Sunday, March 27, 2011

Is a PhD useful?

Is a PhD useful? 

Let me tell you a story.  My friend had a colleague at his work place, who lamented that he never finished his PhD, but he was still just as good as my friend.  I am not sure if the guy got a MS or didn't get anything.  But this is pretty common.  The fact is, that if you are in a field that is relevant, then the PhD is a gateway.  It opens many doors that would not be possible without the degree.  Academia is of course the standard, since you will (very very likely) never make faculty at a 4 year university without a PhD.

Pros  In industry (real world), things are much different.  PhD is either a handicap or help depending on what you do with it.  If you are in a field where it could have some academic tie ins, then it very useful.  For example you could be a engineer with a PhD and that allows you to develop curriculi at a university, and become the rare and valuable academic who has direct industry ties.  If it is a field that essentially requires the skill level of a PhD, for example, an advanced chemist, then it is necessary of course for that position.  My above friend would have not been considered for his position if he did not have a PhD.  

Cons However, I think this is a dangerous mindset (that getting a PhD = great job upon leaving), most positions do not require a PhD.  You really need to know what you want before you step foot into the PhD program.  If the position you want has a bunch of people who don't have PhD degrees, maybe a MS is better.  Let me give you a real world example.  Above friend is an industrial chemist, and is a group lead/middle management science guy.  He has to hire people for his group.  He needs people with specific areas.  B.S. and 10+ years experience.  He got a ton of ABD/recently minted PhD applicants, which he threw away.   The point is, the further up the academic ladder you go, the more you limit yourself in your position.  It gets harder and harder to break away from the field if things go south.

Most employers do not want to hire PhDs if they don't need to.  We require retraining, and we are more expensive.  For example my start salary at my current position is probably 2x what the guy who graduate from a IT tech school earns.  However, to be quite honest, he produces more, because he has a limited job description, and can do that all day long.

It is what you make of it   I have a huge job description, and am forced to learn everything under the sun.  The fact that I have a PhD shows that I'm not an idiot and can handle the challenge.  But the learning curve is much steeper.  Honestly they would have been better served by hiring two guys from IT school for the specific job of technical support.  My role was not only that but software interfaces, which requires you to quickly get a number of new technologies and concepts, and tie them all together.   Lastly, it can be expected that a tech school guy can only climb so far.  I would not expect them to be able to do the interfacing as it requires too much free thinking and thought.  Probably a career programmer could do it fine, which is a B.S. plus a few years experience.

In the end, the piece of paper is worthless.  Unless you have a specific skill set (ie pharmacology for the drug companies, or computer algorithm design for Google (they are now hiring with preference for PhD in this), then the PhD is not an insurance of any type of job.  The only thing it can do is allow you mobility and flexibility.  I can go back into academia and teach if I want.  I can actually sit on govt panels and sound fairly intelligent.  My credentials and training bring a lot to the table if you are talking about services; the fact that your company has a PhD trained guy usually is a bonus.

There are a great many selling points of the degree which I will get into later.  But ultimately it comes down to this.  Do you think your life would be more worthwhile?   Do you feel like you would be limited without the degree?  Why do you think that?  It is easy to get into the degree/cert trap.

Here is another short story.  I found myself retooling to enter IT, and like most, realize there is a ton of certs out there.  And there is also a HUGE industry on just getting people certified.  Because the pay can be somewhat lucrative (at least for the people who know what they are doing), it is tempting to enter the industry and say 'if i had this cert I would be more employable'.  Well, I did that for a while, I went through the Cisco cert school, 4 semesters, and got the entry level cert, CCNA.  I then got an internship at Cisco doing some flunky stuff.  Everyone there was of the opinion that if only they had more Cisco certs it would increase their value.  Well, somewhat.  At one point I had a chat with a guy who was in the industry, who asked the very poignant question, "Then What?".   I would get some higher level cert, but still not be any more employable, because I had zero experience relevant to what I wanted to do.  Completely unemployable.  That's how the game is nowadays.  Certs mean zero, and what you learn, 90% you throw away.  I learned about WANS and enterprise level networking.  Do I use that?  Hardly.  Our network is fairly simple and I am not even in charge of it.
Take home message

Experience is the golden currency.  Degrees and so forth are fairly worthless, hiring people are much more into 'what have you actually done'.  They need more quantifiable measure.  "We need a guy who can do X", and unless you have actually done X, then you won't get the job, because chances are there are a lot of guys who have done X.  Therefore I stopped applying to networking jobs, there were so many people with so much experience with it that I likely would have never gotten a position that would have interested me.   I instead switching to something I did actually have some previous experience and knowledge in, radiology (my family runs a small imaging center and I've been involved in it my whole life).   Once i capitalized on that knowledge, and made some personal contacts (friend of a friend), I got a job quickly, and hopefully now that I have the precious experience then I can leverage it.  We'll see!  Did the PhD help me get this job?  Not really.  It boosted my salary a bit, and i had more responsibilities.  I think that's about all you can expect from a graduate degree.

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