So you (don’t?) want a Ph.D. degree?

Among the best and most enjoyable parts of a dean’s job is the opportunity to regularly meet young students and discuss their future aspirations with them.  Many undergraduate students intrinsically know that they will eventually graduate with a Ph.D. degree.  A far greater number, however, are dead set against such a pursuit.

In both groups, some  students base their decision upon an incorrect premise. Experience has shown me that some students interested in pursuing a Ph.D. program do so for the wrong reasons. “I love teaching. A Ph.D. program will teach me how to teach.” That sometimes doesn’t happen.

Conversely, those who are uninterested in the degree do so because, “I want to be in the ‘real world’. So I don’t see myself as being a professor.” That’s also an incorrect contention.

I know from experience that in engineering fields the overwhelming majority of engineering doctoral graduates work in industry or government, typically in R&D units, or become consultants. A minority of these graduates enter universities to become professors. If robust research is the objective then not all professors wind up working at research intensive universities. Also, there’s enough organized engineering research outside the academy.

In order to understand why an engineering student should pursue a Ph.D. degree let’s look at the skills and opportunities it provides. Doing so should also clarify why this career path is  appropriate for some but not for others.

Doctoral graduates are not trained for routine jobs, but they are more suitable for work that requires a flexible mind, such as one that drives innovation. These graduates are taught to become more adept at identifying and isolating a relevant problem from among a diverse set of interconnected problems (something we engineers call idealization), solving the problem, linking the solution to other connected problems and coherently presenting an overall solution.

Could someone become equally adept at this sort of analysis and work without a Ph.D. credential. Sure. However, that would require opportunities for mentoring, workplace engagement and self learning that most people don’t have access to.

Aren’t Ph.D.s trained to be ivory tower academics? No, not engineering doctoral graduates, the majority of whom go on to work in industry. In fact engineering schools are home to many public-private-academic partnerships that allow students to focus on industry-relevant projects and also engage in pre-competitive fundamental analyses. Chances are that you’ll also be trained in superior soft skills if you enter an engineering doctoral program.

If you want to be an academic, don’t fall for mythologies. Salaries for engineering doctoral graduates in industry and universities are not so far apart as many would have you believe. What you’ll give up on is an annual bonus and periodic stock options, which can admittedly add up. However, in academia, you’ll gain scholarly independence and flexibility in your schedule, which some believe is an adequate trade off.

The big issue is employability. Fewer companies actively look for an engineering Ph.D. degree holders than for those with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. However, those companies that do hire Ph.D. engineers offer more interesting and independent lines of work.

Be assured that there are work opportunities for doctoral graduates, very rewarding ones, but they’re not of the usual types posted on job boards.  I have a Ph.D. and have mentored many students who have earned one. They are living happy, financially secure and rewarding lives.
Whether or not you wish to pursue a doctoral degree can ultimately be a lifestyle choice. Either choice can lead to a meaningful and rewarding career. If you want a Ph.D. credential then pursue it for the right reasons.


3 thoughts on “So you (don’t?) want a Ph.D. degree?

  1. Thanks for the article. Couldn’t agree with you more. However, I have a question. For someone like me with 17+ years of work experience with a BTech in Mech engineering and MSc (Engg) degree in structural reliability and optimization, who want to pursue a PhD degree, what are the options. Not that I can’t self-read to acquire knowledge but a PhD degree would provide a sense of accomplishment. Of course I need to continue my job for my living but many of the Universities that I have explored look for being on-campus for at least a few months which has been a challenge. I am willing to appear for periodic assessments, take exams etc. but are there any Universities that provide such facilities for me to take up a PhD programme? Appreciate your advice. Again thanks a lot.

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    1. There are a few universities that have an industrial Ph.D. option, i.e., you can use relevant industrial work and apply it towards a doctoral thesis. However, both your employer and the university must come to an understanding about your intellectual property rights and ability to publicly present your thesis.

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