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Tell HN: Doing a PhD is good
70 points by Loic 2260 days ago | hide | past | web | 61 comments | favorite
Or having a higher education. A general trend here is to discard PhD/higher education as a waste of time or money when one want to go the startup way. Effectively, you can become rich without such education, but very few of them get really rich and on the barrier to entry, if you consider a field where you can be disruptive without education is rather low.

The real good point of having a PhD is not in the title you get, it is in the network you can build and the problems you try to solve. By definition, most of the scientific PhD are to solve industrial problems. This means, you have a complex problem and customers, directly, right now, during your studies.

If you are smart, you can already have a portfolio of customers at the end of your PhD, you can have your product nearly ready and you will be able to charge your customers more in thousands of Dollars than in $9 per month.

Bonus point, the barrier to entry will be high for the competition and it is relatively easy to become an expert in your field.

So please, if you want to do a PhD, do it and do it wisely.

A short list to think about:

1. Get a supervisor known to give his students a lot of freedom. 2. Do your PhD in a country where you get a good pay (most of the EU countries pay well for a PhD). 3. Go in a university with a good budget for travel to conferences. 4. Find labs with intensive industrial collaboration.

Tell HN: It's your fucking life, do what the fuck makes you happy.

If you find being an undergrad painful and you're bored to tears, and you're only doing it is because your parents and peers tell you you'll end up as a janitor without that piece of paper, and you're literally itching to get into the 'real world', drop the fuck out and work on that startup.

If you're fascinated with Viking Poetry, and it's all you can think about, and people are telling you what a waste of money that Viking Poetry PhD is, tell them to fuck off and get that PhD anyway.

If you wanna be an actor, move to NY or LA, get a job as a waiter, and bust your fucking ass working on your craft. Don't stay at home and get that HR degree from University of Phoenix.

Both this post and the "X isn't worth it in the long run" articles it's responding to make the same mistakes. Assuming everyone has the same path in life. I think ultimately, deep down, all the posters want you to chase YOUR dream. But instead they take their dreams or their choices and find evidence prove to themselves that it's the right choice. And it probably is the right choice for them. It may or may not be the right choice for you.

As long as you're making the choices because that's what you really want, and not out of fear, they're the right choices. So yeah, if the only reason you didn't go to college was because your high-school sweetheart was a year younger, you made the wrong choice.

Why am I a software professional? Not because it pays well, but that sure helps. It's because I used to sit mesmerized in front of a computer typing in code from magazines, amazed that they followed my commands. It's because even before I had a computer to type the code into, I used to read the same code listings in the books, fascinated by them, even though I couldn't even run them. I didn't read the Economist's list of hot-fucking-jobs-for-the-next-ten-years and pick the top item on the list.

> Tell HN: It's your fucking life, do what the fuck makes you happy.

Yes. But also make it a point to listen to people who've been there (which is exactly how I see these "Tell HN" and the "X isn't worth it in the long run" posts). Doing what makes you happy might make you happy in the short term. It might not necessarily be the best choice in the long run.

Well yeah, but if you're on the fence about a big life decision, you should go out and research it, and not rely on hacker news to spoon-feed you the appropriate info.

I'd hate to to think that someone considering a PhD program read yesterday's 'not worth it' article, but didn't get online over the weekend, missing the 'yes it is' article, and made his decision accordingly. I think we all agree that would be absurd, possibly even insane.

That's why I always feel like these articles and their upvotes are more about hn'ers trying to justify or rationalize their choices, than trying to help someone else out.

I am sorry if you interpreted my post this way. The thing is that this year has seen many many articles in big journals about the "education bubble" etc. Basically, a lot of higher education bashing. And pg, with YCombinator is also kind of going that way with the mantra to get new entrepreneurs as young as possible. If you start a business being 18, you will never have the opportunity to discover then learn enough in some really interesting fields of engineering. This is what longer education provides.

I just wanted people not to forget about the good sides of a longer education. Nothing more.

I'm actually sorry. Apologies. I know the core of your message was "you can get a PhD, and things will work out okay." I might be being intentionally provocative up above, because I too am sick of the many articles about education sucking, and comments that equate happiness in life with the Golden Rule. (The guy who has the most gold wins.) Maybe I'm just mad that it's gotten to the point that people feel they need to post rebuttals to these silly articles.

Hacker News is a big part of that research on big life decisions. This site attracts a certain demographic, and it's very worthwhile to know what opinions and experiences people of your demographic have.

Actually no, HN is not a good research for big life decisions if you want to keep your mind open. The demographic here is too narrow. 90% startup people, so everybody here basically hates higher education. If you go by HN nobody will have a PhD in poetry or something.

Absolutely. But a little perspective from someone who's already done that is always helpful.

I agree with everything you say - except for the part where you cite the Economist for having a stupid list of hot jobs : That's not their style at all. You're thinking Business Week or Forbes, etc.

The Economist is (despite having offended lots of people here with its overview of the current start-up scene last week) much more about utility maximization than about money... Actually, why not pick up the winter special issue? - I'm guessing you'll find it much more thought-provoking than you currently imagine.

[ Trust me - I did a PhD for love, not money. But it's working out pretty well, AFAICT ]

> It's because I used to sit mesmerized in front of a computer

> typing in code from magazines and books, amazed that they followed my commands.


P.S. Don't forget books.

"at the end of your PhD, you can have your product nearly ready and you will be able to charge your customers more in thousands of Dollars than in $9 per month."

PhD vs non-PhD does not determine whether you charge $1000/mo or $9/mo. It's what you actually build with your talent.

A PhD building a mobile service is still limited by the economics everybody else faces.

I don't see too many PhD dissertations on iPhone fart apps getting published.

You missed the point.

If you're build mobile services like mobile payment platforms, video games, ecommerce solutions etc., a PhD isn't going to get you more money from a customer.

No, you missed my point. No one is building "mobile payment platforms, video games, ecommerce solutions" in academia, either because those problems aren't interesting, or more likely because they will not get you grants. The point of a PhD is to work on fundamental problems in your field of study. This is something that is often ignored by people claiming to be studying computer science, which is why people constantly argue that it is not a science.

Well, actually people are building these things, but they are focussing on one aspect, and skipping any non-interesting parts as far as possible. So, that payment system will have one or more innovative aspects, but it will likely not be robust, fast enough to handle thousands of customers, secure, capable of handling international payments, etc, and it will certainly not be all of them.

Anecdotally (why my PhD turned out to be a bad idea):

1. I got a supervisor who gave her students a lot of freedom but it worked entirely the wrong way.

2. The UK doesn't pay well.

3. I didn't get any money for conference travel as my PhD stipend was a grant from my college.

4. Yeah, this is the fun one - you're doing a highly research focused degree and finding somewhere that actually has a foot in the real world, in the exact area you want to study and build a startup around, is difficult. But if you can pull it off, I'm sure it could work.

I got a lot of credit for starting a startup around my PhD topic - but I was forced to do so because I simply couldn't continue working on this stuff in academia any more, as it was too applied for my university.

As an American PhD student currently finishing up and moving to a European faculty job, I was quite surprised at #2. Typical pay for a CS PhD student in the U.S. is somewhere in the $16k-24k range. In Denmark, it's $45k!

(I clearly did things backwards, because the opposite is true of faculty pay.)

However, duties of a PhD student vary a lot. I am not sure about Denmark but in Germany, CS PhD students usually work as full-time employees at the university.There is no grad school┬╣. You are expected to balance your PhD research (realistically, 25 % of your time), teaching (50%), and misc. obligations (20%).

┬╣ There are a few dedicated grad schools at some institutions. However, these are the exception, not the norm.

How is the Canadian stipend? And do higher-paying countries tend to pay lower stipends?

Do schools in Scandinavia and the Netherlands even care if your only language is English?

From what I've seen, the Canadian stipends range from a low of about $15k, for those on research assistantships (paid out of their supervisor's research budget) or on provincial scholarships, to a high of about $21k (NSERC or other tri-council federal scholarships). There are a limited number of higher-paying tri-council scholarships as well.

Some universities will top up a federal/provincial scholarship (Waterloo tops up by $10,000), and teaching assistantships are available as well. However, part-time work hours (TA or otherwise) are usually limited by the terms of the scholarship/assitantship, so there is a limit to how much a student can reasonably earn while doing a degree (NSERC limits to 10 hours worked/week, the expected hours for a TA).

Tuition is paid out of the student's stipend amount, though it's often quite a bit less than undergraduate tuition in CS and similar programs. My fee bill dropped in half when I finished my BASc and started an MASc.

In my experience they do not. I've met quite a lot of masters degree students in Sweden that do not speak Swedish at all. Most are from African countries and South America.

...although there is a cost of living aspect to factor in (not that that accounts for that large a difference, of course).

So Boston, Bay Area, NYC, etc are more expensive than Denmark? Almost all of the universities in the US where getting a PhD would be worth a damn are in high cost of living areas.

Yes, pretty much. It's all relative. Food and commodities are much, much cheaper in the US than Europe.

Even housing to some extent, from what I can tell. The Bay Area ain't cheap, but rents aren't like London or Paris, either. (Well, maybe NYC rents are.)

The UK stipend is in line with the US one - it's not Europe-wide decent pay, that's for sure!

It is easier to acquire specialized skills in computer vision and machine learning in grad school than in industry. I've also personally had a good experience incubating technology during my PhD, although this depends on your advisor and your country. The PhD programs in the US are usually longer than the EU (6 versus 3 or 4 years), but typically provide more freedom and less pressure to publish constantly.

The thing about doing a PhD in CS today is that from reading about all the famous people who did PhDs in the US in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it seems they were much better off. ARPA/DARPA funding was plentiful, industrial research labs were at their peak, commercial firms seem to have been hungry for consulting. I forgot where I read it, but someone was writing about how their PhD advisor wanted his students to spend half their time consulting at commercial firms outside the university.

I don't have any first-hand knowledge of this, maybe it is just the opinion of the successful and/or lucky people who had a good time and wrote about it, I would love for people to confirm or deny this perception. But the contrast with people I know who are/were doing their PhDs today is night and day.

"Starving grad student" is an accurate stereotype. I really can't see myself spending 5 years earning barely $30k a year, busting my ass TAing undergrads, dealing with publishing deadlines and BS from the supervisor and university (you'd be surprised at the amount of people who end up with asshole supervisors!), practically begging for grants. I don't know any PhD candidates who regularly do consulting, or anyone who has a comfortable annual income. And the stress is crazy. I don't know why anyone would do this to themselves.

To add insult to injury, I know I'm making the same or more money than many people my age (or a year or two older, I'm 25) straight out of CS PhD programs.

If I want to hack on interesting R&D projects, I can do that as Free Software in my spare time (which I do). The contrast is I have actual users instead of papers to submit. If I had to write an interesting system for a dissertation, I'm practically guaranteed that no one will use it because everyone knows that software that comes out of academia is shit.

So, what's the point?

If you think doing a PhD in CS is about writing software, you don't know what you're talking about, dude.

You started your post with a coherent argument, but the ending was completely WTF material.

If I wanted to do more math, I'd go to grad school for mathematics (one of my undergrad degrees is in math).

I don't want to beg Sun for grant money to develop new ways to make Java less shitty (you would be amazed at the number of papers that have been written about this topic), since they don't want to invest the money in setting up a real R&D lab with real-world salaries.

I'm not interested in type theory, complexity, encryption, or formal verification. Are there any other areas of CS research where I can get away with not writing any software as a grad student?

There are plenty! But that's besides the point. You most likely will end up writing some software as part as a PhD in CS, but that's not the objective. Most of the time, the software will be proof-of-concept stuff to validate some of the research you've done. Or to assess the performance of a new algorithm, or whatever. Your comparison of equating R&D to hacking on some open-source project is really apples to oranges. In any case, a PhD in CS is, 99.9999% of the time, not about hacking, at all.

If a grad student writes a software prototype and no one uses it, does it make a sound?

The fact that "99.9999% of the time" is spent doing other things is the problem. If you're doing applied math like type theory and make an advancement, that's research. If you're doing anything else, that's the Development part of R&D.

Computer science doesn't exist in a vacuum. Unlike math, you can't come up with some new algorithm without first having a problem that that algorithm is intended to solve (again, this doesn't apply to complexity-related research because that is applied math).

So we can't claim CS arises a priori (unless it's just applied math like type theory), so then you have to claim that what your CS research is doing is empirical. Good luck with that. Because, you know, Java is a naturally occurring system.

Let's take two concrete examples of projects I hack on:



Both of these topics (using futures for parallelism, and language X to JavaScript compilation) have had and continue to have a lot of academic research devoted to them.

These two systems I contribute to happen to have interesting and original properties that I've arrived at in a process that can only be described as hacking.

I'm convinced that I never would have been able to have these hacking breakthroughs without the freedom and time to reflect that I have outside of grad school.

It doesn't matter how supportive your advisor is, there is still the question of grants and publishing deadlines. And I know a thing or two about working the university system to create a supportive environment for myself - as a math undergrad, I had my own cubicle in and run of the AI lab, had support from a number of CS professors, one of whom had a spot reserved in the CS MSc program for me (I obviously didn't go). I spent a lot of time around grad students at the AI and other CS labs, so I got to know what grad student life looked like.

But aside from all that, the best thing about working on these systems on my own has been the fact that people actually use them. The feedback has been invaluable for giving me new ideas and inspiring the innovative hacks.

>The fact that "99.9999% of the time" is spent doing other things is the problem. If you're doing applied math like type theory and make an advancement, that's research. If you're doing anything else, that's the Development part of R&D.

It's not a problem, at all. Whether you're developing new algorithms, analyzing them, running simulations, studying and understanding the results, all that _is_ research. I think you're being too narrow in your definitions.

I don't know about CS but if you are thinking of doing a PhD in the biomedical field, do it only if you are really really really attracted by the idea of doing research and knowing that there is about 1 academic job for every 10-15 people who start PhD. Competition is fierce, pay is miserable, be sure you are in love with the job.

I really don't get this type of statements (and I am referring both to this article and the opposite one that also got to front page today).

Doing a PhD is neither good nor bad. There is just no right choice for everybody. Some people will rather pursue one, some others will rather avoid higher education and go for other endeavors. It is just an individual decision which will turn out good for some and bad for others.

Personally, I didn't see the point for one and decided to graduate just with an MSc, but I have many friends with PhDs and in hindsight they are fully satisfied with their decisions.

A warning before you simply look at just how much every single country pays for PhDs: Living in Europe, especially Scandinavia, cost usually a lot more than living in the States. You should take this into account when you decide where to take your PhD.

As a little tips if you're interested in taking a PhD in Norway: They discuss whether to halve the amount of PhD-positions and double the pay or not. If this happens, it will be very reasonable to take a PhD here. If this does not happen, I would not recommend taking a PhD "for the money", because prices here are skyhigh.

Isn't the real answer that it's different for everyone? Doing any sort of degree just because is surely wrong, especially in the way you suggest. Taking funding for a PHD and then working on a startup and moving into that once you're qualified probably isn't what those who are funding it intended on you doing... I guess that's what being a hacker is, playing the system, but it feels morally wrong to me when there are limited funding options etc etc etc

Tell NH: don't worry about money so much and if you do want to waste time thinking/talking about money and the making thereof, don't do a PhD.

Do you have a PhD?

Your brain doesn't last forever. A PhD will make it harder to succeed because your brain will have deteriorated somewhat by the time you finish it.

Try comparing programmers at ages 20 vs 30.

I can't think of many (any?) programmers who were better at 20 than 30, even among people famed for their youth prodigy. Torvalds wrote the initial version of the Linux kernel when he was 21, but the by the late 90s he had become a much better programmer and software engineer than the 1991 version.

Or, say, Ritchie & Thompson: famously young, but they didn't do anything of note younger than 25, and their big burst of output was around age 30 (when they wrote the first "real" version of Unix in C).

I agree but I do know a lot of 20 year old programmers who THINK they are better than their 30 year old counterparts

Hah, true. A kernel of truth in it might be that 20-year-old programmers sometimes pick very interesting problems to work on. It's interesting that the 21-year-old Torvalds is the one who wrote a Unix kernel from scratch, even if the 30-year-old Torvalds was a better programmer. And folks like Zuckerberg did interesting stuff quite young. But that's not quite the same as programmer skill; it requires being a good programmer and then having some other kind of opportunity-spotting skill (and some audacity+luck).

The real problem if you're still programming at age 30 isn't that your brain has deteriorated. It's overcoming the daily ennui that comes with the realization that you could have been a multi millionaire by now if you would have picked better projects to work on. All those old programmers aren't slow because they are dumb, they are slow because they are depressed.

That's quite a generalization. Not everyone needs money to be happy. Some of us just like to code.

The depressing part is that many of the people who ended up multi-millionaires also had a ton of fun coding & running the business. It's not an either/or: you can have fun coding and get rich doing it. It's just that the getting rich part requires a lot of luck in addition to the coding.

Most people, when given the choice between "fun" and "fun and money", will take the fun and money. After all, I know very few people who will turn down a chance at free money.

It's not that you don't like to code, or need money to be happy. It's just the weird economic structure of startups and the software industry kinda lends itself to "missed opportunity" depression.

Look at it like professional athletes. Many guys just like to play basketball. But, I'm going to bet guys who were close to playing in the NBA and just didn't make it, are probably at least kinda depressed about it, whether or not they still like playing pickup games.

I wasn't around back then, but from what I've read, it feels this used to be somewhat different: the people at Bell Labs, or the old MIT AI lab, and similar places, genuinely thought they had the best jobs in the world, at least for them.

I'm sure occasionally some of them wondered about what it would've been like to found Intel or AMD or Apple, but for the most part they seem to have been happy to have a job where the business side was someone else's job, and they got paid to just work on interesting technical problems all day. I don't get the feeling that someone like Ken Thompson ever was particularly regretful that he spent his career at Bell Labs rather than founding a startup, because he was doing exactly what he wanted to do.

Perhaps the technical freedom some of those research labs offered is part of it? I can imagine there being more regret if you missed money-making opportunities and didn't have a great deal of freedom to choose your own technical problems.

I'm 6 months from 30, and I'm a much better programmer now than when I was 20. (Which was my junior year of college.) Not sure what your point is.

A few years past 30, and ditto. I write much fewer lines of code per hour, and am much more productive. (The two are not unrelated).

I'm two months after 30 and the same is true for me, I'm much more effective now than I was then.

You reach your peak in your 20s sometime but you don't really have any serious decline until much later.

There basically was no point.

Some things get better with age. Others such as analytic ability, thinking speed, and energy level get worse.


one source amongst many, note the # of achievements peaks around 40 not 20


". In some cases (e.g., bisection), performance differences between the older participants and students nearly 50 years younger used in other studies were negligible."

and so on and so forth, this is by no means a well solved problem that says, young people are smarter derp

Achievement is definitely way more than just natural ability. Experience counts for a lot, and older people will have a large knowledge advantage. However, he has a legitimate point about natural analytic ability and speed.


Seriously, if you need a kick in the ass to get moving every now and then (like me), then google Timothy Salthouse's research on cognitive aging. It's a depressing reminder that time waits for no one.

On the plus side, the urge to troll attenuates with age as well.

Sure, but those are not usually the decisive abilities.

I would say that now, at 31, I may not be able to think as fast as when I was 20, but I also don't need to, because my thought processes converge on useful/correct solutions much faster.

I may not be able to quickly analytically evaluate five different solutions like I used to, but I don't need to, because I know from wisdom/experience what the best solution is.

Are you implying that a programmer of age 20 is better than one of age 30?

Well, I'm just a BSc and only 28, but I can certainly say that I'm a better programmer now than I have been at 20. I would account the same to any programmer I have known over the years.

I'm not implying there are no good 20yo programmers. I'm saying if they keep studying, they will be better when they reach 30.

Plus, HN just recently featured an article stating the human brain does not deteriorate at all if you keep using it.

Nope. Some of the best programmers I have worked with were in their 40's.

The reason for this observation has nothing to do with age and more to do with the nature of their jobs when they actually reach 30.

The bulk of the jobs out there are neither exciting nor challenging after the first hump and most people out there get disillusioned after they realize the Pareto principle seems universal when applied to themselves since they become so efficient now that they can generally do the most worthwile things at their jobs in 20% of the time.

The trick is to start applying that big brain of yours to other things rather than the problems that your pointy-haired boss tells you to. Like learning a new skill, or picking up a new hobby to keep your brain going.

You may be able to measure deterioration in the brain between 20 and 30, although I am skeptical. I would love to see some supporting links if you have them. What does "somewhat" mean? 1%?

However, there are many other advantages that come with years of experience and learning that I suggest would outweigh such deterioration.

Startup success may perhaps correlate inversely with age increase from 20 to 30 (although I doubt it), but I would be surprised if "brain deterioration" was the cause.

I often compare programmers. I haven't seen the evidence you see.

You don't learn new things quite as fast, but you hone your skill. The best statues are not done by fresh, inexperienced people.

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