Opinions on getting a PhD in CS

Hi Numerati!

I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this community; I think it is easy to find a group of people on the internet but hard to find one that has a lot of people this invested in it. So, I have been thinking about something and was looking for some advice/opinions. I hope it’s okay to post something like this here, haha.

So, I just graduated from university about a year ago and have been working in industry as a software dev. That has been okay, but I find the work relatively unchallenging and I really miss academia. I mean, the types of questions that are asked in academia are a lot different from those asked in industry and I find the former a lot more interesting. I’ve been mulling this over and I think I’m going to apply to a PhD program, but am slightly apprehensive. The reason is when I talk to a lot of people about it, they say that getting a PhD isn’t worth it because you won’t make any more money than you would as a normal developer. Now, I don’t want to get a PhD to make money. I want to solve interesting and meaningful problems; in other words, I want to do research. But I have to admit that the opportunity cost of not working for 5 years is concerning.

I think there are a lot of people in this community that have got a PhD so I wanted to ask them if they thought that it was worth it. Was finding a job easy? Does it pay well? Or perhaps did you become a professor? Do you have any regrets or things that you wish you knew? Do you (or anyone) have any advice for someone just getting ready to prepare to apply for a PhD? Thanks in advance everyone.

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If you don’t mind giving up your salary for a stipend that is just about enough to live on, a PhD is a great excuse to work on anything you want for 4-5 years. If you’re finding work unchallenging and uninteresting, doing research in a field you’re interested in will almost certainly give you something to get out of bed for. It’s not always exciting and there can be difficult times, but nothing beats the excitement of starting a project and getting promising results that can eventually end up as a contribution to the field you’re working in. By the end of it, you’ll likely be a much better programmer and have gained research skills and experience that those without a graduate degree probably lack. I doubt you’ll be at a disadvantage in the job market and who knows, maybe you’ll want to stay in academia.

The great thing about CS is that having a PhD makes you more desirable from a hiring point of view. I’m 5 months away from finishing mine (not in CS but close enough), and I’ve noticed in job postings that having a PhD is often in the ‘preferred qualifications’ list of most jobs that I would want to apply for. Also, large tech companies usually have separate software engineer/applied scientist roles specifically for those with PhDs, where you start at a level above candidates without a graduate degree. That being said, you could probably reach those levels in the time taken to finish your PhD, so it’s just a question of whether you want to sacrifice 5 years of salary and industry experience for 5 years of research experience and (potentially) publications.

Personally, I can’t say if it was worth it yet for me as I still haven’t finished mine, but I’ve enjoyed it and have no regrets so far. One piece of advice I would give is to find an advisor/group where you have the freedom to work on the things you want to work on without being constrained by sponsors/funding.

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I am not in the CS field, but I have a PhD, and I have been the main supervisor of two PhDs.

In my experience, as a PhD you get the opportunity to burrow down into a topic for 4-5 years, and if your topic is focused enough, you have a good chance of being one of the most knowledgable people on that topic after your stint as a PhD. You are also likely to be frequently fed up with the topic, or at some level of despair of something not working, eager to have it over with, and dreading to finish it. You will get exposure to all the things that come with research - the weird rituals that together define publishing: the odd structure in which papers are written, and things like peer review, rebuttal letters, rejections & seeing crap being published in prestigious journals.

On the plus side, you get to go to conferences, meet interesting and interested peers, and enjoy interacting with other fabulous people that are also dedicating a good chunk of their life to prodding the odds and corners of the universe, exploring and finding new things.

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