Uh... I'm doing a PhD because I like scientific research and can't stand the thought of being a process engineer. If I'm going to spend 8 hours a day working on something for the rest of my life, it better be something I enjoy! While it is possible to do R&D with a bachelor's degree, your chances of being able to do exactly the kind of research you want goes up significantly with a PhD, plus you've already had the experience of doing it for 4 years.
Also, I'm not sure where this "not much money" concept comes from anyway. I'll start at an engineering salary, right out of grad school. I guess that's not "Hacker News wealthy", but that's plenty more than I need to even live comfortably!
I don't really think it's the salary of a permanent academic job that people complain about, it's the fact that in most fields, the number of such jobs is far surpassed by the number of Ph.D.'s produced. When you realize that "not that much money" means "postdoc kind of not-that-much-money", then the outlook changes.
In short, there is very little research in the above Ph.D. in academia career.
I'm not so sure that's a valid generalization.
I'm getting a PhD in computer science, but any corporate R&D department I know of that would hire a fresh graduate would only let you do R in service of their particular D needs, i.e., you have too little autonomy.
I definitely think I can find jobs that I love and that are lucrative (I have some in mind), but I won't be doing research as, say, a tenured professor would define it.
I'd guess that computer science is very different from experimental physical science disciplines: In experimental, you have to have a research advisor with grant money if you want to have vacuum pumps/oscilloscopes/glassware/liquid nitrogen/etc., even if you plan to TA your way through grad school.
Of course, I have heard of R1 tenured professors who claim to spend 50% of their effort procuring funding (though I think 10% is a much more representative estimate).
And I'm not dissing them in any way - getting a grant requires the senior/experienced guys working on it. Getting the funding is a must-have (since without it researchers and students would be dismissed and the research would not exist); but spending your own time researching is a nice-to-have thing that you can do if there's any spare time left after teaching and bureaucracy.
Problem is, you can't take that route to get tenure in the first place, unless you're an absolute genius.
You're not going to be able to do a good grant proposal unless you have a good track record of research, with multiple papers. So in that sense, a grant proposal supersedes a single paper.
But, given that you've already done all those papers, a grant proposal is just writing, not new research, so it should actually be massively less work than doing all the original research that goes into a paper.
The relative compensation in many companies between engineers and useless managers is another issue... but anyone who complains about poverty at $250,000 can eat it.
I was an astrophysics Ph.D student at a fairly well-known program until last year when I left with an M.S. to go full time for the web development shop I started. It was a good decision on my part, for sure, but what really struck me is that after I broke the news to my advisor, he was quite open with me about how poor the job market is (not that I wasn't already aware). He and many other faculty members in the department sung a very different tune to me and my classmates during the recruitment process, as did my undergraduate mentors. This is an endemic problem throughout astronomy (at least) and probably many other disciplines in the physical sciences as well.
Even the students often seem to have a sort of Stockholm syndrome about the problem. I still hear from lots of my former classmates that a.) they're well aware of the extreme shortage of jobs in astronomy, b.) they're not seriously expecting to get an academic job and are aware that there are virtually no non-academic jobs doing astronomy and c.) they'll figure out how to get a job "in industry" (i.e. what the rest of us call "having a job") when they finish.
Many students in these programs seen to labor under the assumption that if academia doesn't pan out, their programming skills or quantitative knowledge will make them good candidates for a software or finance job. This is not really as true as they think, since as most HN readers are aware, good developer jobs entail knowing about a lot more than just a programming language, and the sort of programming and quantitative analysis you do in Ph.D research is really pretty far from what those of us in the private sector do with our programming skills.
Nonetheless, a lot of these same classmates would go full-out with their encouragement of prospective students when they came to visit. In my last year at grad school, I remember going on a long rant at the prospectives about how bad an idea a Ph.D in astrophysics is, and the looks of horror on my classmates' faces.
(See my view on the perils and opportunity costs of med school here: http://jseliger.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/why-you-should-beco... ; Greenspun hosted this: http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/why-i-gave-up-practicing... in 2011.)
For the most part, you don't swing for the fences. You learn how to integrate yourself into a certain type of system, and you hang on until you graduate. You operate in the zone where the marginal return on labor is usually miniscule.
In my opinion, Academia is pretty poor at fostering and developing any type of disruptive innovation. This kind of innovation is generally what makes headlines and gets funding.
Disclaimer: I am by no means the first person to have this thought. Here's a blog post from Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericaswallow/2012/04/19/innovato...
1) It's quite common to study for PhD while getting paid for it instead of paying for it - and in that case, it should be treted as a fun and enriching (though not very high paying) job for a couple of years instead of "delaying 4 years". Getting into a huge debt for it is a whole different thing, though.
2) It feels that this problem is partly USA-specific. Sure, other places may have noticed similar tendencies but not as sharply; and science is very, very global - I'm seeing a lot of great researchers moving between countries/universities every 5-6 years based on where the major research projects in their area are happening & funded.
In general, a solution would be to try to decouple research from teaching instead of mixing them all under PhD/professor positions - the future tendency seems to be with much less people needed in teaching (due to changes in society, student funding/loan systems, MOOC's, etc) and thus more PhD's shifting towards research.
Even if you're not taking out a loan in the monetary sense, you're taking out a loan from your long term earnings, one that has little chance of being repaid, to put your mental assets/skills to a non-remunerable task, and get a certification that you did so. The problem is that the option to continue doing this (tenure-track academic jobs) are limited and (naturally) highly contested.
However, you make a good point--there's an underlying and insidious opportunity cost that is often unknowingly sacrificed: that of atrophying skill sets. It's easy for a PhD to be a hugely insular experience, if you let it, and if you take the easy way out and don't stretch your engineering skills (speaking in terms of CS here, since that's what I know), you're in for a rude awakening if you determine that academia is not for you. If you're not careful, you'll get good at writing papers, but might actually get /worse/ at writing portable, readable, and maintainable code. And as brilliant as your papers may be, if you can't ship good code, you're going to have trouble in industry.
The good thing, again at least for CS students like me, is that the "fun and enriching" environment of academia means a lot of opportunity for starting companies, creating libraries/frameworks, working on side projects, and doing contract work, so there's no reason you have to atrophy. Which is something that, sadly, the visions of the tenure-track academic job are engineered to beat out of you.
That may be so. Are you familiar with the concept of a wage being equivalent to the marginal product of labor (or value of last hour worked)? :).
I'm with you. I'm working on my dissertation at the moment.
"A desire to learn" and "Make new contributions to human knowledge" are laudable goals that I admire. But, even leaving aside the important question of whether grad school as it is currently structured is a good way of pursuing either, it's hard to make new contributions to human knowledge when you're having trouble making enough money to support yourself, and it's frustrating to see your new contribution made when your buddy is working for Google and writing software that millions of people use every day—and getting paid well for it.
It seems not unreasonable to me to balance life / career goals with learning and wealth. The opportunity costs of grad school are incredibly steep. If you are the rare person who doesn't care at all about material possessions or the physical quality of life, then by all means go to grad school. But if you go expecting a tenure-track job at the end—which most people seem to—then you're making a mistake. I am not at all opposed to someone who simply says, "I don't care at all about income."
Also, I'm not sure you're calibrated correctly. It's not about sacrificing "latest model cars", more about sacrificing a reasonable chance of retirement.
I have too (see here: http://jseliger.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/what-you-should-kno... for some comments, mostly job-related), and I think most grad students—at least during the first half of their experience—do think they'll be the exception.
They are rather intelligent, motivated individuals, who choose to work on projects that are more interesting/important than optimal ad placement or crafty financial swaps, and who are prepared to sacrifice some Caribbean cruises and latest model cars in return.
I think we'll have to agree to disagree. Most seem to be pointlessly delaying adulthood. Note that there are exceptions.
Without data the rest of this discussion might be pointless, but the prevalence of articles warning against PhDs seems to me to point in an important direction.
However, it is true that a disproportionate amount of jobs will follow the money.
I don't think the average grad-student could work at Google instead. My personal experience is that Google keeps having its recruiters call me periodically, and then rejecting me for even internships after interviewing.
I don't even get the questions wrong anymore, so I feel like I just somehow suck, despite being a CS grad-student at a well-regarded institution.
Those of you in the gallery: Have you or somebody you know successfully made the transition from (non-computer) science into a tech career? In the current economy, what are the chances you'd hire a highly motivated science dropout with programming competence and basic stats knowledge? Would something like Dev Bootcamp be worthwhile for somebody like me?
I hate buzzwords like "data scientist", but I think that might be my best angle. What I'd really like is to apprentice in a Django shop, or possibly wear a little of both hats as a dev and a "data scientist".
I did it, have worked with others who have done it, and would now hire people who did. The important part is your ability to program. There are tons of PhD students (even in CS), who can't (or won't) write code. There are even more who write horrible, unmaintainable code. You have to be better than those folks.
Also, do not be deceived by "data science": it's mostly a bullshit term, and translates roughly to "programmer who knows basic statistics", rather than "scientist who knows some programming". Nobody wants to hire you if you can't implement your theories in a production context.
The bottom line is that if you're a good coder, nobody cares how you wasted your youth.
This is utter rubbish; I really wish people would keep quiet about things they know nothing about. I suggest that you have never actually discussed a domain with a data scientist if you think it's "basic statistics".
In our dev. shop, we have a lot of great programmers, but none of them can touch our data scientist when it comes to working out what our tens of millions of users are actually doing and what their salient attributes are.
As for the data scientist needing to 'implement their theories', that's what the developers are for. The data scientist does the analysis, then works with the developers to implement systems that incorporate the results. Neither group is capable of the other's work.
Utter rubbish, perhaps. But since I've actually done the job, I do happen to know something about the subject. It's a marketing term, not a term of art.
The vast majority of "data science" performed at web companies boils down to knowledge of summary statistics and probability theory, a smattering of basic statistical models, and (most importantly) the ability to write code. There's not much that would challenge an advanced undergraduate, let alone a doctoral-level statistician.
For everyone else - look straight at industry - where the competition is a hell of a lot lower, the salaries much higher, and the competition is really not that bright. If you are getting a Ph.D - and you know you're not a genius - be looking at getting a cushy engineering job at a large firm.
The benefits are great, the salaries are great, the job security is great and you can always jump back into academia. It's also the closest analogue to academia as you'll get, next to research labs.
Don't ever compete on the same terms as the people around you. Don't play a game where you will lose - a game where you are probably outclassed. Go look to where you can charge monopoly pricing and extract as much as you possibly can.
Competing for limited resources is a losers game - hell, competition SUCKS BALLS (just ask any Chinese manufacturers you know :) - monopoly is where it's at (just ask AAPL/GOOG/MSFT/TSLA).
Separately - people should go out and learn some basic statistics, microeconomics (macro is pretty fucking useless), game theory and psychology. These will help you to avoid getting stuck in what can appropriately be called real life versions of the "Hunger Games" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hunger_Games).
Reminds me of Tony Hsieh talking about poker strategies, and the conclusion of the movie WarGames:
> Through reading poker books and practicing by playing, I spent a lot of time learning about the best strategy to play once I was actually sitting down at a table. My big "ah-ha!" moment came when I finally learned that the game started even before I sat down in a seat.
In a poker room at a casino, there are usually many different choices of tables. Each table has different stakes, different players, and different dynamics that change as the players come and go, and as players get excited, upset, or tired.
I learned that the most important decision I could make was which table to sit at. This included knowing when to change tables. I learned from a book that an experienced player can make ten times as much money sitting at a table with nine mediocre players who are tired and have a lot of chips compared with sitting at a table with nine really good players who are focused and don't have that many chips in front of them.
In business, one of the most important decisions for an entrepreneur or a CEO to make is what business to be in. It doesn't matter how flawlessly a business is executed if it's the wrong business or if it's in too small a market.
Imagine if you were the most efficient manufacturer of seven-fingered gloves. You offer the best selection, the best service, and the best prices for seven-fingered gloves--but if there isn't a big enough market for what you sell, you won't get very far.
Or, if you decide to start a business that competes directly against really experienced competitors such as Wal-Mart by playing the same game they play (for example, trying to sell the same goods at lower prices), then chances are that you will go out of business.
In a poker room, I could only choose which table I wanted to sit at. But in business, I realized that I didn't have to sit at an existing table. I could define my own, or make the one that I was already at even bigger. (Or, just like in a poker room, I could always choose to change tables.)
I realized that, whatever the vision was for any business, there was always a bigger vision that could make the table bigger.
> Instead, Falken and David direct the computer to play tic-tac-toe against itself. This results in a long string of draws, forcing the computer to learn the concept of futility. Joshua obtains the missile code but before launching, it cycles through all the nuclear war scenarios it has devised, finding they too all result in stalemates. The computer concludes that nuclear warfare is "a strange game"; having discovered the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction ("WINNER: NONE"), therefore "the only winning move is not to play."
Competition is M.A.D. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_assured_destruction), the only winning move is not to play!
And long live monopoly!
To the OPs point, If you want to compete in a well-established academic field, you have to be really freaking good. Want to be an experimental physicist? You see the competition out there: they write books and appear on TV shows, or at least have tenure and get grant money. Are you really one of those guys or gals? On the other hand, there's interesting stuff out there that is just waiting for someone with a modicum of intellect and desire to revolutionize it. The challenge lies in finding (or creating) such a field and exploiting it at the right time. I think this can be done in academia or in business alike, business is just much more flexible and forgiving of mistakes.
 "The Signal and the Noise"
Interesting point. How about Bitcoin? Am I too late to that game, or is it too hard to model?
When you sit down at a table if you can't pick out the sucker, it's you.
Pick your table, pick your game, do whatever you have to to slant the odds in your favor. If you're the sucker get up and move. Don't let your pride get in the way. Back when I started playing poker I could sit at tables in LV and do pretty well. As poker became popular LV became a much harder place to play. The quality (and recklessness of the player went up), so I quit playing.
The last time I played was on a business trip in Phoenix. After a couple of hands a woman already at the table and I realized we were the top ones at the table and just stayed out of each others way while drunk businessmen and golfers emptied their wallets :)
I try and own the high value long comments. Although I relapse ever so often and move back towards the short/sharp side - winning a high volume competition is very alluring.
It's probably why reddit/stackoverflow/wikipedia/HN exist.
Although I haven't made the move to industry yet, I did recently get myself a nice little research gig doing big data work in a lab at one of those universities in Cambridge.
I'd also love to hear about the big data work that you do.
You get to pick two at most, and that's if you're lucky--most people only get to pick one, or none.
Jobs in academia are certainly no exception to this rule.
For example, computers have gotten faster, better, AND cheaper over time.
There definitely are women who are sane, smart, and beautiful. Are you kidding me? Just walk around any research university where they're doing graduate-level research and you will see lots of them.
As for the other gender triangle, pg is definitely handsome, sensitive and rich, so there's your disproof.
The "no silver bullet" thing is talking about something totally different. And it's an observation specific to software engineering (or, possibly, other specific domains, considered individually). There is a silver bullet for vaccinating against polio, but not for classroom teaching techniques.
faster, better, AND cheaper *over time*.
If you find a smart, sane and beautiful woman doing graduate research, it is highly probable that she is already married or planning for marriage with her boyfriend/partner as soon as she is out of school. (Well, this is from my experiences in Science and Engineering departments. Might be different for other fields.)
Yes, you're correct. No, she's not interested. :P
Inane crap like this helps absolutely nobody, and it perpetuates stereotypes that I think on HN we would be trying to avoid.
Why you would post this is beyond me.
Very talented people can easily accomplish all three, especially in tech.
I guess the lucrative and secure part are supposed to be in tension? EG, if something is lucrative, there will be lots of competition that fights and eats away the security? But that same lucrativeness causes security, eg, golden hand cuffs.
If a job is all 3 of interesting, lucrative, and secure, then everyone will try to get that job, and the competition will either drive the salary down, or drive the job security down, or both.
A more general version of this rule is that anything desirable (or "scarce" if you want to use an economic term) in life will soon be pursued by others to the point where it becomes no longer desirable. That's the essence of how markets work.
The trick to wealth is to know (through some combination of vision and luck) what is going to be desirable ahead of time and obtain it before everyone else knows they want it.
In an economy with a healthy labor system, someone skilled in a certain field (say, software engineering) can just get a new (sufficiently lucrative) job if they lose the one they have, so there's no _necessary_ tension between those two.
It does frustrate me to watch congress base public policy on the notion of a shortage of scientists and engineers when the evidence clearly does not support that assertion.
I need to think a little more about this, but you're certainly correct in pointing out that it is more complicated that what I wrote - especially in engineering or CS, where an MS makes sense as a terminal degree goal.
I'm extremely wary of this guy's data part of which come from his "own calculations". Bleh.
Of course, there are plenty of job openings that ask for PhDs, but most of the work does not truly require a PhD. Those jobs are filtering out the vast majority of capable candidates while targeting people who have already shown that they would prefer a different sort of work by doing the PhD in the first place. Is it a surprise that they can't fill the position?
Does that mean that CS PhDs can easily get jobs? Perhaps.
Does it mean they can easily get interesting jobs? I am more doubtful.
Does it mean that producing more PhDs is necessary or even useful? I doubt it.
As http://www.workpermit.com/canada/points_calculator.htm says, a PhD is +25 points and you need 67 to get in. It helps a lot, but far from a guarantee.
So just doing a bachelor's will give you 80% of the PhD points..
First of all, I don't know any good engineers who are unemployed, regardless of their level of EE/CS degree. If you have an EE/CS degree, and you're having trouble securing a paycheck, this might not be the field for you. Sorry.
That said, if "getting a job" is your goal, a BS is all you need. A 5-year BS/MS program is a great deal if your school offers it. Otherwise, I'd look for a job with tuition benefits. I was able to get a Master's part-time at night, and it was completely paid for by my first employer. In my experience, an MS is definitely worth getting, as it will give you a slight salary increase, possibly a better job title, and is probably just expected at good companies.
A PhD in engineering is for teaching or being a research engineer (i.e. at a government/corporate lab or a university). I honestly believe you should only get an engineering PhD if you think (1) you're really smart, and (2) you can study at a top-tier university. If you're not an elite engineer, I don't see the point of a PhD. Work experience will look better on a resume than a thesis with an advisor no one's heard of. And a research job won't pay more, but it will require a bigger brain.
I've chosen to do a PhD because I enjoy research and it gives me the time to learn a host of other skills too. I should have just turned 25 when I finish, all going well, with a whole bunch of stuff to add to my CV (not just papers, but the more intangible stuff too--going from a shy undergrad to someone who can present at international conferences, foster collaborations between different groups at different institutions, program relatively competently, use very delicate/expensive equipment responsibly etc.) Though it feels worth it to me it's also difficult to get perspective from "within" the PhD, so I'm asking anyone reading this from a more objective point of view: do you think it's all worth it? Or would it have been better to go into industry at the end of my undergrad? Obviously it varies from person to person, but I'm just trying to get a sense for where other people stand on this.
For me, my (engineering) PhD is a chance to take on an entire project. I get to do system-level design, hardware, software, signal processing, user interface, the lot. The thought of spending four years in a job at the bottom of the ladder doing small, well-defined tasks that my manager told me to do didn't really appeal. Instead I get to manage a project, make real decisions, and learn to deal with the consequences of those decisions. I'm not doing it for the sake of any opportunities that having a PhD might bring so much as the opportunities presented by actually doing the PhD.
Relative graph to assure you that the dip at the end is just due to less data collected recently:
I have only would have wanted to apply for one position in my life so far that required a Ph.D, and that company did not end up doing well. I also managed a Ph.D before (from China) and, in my opinion, he was no more productive than others on the team that had neither Masters or Ph.D. That doesn't prove anything, I know. But, although I have a lot of respect for education, I don't think it is worth it typically.
Well, ok, so here's the thing: If you apply to grad school in one of the physical or life sciences and they don't offer you a TAship for your first year, then they are politely telling you to f*ck off. It's "generally understood" (which means that nobody knows this unless someone tells them) that any serious offer comes with a TAship that will just barely pay your rent in a crappy one-bedroom apartment with a little left over for food.
 And make wild promises about how everyone has a full RAship with ponies by his second year
Seriously. IMO someone reading through, say, the TAOCP, Rudin's Real and Complex Analysis, Horowitz & Hill's TAOE, or any selection of good, difficult books like these, will have acquired undoubtedly more intellectual freedom afterwards than any PhD graduate. For starters, it's self-directed study, which is orders of magnitude harder, and more important to self-growth, than study directed by an advisor, or any bit of structure. It's also faster. It doesn't sink you in any significant debt, which is a plus on the order of physical freedom. It's much more eclectic, which is incredibly important, both in terms of the monopoly power you'll bear, and the scientific value your unique analogies between concepts will create. Hopefully.
Sure, there's no paper afterwards to show. My take is that, credentials or not, you'll still have to show your competence to a potential employer or investor, your exposition tailored to the particular needs you suspect they have.
So be careful when you say "[reading these books will give you] more intellectual freedom afterwards than any PhD graduate." That's simply not true. And I'm not even touching on the benefits of having a good mentor...
You do have a point, but the way I see true "intellectual freedom" (lolcraft may have meant somth similar) is that let's say you spend your late 20s-early 30s slaving away at a post-doc only to have a chance to access a "petaflop supercomputer" and then you suddenly decide that you actually are really interested in classical Persian poetry and you'd like to devote some time to learning Persian, only to realize you do not have time for that because hey, somebody needs to write those papers for the grant money to come in and your chances for tenure to remain intact.
Replace "Persian poetry" with the study of Mathematical logic, the reading of the pre-Socratics or trying to make sense of the early-medieval migration patterns, as things stand right now both the people following PhDs and those too immersed in industry are not "intellectual free" because they have no time for these sorts of intellectual pursuits. We do need to find that middle-ground between extreme-science and industry again, we do need universal people like Leonardo and Democritus back.
1) A recent PhD with $40,000 to his name
2) A Google engineer who graduated from undergrad at the same time and has $400,000 to her name
1) Most engineers do not work at Google, and
2) I have plenty of friends who do/did, and, guess what?: They still write code all day! Most of which does not do neat things like drive cars, but rather: increases AdWord click-through rates! Or: manages address book contacts. Fun!
I don't care how much free pizza and foosball you offer me, nothing can match the freedom of pursuing my own interests.
How many MTV or NYC Google engineers have $400k to their name after 5 years, as opposed to $4,000 and a bunch of money torched on rent? Google pays well, but not as well as you seem to think.
I'd say that (2) wins, if only because someone who sticks with Google for 5 years is probably one who made Real Googler and now has a fair amount of freedom. Google is pretty nice once you're above the Real Googler Line.
But that's aside from the actual point. It's not even about what the Googler does after they've done 5 years. That kind of money is enough to do whatever the hell you want to kind of money. You want to read papers all day? You can do it full time and pay yourself a graduate student's stipend for life, without having to worry about pleasing the dictates of your advisor, academic fads, TAing, and internal politics. Even the lucky students who become professors still have to apply for funding and teach students, on top of producing popular research to get tenure: with route 2), you never have to apply for funding, and you can choose how much time you want to devote to teaching and what kind of teaching you want to do.
It's fair to quibble with the actual numbers, but the point is that money buys you a hell of a lot. The fact that someone might not save, or pathologically continue slaving away at the corporate behemoth they hate once they've saved enough, doesn't change that possibility.
Now admittedly, $20k/year is a hell of a lot to be able to save for normal Americans! But at the end of five years it leaves you with $100k of savings, not $250k. In the Boston area where I was, you couldn't even put a down-payment on a house with that little money. It was basically just lots and lots of beer money.
On the other hand, if you know a magical company in a magical land, perhaps adorned with pastel ponies, at which I can make enough money with a low enough cost of living to retire after five or ten years to become a self-funded gentleman scientist, I'll certainly take that over graduate school. I just don't think it actually exists, as you can probably tell by the sarcasm.
practicing what was called "the mushroom theory of management." It was an old expression, used in many other corners of corporate America. The Eclipse Group's managers defined it as follows: "Put 'em in the dark, feed 'em shit, and watch 'em grow."
"For everyone else - look straight at industry"