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Obviously take these with a grain of salt, as they just represent one man’s opinion.
Strong reasons to do a PhD
I define a strong reason as sufficient reason on its own to do the PhD. You only need one of these:
1. 🔥 You want to work on something you can only do in academia
When I started my PhD, commercial cryptography offerings were much more limited than they are now. It’s still early days, but it is super exciting that numerous opportunities exist to work at organizations doing end-to-end encryption, homomorphic encryption, secure hardware, and so many other cool technologies. My friend said something similar about the robotics industry before Willow Garage and Google X’s autonomous vehicle program.
At that time, the best place to work on these emerging technologies was in academia, where the ground-work was still being laid out. For these specific fields, I’m not sure if that’s the case anymore, but I am sure there are other fields for which this property still holds true. If you have a passion for such a field, I say go for it!
2. 🔥 You love the research process
The research process is a very particular game of writing papers, and your career will depend on your ability to publish to premier venues. Every publication venue has their own (sometimes opaque) criteria that they use to judge whether a paper is sufficiently novel to include in their journal or proceedings. If you haven’t already, read lots and lots of papers from your favorite venue. There are conferences for every field of computer science. Do you find these papers absolutely enthralling and captivating? If not, you should probably stop here.
Note: I did not talk about novelty or freedom. There are countless ways to build novel software that doesn’t exist yet (e.g. in industry or open source communities), or get more freedom to pursue new ideas (e.g in startups). The research process is a very particular process.
3. 🔥 You want to be a professor
This is an obvious one, in the sense that for most schools, a PhD is a hard requirement. If you love to teach and want to do it at the college level, this is the way to do it.
Weak reasons to do a PhD
I don’t mean that they’re bad reasons per se. Rather, each individual reason on their own is generally not enough to keep you going through the difficult journey.
1. ❄️ You want to earn more money
There is a high opportunity cost to doing a PhD. For top-performers who plan to go into industry, you can often expect to make less after a PhD, than if you had gone straight into industry after undergrad. In other words, it will likely take you much less time with the same amount of work ethic to get the promotions you would need to be at the level you’d be interviewing for at the end of your PhD. Plus, the skills you learn during your PhD are often not the ones that will make you more valuable as an engineer in company. Of course, there might be some exceptions to this based on your expertise level and field of expertise.
2. ❄️ You need time to figure out what you want to do with your life
PhDs require a lot of time and you will be doing no less work than at an engineering job (often times more). Yes, you will be exposed to new fields through classes, but I’d recommend folks to take more classes in their undergrad or masters programs. When you become a PhD student, you’ll likely be expected to start working on papers on day 1. There is a chance you may find out that you want to do a PhD during the PhD, but you can also figure this out elsewhere (like I did during my first job after undergrad).
3. ❄️ You want those 3 letters after your name
No one is going to care that you have a PhD. It is not going to be a determining factor in any job interview, except for professors (see above). Especially in computer science and engineering, your skills, ideas, and reputation will be your best assets. You can gain those in or out of a PhD.
4. ❄️ Your parents told you to do it
Your parents aren’t going to write your papers for you. Your professor or your peers aren’t going to write your papers either. The open secret is that the first author of most multi-authored papers wrote 95% of the paper.
5. ❄️ You want to learn new technical topics
In your PhD, you will spend a lot of your time reading papers. You’ll read some in group settings with other colleagues interested in the same subjects, but you’ll also read a lot on your own. I love that PhDs give you the time to read and engaging in deep discussions about a topic with other like-minded folks. The PhD did teach me how to pick a brand new subject, learn enough to become an expert at it, and discover new insights.
However, I list it as a weak reason in itself because I think of this as a life-long mindset that one can and should be developed regardless of where you are. As a thought experiment, if I wanted to do a career change and start working in computational biology, would I do another PhD? Of course not! I would read papers, find good mentors and colleagues in the field, and start doing work in the space.
In fact, my group used to joke that the best PhD students are the ones that after being told they shouldn’t do one, continue to do it anyway. Marc Andreesen has said the same thing about startup founders, and it speaks towards the type of conviction one needs to succeed.
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