To PhD or not to PhD?
I’m currently between programming jobs, having been laid off from my last job with a good severance package, healthy savings, and a spouse with a high paying job. I haven’t yet started job hunting and instead have been focusing on getting a masters degree part-time in a program related to artificial intelligence and I’ve been working as a TA for the program. I have enjoyed the TAing.
I have been thinking off and on throughout my career about switching from industry to a PhD program. What things should I consider to help me make this decision?
My area of interest is Computational Linguistics. If I go for a PhD, should I apply to CS or Linguistics departments? Should I apply broadly across the US or stick with the local program here (given I own a house and have a dual-body problem and the local program, though not a top 5 in my field, is decent)?
Should I take an industry job in this subfield prior to applying for a PhD or should I apply for a PhD first? I love tech jobs, but I’m tired of being a generalist.
Our answer for the first, “should I get a phd” question is similar to our answer for the accountant who wrote in with the same question, with one important exception. Salaries for accounting phds are higher than for those of accountants. Salaries of CS PhDs are not that different than salaries of highly skilled programmers without a degree. The main difference in our experience is in levels of specialization. (Note: this is based more on personal experience than on hard data, but there are also a lot of not so great and poorly paid programmers who would be unlikely to get a PhD. I don’t think anything has been done looking at wages controlling for underlying ability.) So yes, there’s still demand for CS professors, but there’s also demand for CS PhDs in industry and for programmers without degrees as well. (My DH with the PhD makes a little less than #2’s DH who dropped out of college to become a programmer. They both make very nice salaries.)
As with the accountant, we recommend that you work as a research assistant if you can. This will probably be an enormous paycut from your last industry job, but it will give you a feel for the kind of work that PhDs do.
This paragraph is also still true, but replace “accounting” with “computer science”:
Even with an accounting degree, you get very little choice about where you move to after you’re done. We’re living in places we wouldn’t choose if it weren’t for the job. There’s a limited number of professor jobs in any discipline each year and you have to have a certain amount of flexibility. If you absolutely have to live in a specific city, it’s unlikely you’ll get a TT job there. It’s possible, but not likely. If you are location dependent, see what kind of jobs you can get with a PhD in accounting in industry and/or government (depending on the location).
which means lots of heart-to-heart talks with the other half of your two-body problem and you’ll have to consider selling/renting your house.
Also you will want to check how long it takes to get a CS PhD, especially given your masters work. How many years are classes, how long do people generally take to finish the research portion? And so on.
My general impression is that if you’re doing computational linguistics, you’re better off getting the CS degree (or one of the funky specific degrees you can get from places like MIT) than the linguistics degree for the same reason that people who do economic history are better off doing economics than history. The baseline of what you can do with the econ/CS is just so much higher than the baseline for history/linguistics that it’s better to go with the former even if you end up doing the same work with either label. I could be totally wrong about this, so definitely talk with professors at these programs and look into job placement for people in the programs you’re considering. But, I do have a friend who dropped out of a linguistics PhD program because she realized someone would have to die in order for her to find a job opening.
If you want to go the academic route, then you would most likely want to apply broadly and, if possible, to go to MIT or Stanford or another top school in your area because that will give you more options later. People at MIT are more likely to actually finish the PhD and go into academia (people at Stanford are more likely to drop out and do a startup and get really rich). Stanford has better weather along with a higher cost of living. The major problem with academia is that unless you are extremely good or extremely lucky it is very difficult to choose where you want to live with an academic job. For industry, the local program is probably fine.
My husband prefers the work he does that requires a PhD to what the people in the same company/field without the advanced degree do. Even in the tech industry the PhD does seem to be a gateway into less generalist work. It sounds like you find that rewarding, which suggests that even if you do go into industry the PhD would not be wasted time.
Grumpy Nation, what advice do you have for To PhD or Not?