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Ask Slashdot: Worth Going For a Graduate Degree In the Middle of Your Career?

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the better-than-at-the-end-of-your-career dept.

Education 260

spiffmastercow writes "After nearly a decade of professional software development, my desire to work on something more interesting than business applications has pushed me toward looking into going back to school. I'd like to go into a graduate program for Computer Science, but I need to weigh my options very carefully. Is a Ph.D. a near-guarantee of a spot in a skunkworks type of job (Microsoft Research and the like)? Is a M.S. just as good for this? How does the 'letter of recommendation' requirement work if you haven't kept in touch with your professors?"

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You should never stop learning (5, Insightful)

Vombatus (777631) | more than 2 years ago | (#40993883)

If that comes in the form of a graduate degree, so be it.
As long as you keep learning

Re:You should never stop learning (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40993977)

Yeah you should stop learning. In the middle of your career, the return on investment is going to be weak. You only have about 40-ish years of good work in you (assuming you don't encounter issues with age-discrimination). It's one thing to learn on your own in the context of your job/career or personal time. It's another thing to invest time and money in a further formal education that is only going to provide so much return.

What are you going to do, go be a 45 or 50 year old entering a new path? Right. That'll be taken seriously.

Re:You should never stop learning (4, Insightful)

dokc (1562391) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994291)

Yeah you should stop learning. In the middle of your career, the return on investment is going to be weak. You only have about 40-ish years of good work in you (assuming you don't encounter issues with age-discrimination). It's one thing to learn on your own in the context of your job/career or personal time. It's another thing to invest time and money in a further formal education that is only going to provide so much return.

What are you going to do, go be a 45 or 50 year old entering a new path? Right. That'll be taken seriously.

What return on investment has to do with his question? He clearly says: " desire to work on something more interesting than business applications has pushed me toward looking into going back to school..."

Additionally, having PhD will actually help him against age-discrimination

Re:You should never stop learning (4, Insightful)

robthebloke (1308483) | more than 2 years ago | (#40995113)

He also says: "Is a Ph.D. a near-guarantee of a spot in a skunkworks type of job (Microsoft Research and the like)? Is a M.S. just as good for this?"

If you're doing a Phd because you want to work on cutting edge research, then you're possibly going to be dissapointed. A Phd would certainly help open the door for an interview at one of those places, but won't immediately mean you'll get hired. It's one thing being able to digest the latest research papers, but it's another thing entirely to implement them in a production environment. Are you proficient with the latest GPGPU techniques? (cuda/direct compute/openCL). How is your 3D graphics knowledge? How much do you know about the latest SIMD / threading optimisation techniques? Have you ever looked into FPGA's? How much experience have you had developing cross platform applications? Have you had experience writing code for distruted computing environments? If you have most of those covered, and you have a Phd, then there will be plenty of doors open to you. If you have a Phd, but none of the above, then the Phd will be of limited help.

A large number (though not all) of Phd grads I've worked with are great at solving problems, but not very good at putting that into practice on a large codebase (where maintainablity, sanity, and efficiency, inevitably take priority over being cutting edge).

How does the 'letter of recommendation' requirement work if you haven't kept in touch with your professors?"

It's of little consequence. Your research portfolio will be the thing of most interest to employers. If they get to the point of asking for references, then you've already got the job. The tutors will not stand in the way of that (graduate recruitment is an important statistic for universities these days - the tutors get moore out of you getting a job than you may realise!)

Never ever stop learning ! (2, Informative)

Taco Cowboy (5327) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994665)

I never stop my career while I learn, and I never stop learning in the middle of climbing the corporate ladder

I first entered the work force when I was in my primary school, working part time, during the evening hours, earned money to help my family, which was dirt poor

But I did not drop out of school

All my "holidays" became working fulltime - while my classmates went for vacations, I worked and worked

From primary school to secondary, to university, I worked while study.

Even after I obtained my first university degree, and landed a relatively comfortably paying job, I never stopped studying - I enrolled in graduate schools, as part time student

I obtained my graduate degrees that way

Now that I'm running my own businesses, and have a lot of people working with me, I still cannot stop learning - I guess the minute I stop learning is the minute I die

Re:Never ever stop learning ! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40995085)

deep inside, in the begining, the middle and the end of your story, are fries

Re:You should never stop learning (5, Informative)

AliasMarlowe (1042386) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994011)

If that comes in the form of a graduate degree, so be it.

Exactly. But make sure your boss is on-side before trying to convert learning into academic letters while working.

My learning on the job (at the R end of R&D) was producing so much in academic results (I've published quite a lot of it also) that I was easily able to regurgitate some of my personal work as a MSc thesis. Later, a bigger chunk in another area became a PhD thesis. Doing this on-the-job, however, required support from my boss, as I also had to do a load of courses and sit exams to get the required credits. Scheduling your work around class timetables can be tricky, even if you keep the work hours balanced.

Re:You should never stop learning (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994265)

Capt. B. Dick
Mr. Schwul
Armin Ass
Sgt. Shaved Balls
Dr. D. Ildo

Re:You should never stop learning (0)

jkflying (2190798) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994381)

Or you could just do your MSc/PhD by dissertation only. Do your writing in your own time, and it's entirely possible to schedule around work.

Re:You should never stop learning (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994711)

Nearly all graduate programs at the master's and doctoral level have at least some sort of coursework requirement in the United States.

Re:You should never stop learning (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40995045)

I would unhesitatingly say "yes", however, make sure you understand what you are getting into. Talk to past students in a similar field. When you get close to choosing an institution and supervisor for the work, make sure you talk to that supervisor's students, etc. Always find a good supervisor and project first. If you are motivated and want to do well, a graduate project is a worthwhile challenge, but if you get a poor supervisor, it can be misery no matter how good you are. Make sure all the elements necessary for a good project are in place.

Someone else has commented on the importance of support of your boss at work. That's essential if your plan is to do it in parallel with working. Someone also mentioned that many MSc and PhD are granted these days based on a bundle of published papers. That's the approach I would recommend. The peer-review process can be an extra challenge to get through, but in the end it means you have something more than an unpublished thesis to put on your CV. It ensures your work gets distributed and used by people in the field.

If you think having an MSc or PhD guarantees a particular job, no, it doesn't. It will somewhat broaden the scope of positions you can consider, but it may simultaneously narrow some of them too (potential employers may be bound by standard agreements to pay more to people with MSc and PhDs, and they may not have that much money). If you're going to do it, do it mainly because you want to learn.

The "letter of recommendation" part is tricky if you have been outside the academic realm for a while. Presumably you've changed in 10 years. The most important person to contact would be whoever supervised you for the biggest project you did as an undergraduate in a relevant field, and then try to find someone in your current line of work along similar lines. Ideally you need people who would be positive about your work :-) Some indication of whether you are a good writer will be important. It also helps if you talk directly to a potential supervisor and ask them how to handle it. Talk to supervisor first, then apply, is probably the best route.

Don't worry that you've been out of the academic realm for a while and working in industry. Most graduate programs see that all the time. It's not regarded as an impediment if a student is actually any good and can show they are ready (e.g., a major project they've written up in undergraduate work or during their employment).

Guarantees (5, Informative)

AndOne (815855) | more than 2 years ago | (#40993887)

A PhD doesn't really guarantee you anything. It can also be detrimental depending on what you want to do as some companies consider it too much or too expensive. You'll be better off starting in a Masters program and then deciding if you you really see a need or feel the desire to go for the PhD. A PhD is a LOT of work and time.

Really unless you plan to go into academia or hard core research I'd steer clear.

Re:Guarantees (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40993989)

A PhD opens a lot of doors to jobs that are not available to people without doctorate degrees. At many companies, a PhD is very useful if you want to be on a management track. Of course nothing is guaranteed, but a PhD has definite benefits. A MS degree is similar, but does not open as many doors compared to a PhD. Whether or not those benefits end up being worthwhile it is not possible to say. If you job allows you, take one graduate level course a quarter/semester for a year and see what you think. This is the best way to tell if graduate school is for you. When I took my first graduate level class, I could tell within the first week that this level of education would be highly beneficial for me. It is a night and day difference from undergrad classes. Many schools give you 5-7 years to complete a MS. If you end up liking the graduate courses and see worth in them, enroll in an MS program. Within 3-4 years of part time enrollment, you'll have a MS degree and a good chunk of additional education.

As others have said, keep learning. But structured learning with validated recognition of that learning is a good bet. Work on an advanced degree from a decent school. It's more likely to benefit you than a bunch of ad-hoc classes from various websites.

Re:Guarantees (1)

Taco Cowboy (5327) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994767)

A PhD opens a lot of doors to jobs that are not available to people without doctorate degrees.

Exactly !!
Plus, if do not have to state your PhD degree on your CV if you do not want to - I did that on couple of occasions to get the jobs I wanted, and only after I landed the job, and out-performed the rest in the company that I revealed my PhD degree
By that time the company would be crazy to fire you

Re:Guarantees (4, Insightful)

rtb61 (674572) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994161)

What a graduate degree does guarantee is an opportunity to extend your contacts beyond your current circle. So choose your educational facility carefully. Remember at lot of research is done at Universities and doing your graduate degree gives you access to the research and the people paying for it. In competitive markets who you know counts for more than unverified experience (in competitive industries giving top notch references for crappy employees often pays of well). The is also a demonstration of willingness to continue to learn and that you haven't become stale, soon to transfer from the pointy end to sales as your tech knowledge has fallen behind.

Re:Guarantees (5, Interesting)

Mr. Underbridge (666784) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994309)

I don't know about that - the division I'm in (of a large company) hires almost solely PhDs, and we're not exactly "hard core", whatever that means. Also, if he's sure he wants the PhD, it's not like getting the MS will shorten his PhD appreciably, if at all. If I were mid career, I would definitely not waste time on an MS if the PhD is what is desired.

I would decide what the goal is. If it's to attempt to get a higher paying job, don't get the PhD. If it's prestige, don't get the PhD. If it's to focus on interesting problems that might require some fairly deep insights, both during the PhD program and later as a career, then get the PhD.

To answer the submitter's question more directly:

A PhD isn't a guarantee of a job in a skunk-works type of environment. It isn't a guarantee of anything, really. It is an opportunity to focus on a narrowly defined problem for a number of years, and learn the skills and mindset necessary to move what the world knows about a subject. This requires being able to synthesize knowledge and insights from collections of facts, data, theory, etc. These skills are the sorts of things you need to do to work in a skunkworks type of environment, certainly as a major contributor and not just in a support role.

I would say this - if you like to apply skills that you've learned toward your job, get the MS. If you like to figure out things that people don't know yet, get the PhD.

Re:Guarantees (1)

Dan Dankleton (1898312) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994693)

Also, if he's sure he wants the PhD, it's not like getting the MS will shorten his PhD appreciably, if at all. If I were mid career, I would definitely not waste time on an MS if the PhD is what is desired.

I'm in a similar position to the submitter - I'm planning on doing some postgraduate study after 12 years in industry.
I know that US degree programs are slightly different to the ones here in the UK (taught PhDs are very rare, if they exist at all here,) but the advice I've been getting is that doing a master's first is the best way to go as it will teach the research skills required to do the doctorate.
It will also help with the "letter of recommendation" problem.

Re:Guarantees (1)

fm6 (162816) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994385)

What companies consider PhDs extraneous? Certainly no company I've ever worked in. The degree has a great deal of snob appeal, even when it doesn't have anything to do with the actual job. There's even a school of thought (dominant at Google in its early years) that says that a Master's is the bare minimum for serious computer work, and you should always prefer a PhD if you have a choice.

Which is not to say that the bare degree is a guarantee of anything. I've met a fair number of people who hold the kind of job spifmastercow is aiming for. Yeah, a lot of them had PhDs, but what they all had in common was a demonstrated ability to do original and creative work.

Re:Guarantees (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994495)

The multi-billion dollar software company I worked for 15 years did not keep many PHd s around for long. They always tended to be far to academic in their approaches and not practical in any way. If we had years to release product, they may have worked out. Instead we needed people to find simple, smart solutions to roll out releases regularly.

Re:Guarantees (0)

SpaghettiPattern (609814) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994663)

A PhD doesn't really guarantee you anything. It can also be detrimental depending on what you want to do as some companies consider it too much or too expensive. You'll be better off starting in a Masters program and then deciding if you you really see a need or feel the desire to go for the PhD. A PhD is a LOT of work and time. Really unless you plan to go into academia or hard core research I'd steer clear.

Indeed a wel balanced comment.

As a counterpoint, an excerpt of Rig Veda/Mandala 9/Hymn 112 may be appropriate here: "The male desires his mate’s approach, the frog is eager for the flood." In other words, one is drawn to its destine. Be is a flood, a mate or knowledge.

At this point I must confess to have come across more profane translations of "The male desires his mate’s approach", which are not all perfectly suited in polite society. Also, the rest of the hymn is bucket load of drivel.

Re:Guarantees (5, Interesting)

CadentOrange (2429626) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994737)

A PhD doesn't really guarantee you anything.

You're correct that a PhD doesn't guarantee anything. My personal experience of working in the software industry in the UK, after getting a PhD in computer science has been mixed. On one hand, employees still have the stupid mind set of looking for X years commercial experience. It didn't matter that I had spent 4 years writing lots of C++ code for complicated machine learning algorithms, and like most on /. had been programming from a very early age before going to university. It still counted as 0 years commercial experience at a lot of places. I gave up trying to figure that one out. A PhD isn't going to automatically give you a high paying job.

On the other hand, having a PhD can open doors. I've found out that clued up start-up founders are desperately keen on hiring PhDs. This isn't strictly down to the area of your research (though it helps obviously). A PhD says that you've spent years working on problems where the solution isn't well defined (buzz word here is "wicked problem"), you're self motivated (no need for management hand holding), you can work with plans that change, you're not fazed by failure and most importantly you persevere and finish the damn job. Big companies tend to be pretty "Meh" about these traits, but start ups know that these traits are absolutely vital to getting off the ground.

TL;DR version: The PhD may not help you in your career in well established organizations, but it may give you a better shot at working at start ups where the skills you picked up over the course of your PhD are better valued.

Re:Guarantees (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994847)

Yup a PhD is a lot of work. It's entirely different to an MS, which is often seen as a professional development degree these days.

One thing about a Ph.D. is that it is often an introductory apprenticeship to being an academic. So as well as learning and doing research, you'll probably have to work as a research assistant for a prof, and do some teaching. You may or may not be interested in these activities.

One thing that might be useful - check in with anyone you know who hires, who can give you some background one what programs and skillsets are currently needed. Do no - repeat DO NOT - believe anything that college or university recruiters tell you about future job opportunities. Many colleges just really want your money, or, at least your student loans, which is the same to them ;)

Re:Guarantees (1)

Lando (9348) | more than 2 years ago | (#40995019)

I'm not sure of the current job market, but in years past while a masters increased earning potential, getting a PhD actually paid less. Most consultants work with a Masters degree whereas those that want to do research and "interesting" stuff generally go on to get a PhD. Business sells, research does not, in the past at least. To get interesting work you generally need to pay more for the education and receive less income.

That being said, I am working on getting my PhD in order to teach computer science at the University level. It's more about job satisfaction than income for me.

I've gotta say... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40993893)

While reading this, I farted out of my own asshole. How could such a thing happen to one such as I!? The audacity!

Now that is a mystery for the ages!

Yes. (1, Troll)

roc97007 (608802) | more than 2 years ago | (#40993913)

Seriously. You'll regret it for the rest of your paltry existence if you don't.

Try Khan Academy first (0)

WetCat (558132) | more than 2 years ago | (#40993923)

Why not? It's, at least, free. []

Re:Try Khan Academy first (3, Insightful)

AuMatar (183847) | more than 2 years ago | (#40993969)

Khan's good for some stuff, but it does not have graduate level education.

Re:Try Khan Academy first (2)

roman_mir (125474) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994449)

There is money to be made in providing certification of people who want to skip college and institutions and go straight into the work force. If an institution (say Khan academy) set up a certification program that tested the student, maybe a 2-4 months program, which was intensively testing the student's ethic, logic, understanding of different subjects, and then a paper was provided saying: this student is certified by Khan academy to be this this and that.

In fact the future employers could even pay for such certifications, but in any case these certifications shouldn't run more than a few thousand dollars (maybe 2-4K), this would be a huge help to people who either don't have the interest, aptitude or money going into the higher education, but who still can be certified to be proficient in whatever subjects, certified to have good work ethic, etc.

There is money to be made in this, what I mean is that this is probably a viable business opportunity, and it would provide people with a useful paper (whoever the certifier would have his name at stake to provide honest certification) and the wouldn't accrue the insane levels of debt that majority of the students today are only able to get into because the government guarantees the debts.

Re:Try Khan Academy first (3, Insightful)

AuMatar (183847) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994597)

I've never yet seen a certification that was worth more than a pile of used toilet paper. Especially not for CS. And the attempts to even remotely get it to be so, especially for an internet certificate where the problem of proving the identity of the test taker is nearly unsolvable, will take a lot of time and money to do. It's not happening this decade.

Even once it does- it still won't be 10% as good as a degree. First, there has yet to be a certificate system that didn't sell out to maximize the number of certs given (and thus profits). No, the market won't fix it- the market never solves any problem except "how cheap can I make this". The entire idea of a market solving anythign else shows a complete lack of understanding of economics. But ignoring that, there is no replacement for taking a few years and studying a topic in depth surrounded by fellow students and with extensive resources all around you.

Then there's the problem of discipline. I taught a distance ed class at the college level. It was an upper level math class. It cost a few hundred dollars to take, so it was a significant investment. In the two years I taught the class, the only one to finish the class was myself- the semester before. Nobody else bothered to make it to the midterm, even with me asking them to do their homework. Very few people have the discipline to complete an education without a structure around them, especially in their early 20s.

Khan and similar ideas are great for additional resources for parents, for tutoring, for a bit of adult learning. Its not and never will be a replacement for college.

Re:Try Khan Academy first (2)

roman_mir (125474) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994835)

I've never yet seen a certification that was worth more than a pile of used toilet paper.

- that's because those are trying to pretend to be something they are not. I am not talking about a replacement for the higher education, I am talking about certification of a person as of somebody who knows specific things, who has shown good work ethic. I am talking about certifying a person as somebody who is ready for work (certifying, not preparing them, only testing).

Even once it does- it still won't be 10% as good as a degree.

- you are missing my point, I am not talking about replacing any degree. However you are wrong too, how many people with degrees are serving fries and have mortgages but no house after years of expensive worthless 'education'? Sociology majors with 200,000 in debt, what is their education truly worth? Nothing.

The entire idea of a market solving anythign else shows a complete lack of understanding of economics.

- you are showing amazing lack of understanding of economics. Free market will provide what is lacking, so if it's choice that is lacking and people are interested to pay for choice, then free market provides choice.

If it's lowest price, because otherwise too few are buying, then it's lowest price. iPads are not cheap in the market, yet there is a market for iPads.

But ignoring that, there is no replacement for taking a few years and studying a topic in depth surrounded by fellow students and with extensive resources all around you.

- and I am not talking about teaching anything to anybody, so you are lacking comprehension skills, you supposedly 'taught' something to somebody at some college? I wonder what you could teach if you can't even read.

Khan and similar ideas are great for additional resources for parents, for tutoring, for a bit of adult learning. Its not and never will be a replacement for college.

- and again, I am not talking about 'replacing college', that would be a fruitless exercise in futility, I am talking about certifying that a person is ready for a job and here is what we certify he knows, here is his ethic, because we observed it for a few months.

You can't read, can't comprehend, I wouldn't certify you even if you paid me.

Re:Try Khan Academy first (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40993987)

Ha, ha, good one! PS You owe me a new keyboard.

Depends on your goal (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40993931)

If your goal is to advance your current career, then an MBA is likely to help more than a graduate program in Computer Science. Unless you are going to a top school (like Stanford or MIT), you aren't going to learn much more in a graduate program than you would by buying books and reading them. I am in a Masters program in a decent school right now (DePaul), and I can tell you from experience that if you are learning much in a Masters program after 10 years in the field, you were a crappy developer.

If your goal is to work on something other than standard business applications, then a Masters or Ph.D. may help if you work hard enough. I am putting quite a few of my electives towards research oriented classes so I can learn more than just what the Factory pattern is (yes, over 50% of the graduate students had to learn that in class). The help of faculty and other smart students that I have found along the way has allowed me to accomplish more and learn more than I would have on my own. But you have to go out of your way to push yourself, because most graduate programs won't make you.

I assume a Ph.D. program has even more chance for research, but I have no experience to back that up. But even in Ph.D. programs, you are still spending your time in many of your classes learning what unit testing is (at least at DePaul anyway).

Re:Depends on your goal (2)

Dan Dankleton (1898312) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994713)

How would an MBA help with the submitter's goal of moving towards skunkworks development?
I'm not being sarcastic here - on the face of it I can't see an MBA making him/her more desirable for those type of jobs, where as even if a PhD didn't help directly it would help with networking with the people involved in that kind of development.

Job descriptions (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40993947)

Since you stated that your goal may be to obtain a research job, maybe you should start by searching for jobs at Microsoft Research, HP Labs, etc. or other national laboratories. At least just to see what the requirements are.

A lot of those jobs probably do require a PhD, but depending on your experiences and skills, maybe you can convince them to hire you. Then you don't have to go through the typical 5-7 years of schooling to get there.

Monetarily, I would say it is not worth it to get a PhD. But it may be worth it intellectually. Even better if you have the finances to support it.

Don't (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40993949)

Graduate degree are worthless. All they help is on the resume filter that is HR. Smart people do just as well without them. Average people likely the same.

Ph,D is not a guarantee of anything (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40993965)

>Is a Ph.D. a near-guarantee of a spot in a skunkworks type of job (Microsoft Research and the like)?

Ha ha ha, no. I know Ph.Ds who are working as regular software developers. Unless your coursework and Ph.D thesis is about something that somebody actually cares about, you're just cannon fodder like everyone else, albeit more educated.

not necessary (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40993979)

I know a man who got a job at Skunkworks and he only has a high school diploma. I know a drop-out with a GED who got a job at NASA. Getting a degree does not guarantee you a job. It's all about timing and your qualifications at the time.

Re:not necessary (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994287)

I know a man who got a job at Skunkworks and he only has a high school diploma. I know a drop-out with a GED who got a job at NASA. Getting a degree does not guarantee you a job. It's all about timing and your qualifications at the time.

Er, I don't know where you got this info but I think it's wrong. I used to work at Microsoft Research (not that I particularly liked it there), but the bar for getting a *researcher*-type position there is much higher than having a PhD alone. You have to be either already well-known, or be a particularly good PhD in a promising area. The same is true to varying extents, for most researcher positions in big companies (e.g. IBM, Google). OK, it is possible to work at such places as a developer, but in that case you're more of a dog's body most of the time, and anyway such positions aren't that easy to get unless you already work at the company. [I've actually known PhDs with such positions].

Write something new (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40993993)

So you're half way through your career and you don't yet have the life tools necessary to learn on your own? Skunk works is about doing NEW things, University is about teaching old things and learning how to learn on your own. A Ph D won't get you anywhere in the cutting edge, making new things and having new ideas *will*.

All you need to get into hard core cutting edge development is a computer and the will power.

If you think going back to school will help you get a cutting edge developement job, it won't. The opposite will be true, the recruiter will think you can't learn on your own, can't do new things on your own, and have to be led by your teachers. Which is exactly the wrong direction for the job you are after.

Seriously, get your computer, get your idea, make your new thing, that new thing is what will get you your cutting edge job.

Several things (5, Insightful)

Sir_Sri (199544) | more than 2 years ago | (#40993995)

So letters of recommendation don't usually mean a whole lot for a senior student. If technically competent people have given you good recommendations that's fine, but usually you find a supervisor first, then apply.

A PhD in comp sci isn't a guarantee to anything, it's usually not worth it financially (an MSc usually is), and spending 4 years, or more, of your life on 20k a year with the theoretical payout at the end of it is a bad plan. Academia is usually based on years since you completed your PhD, so even though you could talk your way into some credit as a programmer (a programmer is not a scientist by the way), so that's more likely to be more harm than good. Research is usually very front loaded in a career, you produce the good stuff before you're 40, you supervise other people doing good stuff until you're 50, and then you teach and sit on committees and supervise people who may or may not do good stuff. If you're jumping into that process late you have to realize you're going to be treated like you're supposed to be 20 years younger than you are, and well, it's just not easily workable.

In terms of industry an MSc is worth it, a PhD isn't. An MSc shows you have a bit of a step up as a self starter, a bit more advanced knowledge and interest in a specialized area and you can do something interesting that isn't necessarily financially driven which still sounds cool. (My MSc was on GPU ray tracing, which, when I did it, wasn't going anywhere fast but everyone I applied for work with knew what those things were and immediately had a connect as to something 'interesting'). But for a PhD it's not usually worth it, industry experience is more valuable (and lucrative) unless you really need a PhD for a particular job you want, which would only be in academia, it's not worth. Again, keep in mind, a PhD is definitely science, you can get by as a programmer in a BSc and an MSc but if all you are is a programmer you're going to get your arse handed to you when someone asks you to develop a novel model of a problem or a novel solution and they don't really care what language you implement it in, if at all. Where I am we have a couple of PhD's in comp sci who I don't think ever write code, ever, but they're extremely well respected because they do theory of computation and fairly sophisticated mathematics development (which their grad students might implement).

As someone else said, there's no harm in doing a masters, and it's usually upside, so it's worth doing if you're interested, and the requirements are pretty lax to get in. Don't do a coursework masters, do a thesis masters though, coursework masters is like an undergrad with more advanced topics, so you're not getting anything, those are basically there to pad 'years of experience' for foreign students looking to move to your country. A masters you can reasonably accomplish at least part of it part time and keep your job (and income) too. Here the course requirements are 4 courses total, so one or two a term for a year or two, and then a thesis after (which is basically writing a 150 page book on some topic, and having an interesting idea you can demonstrate an example of).

A PhD though... ugh. It's a lot of risk, if you're a stellar programmer already it won't make you better and you're better to just keep making money. It lets you solve more novel problems, but those can be bad precisely because they're novel, which makes them hard to solve if not unsolvable. There's no guarantee for a decent gig at the end of it either, and you might end up stuck in a job that is the same as someone with an MSc, so you've wasted 4 years or more of good earning power on it.

Don't get a PhD for a job (5, Insightful)

Sycraft-fu (314770) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994117)

PhDs don't get you jobs. I can point you to plenty of PhD students that have come from the university where I work that had trouble finding work. Now to be fair, most deserved it, they weren't very good, just hoop jumpers who kept jumping through enough hoops until they got their degree (it isn't supposed to work that way, but it does).

Get a PhD if you want to do research. Basically if getting a PhD sounds like something you are interested in, then sure, go for it. Education for your own sake is never a bad thing, so long as you can afford it. However don't look at it is a "better job-getter" particularly if you already have work experience since that is what employers tend to weigh most heavily.

The only jobs you get a PhD for are jobs that require it. There are a few, mostly in academia but a few out of it. However other than that, no it doesn't help you get work to a significant degree and can even be a harm in some cases because employers will reason you'll be too expensive for them or too bored with the job and leave.

Goes double if you aren't that interested and are just going to "hoop jump" it like some of our grad students.

Yeah, that... (1)

gr8_phk (621180) | more than 2 years ago | (#40995107)

PhDs don't get you jobs. I can point you to plenty of PhD students that have come from the university where I work that had trouble finding work. Now to be fair, most deserved it, they weren't very good, just hoop jumpers who kept jumping through enough hoops until they got their degree

I know people in management that won't hire PhDs for that exact reason. You hire one because they have specialized knowledge in a particular area. The problem is that when the work is done in that area and they move on to other projects, they act (and are treated by management) superior to everyone else when they no longer have an edge over anyone. In fact, the hoop jumping seem to go against innovation. There are plenty of really smart people who also hold a PhD, but from what I've seen there are at least as many hoop jumpers. YMMV of course.

Re:Several things (4, Informative)

SwedishPenguin (1035756) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994445)

You don't go into a PhD program expecting to be better off financially because of it, you go for the PhD if you want to do research.

As an aside though, 20k USD? The entry salary for a PhD student at my university in Sweden is the equivalent of about 45k USD and it gradually climbs to about 54k USD for the last year of the PhD. Not private sector salaries, but certainly enough to live a good life without resorting to ramen noodles.

Re:Several things (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994609)

FYI, when I did my (Physics) Ph.D. in the U.K. in 2002-2006, the salary ('stipend') was:

1st year: 7500 GBP ($11,750 at today's rate)
2nd year: 8000 GBP ($12,540)
3rd year: 9000 GBP ($14,110)
4th year: 0 (as motivation to finish your thesis)

A colleague who started a year before me (0th year) got paid 6000 GBP ($9400) for that year. We weren't doing it for the money...

Re:Several things (1)

SwedishPenguin (1035756) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994701)

How exactly are you expected to survive your final year? Loans? I wouldn't do a PhD for the money, but really I expect to be able to at least be able to afford a place to live and some food on the table, otherwise I would find it hard to have the energy to actually get something done.

Re:Several things (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994731)

Well, you've saved part of the 7500 + 8000 + 9000 in the bank, of course! Furthermore, you're not expected to take the whole fourth year to write up (you should have started writing your thesis in the thrid year). As I said, motivation! Personally, it took me about 5 months into my fourth year to finish.

Re:Several things (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994625)

Well Sweden's unusual, it's about 20K USD in the UK too.

Re:Several things (1)

SwedishPenguin (1035756) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994759)

I believe a number of other European countries have similar PhD salaries. I think it mainly depends on what a PhD position is considered to be administratively, in Sweden a PhD student is a full-time employee of the university (time-limited to a nominal four years towards the degree with up to 20% departmental duties making it five years) and is thus covered by collective bargaining agreements, social insurances and such. There are cases of PhD students financed by stipends though, this is seen as a problem because they're not covered by the same benefits that other employees are, such as minimum vacation and parental leave.

What are you really looking for? (4, Insightful)

AuMatar (183847) | more than 2 years ago | (#40993999)

What is it you really want to do? Do you want to do research- develop new algorithms and approaches? Then it can help a bit. But you pretty much need to stop working and go to school to get the real benefit, the real benefit is in doing graduate research with a mentor, making connections, and studying without distractions. It isn't the classes.

If you just want to work on different types of applications- do so. Apply for jobs that do something else. Look at startups, go to local startup events. Search job listings and ignore anything that says J2EE or .NET. If you don't live near a major city, you may need to relocate. But it's easily doable- 11 years in and I haven't touched a business app yet.

Re:What are you really looking for? (1)

TubeSteak (669689) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994155)

the real benefit is in doing graduate research with a mentor, making connections,

Something like 70%~80% of jobs are acquired through referrals.
If you're not the top 10% of your field, who you know is what will separate you from everyone else trying to get that same job.

Starting working your professional contacts and see what's available.

Define "more interesting" (4, Insightful)

XiaoMing (1574363) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994005)

Many masters are very application-oriented, and there's a chance you will end up feeling like you are doing the same job as before, but at a slightly higher level.
For most "technical" (i.e. sciences) fields, an M.S. means you take two years of classes without failing them, are able to regurgitate it out on exams, and maybe put together a Master's Thesis that's more a Rite of Passage than real work.

PhD's on the other hand, often (once again in sciences) spend the same two years learning the same coursework, and are expected to do 3-4 years of pure research, applying that knowledge, before they graduate. The sole purpose of the second (and larger) half of their tenure being to hone their ability to create rather than apply (I know many M.S. holders will be POd at that statement, but it obviously varies case by case, and I'm giving a broad brush stroke, so don't whine). Many PhD programs also give you an "honorary" masters if you fail to complete the PhD program (either by choice or by lack of research capabilities).

As an aside, many government research labs (some subgroups of which are strictly programming and computational) don't offer full time positions to anyone who doesn't have a PhD, and will only give those with an M.S. a temporary scientist position with the understanding that you are pursuing a PhD.

With that all being said and done, it really depends on what you want to do. PhDs are generally pretty high level. If you want your code to have application to something, you will most likely need a strong science background, whereby you are then using your programming skills to apply algorithms to solve problems. A PhD in CS will more likely be something very high level regarding computer science as a philosophy itself (hence doctorate of philosophy). It's quite a 180 and very likely more of a departure than you wanted to take from your current career.

Finally, as far as letters of rec go, graduate school in general is much more a case-by-case basis, and not only most admissions departments be very accommodating of any questions you might have during a phonecall, but letters of rec from work supervisors will also suffice in many cases.

Whatever you pick though, I wish you the best of luck and think you will have a great time and be happy with either one C:
I only list the drastic differences in a PhD so that you are able to weigh it properly against a Masters (including the fact that it's oftentimes less employable during a down economy, because of how much more companies are "required" to pay PhDs vs. an M.S. holder that can do the same work).

PhD is not a guarantee of anything (4, Insightful)

melted (227442) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994019)

I've worked at MSR as a software developer. I have a M.Sc in CS/EE. To be a researcher there, with very few exceptions, you need a PhD. But that's a requirement, not a guarantee. You also need to either be young and promising (as determined by your publications, and how well they're received by the scientific community), or seasoned and established (as determined again by your track record of publications). "Seasoned and established" is not something you can get in a couple of years. These folks operate at the bleeding edge, you need to spend 2-3 years working really hard just to really understand what they're doing, let alone contribute something significant.

For an engineer, there's no requirement beyond, well, being a great engineer, and B.Sc. Some other companies (notably Google) prefer to hire researchers who are _also_ great engineers. This is rare, but these folks do exist, I know a few personally. PhD requirements do apply to those engineers.

If you're looking to do something researchy for a while, just get a software developer job at a lab (MSR or elsewhere). You likely will be able to publish, if your work is not embarrassing :-) (MSR allows and encourages engineers to do their own research). Let me warn you, though, you will be working with people who have been working in the same field for a decade or more, and as a result acquired the amounts of expertise that you won't have just starting out. A few (or a lot, depending on your IQ) of them will be a lot smarter than you, which can be demoralizing to some folks. And almost all of them will know math really well, which can be a challenge for you 10 years after school, even if you did advanced math there. You will have to understand them, after all, and help them apply what they've thought up. As if this wasn't enough, 9/10ths of what you do will never go anywhere other than to the patent office, which too can be demoralizing for someone who's used to people actually using their products.

On the flipside, you will learn A TON, if you're willing to put in the effort, and the environment is the very definition of low pressure. People are pleasant and super smart, research is interesting, you don't have to pull 12 hour work days, except maybe once a year before a major conference, and since you're a precious commodity, you're given the freedom to choose projects that interest you.

Point is, it's not all as rosy as you imagine it right now, but it's a worthwhile experience nevertheless. Or at least it was for me, YMMV.

it's all up to you (1)

ThorGod (456163) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994027)

It's really up to you to figure out whether you want a PhD or not. Theoretically, a PhD does NOT have the same increase in ROI that a master's does. But if it's what you want, then it's what you want. Only *you* can decide that for yourself.

As for letters of recommendation, I think you can use a boss for at least one of them. It doesn't hurt to call up your professors from undergrad, in any case. Email them first, then call. In my experience, they always appreciate talking to one of their former students. Remember, they're people and people *need* feedback and validation of their life's can be part of it.

I suggest you be realistic with the time and effort required for a PhD. You'll be back in the world of sleepless nights and final exams. Four years is *fast* and six years (or more) is more realistic.

It's All Opportunity Cost, Dawg (1)

sandysnowbeard (1297619) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994029)

Let's assume you can teach yourself anything they can teach you in a non-PhD Master's program.

(a) money, unless you get them to pay for it.
(b) time
(c) academia: bureaucracy, and that horrible anti-l337speak research papers are written in

(a) practical if you're jumping fields into an entirely different career path, or if your career is kinda in a slump and you need to inject a bit of juice back into it. (Like say you just took two years off to travel the world.)
(b) extrinsic motivation, in the form of a curriculum and schedule of things to learn and do
(c) good place to meet a collected-or-similarly-unhinged significant other

In your case, it sounds like you don't need a career boost or anything, so how about just cooking up some cool shit at home, unless you want to meet some C.S. babes?

Re:It's All Opportunity Cost, Dawg (1)

SpzToid (869795) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994637)

Yes, and also (aside from any value LinkedIn might offer you), publishing, (or forking) your code onto GitHub can arguably compete well against someone with a degree when it comes time to get hired, if your work is well-received within a respected community.

People like to buy what they can see, touch, and feel. Or perhaps what they need supported or advanced.

Do it if you're interested in it (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994031)

You shouldn't do a PhD just because you think it'll get you a better job, because it probably won't. Do it because you love the subject, and because you want to challenge yourself. Some time ago I wrote a blog post [] that sums up my feelings on doing a PhD, that you might find useful.

A Ph.D. has no inherent value (1)

kwiqsilver (585008) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994039)

Is a Ph.D. a near-guarantee of a spot in a skunkworks type of job (Microsoft Research and the like)?

Having worked at MS with multiple Ph.D. holders, I can definitively say, "no". I knew testers with Ph.D.s, and team architects with nothing more than a BS. For your Ph.D. to get you into a research job, it needs to have some substance. Do your dissertation research in a cutting edge field, write papers that show you're an expert in the field, be prolific, rather than publishing the minimum to graduate, etc. If you do, they'll be more likely to hire you. And not because of the degree itself, but because of the work you did getting it. And of course if you can do that research on your own, and publish the same quality of papers, without a Ph.D. program to guide you, they'll still be interested, it's just a lot harder to achieve that level outside of academia.

Re:A Ph.D. has no inherent value (2)

dell623 (2021586) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994109)

This. Honestly, you sound a bit naive for even suggesting that a Phd is a near-guarantee of anything. Generally a Phd is an end in itself, before the days of maths phds getting six figure quant jobs it would be unimaginable to think of it as a career step outside academia. You're looking for some kind of mathematical valuation of degrees, your questions sound like some kind of logic tautologies like phd->research job ms=phd ms->research job, the value of letters of recommendation. People who do degrees for the sake of doing something end up like the people driving taxis with Phds (not saying you'll end up driving a Phd, but my point is those were driving a taxi before a Phd and after because they didn't really have a plan, I have met more than one). Figure out where you want to be, and work your way backwards to find the path, and remember there are no guarantees.

Get at least a master's. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994067)

I currently work for IBM Research. For a Research Staff Member position, a PhD is a mandatory qualification; a master's degree is mandatory for sweng positions. If you don't feel like reading papers all day and just whiteboarding stuff, then explaining it to a new set of people who then design it, test it, build it up to a product, then I'd suggest you go down the sweng route. If you do fancy just thinking all day and then as soon as you've got results publishing it and moving on, I'd say do a PhD.

Masters vs PhD (2)

ralphbecket (225429) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994097)

Short version: go for the Masters, first.

Long version....

Really, you will only complete a PhD if you are genuinely, personally driven to do so. It's as much a mental endurance test as anything else. The main hurdles you need to overcome are (a) you will have to find something genuinely original to do, probably with minimal support -- this is quite the opposite of all other educational experiences -- (b) work out how to solve your Big Problem (by definition, the answer can't already be out there waiting for you), and (c) by the time you are ready to write up, assuming you've stuck it out to the point where you have something to write about, you then have to convince yourself that what is, by now, blindingly obvious to you will be seen as miraculous by everyone else (my tongue is only slightly in cheek here).

Having obtained your PhD, you will have done a fair whack of damage to your earning prospects! Industry will be suspicious of you, while universities are tough places to build careers, regardless of your career stage.

The upsides of a PhD are that you get to immerse yourself more freely and more deeply in your subject than anyone ever gets a sniff at in industry and that you should get some serious, Olympic level, brain training. That is very, very rewarding in its own right.

In a nutshell, if you must do a PhD, do it as a labour of love.

On the other hand, you could go for a Masters. Here you will find much more handholding (this is a Good Thing) and get to explore CS in much more depth than is usually possible in a first degree. Even better, a Masters is good for your career, whatever you choose to do, and many universities will give you the option of converting to the PhD course if everything is going well.

a little off topic but... (1)

issicus (2031176) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994105)

I gave up on college , if I need to know something I'ill get a book.

Here is an idea (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994121)

I have a great suggestion for you which will greatly aid you in finding the best answer:
if the abose answer is Yes then do it. Stop being motivated by money and carreer moves. You will be dead in less then 100 years so you might as well enjoy the precious time you have here doing stuff which makes you happy.

I think the real question you should ask yourself is whether a "skunkworks type of job" will make you happy. If it does just contact those type of companies and ask them directly. Tell them you are willing to study a Ph.D in order to get employed by them.

phd guarantee for skunkworks? AHAHHAHAHAHA (0)

gl4ss (559668) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994139)

phd doesn't guarantee you anything. it might be a requirement for some big companys skunkworks lab though, especially if you're a direct hire.

getting that degree might push you just for more business applications, have fun coding that personnel management system for a client that gives contracts based on you having a phd.

Re:phd guarantee for skunkworks? AHAHHAHAHAHA (1)

Darinbob (1142669) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994217)

Research labs it will help a lot. But few people have research labs anymore, and those that do are scaling them back. Skunkworks are not really the same as research labs.

Depends on your meaning of "worth it." (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994151)

I've often wondering the same thing. It obviously depends on your idea of "worth it", but I think in many cases a career break for education can be worth it, particularly if your idea of "worth it" is to further your own education and then further the field or find innovative ways of applying the latest and greatest in your field to current problems. If your idea of "worth it" is primarily about compensation, I'd probably steer clear. Obviously it's not a guarantee, but if you make it clear to employers that your interest is in the research, not the salary, you'd find a home pretty easily. Undoubtedly many will comment on the vast amount of information available online now for this PhD level courses, but a great deal of the PhD experience is in act of doing peer reviewed research and interaction with faculty and colleagues, which can't be found on online.

I've been working for the same company for about a decade myself, though I stayed in school and got my MS in CS when the tech bubble burst. I really wanted a research related position, but I settled to a certain degree with a more typical software development gig. My current position is "comfortable", but I've often wanted to pursue a job in research rather than sitting through endless program management meetings and reading documents on how I'm supposed to write software. In the end, the thing that keeps me intellectually satisfied (aside from the compensation, which is better than average for my area) is that every so often we get a high profile, fast turnaround project where I get to interface directly with the customer and develop stuff that goes live in near real time. Even then, though, I rarely get the sense that I'm advancing the field, which is really what I'd like to do.

As for recommendation letters, I'd first recommend to others considering the "work first, then PhD path" stay in contact with those educators who mentored them. There may not be many in a Bachelor's Degree, but find a few. In the case of my MS, I'm still in touch with a few of my favorites from the department. I send them job openings and I get occasional updates. Since it doesn't sound like that's feasible in your case, I would look for recommendations from other professionals in your field and your company (but not managerial types unless they have a technical background.) You'll need to engage with someone at the university directly, probably, to

MS programs are definitely a good start, particularly if you chose a path with a strong research component,and find a university that lets you specialize a bit in your MS degree in your area of interest. (Online degrees are not an option.) As for PhD programs, I wouldn't try to get into that straight off the bat, since that's a four year commitment. Instead, do the MS route first since nearly all of it will count to your PhD and any research you do for an MS would be a jumping off point for a PhD. In general, I think PhD programs are really fond of people coming over from the real world, since they balance out all the career academics.

If your current employer has tuition reimbursement, see if you can enroll in a graduate class or two at the local university or university extension. If your professional credentials are good this shouldn't be a problem, and your company will likely see the course as continuing ed that's worth reimbursing. (I took a PhD level class in security this way, and the company paid for it even though I took it Pass/Fail.) This way you can dip your toes in relatively risk free. See how it goes and go from there.

If your degree path is Computer Science, you might consider an MCS (Master of Computer Science), which is a newer degree. It tends to be bit broader, and it has no research component. That might be more suitable if you're not looking at a "hard research" career.

PhD gets you freedom and more money (5, Informative)

jmcbain (1233044) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994181)

I have a PhD in CS from a top-20 US university and now work in an industry research lab. Like most PhD recipients, I started grad school right after college and finished before starting my professional career. I would say getting the PhD is the single best decision I ever made, and looking back at my high school and college trajectory, it now seems like it was an inevitability. I always wanted to work in technology research, hack on software prototypes, work on R&D projects for a large influential company, and make more money. I've gotten all those, and I'm grateful for the opportunities. I make about 25% to 50% more in base salary than my friends who went to the same grad school but graduated with a MS degree. I also have more technical freedom at work because I have the publications and track record to back up what I'm saying. In the couple of times I sent my resume out for a new job (e.g. Google, MSFT, Facebook), I've gotten callbacks within 48 hours.

I do agree with some of the other unwashed heathens here who have only MS degrees that you can indeed get a great job with just a MS degree. But why limit yourself? Also, I agree that not all PhD programs are the same. I've seen some PhDs from 3rd tier universities work as test engineers. So in the end, I would say that you should get a PhD only if you can land at a CS grad school top-20 university [] . It is not worth your time getting a PhD from a university outside of this group. If you do get in, establish your area of expertise by publishing a lot of papers at top-tier conferences in order to strengthen your case for getting an interview at a lab like MSR. I recommend you do your dissertation in a field that has high value to companies, like machine learning or IR.

By the way, never take out a loan for grad school. If you work as a TA or research assistant, you will get paid while you attend school. The national average seems to be about $25k/year according to all my PhD colleagues.

What a PhD really is (1)

benob (1390801) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994189)

A PhD is about science, not money. With a little bit of luck, you'll be in for a startup project, but otherwise, there is no big money making in science.

On the other hand, it's going to be very interesting. When you write your thesis, you will learn something about yourself: how you can cope with frustration, and how you can do stuff that you though you would never be able to do.

But it's all like professional sports, only a few make it to the top.

It used to be. Now it gets you this. (4, Informative)

Animats (122034) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994193)

Here's a cool job: Whole-Body Motion Planning and Locomotion in Rough Terrains. This is to develop control software for the DARPA Humanoid Challenge. University of Texas at Austin (but really on site at NASA Houston)

The ideal candidate should have a PhD in Aerospace Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science or related fields. Record of implementation and testing experiments on real robotic systems is required. She/he should be highly familiar with robotics theory, including motion planning, kinematics, dynamics, control, and linear dynamical systems. She/he should be proficient in software development including, algorithms, dynamic simulations, object oriented programming, and realtime Linux applications. High expertise in C++ is required. Proficiency in Python and Matlab is also desired. Experience developing software using GIT revision control or a similar tool is required.

Pays $55K.

Re:It used to be. Now it gets you this. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994357)


Thanks dude. But that is pretty much the point here. If you're going to do a phd it has to be because you're driven to accomplish the phd. As many other have posted, this is not a job guarantee or even really, job preparation.

Degrees are just very expensive pre-interview qualifiers.

Re:It used to be. Now it gets you this. (2)

Mr. Underbridge (666784) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994379)

Sorry, but that example doesn't work because it's a postdoc position, not a permanent job. You can't use postdoc salaries as indicative of anything, if that's your point. Postdocs are to PhDs what internists are to MDs. They typically pay around $50-60k, and the person taking the position is doing it to prepare for a career as a professor. It's like an advanced version of PhD that is shorter (typically 2ish years) and where they pay you a little better.

I'd imagine that a person who takes that job for 2 years and kicks ass at it will start near $100k or so, if they choose to go to industry, or a lot less in academia.

Some stats you might find more palatable:,_Computer_Science_(CS)/Salary []

Re:It used to be. Now it gets you this. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994411)

Great! Another fool in a government job. Lazy mediocre talent sucking tax dollars.

Don't do CS (1)

wanax (46819) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994195)

Unless you ALREADY have a burning desire to do a thesis on a specific problem, you're not going to want to do a PhD in CS (especially if that's what you do now). When you're in mid-career, programs in the same field will want you to have a specific vision for what you want to do with your thesis. If you're pursuing a PhD because you're not super happy with the type of problem you're working on now, but don't have a clear plan for how to change direction, I'd recommend checking out CS-related fields, go to a few conferences (academics tend to be very friendly to this type of inquiry) and read a few papers, then pick an area that catches your interest. You need a compelling story in your application about why you're going back to school (I thought it would guarantee me a job at MSR doesn't cut it). If you get interested in a specific program, send them (either the program, or a specific professor whose work you're interested in) an email asking what to do about the letters of rec etc.. They'll let you know a) if you have a realistic shot at getting in and b) tell you exactly what they're going to want to see. This isn't undergrad admissions, there are few hard and fast rules about the application. If you get a professor who has funding interested in you, you're going to get a slot, period.

I'd check out Biomedical engineering, Computational neuroscience, Complex systems-type programs, Bioinformatics, Machine learning (may well be in the CS dept), and Robotics, to name a few. Programs like the above tend to have excellent private-sector placement rates, since a lot of people stay in academia and you come out with a slew of rare and useful skills.

Another thing to keep in mind, is that a PhD these days is a 5-8 year commitment (unless you already have you're thesis research mapped out, see above, then 4). While you won't be paying (in any reputable program), you'll only be making ~25k a year stipend. It's not something you should embark on without doing your homework about programs, and finding something exciting enough to sustain you through years of slow, slow progress. There were three mid-career people at my PhD program, and they were fun to have around.. but one thing that stuck out about all of them, is they came in having a research project they were already obsessed with, and they hit the ground running, where all the out-of-college types like myself spent a year or two testing the waters to figure out what we wanted to do.

study (1)

crutchy (1949900) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994197)

idiot (IQ) tests and those curve ball questions that microsoft and google throw at interviewees

Depends on where you want to go (1)

Zarhan (415465) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994281)

I'm going to defend my PhD dissertation on Friday, actually. Anyway, the problem is that in academia, there's sometimes a big disconnect between what's happening in "the real world".

Anyway, the way I've handled it is that I've basically kept my feet in both camps. Throughout the research work I also worked part-time for a consultancy (now full time since I'm done). I'm also a CCIE. PhD alone might mean "an absent-minded professor" to a recruiter, but combined with credentials from industry side I've at least so far gotten the feeling that it's a big selling point. Which might mean more $$$$.

Re:Depends on where you want to go (1)

Dan Dankleton (1898312) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994811)

I assume (from the CCIE) that you've spent some time in industry before going back to school.
I'm planning to go for an MSc and then hopefully a PhD starting from next year after more than a decade as a network engineer - I'd love to hear more about your experience of the PhD
Good luck with the defence!

no (4, Insightful)

kwikrick (755625) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994295)

I have a Ph.D. in CS, and although I am highly respected by my colleagues, and currently involved in interesting projects, it did not help me much when looking for work. During various job interviews I got the impression that years of experience in the software business is considered more valuable than a Ph.D. When I did get hired, the interviewer actually had a Ph.D. himself, so he did see the value. If you look at CS job descriptions, a Ph.D. is almost never a requirement, except for university positions and some research positions, but those are scarce (in the current economy). So, a Ph.D. is no guarantee for an interesting job. There are lots of Ph.D.'s out there doing work that they are overqualified for.

A Ph.D. is really a training program for an academic career, not for a business career. The subject of a Ph.D. is often highly specialised or even obscure. So, unless you happen to know (and if you have a choice for a Ph.D. subject) what research area will become important at the big software companies in three or four years time, the subject of your Ph.D. is irrelevant, or even detrimental, for your career. (That also goes for university careers: its very difficult to fight your way into a different specialisation).

That said, I loved my time as a Ph.D. student and post-doc researcher. You should only do a Ph.D. if you are passionate about a subject. So, if you have the opportunity to do a Ph.D. and you can afford to do it, and you are inspired by the subject and driven enough to finish it, then go for it. But it's not necessarily a good career move.

I'm heading for similar path so my advise is (1)

jsse (254124) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994325)

First reference: One Professor taught you long time ago. He definitely not remembers you but you may visit him and invite him to lunch for a brief chat. He would be gratefully referring you if you told him your research plan. You may even get valuable opinions from them.

Alternatively, if all professors taught or supervised you were retired or dead, as in my situation, you may ask around if you happened to have any friends that attended higher level of academic with honors, and ask them to help.

It would be nice to find two profs for your reference. Failing that you could find one friend, or your previous boss, who is doing good in your field of research as your second reference. Unless otherwise specified, they may not expect second reference to be very academic.

Regardless of what other respondents said, a PhD is very useful title anywhere in the world: you could devote yourself into research if you happened to discover a good topic of your interest, or you could at least find a teaching job in a college. Most important, it would increase your chance of getting venture capital for your future startup if one of the founders has a PhD.

It's a gamble (1)

EzInKy (115248) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994327)

In this age of the bottom line is everything your best bet is to sit down and calculate the odds that you will earn more by furthering your educated versus the odds that you won't. Choose wrong and you will be eventually be labelled as just another one of those who were not intelligent enough to survive in today's economy, choose right and you could find yourself among the infamous 1%! Got a coin to flip?

Re:It's a gamble (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994783)

Why do you assume more money is his goal? When I can pay my bills on $50k, a good job is getting paid $100k for doing something I enjoy, work is doing something I hate for $150K.

Dear OP, well.. (1)

ANonyMouser (2641869) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994345)

There are two reasons for doing graduate study, you love academic research just so much or the money. I'm in the first camp and I wish that I'd spent more time in the early days aiming for industry related skills as I'm having to learn them now, often in my own time.

From what you wrote I'd say we are about the same age, assuming that you came straight out of tertiary study and into work - and I'm considered early career and definitely NOT mid career.

It's allot of time and work and $$$$$$$ to become PhD qualified and the recognition of all that is not guaranteed. So please, check your motives and aim to fill them, and make sure there is work at the end of it. I'm working at the University that I studied at and I love my job, but I realise that many people would go crazy doing what I do in the environment that I am in.

Don't think of it as a "job gateway" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994389)

Because you'll probably hate it the entire time. Figure out why you want to do science, and only if you find that you really truly love it and working on hard problems, then go for it. Coming back from industry, you already have insights within yourself of what kinds of problems you enjoy tackling. You aren't the fresh grad going into grad school simply because it's the "next step in the ladder" or something like that. You have real worldly experience. Tap into it.

Almost pointless questions (1)

giorgist (1208992) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994397)

This word "worth" means different things to different people. In fact it has different value at different times in the life of each person.

So in the end, for me a PHD in the middle of my life where I have other distractions is more than too hard, but I do enjoy learning, and in fact I am partaking in Algorithms [] . Then again I am not you. I expect most of the constructive replies to simply try and pin down the value of "worth"

Give it a shot. (1)

willodotcom (608854) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994401)

I had a similar realization after about 5 years of software development. I'm now doing a Masters of Engineering in Germany, having moved from Australia. Moving country provided its own challenges for sure (ie #1 being the German language), but succeeding in spite of them has given me some extra self confidence as well. I have no regrets (apart from not doing it earlier).

As far as the letter of recommendation goes, it doesn't hurt to ask, especially if you had more to do with a Professor than just attending classes (ie if they supervised a project etc). My old Honours Prof remembered me and wrote a great letter - alles klar :)

PhD = life changing (for better and worse) (2)

acidfast7 (551610) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994525)

1. The opportunity cost is huge, as you'll earn, at best, 30k/year for 4-7 years.

2. The intellectual stimulation is unrivaled. You're essentially paid to think all day without actual work getting done usually without any time pressure, unlike anywhere in industry

3. You'll be more employable (great) for a smaller number of positions (not so great).

4. A proper PhD is a degree in philosophy. If it's done correctly, the real "skills" you should learn are field-independent ... you should be able to sit down for a period of time, process the leading research in any field, determine what the big questions are and write a grant to get into the field (whether it be birds or circuit design.)

5. Using a PhD to get into a particular position is a horrible idea.

The PhD (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994531)

I would think carefully before I got a PhD. It is really training you to be a college professor. If that isn't what you want to do, then I would recommend NOT perusing a PhD. There are some doors outside of academia that it will open, but there are more doors that it closes. People really are reluctant to hire PhDs for jobs that don't require one.

On the other hand, I would whole heatedly recommend a masters degree. You will learn some cool stuff, have opportunities to meet new people, and you can probably do it with out putting your life on hold for several years.

Why bother? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994563)

Why bother? Japanorama gives out a free Ph.D. diploma.
Download it at

ph-don't (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994605)

I had to return to academia after 10 years in industry as a PhD had become the minimum entry requirement in UK bioscience. The process was long and unrewarding, and I wouldn't recommend it to anybody. It wont earn me much more money than before, but it guarantee's I can still compete in the job market for a new job if I'm made redundant.

For computer science, however I see a lot of non-PhD level senior staff who have a huge portfolio of applications they've developed, and businesses they've run. So if you don't need huge amounts of equipment to do your work, like bioscience, I would focus on getting a shed load of freelance contracts and building myself up that way. The PhD is more or less just a buff for your CV. Ultimately, it's what you can do that companies are interested in, and a PhD often doesn't deliver this. You will spend a long time grinding at something that wont work, often under the cosh of an academic that doesn't know their arse from their elbow. The PhD is also focuses on building a skillset during the training that again is a portfolio of things you've done, plus the "Dr" title bumping up your "streed cred".

So personally, if I could freelance I would say hell no don't do a PhD, but if you can't then probably hell yes, it's a necessary evil and no company will ever pay for formal training.

Time and education investment (2)

ciurana (2603) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994673)

Hi there!

Speaking from experience here -- I have the US equivalent to a masters degree in computer engineering. Other than my permanent residency paperwork for my US green card and my Russian permanent worker permit, nobody has ever bothered to really go into what school or what degrees I hold. I started programming/building systems in 1984 (I was 17), and was working hands on with cool things by 1988 (real-time controllers, a windowing system for character based terminals and RM-COBOL, etc.). Since then I have seldom worked with run-o-the-mill business applications development. I spent my whole career building/designing infrastructure-type software (compilers, network/system management tools, industrial robots, big data analysis and knowledge discovery) and the common theme has always been that it's been up to me to both stay current and to figure out the areas that I will find interesting. I've been chief architect at a Fortune-5 company, and have been involved in all kinds of cool development projects/startups/companies because I keep sharpening the knives (my skills). I managed to do this by investing time in these basic two items:

1. Always learn something new. I spend at least 8 hours/week researching new things to apply at work -- if I know it, I'll find a place to implement it
2. Don't underestimate relationships! Go out and meet new people. IRC (irc:// in particular) has been huge for business and professional development for me

In development relationships -- get involved in 2 or more open source projects that you find interesting. Contribute. Challenge. Use them. Contribute some more. Become a trusted voice. Be generous with advice, and learn as much as you can from others. Go to your local users groups. If you're near Silicon Valley or some other tech hub, join a business association or two, and go schmooze. Get yourself invited to speak at a conference or two. Become a domain expert. Start a newsletter or blog. Develop a network.

Luck is what you find at the intersection of readiness and opportunity. Go to school (yey! I wish I could do that again!) but, most important, remember that your career is your responsibility and that you must invest time in developing it so that interesting and lucrative things come your way. The most important thing, regardless of how you decide to gain new knowledge, is that you find your problem domains interesting and fun. Otherwise your career will stagnate regardless of your educational level because you won't be engaged. Every time I did something just for the paycheque, the return on my time/energy investment was low and those projects didn't last long. Every time I've done something that sounds fun and challenging I end up getting a bigger payout (economic, professional, etc.) than I expected. In my latest venture, for example, I get to work shoulder-to-shoulder with PhD super boffins from SRI International and other places. On paper I'm the intellectual pigmy -- but in practice we just work together, get things done, and I just found out that the work I did made them decide to include me in two patent filings. Works for me -- and my career.

So -- PhD, MsC, BBQ - whatever you do -- make sure you're passionate about it, that you have fun, and that you invest the time and energy necessary to make you proficient at it. The rewards will follow.


consider more than just job prospects (1)

call -151 (230520) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994677)

1) Is a Ph.D. a near-guarantee of a spot in a skunkworks type of job (Microsoft Research and the like)?

No, as mentioned above. Only a small fraction of PhDs end up at top places, industrial or otherwise. A strong record of publications or impressive projects (and a good degree) is still no guarantee but is more important that the answer to "PhD: yes or no?" There is a big difference between a degree from a strong institution and from a lower-tier one as well. Also, the level of finishing students varies greatly. There are always some students, even at top programs, who end up getting a degree but if the work and thesis aren't strong, there is no chance of a good job at a research institution or lab.

2) Is a M.S. just as good for this?

No. Master's level programs are quite different than doctoral programs.

3) How does the 'letter of recommendation' requirement work if you haven't kept in touch with your professors?

A letter from a faculty member that says "I have no specific recollection of this student but my records show good grades" doesn't carry much weight. A strong letter from someone not in academia who is familiar with your recent work is probably more valuable.

One thing to be aware of is that in many programs, there can be a bias against older students. That is, supervising a doctoral student is a great deal of work for the advisor, and many advisors would prefer to spend that limited energy on a bright, promising 22-year old who may have an impact over a long period rather than someone who isn't as likely to have such a long career, particularly if they are likely to head to academia. Reasonable or not, this bias is present at many research institutions.

As mentioned in other comments, don't do it just for the possibility of improved job prospects. A PhD is difficult, and if you aren't doing something that you have a profound interest in and love for, you are likely to struggle.

Letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc (1)

Sipper (462582) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994727)

Concerning letters of recommendation: they do not have to come from professors or from a boss. When I went back for my MSEE, I used letters of recommendation from two colleagues and one from a friend. If letters specifically need to come from someone you've worked for then that will be stated in the requirements for entry from the particular graduate school you apply for.

You'll need to get official transcripts from each of the colleges you've attended. Typically these are required to come in envelopes with a signature over the seal. I suggest ordering an extra copy from each school for your own records. [This is mostly "just a good idea", but there are cases where schools have lost their records. The University of New Orleans, for instance, lost my sister's academic records there after the school was flooded during hurricanes Katrina back in 2005.]

The next thing you'll need to do is take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Having taken it I'll give you the following advice: concerning the Quantitative section what you most need to know is if you can answer each question you're given in less than 2 minutes. The computerized version of the test also does not allow you to go back and change your answers, because the test is adaptive -- the questions get harder as you answer lower questions correctly. Harder questions are also worth more points, so it's very important to answer the lower questions correctly in order to get to the harder ones. The paper-based GRE exam doesn't have these issues, if these are still being offered. In the Verbal section of the GRE, if possible be creative in your essay writing. At the end of the GRE exam you're asked what schools you want your GRE scores to be transmitted to (after you're told what they are right then and there, except for the essay section), so you should know what schools you're planning to apply to beforehand.

Your transcripts and letters of recommendation are generally given to the school with your application. The GRE scores are transmitted directly to the school.

Good luck and enjoy grad school. ;-)

Encouragement (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994781)

I've noticed throughout my career that the people working on MBAs and PhDs choose their graduate projects on what they think the CS community needs (not based on anything except assumptions). Where the mid-career graduate students are rooted much more in the real world. The projects are based on real needs and are more useful to the general community. Just my $0.02 from the professional community.

In life (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994837)

Is a Ph.D. a near-guarantee

There are no guarantees. At one point your job stops being so much about your degrees and it becomes much more about the soft skills you demonstrate as a person. I've met many people near the top of my field who are absolutely useless outside a very narrow set of parameters. But they have lots of degrees and graduated with top honors from excellent schools. They're not stupid, they just don't know how to apply their knowledge.

While a degree can certainly help if you have the time and resources, it's not a golden ticket so don't expect it to be.

Consider your interests and your career choices (1)

alter-memo (1896704) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994887)

A PhD can help you reach some positions that otherwise will not be available for you. It is a common requisite for academia and research positions in the industry. Sometimes also helps with management tracks, but the argument for this is debatable.

In general, a PhD does not have a great career ROI, because you get a much better position/salary inside the industry by spending the same amount of time (3-6 years) specializing in industry-related topics. And this difference never catches up if you do a PhD. I am careful to point this out when I am interviewing PhD candidates, because if they are in for monetary reasons, they might have better alternatives. Also, a PhD sooner or later gets under your skin, and you need a strong motivation to finish it. You need to like it and be at least somewhat passsionate about it. If you are not sure of the reasons why you are doing it, you might drop out at that point.

If you want to do research, if you feel that, for personal reasons, you want a PhD, by all means go for it. If you want to improve your knowledge/resume/employment, I would suggest to consider other, more focused ways to achieve this goal.

Join Open University (1)

sithlord2 (261932) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994919)

I'm 33 and I joined a so-called "Open University" this year. The courses are tailored for self-study and you get online coaching from a teacher. It will take quite a few years before I get my master-degree, but since I can study at my own pace, I can do the exam when I feel I'm ready.

I combine this with a fulltime job. It's not really for the degree I joined, but to learn new interesting stuff (like AI and crypto-stuff).

I'm sure there are similar Open University programs in your country too.

Don't do computer science. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40994933)

It will not set you apart as much as you'd like. Instead find an engineering discipline you like (and is in demand) and study that. Your long industry programming experience AND subject matter knowledge will make you in high demand.

Examples include;
* electronical engineering + programming => lots of jobs in embedded systems.
* mechanical engineering + programming => lots of jobs in Computer Aided Manufacturing or similar.
* chemical engineering + programming => lots of jobs in the oil industry.

Pick a mentor VERY carefully (1)

damn_registrars (1103043) | more than 2 years ago | (#40994971)

I was working a full-time job that related to my undergrad major before I started grad school. I was then in a hurry to get started on a PhD thinking I was already on the old side of things (I was the oldest grad student in my starting class). I ended up setting myself up for abuse and neglect by not thinking through the process adequately and finding a mentor who would really mentor me and meet my career needs.

That left me with worse credentials for what I wanted to do next than what I had going in, and I effectively lost money in the process as grad student stipends are pretty well minimum wage.

So pick your options carefully. And go in with both eyes wide open; don't choose anything quickly or by feeling.

Staff Engineer (1)

efarng (2514566) | more than 2 years ago | (#40995017)

I think you're looking at it the wrong way. Within a research group (academic or industry) the researcher positions are very competitive. A PhD doesn't guarantee a job. A PhD is required for a job.

However, without the PhD, there are still staff engineering roles. Engineering-wise, it'll be mostly the same stuff you are working on now, maybe even simpler. But the domain will be more difficult, fun, and interesting. Of course an MS will help make your resume stand out over BS candidates. But, it is more valuable here than in the business world since PhDs value education more.

However, an MS generally not required for a staff engineering role. I don't see a reason not to apply for both jobs and schools at the same time. The applications are due in November/December and you still have plenty of time research schools and to get recommendations (get started early). Schools recognize that you don't know your professors anymore and recommendations for MS programs from your boss work fine. After going back to school or working as a staff engineer for a few years (or both), you'll be able to make a more informed decision about a PhD. Hopefully you will get your name on some papers and better recommendations from PhD boss or professors. Then, you'll have a more competitive PhD application, get accepted into a better school, and have a better chance to beat the PhD rat race.

BTW, just like business applications, research applications can get boring after a while too. You probably don't get paid as well either.

One person's experience (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40995071)

I went back for my masters in computer science somewhat later in life. I never thought it would be of benefit in my career. In fact, I took the program because work was being stingy about following their own training and development guidelines for their employees. I sought to "refresh" my skillset, but never expected it to impact my actual job. As it turned out, it was a significant factor in getting me into my next two jobs, and even helped bump my salary up.

But the point here is that I was doing it because I wanted to immerse myself in the newer technology and what the heck? Get a degree while I was at it. The actual piece of paper was so not my focus, I even now often forget that I HAVE the degree!

But if you go back for the advanced degree, do yourself a favor. There are often two ways to go through the program. You can take the easiest classes and just go for the degree, or you can really get your money's worth and take the interesting and deep classes. Spend every moment you can engaging with the professors about the details more interesting to you (before and after class, etc.). Take advantage of your time in the program...especially if you are footing the bill for it. That way, no matter if the degree helps you get a job or not, you got value out of your time and money spent by adding to your own knowledge and skillset.

There's a better way (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40995131)

I've known lots of people who accumulated extra credentials and haven't made any extra progress in their careers. They're stuck and more education didn't help.

As many other posters have pointed out, advanced degrees aren't like trade school where a job is pretty much guaranteed. If that's what you're looking for, try medicine or accounting.

Never forget the mantra: "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Join your industry group (IEEE for instance). Go to conferences. Do committee work. Pitch in, get your hands dirty. Get known in the industry as someone who sees the big picture and is a self-starter. Broaden you horizons. Get a mentor. If you put in similar effort, you will do much better than if you get an extra degree.

A PhD is a foundation (3, Interesting)

selil (774924) | more than 2 years ago | (#40995153)

I was 28 years old when I entered university. With a background in law enforcement and military the idea of being some prep-school university type was not something I wanted to do. In my late 30s I received my Masters degree in computer science and saw a significant increase in perception of how my income was made. After the dot.bomb I was doing pretty good but shrinking staffs, horrible hours, executives who ran IT shops like they were slave pens, had me burning out pretty quick. I'd stepped out of doing the stuff I thought was fun and started getting paid to do stuff nobody thought was fun. I took a mid-university professor job, but they wanted me to get a PhD. A masters degree is sort of like being a journeyman. You've mastered the discipline. A PhD is about defining the future of the discipline. There are a lot of junk PhDs out there. I've read their dissertations. There are a lot of good people with bad degrees and bad people with good degrees. Look at the trends to define rather than specific anecdotal evidence like my case. Don't mix up the history PhDs with the Computer Science or Technology degrees. What I would say was that I took nearly a 66% cut in pay to become a professor and full time researcher. I got the opportunity to do what I want, when I want, and how I want. After I got my PhD I ended up in one of the top engineering schools in the world, have done tours at major science institutions and government agencies, and turn down opportunities to work with others. So, yes a mid life PhD can be a great thing for your career. You will find that people who don't have a PhD don't have any clue what it means to have one are either jealous or ignorant. A research based doctorate (PhD) versus an applied doctorate (DSc) will give you a broader understanding of what research is and how it is done. I was just speaking at a major national lab to a bunch of masters degree students about why they should get a PhD. I told them "don't do it." Unless, you love research, are willing to commit 5 to 7 years towards the goal, have your employers buy off, family buy in, and time management skills to die for. Nobody listens but the PhD is really about what you put into the effort. That will be obvious when you finish the longest test of your life. The dissertation. In the end that will determine whether it was worth it.
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