in the Netherlands and Luxembourg there is a similar situation to the one you described in Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

In Portugal you get a fellowship that covers tuition and a monthly stipend which was increased for the first time in 15 years (by 1.4%) last year. PhD fellows are not considered employees of the University and since the stipend is not really a salary you are stuck in a weird financial situation.

Despite all this, it is enough to live (around 1000 Eur) in most of the country except for the capital (due to house/rent prices have been increasing for the past 2 years at galloping rate), which is where a great number PhD granting institutions are located.

Not to pile up, I've also discovered that you can be granted a PhD fellowship for a project at an host institution that is under equipped (if has any equipment at all) for that project.

Still, what I hear from some PhD students is that even with decent pay, it's not a great career. The chances of getting tenure are tiny, academic freedom isn't what it once was, and if you enter the job market, the PhD mostly cost a lot of time without adding a whole lot of value. Unless it's in Machine Learning, maybe.

I am not familiar with the situation in in other countries, but here there aren't many job opportunities for recent engineering/science graduates other than IT consultant. I've met people that took a PhD positions just because it was decent pay and less hours when compared with most junior and mid-level consultant jobs available.

In terms of adding value, I guess it depends on both the field and what your objectives are. For example, I work in a field where no one would offer you a job unless you have PhD or some sort insane amount of experience.

Really? My impression is that there's a permanent shortage of good programmers. Although my impression is that a big part of the reason is that Dutch companies are unwilling to raise the wages of programmers; that way they create their own shortage, of course.

But there is a shortage of good programmers. By engineering/scientists in my previous comment, I meant every kind of engineer and scientist.

From my experience, IT companies only differentiate CS, electric engineers and computer engineers for entry/junior level it jobs from the rest of the engineering and scientist. Biochemists, civil engineers, physicists, chemical engineers, industrial engineers, etc. Are all the same for the HR and assume you have 0 coding skills.

I had friends who did their PhD work in Switzerland, and they were making ~100K CHF a year.

I dunno. I went back to my alma mater recently to drop my son of at a robotics summer program. I saw energy, ideas, new projects...as I scuttled back to an office doing the same lowbrow stuff I've been doing since graduation.

Engineering and Computer Science are a different ballgame because the industry aggressively siphons off the pipeline, but for most other fields it's a drought.

> Meanwhile your peers are well established in their careers, have families, making 2-3x as much as you.

People pay money to do what they enjoy all the time. People take classes, eat at fancy restaurants, go on vacations, etc. This is just a more extreme instance of that.

I'd like to get a PhD one day even though I've worked in the industry. It has nothing to do with my "career". I just have topics I'd like to do research in because I find them fascinating. Also I feel like working in the industry makes me dumber.

In my experience the percentage of people who seem super excited about their work is much higher in academia than in industry. This shouldn't really be a surprise since the proportion of people who stay in academia for money is much smaller than for industry. That said, there definitely are people who just didn't know what else to do, but there are those people in industry as well.

A couple notes:

"You live off a meager stipend for about a decade" is not true for all students, especially under-represented minorities. I had a fascinating discussion with a student once where her 'meager stipend' was the best job anyone in her family had ever had.

"Unless you're somehow in the top 0.1% of your field, you're probably going to be fighting for a tenure-track positions at any institution that will take you." A huge amount of my cohort ended up living where they wanted to live - I'm in a field with good representation in "non-academic" jobs in government and private industry, and plenty of people made the decision not to chase a job they wanted in exchange for quality of life decisions.

"Meanwhile your peers are well established in their careers, have families, making 2-3x as much as you." Knew plenty of people who started their families in graduate school. The opportunity cost is real though.

There's no reason to go into academia unless you value it. There's no reason to be negative about it just because it looks like pretensiousness.

I friend of mine got a PhD in Electrical Engineering, which took him 7 or 8 years years. Right around his 30th birthday, I remember him saying that he'd been in school since he was 5. When I think of it that way, if my 20-something self could have been paid to delay entering the working world, I enjoyed school, and I was willing to be a professor's minion, getting a PhD would have been an extremely attractive option.

I just finished my PhD at the age of 28 from an unranked department and received several offers for tenure-track positions at R1 universities. Internships brought my annual income up to well above the national average.

With my new position, my friends in software engineering without a PhD are making 5-30% more than me (in much more expensive areas) and don't have near as much freedom as I do to work on what I want.

I'm definitely glad I went this route.

That is a very field-dependent experience, and probably unusual even in your field. In many STEM fields, there is essentially zero chance of obtaining a TT position directly after PhD.

> But they don't get to be Dr. So-and-so, so there's that.

I have told that I didn't spend 6 years getting a PhD to be called Doctor---if the title was what I cared about, med school would've been faster and easier than a PhD.

Nobody calls me doctor anything and I've only twice gone out of my way to point it out - both times with someone who was pissing me off.

Starting in your mid-30s, you can get a family, get a job, start making money and eventually get to the 2-3x. Sure, you'll be late to the party, but you'll make it. Moreover, it's going to be a looooong party. Does it really matter if you were there for N hours instead of N + 5?

However, what happens if someone in their mid-30s who has been in the party for quite some time now wants to leave it and go back to school?

Well, to be fair, I had a kid when I was 22 and getting into grad school.

It's a good thing for him that I've only gotten good at math in the last couple of years.

Not the same thing- I dropped out of because lack of money, because the work environment providing the funding let me go, because I called them out for doing things that broke the law and were morally very wrong.

I didn't even bother to claim the alternative diploma I had the credits for.

Now I work with finance and blockchain people, and it's a saner and more honest world. Crazy, I know!

> Now I work with finance and blockchain people, and it's a saner and more honest world. Crazy, I know!

You're not alone:


Being in the free market is very freeing!

My best mate has a PhD in naval architecture. He now runs a small chandler business. Still boat related, but in no way mentally or academically challenging.

He spent seven years getting his PhD at a Russell group UK university. He did the work in two, but because he was being used by his university as a cheap lecturer/researcher/marker/invigilator it meant his work was stretched out much longer than it should have been. On one occasion the university's IT systems automatically locked him out of everything - his email, network logins, swipe cards etc because it was a assumed a PhD student would be all finished up after four years. Getting the PhD burned him out, so he took a year off considering his options. He was found by a company in the US that did research for the US Coastguard and Navy. They promised him an easy research job in Norfolk, VA. When he got there he found a company on its death bed and they completely failed to appreciate the complicated citizenship requirements to work on government research projects. So after three months he was out of a job and getting ready to head back to the UK, but he met someone, and they dated for a bit. She had a bit of money put aside and basically set him up with a chandlery business with him as an employee to satisfy visa requirements.

He's in a much happier place now, and earning more than he would as an actual naval architect.

Basically the PhD did him more harm than good.

I am one of those who chose a "conventional" job (which I guess means industry) after getting a PhD in math. IMO there is usually nothing tragic with leaving academia for either "conventional" or "unconventional" jobs. There are pros and cons to each choice. People's interests change. I loved (most of) my time in grad school but do not regret choosing a non-academic career.

IMO the bad part is that when you are on a research track leaving academia is seen as a non-redeemable loser move by most professors and is a one-way street. This leads to folks staying on academia path for years after their heart is no longer in it for fear of making an irreversible change. Just a data point.

The main subject in this story was pursuing a PhD in "Women's Studies". Not to disparage that field of study, but it's quite obvious that it is a pretty useless degree that limits you to a career as a Women's Studies professor. I don't think this is a good illustration of people who leave PhD programs

> The main subject in this story was pursuing a PhD in "Women's Studies". Not to disparage that field of study, but it's quite obvious that it is a pretty useless degree that limits you to a career as a Women's Studies professor.

It isn't obviously useless, or even less applicable than many social science degrees, but for signaling purposes it's probably less useful to get a Ph.D. in an interdisciplinary field like Women's Studies than in one of the fields of more broadly recognized utility which it overlaps (which you can probably do with exactly the same research.) Because pretty much the whole thing about interdisciplinary fields is that they (in terms of the whole field) cross traditional fields of study, which tend to align somewhat with vocational fields, which makes degrees in them (without considerstion of things like the area of your personal research) less useful for non-acadenic vocational signalling.

"Women's Studies" opens doors to a career as an author or a political activist. Like other PhDs, it prepares to have an impact on the world via the field of study. It's not a likely financially lucrative career, but it's not a useless one.

Who's hiring authors/political activists, but refusing to hire non-PhDs?

I feel like your comment leads to every debate about the practical value of a liberal arts degrees, ever. Either that or you're specifically devaluing Women's Studies. That makes no sense, given the push for gender diversity in the business world (and in general).

The business world isn't really hiring Women's Studies majors, regardless of the impact they've had on the industry.

The idea, assumed throughout this story, that PhDs are wasted if they don't go into teaching is a very strange idea. It made sense in monasteries, whence schools took many ideas, but it shouldn't be the goal of modern universities.

Rather, you should consider PhDs that end up teaching as the overhead of the educational system, and the ones that go into industry or research labs as the valuable output.

I feel like PhDs in Computer Science should have better job prospects outside of Academia. Some jobs, like "research scientist", require PhDs. Look at companies like Lyft that are currently hiring "Research Scientist" (e.g. https://www.lyft.com/jobs/4014499002) where they require a M.S.or PhD.

The majority of PhDs in computer science (around 2/3) do get jobs outside of academia [1]. Google might be the single biggest current hirer. I think that it's always been pretty common in this field though. Places like IBM and Bell Labs used to hire large numbers of PhDs back when they had big research groups. And at least in my PhD program, there was never an expectation that an academic job was the post-PhD career path, which I've heard people complain about in other fields. Plenty of our alumni worked in industrial research labs and it was pretty clear that that was one of the standard post-PhD options.

[1] Source: https://cra.org/resources/taulbee-survey/

I wonder if interviewers still ask you to do fizz buzz when you have a PhD?

They did ask me at ARM. I didn't know that was fizz buzz and I forgot if I got that question correctly. 8 months later they told me they are not hiring me. lol

They do (source: personal experience).

For a research position? In my experience (on my third position now) Research Scientist interviews in industry tend to mirror academic interviews. 60-90 minute job talk in front of the research group, 5 or 6 hour long one-on-ones with members of of the research group. No mention of fizz buzz in any of these interviews, and I've interviewed at Facebook, Adobe, etc.

I find articles such as this one to be absolutely fascinating. It seems that people like those in this article appear to be trying to gentrify what is mostly unskilled labour, adding some sort of intellectual doublethink that they pulled off from the chip on their shoulder which comes from not fulfilling their path to become a certified academic intellectual. Based on the title of 'owner' of these ventures I am quite curious how they financed these businesses.

Ultimately I think articles like these fail to highlight the strange mindset required to turn what was a defeat, and even possibly a likely scam based on the way most universities operate, into some sort positive outcome where they reclassify what was once a boring menial job into one injected with some supposed millennial intellectualism.

Quitting academia to join the blue collar workforce has been a trope for a loooong time

>I find articles such as this one to be absolutely fascinating. It seems that people like those in this article appear to be trying to gentrify what is mostly unskilled labour, adding some sort of intellectual doublethink that they pulled off from the chip on their shoulder which comes from not fulfilling their path to become a certified academic intellectual. Based on the title of 'owner' of these ventures I am quite curious how they financed these businesses.

You might be projecting too much of your own biases. At least in my country (in Europe) I know lots of people with academic degrees which turned into "mostly unskilled labor".

In fact it was even quite fashionable in the 70s to early 80s, and it's alluring again with the new generation.

And, at least back then, when the economy was booming and degrees where still scarce, it wasn't for lack of opportunities to become a "certified academic intellectual".

I gotmy PhD because grad school was more fun than a real job, and I made about 40,000 a year because I can program. The prospect of being a junior professor at a middling university gives me nightmares (think about the faculty meetings...), so now I am analyst / programmer in government.

In England, particularly the south-east, the gulf between a post-doc salary and starting a City/Wall Street job can easily be a factor of 3 or 4.

Also the cost of living makes being a PhD student in London almost untenable - I started in Edinburgh before mastering out and at least there one could live pretty well on the stipend.

I quit a phd in philosophy to be a lousy full-stack web-magician. Dunno which was better, but at least I can afford a nice meal these days.

Interesting to see people picking up on this trend. Just saw on linkedin a former PhD classmate of mine who is now a wine harvester.

Somehow I read that has Harvey Weinstein and was very confused for a few moments.

Probably not far from the truth (see comment above; URL: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17594196).

Just as a PSA for anyone considering quitting academia who happens to be on this thread, here are some good posts about how to do that:



I am a little late to reply, but I wanted to anyway from my experience as a Harvard physics PhD that is choosing to leave academia:

Many PhD programs are their own bubble, and many students don't seriously consider outside opportunities because of it. I honestly do not believe many of the students would be there if they had more exposure to basically anything outside of research, and more students would also consider other opportunities earlier if there was more exposure or a better connection. I really wish internships were better embraced by physics PhD's, but the current competitive culture combined with disagreeable professors makes it not encouraged. (Not to mention the fact that a 3 month internship is a drop in a bucket for a 6+ year PhD)

Otherwise, it is great to hear this person decided to leave their PhD program and found happiness (regardless of what she is doing). One thing I tell people who aren't sure about what they want to do post-graduation (e.g. most physics PhD's), or even if they aren't a good fit for the group they are in: if you took an entire month off from your PhD to make that decision would you regret it? I personally believe in almost all cases you wouldn't.

Strangely, many students seem to either default to a postdoc or put a half-assed effort towards finding an industry job.

For most people, getting a PhD is a bad idea. The odds that all that time and effort will pay back is small in most fields. Of course, it depends on the field and what you plan to do with it. I have a PhD in computing, and I'm glad I do. But it is definitely not for everyone.

Just want to share my friend's experience as someone who dropped out of a MIT graduate program to be a SWE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYX9MuWy4cE

Hope he gets a gig, a MIT Grad degree doesn't hurt his chances either. Went through the other videos on his channel and that qualifying exam problem set was tough imo.

My company has a tuition assistance program that allowed me to complete an MS and PhD, while working full-time. Took 10 years. Loved it!

And, it wasn't just the money that helped, it was also that they supported continuing education.

As a PhD dropout myself, I understand entirely the decision of these students to distance themselves from what were obviously negative experiences for them.

Unlike those listed in this article, I actually ended up staying in my field of study for work, but psychologically it has been very difficult. When I'm confronted with situations that reminded of what could have been if I had finished my degree, I sincerely wish I could find a new career like these people, so different from my current one that I could finally leave behind those feelings of failure and inadequacy that grad school left me with.

Hey, I just graduated with a Ph.D. degree and I feel the same way you do. The process did leave a lot of scars in my mind. I just can't imagine how hard it is for you to not have received a degree.

I miss grad school... I was terrible at it in the traditional sense but I enjoy thinking about research problems. I'm not very good at academia though. All sorts of PTSD and the like. I think it was due to an ever encompassing fear of failure and going back to trying to solve word math problems... But I enjoyed the creativity of thinking about questions that could potentially be solved with the combo of certain tools already available. Even now I can see a whole host of interesting things to research and pursue.

I have a masters in Mechanical Engineering and I always wanted to get a PhD. But it's unfortunate that it makes no financial sense. I make a meager (relative compared to full wage) 25K to 30K for about 5 years (and this is on the high side!). When I finish school and decide not to go the academic route, I make maybe a little more than my counter parts that have been working for 5 years...Also, I find anecdotally that people with a MSc has a higher probability of management roles compared to PhD.

If your goal is to go into management, you probably don't love the subject enough to do a PhD.

This sounds very obvious, but everyone I know who dropped out of their PhD wasn't cut out for doing one. If you are feeling guilty about reading more papers, you shouldn't be doing a doctoral degree.

On the other hand, when you're a post-doc I totally agree that there is more to life than the 'big fish in a small pond' world of academia. There is something particularly annoying about the academic environment - some combination of ego and insecurity.

Also, the pay is shit.

As a counterpoint, I am a dropout myself, but certainly was cut out for completing a PhD. Extenuating circumstances of a different nature affected my own ability to continue after investing 4 years and at the point of choosing an advisor.

People quitting academia for random jobs isn't a new thing. The stories have been there for decades of physics PhDs deciding to quit to go into professions such as taxi driving or construction.

Why did people feel guilty to read papers?

Seems like a strange reason to drop out.

I know many more people who dropped out because of poor management than those that didn't seem to be good at it.

Agreed. I don't think anyone ever drops out because they feel guilty for reading too much.

A friend was working on his PhD in Artificial Intelligent, and had already published a paper about some interesting properties of genetic algorithms, when he was diagnosed with pretty severe RSI.

For a while he tried to work with speech recognition, but eventually he dropped out and become a security guard in shops. The walking around was good exercise, and he liked meeting people.

After about 7 years as a security guard, he got back into programming.

There are more people who want to get PhDs than there are academic positions in universities.

Obligatory link to phd comics http://phdcomics.com

For those who don't know, he started this comic to warn people off from PhDs. The irony, is he gets a lot of emails thanking him because the comic encouraged them to get theirs...

I had to stop reading that because of how accurate it was.

Most PhD students do not end up being professors. Not everybody who works at a firm is expected to rise to be CEO or partner.

I wish we’d move to a 3 year PhD program now that you have 5-10 year postdocs if you even have a career in you’re field at all.

Three years is not nearly enough time to finish PhD thesis work as an experimental physicist. Even if the goalpost was lowered for a PhD, a three year PhD program in physics would just be a glorified masters degree.

Plus, if it's even easier to get PhDs, we'll just end up with even more people having PhDs and the status associated with the PhD will be even lower. PhDs are becoming relatively commonplace, and the vast majority of them are not in academia because either there's no space for them, or they're simply not good enough.

Meeting someone with a PhD is no longer surprising. It's not "wow, you must be a renowned researcher" anymore, it's "wow, you were able to do lots of grueling work for 30k a year, and now you're in industry doing what everyone else is doing".

The University of Cambridge disagrees with you. You arrive with a Bachelor’s or a Master’s, start immediately on research and should be done in three or four years.


A single cherry-picked university in the UK may disagree, but what I said is generally true for American universities. When I was a grad student in physics, everyone pretty much took 5-6 years at minimum; this was true for every single grad school I got in to.

I've heard that universities across the pond have different tracks for grad students, so that might be responsible for the discrepancy.

That university is ranked as 21st in the world on the ranking least favourable to it and in the top ten globally on all others. Its system of graduate education is comparable to other U.K. universities, like Manchester, Imperial, Edinburgh or Durham. You are expected to get a doctorate in three or four years, you generally start research immediately but there are exceptions that will have taught courses and you need a great Bachelor’s or a good Master’s to be admitted.

The only real difference between the British system and that in mainland Europe is that you will find it difficult to impossible to get onto a doctoral programme without a Master’s. You’ll still be expected to finish within at absolute most four years and to start researching from the word go.

As far as different tracks for graduate students go, same as in the US. North Florida State and Harvard both award doctorates, ditto for Anglia Ruskin and Cambridge.

In the US, it is different. You get into grad school with a strong bachelors and are expected to get your masters on the way to your PhD. Some people come in with masters, but the vast majority from the US are applying right after their 4 year bachelors and are expected to take graduate-level physics courses and rotate with groups for 1-2 years before starting their thesis work.

> mainland Europe is that you will find it difficult to impossible to get onto a doctoral programme without a Master’s

Not true in the US at all. It is very rare for a student to finish in 3-4 years here in the US unless they are absolutely stellar.

It's not cherry-picked, actually; the historical standard in the UK is three years. However, it's not common to do any qualifying exams or courses in a three year program. There's a new trend of so-called "Centres for Doctoral Training" where students take four years, and get a year or courses and qualifying exams at the start.

Consequently, UK PhDs are often quite a bit more junior than US PhDs -- although it works brilliantly if you're an academic high-flier, as you show up and start doing research on day one, leaving with a doctorate three years later.

Yep, things are very different in America, our PhDs in physics take 5-6 years.

It's not a single cherry-picked university. Three or four years is standard in the British Isles.

As a PhD in experimental physics, I totally agree.

That said, I still think they have room in making it a shorter length PhD. Not 3 years, but there are several groups where less than 6 years is rare, but 6-7 is normal.

Just do a word search in this topic for the word "money".


Because they're trust-fund babies?

Where does a post-grad get enough cash to start a cafe?

The first thing I thought of when I saw that photo of Cory Jansson was Peter Gibbons at his first worksite, glad to be in the sunshine and out of the rat race. Fuckin' A, man.

It is an extraordinary risky decision to do a PhD (maybe except in CS). I have seen the best ones fail career-wise.

Excellent blog post about it: https://blogs.harvard.edu/philg/2018/06/14/losing-the-nobel-...


"My take-away from the careers aspect of the book is that if you (1) love competition, (2) have a huge appetite for risk, (3) don’t mind working long hours for a minimum of 27 years until getting that first grant, and (4) are mostly indifferent to money, pursuing a physics PhD and an academic job might be a reasonable plan. You’ll get to work with a lot of smart people, for sure, but, as the book notes, quite of few of them may be planning to stab you in the back when it comes time to assign credit for a Nobel-worthy discovery. It is not like most other fields of human endeavor where there is room for everyone to excel in his or her own way."

I blame cultural marxism and the liberalization of our schools.

Hey I dropped out of grad school too!

I worked for a world-class geneticist who had spent 25 years in academia who left for the private sector.

Word of warning though, his first venture/partner tried to screw him royally which ended up in a long and expensive court battle, which was a hard lesson to learn before he split and started it by himself. I helped him get off the ground infrastructure wise and last I heard they were doing great business.

I love working for smart people. If you pay attention you learn so much, to the point that I would readily join another PhD led team.

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