Stack OverflowHow important is PhD research topic to getting a job?
[+12] [11] thornate
[2009-04-21 02:33:18]
[ career-development education ]

EDIT: This has been closed and I realise that I may not have been specific enough with the original title. I ask two questions here: The general one (Does a PhD help get a job?) which has been asked elsewhere, and the specific one (Is it possible to get work outside of the specific research field?). Assume I've already decided going to do the phd. I'm just stressing about the research topic.

Well, I'm one year out of university (Mechatronics engineering and Software Eng double bachelors), worked for a few months then got retrenched (yay economy!). It's looking less and less likely that I'll get a job worth having with the job market as it is, so I'm thinking about going back to uni to do a PhD. I figure that by the time I'm done, the job market will have improved and hopefully I'll have something on my resume that is more attractive than spending three years doing customer support for accounting software.

So, my question is to people who've done PhD's. Would you say that they were worth the effort? How important is the research topic to future job-seeking success? The idea I have is a computer-sciencey/neural-networks/data-mining thing which I think is very interesting, but not a field I want to be in forever. My potential supervisor claims that employers don't care so much about the topic of the research but rather the peripheral skills that are developed through a PhD; time managment, self-restraint, planning and whatnot.

How does this mesh with people's real world experience? I'd appreciate any advice before signing my life on the line for the next three years.

See also:

(2) Glad to see that this is no longer closed. - Bob Cross
@thornate: two years after your post, can I ask about your decision on the PhD? - Jakub M.
[+16] [2009-04-21 02:42:26] Uri

This has been asked here many times.

The answer is that it really depends on what the PhD research topic in.

Even in a bad economy, there is a need for people with expertise in certain domains:

  • Algorithms and information retrieval (used by companies like Google)
  • Pattern recognition and machine learning (finance and search)
  • Natural language processing
  • Robotics (very strong, but tends to fall on the defense side of things)
  • Bioinformatics
  • Vision (very strong, but again, often on the defense side; some medical)
  • Computer graphics
  • Computer architecture (suggested by DasBoot, often under EE, useful for Intel, etc.)
  • Certain aspects of verification and testing (typically government jobs, NASA, defense)
  • Parallel processing and scientific computing (many government research labs)

Unfortunately, many many PhD topics fall outside these areas. In these cases, there is limited benefit to having a PhD unless you happen to score an academic or research job and that is very competitive. In bad economies, universities shut down hiring and research labs and organizations are the first place to be frozen in large corporations.

So unless you are in those fields, I highly recommend against it. Once you go to the academia, you are also losing time that you could spend becoming a more experienced engineer. You are then also not able to get any engineering positions, at least not entry-level one.

Your background sounds like robotics may be your field. If you can get security clearance, that may be a good direction to pursue a PhD in.

If you want specific stories, I am getting a Ph.D. in software engineering from a top-4 school. My research focused on the usability of APIs. I am going to burn the diploma the day I get it as a symbol of how I burned my career. Getting a Ph.D. is a gamble, it may be preferable to play it safe.

Also, it is important to realize that Ph.Ds. are more common than one would expect. This year, for example, Cornell University which is a top-ten school received more than 400 applications for faculty positions. If you imagine that most Ph.Ds. didn't even bother trying to aim that high, it's a scary number. The top schools produce tons of Ph.D.s (hundreds), and they compete against people from lower ranked schools that also do amazing work, etc.

Good post. To you list I would add computer architecture. That can be helpful for people who work at the HW/SW interface: compilers, operating systems etc. - Himadri Choudhury
Added to my list. - Uri
Not sure how it is in US, but in other countries with "security clearance" you may not leave this country. Which for an IT engineer is a terrible thing, since we, jobs and projects are one big international ecosystem and desire to choose jobs and projects wherever we wish. - User
I grew up in Israel and I know quite a few people who worked on top-secret dev jobs and now live in the US. Part of the security screening is to ensure that if you leave Israel you will not be reporting secrets. - Uri
In the US, there are several levels of US government clearance, from simple "secret" to "top secret with polygraph" and I am sure there are other levels. Most defense contractors look for people who are already clearanced at some level or who are eligible for it. - Uri
For example, if you look at the job boards for Washington DC, most Java jobs require a US citizenship. So even if my PhD was relevant, I could not get those jobs. - Uri
[+13] [2009-04-21 02:53:25] ldigas

It's a little longer than usual "comic post", but I'm trying to make a point here. It answers your question to a degree.

alt text alt text alt text alt text And the ten minutes striking up a conversation with that strange kid in homeroom sometimes matters more than every other part of high school combined.

you can't post xkcd comics without the title text - matt b
Without the "title text" ? I think you mean the "alt text". In any case, the title text in this case 's the same as the title text in the picture, so I didn't see the point. And I don't know how to put "alt text" inside a post. - ldigas
(2) Actually, he meant the title text. Check the source. The title text for this comic is "And the ten minutes striking up a conversation with that strange kid in homeroom sometimes matters more than every other part of high school combined." - Brian Campbell
Sorry, my bad. I haven't used html a while now, but I could've swore we used to put that kind of thing in "alt=" field. Anyways, I ment that under "alt text". - ldigas
fixed the image link :) - warren
You got my vote... those comics state the same thing that I was going to say but better. - monksy
The alt text has been interpreted as title text (shown on hover), but it's supposed to only be used as a replacement when the image is absent. Fixed the title in the xkcd comic. Read… - voyager
[+7] [2009-04-21 02:52:05] Martin Peck

I did exactly what you're talking about. I started a PhD because the economy was rubbish when I was about to leave Uni. I stuck with my PhD for about 6 months before it became apparent that I wasn't interested in it. I started the PhD for the wrong reasons and, as such, my heart wasn't in it.

A PhD is not like being an undergrad, and it requires a passion for research both generally and in the specific field that you PhD will touch.

I'd recommend you think very carefully about doing a PhD just because it'll fill some time until the job market is better. It might be better for you to focus on your future career and the skills that it will need - even if you can't land that job right now.

When an employer asks you "Hey! Why did you spend 4 years of your life doing a PhD?" do you really want to say "Because I didn't have anything better to do at the time"?

As for the relevance of a PhD to the computing job market, that pretty much depends upon the jobs you're interested in. I have several friends in IT with PhDs but they didn't get their jobs based upon them, and don't use their research knowledge in their current work. It's just something they did for 4 years because they were interested in it at the time.

[+4] [2009-04-27 16:39:53] Bob Cross [ACCEPTED]

tl;dr: The value of your degrees is what you make of them.

Hitting some of your individual points:

Would you say that they were worth the effort?

Yes but you have to remember that the value of a multi-year degree program might take several years to fully develop. Said another way, you'll have a resume resource that you can use to market yourself to employers, partners or grant agencies but you will still have the problem of coming up with the complete self-marketing plan.

How important is the research topic to future job-seeking success?

It depends. Imagine an optimal employer: is this something that they'd be interested in? If this isn't something that you're imaginary perfect employer would be directly interested in, will you be acquiring associated skills that they would find interesting?

The idea I have is a computer-sciencey/neural-networks/data-mining thing which I think is very interesting, but not a field I want to be in forever.

Fair enough but you should consider several points:

  1. It's highly likely that your initial idea won't be your final dissertation topic. It might be a research project that you work on along the way but you have to remember that the goal is to come up with something truly original. Part of the process is coming up with a good idea, doing the literature search, finding out who already worked on that, reading there work, finding something they ignored / forgot / missed, rinse, lather and repeat.

  2. It's highly likely that your dissertation topic won't be your primary technical area ten years after graduation.

  3. Are you picking up marketable skills or resume bullets? Remember that your future employer might have an HR department filter between you and the technical people that you need to speak to. Writing a C.V. requires a different presentation style than writing a resume (at least in the US).

My potential supervisor claims that employers don't care so much about the topic of the research but rather the peripheral skills that are developed through a PhD; time managment, self-restraint, planning and whatnot.

The ability to work on a large project from start to finish with only minimal supervision certainly counts for a lot.

How does this mesh with people's real world experience? I'd appreciate any advice before signing my life on the line for the next three years.

Some bullets from my life:

  1. Original area of interest: AI. Dissertation area: interactive computer graphics and visualization.

  2. I took six years to go from the end of undergrad to graduation with a doctorate.

  3. There's generally an M.S. degree available near the end of the coursework required for a Ph.D. Check your university requirements but that could be a checkpoint at which you decide that, yes, you want to keep going or no, it's time to try other things.

  4. Financial aid is almost always allocated to Ph.D. students first. Something to think about even if you change your mind later.

  5. Of six employers since graduation, one thought the Ph.D. was a negative (!), three were ambivalent and two thought that it was important. My current employer is in the last group.

The letters after my name are useful (especially in terms of promotability ;-) but the experience gained along the way has the highest daily value.

[+3] [2010-03-08 16:12:59] Kirsten

I've nearly completed my Ph.D. and it's been uphill al the way. I often wished I'd never started. It was a really lonely time, where so many of my days were spend alone, in front of a computer. I hated doing something that almost no one could understand (except my supervisors), not having any colleagues to talk with and most of all, never having any money.

Apart from thinking about your career, you may want to consider if this is something you really want to be doing. Quite a few PhD Students I know felt pretty unhappy most of the time. It may sound like ultimate freedom right now: just you and your research project. Realistically, there will be a time where you will hate that research project.

[+2] [2009-04-21 02:41:51] bigmonachus

I think a PhD takes around 5-6 years, not 3 ;)

And I don't think that having something nice on your resume is enough motivation to pull yourself through the pains of getting it. Most people getting PhD's are doing it because doing research is what they really like to do. A PhD is basically a job with low pay in which you get to work on very interesting things. Maybe a masters is what you're looking for?

-- an opinionated undergraduate

(2) Given the OP's use of "uni", I'd imagine he's from outside the US. In many other places, 3 years is indeed realistic. My impression is that the coursework requirements are drastically less cumbersome. Good answer though. -- a poor graduate student - Matt J
In the dept. I study in in Ontario, 3 years is the expectation. Obviously depends how fast your coursework and research gets finished though. - Dana the Sane
(1) @Dana: In some countries (e.g., Canada, Israel, parts of Europe) it is common to do a research masters for several years and then follow up with a PhD. In the US, it is more common to have direct programs from undergrad. - Uri
Europe: yes, for instance. At ym university, normal (undergrad, as you would call it) is 4-5 years, second after that (not sure what's it called) is another 2-3 years, and then you can write your doctoral thesis. This is minimum time, in average it is about 30-50% longer. - ldigas
I know a LOT of folks who have done their PhD programs straight out of undergrad, and completed in the 2-4 year time frame, with 3 being the most common - warren
Its depending if you have your masters first or not. Its about 2-3 years after obtaining an masters (usually 2 years) - monksy
[+2] [2009-04-21 02:48:08] TStamper

Is to people who've done PhD's. Would you say that they were worth the effort?

I have not went and got my PHD, but I would say that I have known people that have and from my knowledge someone with a PhD in engineering was usually someone that goes into the teaching role. Advance education does help with a job, but I would say experience is more profitable in the long run.

It also depends on what your focus is in on your PHD, if in semiconductors then of course that helps. but if its just for the degree then I would say the experience is more important

Most Ph.Ds. in engineering actually hate teaching and focus on research. Many of them go to research labs where they don't have to teach. Teaching is mostly relevant in humanities. - Uri
Well from someone that has recently left a university, the TA(teaching assitants) that were going for their PhD main plans were to teach - TStamper
[+2] [2009-04-21 02:53:36] Brian Campbell

How A Programmer Reads Your Resume [1]


I think the Ph.D. impact is much greater than a -1 though - Uri
Note that "Has PhD" is -1, while many of the highly positive items are things that can be done while getting a PhD. So, the PhD on its own won't help you much, but if you do interesting work for your PhD, it can help you immensely. - Brian Campbell
broken link.... - awesomo
@awesomo Looks like the original artist moved the comic; I've tracked down the new location and fixed the link now - Brian Campbell
[+2] [2009-04-21 03:01:50] Dr. Watson

If you're interested in working in a specific area, then I think the Ph.D. can be helpful. I've felt very much limited in my industry because I don't have a Ph.D. and the research experience that most private employers want. Neural networks is a very research-oriented area and I think and advanced degree will help in getting a job in this field.

I'd also say that the governments tend to look positively on higher degrees when hiring, even for basic jobs.

If you're just going for a pay check bump and have no idea what type of job you're trying to get one day, then you might want to rethink the investment required for the Ph.D.

What are are you in? - Uri
[+1] [2009-04-21 08:11:58] Keith

A PhD takes 5-7 years - I don't even know what technologies I'll be working in that far away. It's hard to see what will be relevant over that kind of time-frame.

Some of the best developers that I've worked with (and ultimately the highest paid too) have no degree at all. A few of the worst (and most elitist, arrogant and frustrated) have been very highly qualified. These are exceptions, but there are enough of them to disprove any correlation.

There are a couple of specialised fields that I think benefit from the additional learning, but most programming jobs want experience. I've hired lots of developers - I'd be very interested in your PhD, but it would probably be worth less in terms of offered pay than the equivalent (i.e. 5 years) experience.

Look for a vocational topic - one that fits to an existing job. If you can't find a fit now chances are that 5 years down the line you won't be able to either.

Alternatively do something really impressive with your PhD - turn up to an interview with a really impressive and viable application (or even better a successful application that's used by a real community). It's much harder to do, but turn up with a real product like that and the job's almost always yours. You never know, you might come up with the next Backrub [1].

The other option is just pick what you're interested in, and be aware that when you do get a job all this learning will make almost no difference.


in what fields is this the case? - warren
[+1] [2011-01-23 11:08:02] Mr. Zen

How important is the research topic to future job-seeking success?

Research topics are not at all important for the job unless your contribution is really that great (and there's a market for it). There are plenty of transferable skills you gain from a PhD. In my case, the biggest one was I learned to "think". A researcher can generally switch to a new area, pick up the information quickly enough, and do the things better than the practicing professionals in that area in terms of innovation. A lot of great information does not lie in the books - and research does teach you some ways to produce "verifiable, measurable and significant improvements".

Even when you apply for a research job, it will almost always be in a different field than your thesis.