Archive for March 13th, 2012

Why do a PhD?

March 13, 2012

Matt Welsh at Volatile and Decentralized on getting a PhD:

Doing a PhD is certainly not for everybody, and I do not recommend it for most people. However, I am really glad I got my PhD rather than just getting a job after finishing my Bachelor’s. The number one reason is that I learned a hell of a lot doing the PhD, and most of the things I learned I would never get exposed to in a typical software engineering job. The process of doing a PhD trains you to do research: to read research papers, to run experiments, to write papers, to give talks. It also teaches you how to figure out what problem needs to be solved. You gain a very sophisticated technical background doing the PhD, and having your work subject to the intense scrutiny of the academic peer-review process — not to mention your thesis committee.

I think of the PhD a little like the Grand Tour, a tradition in the 16th and 17th centuries where youths would travel around Europe, getting a rich exposure to high society in France, Italy, and Germany, learning about art, architecture, language, literature, fencing, riding — all of the essential liberal arts that a gentleman was expected to have experience with to be an influential member of society. Doing a PhD is similar: You get an intense exposure to every subfield of Computer Science, and have to become the leading world’s expert in the area of your dissertation work. The top PhD programs set an incredibly high bar: a lot of coursework, teaching experience, qualifying exams, a thesis defense, and of course making a groundbreaking research contribution in your area. Having to go through this process gives you a tremendous amount of technical breadth and depth.

I do think that doing a PhD is useful for software engineers, especially those that are inclined to be technical leaders. There are many things you can only learn “on the job,” but doing a PhD, and having to build your own compiler, or design a new operating system, or prove a complex distributed algorithm from scratch is going to give you a much deeper understanding of complex Computer Science topics than following coding examples on StackOverflow.

A good post, in which, Matt expands on the things that he learnt during his PhD — reading and critiquing research papers, writing papers, giving talks, running experiments and interpreting their results, and, figuring out the problem on which to work on. Here is the conclusion:

So I think it’s worth having a PhD, especially if you want to work on the hardest and most interesting problems. This is true whether you want a career in academia, a research lab, or a more traditional engineering role. But as my PhD advisor was fond of saying, “doing a PhD costs you a house.” (In terms of the lost salary during the PhD years – these days it’s probably more like several houses.)

Nice one! Take a look!