Getting a Ph.D. for the money?

Many of my Ph.D. students have admitted to being motivated by financial gain. Stanford is famous for their graduate-students-turned-entrepreneurs. Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google fame come to mind. But I cannot yet point to a comparable success story. Still, I have seen several variations over the years:

  • Some students believe that having Ph.D. on their business card will earn them higher salaries.
  • Others believe that a Ph.D. is an ideal setting to come up with commercially-viable technology.

These approaches appear to violate Dijkstra’s second rule:

We all like our work to be socially relevant and scientifically sound. If we can find a topic satisfying both desires, we are lucky; if the two targets are in conflict with each other, let the requirement of scientific soundness prevail.

I have my own related experience. Shortly after getting my Ph.D., in the middle of a post-doctoral fellowship, I decided to run off and start a company with friends. My business plan was simple: I setup a web site where I said that I would do research for money. No ad, no networking, no product, no gimmick. Incredibly, people would call me with job offers. I did well in the sense that I never worried about money. (See this TV interview about some of my crazy industry work, in French.) I also learned much. My experience has helped me become a better researcher. Indeed, I have become very critical of published research. But I was never able to reconcile the pursuit of knowledge with commercial interests. I did a lot of crazy mathematics, programming, but I never had enough time to think deeply about any one issue.  And, as it turns out, I don’t love money nearly as much as I love knowledge.

Thus, I tell my students that they should be in it for the pursuit of knowledge. Some get upset. Others appear to ignore me. A few leave.

To sum up my opinion: if your goal is to become a highly-paid consultant or an engineer, the Ph.D. is an overkill.

What do you think?

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

13 thoughts on “Getting a Ph.D. for the money?”

  1. My PhD hasn’t really helped me make money but it does bring me some credibility. I expect, though, that if you can defend a thesis for a PhD it is those skills that could lead to you making money. The PhD won’t do much on it’s own.

  2. I’m certainly not in it for the money. If I were, I’d have gone and found another software job instead of going to grad school.

    Back to the point, I think that people who create successful startups have a good and (more importantly) marketable idea. It doesn’t take a PhD for that.

    Consider Dropbox, for example. It’s just version control for non-developers. But it was certainly marketed the right way.

  3. The real cost of the PhD is the opportunity cost of 6 years. The difference in salary for a software engineer is roughly $250k in income. Or the startup opportunities not pursued.

    When I was at IBM master’s degrees were a dime a dozen. The best technical people I knew had PhDs. They influenced my decision to pursue one.

  4. My PhD made it harder to find a job when I left academia. People were “impressed” but they weren’t offering me a job. The assumption seemed to be that having a PhD meant that you were probably a terrible programmer. (I’ve seen anecdotal evidence to support this prejudice, though I’ve also known some PhDs who were top notch programmers.)

    I got my PhD because I wanted to learn a lot of math and because I wanted to teach college. I’m very glad I went to grad school, but I didn’t do it to maximize my income.

    A PhD may pay for itself financially, though it would take a few years since as Jeff pointed out there is a large up-front opportunity cost.

  5. I suspect that few people optimize their lifetime income by investing several years in a computer science PhD. But I can say from personal experience that the PhD opens doors. I suspect it would have been a lot harder for me to get where I am without it.

  6. I think in many situations (i.e. getting a job as a programmer), having a Ph.D. will indeed be overkill, and sometimes even a disadvantage. From a manager’s perspective, I would rather hire a bachelor who was passionate about programming than a Ph.D. who wasn’t, even if the Ph.D. candidate was “smarter”.

    As for entrepreneurs, I think good ideas, creativity and persistence are far more important than formal education when it comes to success in business.

    If people are getting a Ph.D. because they love research, I think that’s awesome. If they are doing it do get a well-paid job, I think that’s just a waste of time and they would be better off spending their time doing something they enjoy instead.

  7. Let me add to what John said that even though you have done a lot of programming in your PhD study, it is still mostly considered to be ‘useless programming’ skills for the Industry, because from the ‘company’ perspective, programming for research has nothing to do with the ‘programming’ that they want you to have. For example, being a heavy Matlab or R programmer has nothing to do with being a valuable skillful web developer, to a level that you cannot even stand in front of those Java EE or Rails geeks who haven’t even got any academic certificates!

  8. I was never in it for the money. That said, I must acknowledge that my company paid for my Ph.D. I’m certain I would have done it on my own though, whether digging myself into a financial hole or not.

  9. It is worth noting that there are some quite interesting positions you simply cannot get without a PhD (e.g. in academia or research labs). Even if it does not mean a higher salary, the PhD opens doors that might be otherwise closed.

  10. I do not think that PhD has much financial sense. Instead of spending 3-4 years doing research , one might start his career in a big company and advance pretty fast. IF you do the same amount of work as required for a good PhD (= say research enough to produce 3-5 publications at the top conferences or journals, teaching assistance, PC membership and reviewing etc ), then it is more than enough to get a pretty high seniorship in any company. So PhD is not the best way to get money or start career.
    But in this 3-4 years, one can learn really a lot and do HIS OWN research , investigate topics he is interest din instead of doing some assigned projects
    One go to conferences and LEARNS a lot
    This is the most important

  11. Hi daniel, I have been reading your article for a long time. You are writing very interesting article and it drags my attension read it and i also have given my comment on some of your articles.

    This topic impressed me because people often relate education with money. i think it is because of commercialization in education. now a days, colleges are charging more. so, students also started thinking about money when they start their studies.

    I strongly believe in knowledge. the divine is what did i achieve in my research? it is not that how much will i earn?
    correct me if i am wrong.

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