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PhD in Computer Science/Engineering

There is a question posted at SlashDot asking of the merits of doing a PhD in Computer Science.

I was wondering of the merits of doing a PhD - most of the options point towards teaching upon graduaton. But there is a glut of PhDs and finding tenured positions are limited.

The beauty about going to Universities in the past was that you had access to information - library, journals, dissertations.

That is not a handicap to the lay person any more - when I need to research a subject, I easily almost always obtain the information I need for free.

Futhermore I find most Computing/IEEE journals to be obselete - sometimes it seems that the authors are publishing for the sake of publication. I have not found anything useful in dissertations.

Most of the information that has been helpful have me place by folks who are here on this message board.

What are your thoughts?

Sometimes I do toy with the idea of going back to school for a PhD. My wife and I hope to have children next year and my work life is so strenous that I am concern I may not be able to spend positive time with our child.

And becoming a professor appeals to me for it has set hours (at least at Universities). But the downside, as mentioned above, it is terribly competitive to obtain a tenured position. I have been told that there are lots of politics at university faculties - but where does that not exist. 

David Grimberg
Tuesday, August 19, 2003

I wouldn't get a Ph.D. for the hours... I work a ton now at my corporate job, but I remember my professors (just a couple years ago) working much harder, and my mom as well (a professor), working 80 hours a week for the whole year.  No up and down times like software development.

Also, all the Ph.D. students I knew as a masters student were just as busy while getting their degree (a lot busier than the masters students).

The people who do it must love it, and that's why they're willing to put so many hours in.

I agree that there seems to be just a glut of medicre papers in most journals, which is one of the reasons I didn't go into academia.  It is just as political as corporate life, very much based on image and producing papers and keeping your name out there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

David, I hope you don't mind; I'm going to piggyback on your question.  I'm also interested in getting a PhD, but I don't want to get a tenured position at a university.  Too much stress and I'm too old.  I'd just like to get a low stress teaching position at a small college or even a community college.  I may even simply stay in industry and do the PhD as extra job security.  At almost forty, am I too old?

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Anon- you can never be too old to enhance your career path.

Another way of approaching the subject can be, will a PhD help you enhance your career path?

Are tenured professor professions stressful? They always seem to be off on conferences with free food. Also my former prof was always on sabatical - he has been working on writing a book at his island cottage.

Some of the profs at my old University did not know C programming language. They had been tenured in the seventies.

David - on your question on PhD. I used to work at Lucent - we had tons of PhDs in the research department. When crunch time came we were mostly let go.

I am a hacker/programmer - did a BEng. I managed to get another job fairly quickly in the NY area.

The research folks I used to work with have not been so fortunate. Two have entered University of Illinois (Urbana) as associate professors - temporary positions.

A couple more are trying to get start-ups going or are setting up consulting shops.

The challenge is that most employers feel that they (i.e. the PhDs) have not done much practical stuff. This could be a Lucent thing as they used to give the research folks lots of freedom.

The above are my very humble observations - I am by no means experienced enough in this subject. Hope they are helpful or can lead to other posts.

Ram Dass
Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Thanks for the insight, Ram.  You wrote:
>> "Another way of approaching the subject can be, will a PhD help you enhance your career path?"

Good question - but I don't know the answer.  From your experience, it seems like perhaps the answer is, "no".  I should probably also say that I'm in the middle of my MS at a big state university, and I'm currently a code monkey, and I'm dying to do something more technical than business programming.  Any more advice on how to get there from here?

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Follow-up question - can a PhD in CS or EE actually hurt your employability?  I'm helping my fiance complete her doctorate in experimental psychology.  She's offered that once she graduates & finds a job, she'll support me through grad school.  I'd love to get my doctorate, but my impression is that most of the job  openings for PhDs are in academia.  We'll be moving to wherever she can get a job offer, and it's not too likely that the same university that hires her would also have an opening for me. Therefore, I thought I'd just go for a MS, so as to have a good selection of jobs that I would be qualified for, without being "overqualified."  Does that make sense or am I completely off track?

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Tony asks:
>> "Follow-up question - can a PhD in CS or EE actually hurt your employability?"

Follow-up, follow-up question:  If a PhD does make someone overqualified for certain positions, is it okay for him/her to simply delete it from the resume?  Or, in this day and age of super-spy background checks, will this be viewed as lying on a resume?

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

At my present company, we have employees that have BEng, BSc, Masters, PhDs and no degrees.

My boss does not have a degree - he was hired in the early nineties from Microsoft.

It seems that a degree can help you sell yourself more easily - but at the end of the day, it is your achevements that count.

We recently hired three people who are active in the OS movement - they do not have degrees, did not complete or not in the relevant field. They have senior roles in the software design and development.

As we are partners with Microsoft, I noticed that lots of their employees are similarly diverse.

We are a data mining/OLAP software company.

Computing/software is such a rapidly evolving field that what one learns at school is less of an importance than other fields like bio-tech.

The most important assets that I picked up at school was knowing what I can do (or not) and confidence. But this can be done through open source movements etc.

I was in school before the Internet started to take off - as David mentioned above, back then if you were not in a University it was hard to learn stuff. So at University I was exposed to Unix etc.

But now all this stuff is easily available online. And if I have questions or need assistance, I normally make a posts and have good answers very quickly. One of the best ways I have found to learn was helping others in news groups etc.

I think I have digressed above - basically, my humble opinion, in IT the degree is a paper to impress others to hopefully get a good position. But unlike other fields a degree in IT is not important to have.

I think, again my humble opinion, Universities will have to change to take this into consideration. If the track to acquring knowledge is faster outside of University than within - there is something wrong.

Ram Dass
Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Thanks, Ram.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003


Which do you prefer: The more academic pursuit of computer science (ie, Ritchie, Knuth, Yourdon kind of stuff)?


The more practical, everyday side such as coding, architecture and software project management? (Don Box, Joel, McConnell kind of stuff)

Not that the two "sides" don't mix, but for example, I consider myself a skilled developer with a good background in architecture and management. I'm all about developing and shipping software. In the trenches. It's just in my blood.

Then I look at the guys that work for Microsoft Research that come up with fascinating ideas and theories about computing. I find it neat and all, but it's not my cup-o-tea. I wanna build and ship.

If you're a "build and ship" kinda guy, then I don't see a PhD being of great value. Don't get me wrong, it certainly won't hurt, but I don't think it really adds much to your value.

The obvious flip side is that if you want to teach or do theoretical research then a PhD is definitely worth the effort.

As with really depends on what you enjoy.

Mark Hoffman
Tuesday, August 19, 2003

I think that many companies today won't hire Ph.D's.  The arguments are:

(A) They are too expensive,
(B) They are too academic, not real-world enough,
(C) They are too academic, not business enough,
(D) They "fell behind" while working on the Ph.D.

Seriously, even if you have 5 years of experience, went
to school to get a Ph.D in CS 3/4 time while working 1/2 time as a consultant writing shrink-wrapped applications in VC++, when you graduated, you'd get a lot of people who would turn you down for A, B, or C.

Of course, if you can get a job at Microsoft Research, or Google, or SAS - well, that's great.  But, sadly, I'm afraid, the ABC companies FARRR outnumber the enlightened companies.  (Intel and DoD are two other exceptions.)

good luck,

Matt H.
Tuesday, August 19, 2003

I would recommend Jim Collin's book, "Good to Great," for coming up with a superior process of making this kind of decision.

He has an idea called, "3 Circle Concept": passion, genetic strength and economic denominator represent a circle each. Our work is to find a vocation that satisfies the 3 circles simultaneously.

Many arts graduate students chose their field solely based upon passion; but they neglect the economic denominator, which is why there are many starving artists. Some choose to go into MBA just for economic reason, and hate the long-hours slaving away in faceless corporations, never fulfilling their passion. Some get into a field that is lucrative and they are passionate about, but they sorely lack genetic talents - many people who love computer games but are mediocre programmers fit into this category.

I would pursue PhD in CS/Engineering if I had a tremendous amount of passion for it, if I had a genetic talent for it (math comes to me easily), and if I can convert and apply the precious knowledge and skill into a job that pays well. If any one of the circles was missing, then I would very much hesitate.

Another way of looking at this issue is: if you had 20 million dollars and 10 years left to live, would you go after a PhD? This will tell you very quickly if you are doing it only for money, which is the worst motivation possible in the long term perspective. Also, doing a PhD may be important, but it may not be in the top 10 list of things to do. After all, you only have 10 years, and you can't afford to waste 7 years on PhD if it were not your number 1 priority!

Bob Yu
Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Bob Yu - nice summary.

I have the talent & I have the passion.  My only reason for pursuing the PhD would be the chance to study in-depth & uninterrupted for 4 years.  My fear is that it might make it difficult to find a job without relocating once I got out.  If that's going to be a serious risk, I'll settle for the masters.

Any hiring managers or PhDs want to provide input?

Tuesday, August 19, 2003


I have a PhD in Comp Sci/Math. I started in 1992 and graduated in 1999.

I will be upfront - I cannot suggest to any readers to do or not to do a PhD.

I choose do enter the PhD program as it seemed a good fit. I knew the prof well from my Masters program and he suggested I join his research lab.

I did my work in LISP controls for computational methods.  I learn lots but it could have been compressed in a year. Beacuse there is all the distractions in PhD, i.e. teaching, writing papers, exam supervision etc, I wasted lots of time.

I enjoyed my time at University - it was like having an extended youth. But reality sinks in eventually after the third/fourth year. One becomes a little tired of the lab humor.

My prof left the University in my second year of PhD - I had to find another supervisor who could take me on. I was fortunate to find one I got along well with. Although he was not very familiar with the subject.

Currently I am teaching at a College in New Westminster, BC. I teach C/C++ at a year 1 and year 2 university level.

Did the PhD help me - tough call to make. I did not feel like entering the corporate world after my Masters so it seemed like a good thing to do. Although after the third year of PhD I became fed-up with the environment, the jokes, politics etc

I am glad I did the PhD as I had time to grow and mature as an individual. By staying on in University I had time to reflect and sort things out. But career wise it has not helped that much.

There is a glut of PhDs in Comp Sci/Math - every teaching a huge number of resumes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

My dad has a Ph.D. in an engineering discipline. He kind of regrets it since it cost him a few years of seniority at the big multinational he was working, which he thinks was just as important.

Chi Lambda
Wednesday, August 20, 2003

> I remember my professors (just a couple years ago) working much harder, and my mom as well (a professor), working 80 hours a week for the whole year.  No up and down times like software development.

Please, what complete and total horse-shit.  80 hours a week is 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

College profesors work a few hours a day, and most teach -2 or 3 days a week.  Good luck getting into that inner circle.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Bella, that's clown college you're thinking of (you know, the one you attended).  Obviously you don't know my mom's working habits better than I do.

Friday, August 22, 2003

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