Sunday, September 21, 2008

To PhD or not to PhD

That is the question.

Welcome to the Island of Phelps.

Not that the PhD question is the theme of the Island of Phelps or anything. It's just that I felt like blogging about that right about now. This blog is a continuation of the family blog that used to be at this address. I got tired of the slowness and finickiness of the shared hosting provider and the half baked blog software and so I decided that I'd sell all our souls to Google for the time being in exchange for reliability. I called it the 'Island of Phelps' because that was the only Phelps-related blogspot domain name left that wasn't stupid. All the good ones are taken by losers who created a blog a couple years ago and then forgot about it.

Now onward to the main topic.

There is no doubt that the conditions and work environment of the typical modern software engineer are a very sad state indeed for anyone who is intellectually curious and driven. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the blog post I am going to relate.

I've gone back and forth on the PhD question quite a bit now. Months before we came here I thought that a PhD would be rewarding. Right before we came here I thought a PhD was overkill and worthless. Most of the time I've been somewhere in the middle. I knew I'd be exposed to pressure in the PhD direction here because everyone and their pet hog is in a PhD program. Those who aren't getting a PhD are doing worse things like getting an MBA.

When I ask people what they want to do after getting their PhD, they respond with one of two words: 1) "industry" or 2) "academia". That's it folks. Once you get a PhD you've finally simplified your life into two options. All you have to do is decide left or right and your career is set in stone.

I also like to ask people what made them choose to do a PhD. A few do it for the same reasons that we go on LDS missions. It's an established, believed, and respected tradition. Dad did it. Sometimes Mom did it. Others give me more interesting responses. I asked one guy why he chose a PhD while I was up here visiting Purdue. He explained that he tried out a software engineering internship at some financial company and he used a strong word that I will not repeat here to describe the type of work that it was. While I sat back and reflected about how much that resonated with me, a father of one of the other visiting prospective students blurted out, "I worked there for 25 years!"

The question is, how bad is it really? Surely there are great software jobs out there. Some people I've heard of have them, and they don't have PhDs. But these people have had to demonstrate their worth first (and become famous enough for me to have heard of them), so the PhD issue is irrelevant. Everybody has to work their way into respect. Will a PhD accelerate or in some way ease this path?

Really a PhD is just a credential that meets minimum standards for certain types of organizations full of people who like to pontificate on obscure topics, and who don't want to be bothered with the task of figuring out if you fit their mold. They all had to do it so by golly they're gonna make the new kids do it too. Certainly there are ground-breaking companies out there who will give you a chance regardless of whether you've sold yourself into academic slavery for a few years, aren't there? Is it worth getting a PhD just so that I can satisfy people who wouldn't look at me twice without those three letters next to my name? There's the well-that's-the-way-the-world-goes-'round excuse. People think it's important, and therefore it becomes important. Just slog through and get it, kid. Once you have the paper in hand that's all that matters. You're in the club.

But the institutionizing on a large scale of any natural combination of need and motive always tends to run into technicality and to develop a tyrannical Machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption.

-William James, from The Ph.D. Octopus (Read the whole thing.)

It can't just be about satisfying society's lust for titles. I couldn't stand it if it were. Getting a PhD needs to be about the experience, not about the perceived importance. I'm more concerned about the substance of the thing. Are the learning experiences worthwhile? Spending 3-4 years working on a focused topic isn't going to pay off unless I truly believe that the topic deserves 3-4 years of my life. Nevertheless, most people see a PhD as merely a necessary gate to go through on your way to become a professor or a researcher. The title-granting, gate-keeping Machine has taken over.

Even if I got past that gate, would my opportunities be better despite being fewer? I remember a comment I read from someone online about getting a PhD (he's been in a PhD program for computational biology):

Want to know why American students don't enter PhD programs? Ask one: to get a PhD in this country, you must forgo five or more years of income and savings, live like a pauper, and lose many opportunities for early career development. Meanwhile, you get to watch your undergraduate classmates buy cars and houses, take authority roles in their companies, and accumulate significant retirement savings.

And what do you get in exchange? The obligation to work long hours for 3-5 more years, in a $40k/year post-doc (usually in an expensive city), with the long-shot possibility of finding a professorship somewhere (hopefully, somewhere near your spouse!) There, you'll work your *** off for six more years, in the hopes of not being permanently fired from the only job that you're qualified to do. And as an extra-special bonus, your job security rests largely on your ability to beg for money from the's hoping that the NIH/NSF/DOE/DOJ grant budgets don't decline!

Scary, huh? How can I even consider the possibility of putting myself through that? More importantly, how can I possibly consider delaying the purchase of my dream $12k drum set? How, I ask you! HOW CAN I DO THIS THING?!

Well I am considering it. Maybe it's the safest way that society allows me to avoid the cubicle dwelling code monkey slavery that I seem to have been pigeon-holed into with my CS degree. Maybe it guarantees at least a certain level of freedom. Maybe the experience will be rewarding, even. What if I took my master's degree and ran, found a job somewhere, realized it still wasn't what I wanted, and regretted not getting that PhD? What if I spent years on a PhD and then later realized that it's all a sham?

Yeah I know, life ain't a bed of roses. I'm a starry-eyed idealistic greenhorn, and if I'm not careful real life is gonna come and slap me in the back of the head while I'm searching for my dream career. I mean, seriously, I'm almost thirty years old. My life is practically over, and here I am agonizing over my future.

I don't mind if life slaps me in the back of the head, just as long as it doesn't batter my soul.