Should you get a PhD?

Most people like to learn, some like it more than others… and they decide to focus their life on learning. They become scholars. I think it is a mistake to pursue a Ph.D. for its own sake but it is not a mistake to pursue scholarship.

In the good old days, people received a Ph.D. as a recognition of their status as a scholar. To industrialize and normalize the process, but the Ph.D. is just a badge or a signal, not what makes a scholar.

The Ph.D. represents, or at least represented, a core badge of honor for a scholar. Veblen, in the theory of the leisure class, argued that we are not driven by utility, but rather by social status. Thus many people to pursue a Ph.D. for status. We must not exaggerate this prestige however. Going to a bar and telling girls or boys that you have a Ph.D. won’t improve your odds. And there are deeper issues:

  • The Ph.D. effectively delays your entry in the real world by 5 years, give or take. You will learn a lot, but you learn a lot in the real world too. Such a delay in your life may soon look a bit more like a temporary escape from reality. It is an easy way out.
  • Since the seventies, but more acutely since the eighties, and partially by design, there has been a glut of Ph.D.s. This means that once you get your Ph.D., you will be in a sea of other Ph.D.s, with relatively few desirable jobs, and even fewer desirable jobs where you would want to work. Increasingly, foreign countries like China are awarding reputable Ph.D.s as well, so the glut is not going away. Why do I say that it is by design? Because instead of letting the market regulates the number of people going for a Ph.D., governments are working hard to entice more young people to go for the Ph.D. (despite the poor job market) by awarding scholarships or other support. Hence, unlike accountants or M.D.s, your Ph.D. does not grant you an exclusive access to a lucrative job category. Rather, you enter an overcrowded market. (There are exceptions. But do not go on instinct.)
  • Getting a Ph.D. is typically not a huge accomplishment if you are smart. It has more to do with proving you can conform than anything else. This explains why there is a glut and why the “prestige” associated with the Ph.D. is relatively fragile. That’s why we ended with books like Getting a Ph.D. is not enough. The Ph.D. is more like an initial badge: it only looks like a big deal when you don’t have one.
  • To derive any financial benefit from a Ph.D., you must join a large organization. This means that to be a “true” Ph.D., you have to become a bureaucrat. A professor at a research institution might spend 30% of his time seeking funding. Forget about spending your time daydreaming about great ideas: you will be filling forms, networking, attending meetings, and so on. Oh! You might be a prestigious bureaucrat, but that’s what you’ll be nevertheless, a bureaucrat. You might think that you’ll be free, but this freedom is narrow. To get funded, you must play the game. It used to be that one in a thousand researchers was as prolific as Einstein: we now have a few Einsteins per department. It is not that people have been getting smarter, is that they game the system by publishing and citing work entirely as a pursuit of prestige. And that is if you are successful: if you fail to secure a research position, you may end up going from post-doc to post-doc until you settle on a regular position that you could have gotten without the Ph.D.
  • To continue deriving prestige from your Ph.D., you should stay away from utilitarian work. The problem is that working on real problems makes you smart. The German philosopher Heidegger famously made this point with a hammer. To paraphrase him, it is not by staring at a hammer that we learn about hammers. I have spent most of my adult life around Ph.D.s, and they aren’t very smart on average. At best, they are focused. Many of them have culture. But they aren’t smart on what matters, they are just experts at an academic game.

My practical recommendations:

  • If you are young and smart, and you want to be a scholar, and must pursue a Ph.D., at least make sure to select one of the few forgotten fields where there is no glut of Ph.D.s. Be warned that there are fewer such fields than you think.
  • In all likelihood, even if you want to be a scholar, you are better off finding a good job of some sort even if it is not what you dream about and spending some time on your research. Initially, you won’t be able to spend as much time on your scholarship as you want. But over time, after a decade or two, you might earn the freedom to spend more and more time on it. You may even get paid for it eventually. Lots of people with regular jobs write books and articles. Eventually, they acquire as much and more prestige than people who went the “Ph.D. way”. Whatever prestige you acquire will be due to your contributions, not some game you played. It will keep you honest.

    Some people will argue that without a PhD, or a formal research position, you cannot realistically be a scholar. What they mean is that you will not be able to pursue the academic game without such positions. But there are plenty of very successful scholars outside of this scope. In computer science, we have people like C. J. Date or J. M. Bach who made lasting contributions to their respective fields without any help from academia.

Source: This post is an edited version of an answer I gave on Quora.

Further reading: Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar

Published by

Daniel Lemire

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

37 thoughts on “Should you get a PhD?”

  1. @David

    According to the link you offer, the best paid PhDs graduated in economics and business administration. This tells you that these are maybe good choices.

    There are lots of good jobs for PhDs in engineering, computer science and health sciences, but because of how the funding is organized, there is much competition for these jobs.

    Relatively speaking, if you have a PhD in accounting or marketing, you are less likely to face high competition for new openings. This means that you may be able to negotiate better conditions, better salaries…

    I think that anyone serious about doing a PhD should dig out the statistics and review them.

  2. Oh, this is very likely to be wrong about PhD in economics. There is such a glut in this field (at least in US) so that PhD became a professional degree, i.e., it plays a role the masters. Yes, many employers would prefer to hire a PhD (or a masters with a lot of experience, which you can’t get nowadays because nobody would hire you without a PhD). And you certainly don’t want to get a PhD just to get a regular job. Which is worse, just PhD won’t be good enough. Ivy League school or something with a good name is pretty much required if you want to get offers after graduation.

  3. Getting a PhD just because of the prestige is, of course, naive, to put it mildly. However, becoming a scholar completely outside of the established academic environment, is not realistic either. It is possible, but it is very hard. One obvious reason is that one simply needs to learn a lot.

    And by learning I certainly don’t mean these “technologies” that large companies cook every other year and which came into oblivion about as quickly. So, at least from a programmer’s perspective, working on “real” things doesn’t give you much knowledge.

    To be a scholar, one needs to get into a researchy-like workplace. But, alas, a researchy-like workplace would not hire you, unless you have an established research record. Simply speaking, you need to publish, be cited, and so on so forth… Anybody who wants to get a good publication record in their free evening/night time after learning another version of *sic…. good luck with that. Hope it won’t take you a hundred years 🙂

  4. @Leonid Boytsov

    Anybody who wants to get a good publication record in their free evening/night time

    I think you misunderstand what I mean by “scholar”. I don’t mean someone who plays the academic game outside of academia.

    I mean someone like C. J. Date, say. Almost anyone who knows a little bit about databases knows of Date’s work. Most have read him. How many papers did Date publish? Who cares!

  5. @Leonid

    J. M. Bach doesn’t even have a high school degree as far as I know, and he wrote one of the most influential books on software testing.

    I could keep on going. Many of the open source leaders are scholar.

    Of course, if you define “scholar” as whoever works on campus or has “researcher” as his title… well…

    No. A scholar is a specialist of a given domain… a recognized expert. Someone who has dedicated his life to learning and teaching.

    You would hope that all professors are scholars… though I don’t think that’s true… but not all scholars are professors, that’s for sure.

  6. @Daniel, this can be a fine religious discussion regarding what is the distinction between scholarship and engineering. Clearly, we cannot give a satisfactory definition. Some people would call most of the applied computer science merely engineering and some would call most of the applied programming as scholarship. And, indeed, it is not possible to draw the line.

    Despite this fuzziness in definition, I believe that it is possible sometimes to become a scholar without even formal education. Yet, these cases are rather anecdotal. En mass production of scholars requires a lot of education. How much education? Depends on the person and the “depth” of the field.

    So, claiming that we should drop out of (the high or higher school) to do “real” things and write books, mostly send a wrong signal. Want to become another Linus, Dijkstra, or Date? Build your career off some semi-famous open-source project? Good luck with that, success cases are rare. Most people who follow this path, probably, end up without anything tangible achieved.

    At the same time, a PhD is about getting to the frontier. In the early days of computer science, it was somewhat easier to get to the frontier. I would argue that it is much harder now. This is a tremendous effort and it requires a lot of focus and a lot of education.

  7. @Leonid Boytsov

    1) “And, indeed, it is not possible to draw the line.”

    I think you can be a scholar in any domain. All that is required is that there is sufficient intellectual depth to justify in-depth inquiry.

    If you know enough about a topic to write a book about it, to teach week-long classes… then chances are good that you are on your way to be a scholar.

    Will you be given this title by others? Well, that’s a different story. But why should you care?

    2) Obviously, becoming a scholar requires a lot of work, a lot of focus. But education is not schooling and schooling is not education.

    3) “Want to become another Linus, Dijkstra, or Date? Build your career off some semi-famous open-source project? Good luck with that (…)”

    That is not my recommendation. Rather, I recommend that you get a good job and spend some of your time deliberately learning and studying.

  8. > is sufficient intellectual depth to justify in-depth inquiry.

    @Daniel, I still think that we cannot reliably fathom an intellectual depth 🙂

    > If you know enough about a topic to write a book about it, to teach week-long classes… then chances are good that you are on your way to be a scholar.

    What about books written by ego-maniacs? 🙂 There are plenty of examples, especially now, when it is easier to publish a book.

  9. Professor
    Let us say we want a PhD because we want to make or atleast try to make a lasting contribution to the field — is that not a worthy goal ? Can this be achieved without getting a PhD ? That is, let’s say I am working on a normal full time software engineering job. How easy is it to publish or get noticed in the research community without a PhD ?

  10. @Kumar

    A PhD does not equate a “lasting contribution to the field”.

    Moreover, if you want to contribute to software engineering… say… you might be better off doing so as a software engineer.

    That’s what Matt Welsh, a Harvard professor thought… so he left Harvard for an industry job. He is not alone.

    Publishing papers is very nice, but it is not clear that the average research paper has any impact.

  11. @Leonid

    I don’t think you need a PhD to write outstanding papers.

    In the process of getting a PhD you might get some training in how to write papers… but PhD programs don’t teach you to write outstanding papers… they only train you in the basics of the academic standards…

    As for peer review…

    “Not only does the mechanism of peer review fail to protect us from disasters, in a certain way it guarantees mediocrity: the genius has no peer. And to make matters worse, his publication record does not reflect his work either. At the time it is done, truly original work—which, in the scientific establishment, is as welcome as unwanted baby—is very hard to publish (…)” (Dijkstra)

  12. OK. What is a good way to get going on doing impact-ful research in privacy ? it, being the hot topic today ? Apart from reading what the top thinkers in the field say through their papers, blogs etc.., can i just email a carefully written idea/implementation after ofcourse sufficient research and expect to get a response, without applying to work with the Professor(s) ?

  13. @Daniel, I am pretty sure it does not work this way. Many people won’t work with you if you send an e-mail. I know, I tried.

    Furthermore, many computer scientists would look upon you and think “he is just a person who writes code”. Remember, we recently observed this kinda of attitudes in the comments of your blog.

    As your reputation grows, more and more people would want to work with you. At the same time, science is very much about collaboration, which won’t start until you get some reputation points. There are anecdotal exception from this rule (as usual), but they are rather rare.

    A PhD is a bootstrapping effort aimed to solve this chicken-and-egg problem.

  14. Very insightful post, I am finishing up my masters in CS and I would like to continue on to get a PhD. Reading this certainly made me think!

  15. @Leonid

    Many people won’t work with you if you send an e-mail. I know, I tried.

    That’s true, even if you have a PhD. I know, I tried.

    Are you implying that when you reached out to others by email, they turned you down because you did not have a PhD? How did they know?

    Isn’t it more likely that 99.9% of these sort of emails never get a positive answer because… because people are busy.

    As your reputation grows, more and more people would want to work with you. At the same time, science is very much about collaboration, which won’t start until you get some reputation points.

    That’s true, whether you have a PhD or not.

    A PhD is a bootstrapping effort aimed to solve this chicken-and-egg problem.

    I don’t think I have ever asked “yes, interesting, but do you have a PhD?” Are you saying that I am odd in this respect?

    What is definitively true is that the PhD can open doors to some job categories that are difficult to apply for without a PhD… and having a good job can make collaborations easier… now, if that’s what you mean, then I agree…

    But if you mean that the mere fact that you have a PhD makes you a compelling collaborator… then I think you put too much weight in the PhD.

  16. @Daniel, I think that you are missing my point. It is not a PhD that makes you a desirable collaborator. It is an experience that you potentially can get. An advisor, professors, and students in your school will work with you even if you have not done anything interesting, yet. This is not true for the remaining world.

    And, yes, PhD opens some doors, because a lot of HR departments (that hire people to do research) won’t even consider anyone without a decent PhD. That is this is a crucial screening criterion.

  17. @Leonid

    It is an experience that you potentially can get. An advisor, professors, and students in your school will work with you even if you have not done anything interesting, yet.

    If you want to build an academic reputation, entering academia through a PhD program is the only choice…

  18. @Leonid

    I’ve got a bachelors in CS and consider myself a scholar. I read many research papers. Much like non-star academics I take my lead from the general direction of my field (NLP), and then do smaller novel research while applying it. I spend a lot of time doing ‘grunt’ programming and talking with customers, but probably less than an academic spends obtaining grants.

    I got the gig by interning in college with a small startup and sticking with them. There’s a number of industries built around translating academic research into business applications.

    Looking around at my peers, I was lucky to get the opportunity and talented enough to run with it.

    Just like a tiny fraction of academics achieve any fame, a tiny fraction of us everyday scholars leave any easily visible achievements. But we are out there 😉

  19. @Paul, oooh, I guess successful startups are even rarer than tenure track positions 🙂 And only a handful of them require scholars.

    I suggest we settle on that a PhD is desirable (though it is not a must of course) for an academic reputation.

  20. @Daniel

    Oddly, it helped in this case, although I wouldn’t generalize from the experience. There are two PhD’s at the company with industry experience. They became the core of the services department, because the company was poor and bootstrapped and they could command a much higher fee then me as contractors. So I got the chance to do the new development because I lacked a PhD.

    I wouldn’t say I feel handicapped, I feel more like I’m in a PhD program now. I’m continuing to learn how to read research efficiently, how to design experiments, how to not lose track of results, how to collaborate, etc. on the fly. A PhD program would probably have made that process easier, but I would never swap this opportunity for a degree. I’ll find out if the lack of PhD is a handicap when I try to find another research position after this one 🙂


    Lol, Agreed that this path isn’t exactly high volume either. And agreed that academic reputation is more a PhD thing. I guess my point is that if you don’t care about the reputation there are a surprising number of scholarly opportunities out there. Even if you’re working on a vanilla e-commerce site, you can look into cutting edge recommender systems, or do interesting analysis of churn rates, or what have you.

  21. @Daniel, I don’t know where this “above all else” come from. There is no academic vs real projects dichotomy in the real life. Many real-life projects are screwed up big way (see Dilbert!) and many academic projects are very useful.

    Some people, e.g., Matt Welsh make stronger claims by saying that “academic research is incredibly important, and forms the basis for much of what happens in industry”.

    The society is becoming increasingly bureaucratic. If you want a research position, you pretty much need a PhD. There are some happy exceptions, but they are rather rare. Hopefully, this will all change one day and we will have better ways to measure merits and scholarship.

  22. @Leonid

    The society is becoming increasingly bureaucratic.

    If you want to have fun, stay away from bureaucracy.

    Matt Welsh make stronger claims by saying that “academic research is incredibly important, and forms the basis for much of what happens in industry”.

    That wasn’t Matt’s message, this was his preamble where he merely stated the obvious… here is what he was getting at:

    I also admire the professors who flourish in an academic setting (…) I never found most of those things very satisfying (…)

  23. @Leonid

    And let me keep on quoting from Matt:

    The cynical view is that as an academic systems researcher, the very best possible outcome for your research is that someone at Google or Microsoft or Facebook reads one of your papers, gets inspired by it, and implements something like it internally. Chances are they will have to change your idea drastically to get it to actually work, and you’ll never hear about it. And of course the amount of overhead and red tape (grant proposals, teaching, committee work, etc.) you have to do apart from the interesting technical work severely limits your ability to actually get to that point.

    I agree with him. To me, as an academic, the very best outcome is that someone at a cool company will decide to use my work. And my job does not make this easy.

  24. Hi Daniel,

    Freeman Dyson is another example of a successful scholar without PhD:

    I read ‘Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar’ a while ago at your recommendation. I felt like I understood a a lot of what Bach was feeling, but I didn’t really like the book as a whole. I think the base issue for me is that the ‘buccaneer’ approach is the epitome of zero-sum. The whole thing seems very close to achieving success by dividing the world into us-and-them and then plundering the ‘them’.

    I liked your other recommendation of Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft” better: I’d read the original article when it came out ( but hadn’t seen the full book. Thanks! I still don’t have a clue how to apply any of the lessons to my own life, but it was a good read.

  25. @Nathan Kurz

    I also liked Matthew Crawford’s book more than just about any other book I have read in the last 5 years. What this book did for me… It made me happier. Consider… I love writing code, I hate writing funding proposals. I like working through problems with students, I hate faculty meetings. This book allowed me to better understand this tension.

    I am not going to open a bike shop, but I learned to build my own furniture after reading this book.

    As for Bach… I did not get as much from his book… but I think that he is certainly a valuable example.

    I did not get the impression that Bach was arguing for plundering anyone. Rather I took his book as a criticism of the over-reliance on credentials. For example, he explains how he dedicated much of his time to learning… whereas too many people with fancy degrees simply relied on their credentials.

    So, based on his book, I would say that it is fine to get fancy degrees from top school… but you should view this as, at best, a starting point in life.

    I take the Buccaneer analogy as a reference to “freedom” rather than “evil”. That is, he rejects the view that knowledge needs to come certain people working at certain places according to set rules.

  26. You may learn and produce a lot while earning your PhD, but there is no guarantee that it will be of any use to anyone, or even to yourself afterwards. If you’re in a practical field like engineering, this should give you pause.

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