PhD in Computer Science: Advantages and Disadvantages

From Tracy Chou’s answer via Quora:

Advantages

career opportunities

  • A Computer Science Ph.D gives you a huge advantage for industry research labs, like Google Research. On occasion such labs accept people who only have master’s degrees, but this is extremely rare. A CS PhD also gives you an advantage for some quantitative finance positions, assuming your PhD is mathematical and algorithmic in nature.
  • For some companies (typically larger ones), having a CS PhD counts towards your starting rank. For example, Microsoft has levels to track your career trajectory within the company, starting at 59 for new grads and going up with promotions. With a PhD, you start a couple levels up. Additionally, some of the more prestigious director or VP roles are reserved for people who have PhDs, especially if they are to oversee very technical areas.
  • If you get very, very lucky, you can start a company to commercialize your research in a field with a high barrier to entry because of the technical depth.

personal growth and enjoyment

  • You pick up research and critical thinking skills. You learn to think independently (unless you’re in an intense lab structure where your adviser or post-docs dictate your research, but that seems very uncommon). You learn how to break down problems, and set about seeking to solve them.
  • You learn to be self-motivated, because a PhD program is so free-form that you’ll have to set your own schedule and deadlines.
  • You get to spend a few years thinking deeply about a problem that you’re interested in (some might call this intellectual masturbation), without the pressure of a boss who needs something for a product deadline or a company that needs to hit revenue targets or other such external constraints.

Disadvantages

financial cost

career opportunities

  • Once you finish your PhD, you’re over-qualified for most CS jobs in industry. Most coding jobs don’t require more than a Bachelor of Science — even undergraduate interns can do a fine job — so with a PhD you’re way over-qualified. This means that you’re probably not worth the extra salary that you’ll likely want, to defray the opportunity cost of being in school for so many years.
  • Many companies will view you as out of touch with industry, since you’ve been in the academic mindset for the last few years, so you may be passed over for job opportunities.
  • You are likely to be pigeonholed in your research area. After all, if you’ve got a PhD in something, that’s what you’re most useful for. It will be difficult to switch into areas that don’t directly relate to your research.
  • Tying together some of the points above, most startups won’t be interested in you because you’ll be too expensive to hire and your focus area too narrow. In general, you’ll have a harder time finding a job because you’re looking for a really specific match for your skillsets.

personal considerations

  • It’s an investment of 4-7 years. If you start soon after you finish undergrad, you’ll be in your late 20’s by the time you’re done. For a woman, that’s well into your childbearing years (though I suppose you can start a family in graduate school as well). For a man, well, you don’t have to worry about your biological clock, but you’re still getting old.
  • If you get bored or discouraged halfway through the PhD, you’re in a sticky situation. You have to deal with the difficult decision of cutting your losses versus sinking another few years of your life into something you’re no longer passionate about. It’s very difficult to switch advisers or research areas, so don’t count on having much flexibility once you’re a few years into the program.

* This is all assuming that you are not interested in academia for your career (if you were, you need to do the PhD so considering advantages and disadvantages seems to be a moot point).

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