Ask the grumpies: Should I get a phd? And if so, should I do it in CS or linguistics?

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?


29 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Should I get a phd? And if so, should I do it in CS or linguistics?”

  1. Hypatia Cade Says:

    I work in an allied field (not ling, but close enough to know what’s up) For linguistics ABSOLUTELY go to the best school you can find because it’s really hard to get academic jobs in linguistics and without coming from a top school/well known advisor it will be exceptionally more difficult. Computational linguistics is hot. It’s not clear to me if a CS person fresh out could get hired in a linguistics department without a strong track record of publications in linguistics. Computational linguistics is also hot in industry though and not sure how much people care about pedigree there. So I think the decision between CS and ling sort of also depends on your ultimate goal.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Could a CS person could get hired in a CS department? Or do only linguistics department hire in computational linguistics?

      • Hypatia Cade Says:

        I think a CS person could get hired in a CS dept. But not sure if a Ling person could get hired in a CS dept….(I’m not in a field allied w/ CS….)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        looking online, it looks like the average salaries for assistant professors in linguistics in 2013 ranges from 60-80K. I’m not immediately finding surveys of CS phds in academia.

      • Hypatia Cade Says:

        I think a lot of folks with linguistics degrees end up adjuncting forever.

      • Question Asker Says:

        Sort of like bioinformatics (which is CS/biology allied), there is a CS research area for this (usually called Natural Language Processing) and a Linguistics research area for this (usually called Computational Linguistics). People on both sides go to the same conferences.

  2. Taylor Lee @ Yuppie Millennial Says:

    Do the PhD! More opportunities to work in company research labs and work independently if you decide not to do academia. Regarding linguistics vs. compsci, I expect that matters less than making sure you end up with a PI doing the thing you want to do later. Maybe reach out to PI’s whose groups you want to work in and ask whether they take students from either route? But all other things being equal, I’d say go CS over linguistics.

  3. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    My husband has a Ph.D. In CS and works in industry. His experience, FWIW, is that people doing the hiring are often suspicious of Ph.D.s and need a lot of convincing that he can do the work in a timely manner rather than taking too long to study the problem and then putting in unnecessary bells and whistles. He’s not in the linguistics side of things, so YMMV.

    • Question Asker Says:

      That’s been my experience on the industry hiring side as well. I know a fair number of PhDs who are in generalist programming roles that have nothing to do with their PhD specialty. There are companies that value PhDs and ones that don’t and you have to be careful where you apply. If I apply to PhD programs, I would like to have a goal of going into academia because otherwise it seems to make more sense to look for a specialized industry job after the MS.

  4. Chelsea Says:

    My DH has a PhD in computer science and is a professor at a SLAC. He makes a good salary but quite a bit less than he’d make in some industry jobs. On the other hand, the place we live has a much lower cost of living than – say – Manhattan or the Bay Area – so we may well be better off financially as we are. The academic job search is also very tough. He probably applied for at least 50 jobs all across the US and Canada, did 20 phone interviews, went on at least 5 campus visits, and considered 3 offers before settling on the place he’s at. I also agree that you should go to the best grad school you possible can. DH went to a top-10 but not top-5 program and I do think that it probably limited some of his employment options (ie he was probably never going to be in the running for a position at Williams).

    One thing that you didn’t mention was thoughts about kids, but I’d throw out there that in my opinion, grad school can be a really GOOD time to have kids (if that’s at all a consideration). My oldest was born while my DH was a student and we had awesome, cheap health insurance through him (as a TA/RA), were eligible for grants for childcare, and after he was finished with his classes, DH had a very flexible schedule.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      … in econ that would be considered a really good job search

    • Jenny F. Scientist Says:

      Spouse and I went to a top-five ivy which had no childcare, no childcare grants, and, at the time, no health insurance for families. Childcare would have been my entire gross salary. Nobody had children because nobody had work life balance. So where you are makes a huge difference. Spouse did a postdoc at a Midwestern R1 and all the grad students had kids because COL was relatively low.

  5. Katherine Says:

    I just finished a math PhD. My advice is to consider carefully how badly you want the PhD, and realize that even if you love your research and your teaching, getting a PhD is a long, often unpleasant, poorly paid slog and usually involves putting up with a lot of patriarchal non-sense. I had a fantastic and supportive advisor in a department that is known for being progressive, but progressive in a white-male-dominated field like math or CS is highly relative. My impression (not from personal experience) is that the highly prestigious departments that can improve your career prospects are often even more patriarchal than the average department.

    I’m glad I stuck it out and finished my PhD, and I can’t imagine that my life would be better if I hadn’t started grad school or hadn’t finished. However, I’ve also wished a little bit that some other non-grad-school-requiring career path had appealed to me as much as academia does.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Gender composition of the current students is definitely something to look into. The top program in economics is also the best program for women, so at least in my field it isn’t a direct relationship in terms of patriarchy and prestige.

    • Question Asker Says:

      I’m curious what steps you took to know that academia appealed to you. I never had exposure to it in undergrad, so I have not much idea of where to start here other than what nicoleandmaggie have been very helpful in suggesting.

      • Katherine Says:

        I did a math REU program (Research Experience for Undergraduates) the summer before my senior year of college. Before that, I knew I loved abstract math but didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career – I knew I didn’t want to work in something CS-related or do applied math. I had a fantastic REU mentor, and my REU was at an elite SLAC, so I got to see an institution that wasn’t like the ivy where I went for undergrad.

        I’m now in my first year on the tenure track at a small SLAC. My current institution is similar to the place where I did my REU in a lot of ways (although less elite) – I knew that I wanted a place with a similar feel, and I was really, really happy when my job search ended with an offer from this school.

      • Question Asker Says:

        Thanks Katherine – that helps a lot!

  6. j Says:

    I’m in an allied area (psycholinguistics) and given the dearth of academic jobs in linguistics, and the kinds of academic work that counts in many CS departments, I’d stay far away from a linguistics (even a compling) PhD. I think the transfer to industry is easier for CS people (my former collaborator was an NLP CS prof who moved to industry) than for compling people in linguistics.

  7. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    I have a CS PhD and my wife was a linguistics grad student for a few years. A CS PhD is much more marketable than a Linguistics PhD, and they are equally good for getting computational linguistics research positions. Of course, the extra marketability comes from outside computational linguistics, so if your interests are strictly linguistic, there is no real advantage to the CS PhD.

    Well, that not quite true either—at the UCSC the CS faculty are on the “Engineering and Business Scale” which pays a bit more than for other faculty. But that depends on the department hiring, not on the title on the degree. A CS department is more likely to hire a CS degree and a Linguistics Department is more likely to hire a linguistics degree—because of the need to teach outside the narrow field of computational linguistics.

    There is a lot of industry interest in natural language processing now, and companies like Google and Apple are hiring PhDs to try to solve some really difficult problems. Improving programs like “Siri” are big-ticket items for them. Even undergrads at UCSC are involved:

    • Question Asker Says:

      Thanks! It sounds like I could probably find a NLP related industry position with the Masters and the PhD isn’t really necessary, but I think a CS PhD would be more marketable than a Linguistics one. Unfortunately my MS program is in the Linguistics department, so if I were to pursue a CS PhD later, I would likely still have to do the CS grad coursework. The two body problem is hard too because my partner has a high paying job where we are that they like and wouldn’t necessarily find one somewhere else.

      • Matthew Healy Says:

        PS: if you do a PhD in CS with a text mining component, then you would stand a good chance of solving the two-body problem by hanging out a virtual shingle as a text mining consultant.

  8. Matthew Healy Says:

    Speaking as one with industrial R&D experience, I would say the person with an interest in Computational Linguistics should certainly do that PhD in a C.S. Department and not a Linguistics Department. And also, while doing that Computational Linguistics PhD, get plenty of data-mining experience, because then if you can’t get a tenure track post you can sell yourself to industry as a Text Mining expert. So find a good project in computational linguistics that includes mining a large corpus and doing lots of statistical analyses. Make sure you learn R, and Python, and whatever the next fashionable programming language in the data science world turns out to be.

  9. Hayley Says:

    Committing to a PhD is not a decision to take halfheartedly! I have just submitted my thesis and am awaiting my viva and my God it’s been a hell of a journey! I’ve summarised the top 5 reasons for and against doing a PhD based on my experience here- Great post by the way-very helpful for anyone just starting out!

  10. sociolinguini Says:

    Personally, I can’t think of anything more rewarding and pleasant than spending 3-4 year studying, reading, discussing lings with great minds, teaching a bit.. I’d say go for the PhD, especially if finances are not that pressing, i.e., you could study full time and really enjoy it. :)

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