Is doing a PhD in IT worth it?

I graduated from uni in Computer Science at the end of 2002. I was offerred a PhD scholarship at the time, and very nearly accepted it, but at the last minute turned it down and entered the workforce.

I’ve now been working for two and a half years, and have been wondering lately if I should re-apply for that PhD scholarship. The PhD program would take at least 3 years to complete, and I’d start at the beginning of 2006, which would mean I’d be at least 28 when I finish. More likely, I’d be 29. Either way, it seems a very late age to finish studying full-time.

But the PhD is still tempting. I don’t regret not accepting the scholarship after graduating, as I learnt a lot about IT from entering the work force - far more than I’d learn at any uni. But while I learnt plenty in the first year or so of working, it seems my current company has taken me as far as it can, and I’m definitely ready to leave, whether that be to go back to uni or to another job.

I find my current job challenging, but often for the wrong reasons, if that makes sense. It’s often difficult because I’m struggling to understand someone else’s poorly written code, or because I’m trying to track down a problem in thousands of lines of code with very little to go on, on where the problem lies. If I were doing a PhD, it would obviously be challenging, but it’d be so for the right reasons - the work I’d be doing would (hopefully) be groundbreaking and technically difficult, as opposed to what I’m doing now. And to me that’s quite appealing.

There are downsides, though. First, even if I’m offerred the scholarship again, it’d mean a massive paycut. Second, I’d have to present at conferences, give talks on my work, etc, and I hate public speaking. Third, I have only some vague ideas on the general area I’d like to do it in, never mind a specific topic. Fourth, to me it seems to be a fairly big risk, in that my work could fail miserably and I could end up dropping out after three years, meaning three years of my life were wasted. I’ve heard stories of people spending months or years researching something only to just be beaten to publication by someone else, or to only find out too late that the area has already been covered - a thought that scares me a little.

Plus, I’m not sure whether it’d actually benefit my career or not. I have no intentions on going into academia or becoming a lecturer, and I don’t know how valuable a PhD is seen in industry. From what I’ve heard, it helps, but the amount of experience that I would get while doing the PhD seems to help even more.

Well, that turned out far longer than I was expecting. :slight_smile: Any thoughts? Any IT professionals with a PhD here, by any chance? Any advice would really be appreciated.


You may be disappointed to learn that your level of success in IT is more a function of your ambition and personal goals than education level.

A PhD is great and admirable but will not get you that top notch salary in and of itself.

Well, this is the key right here. A PhD has limited value in industry – it actually probably limits your opportunities because you’re over qualified for hacking code and there are only a handful of research-type positions as compared to many, many coding positions. You get a doctorate because you really, really like research and/or you want to teach. And if you don’t like the process – the research, the publishing, and the presentation of papers – then you’re going to be miserable. (BTW, three years seems very optimistic; it was closer to six when I got my degree.) Ideally, you’d like to get a PhD with an advisor who’s working on a problem in an area that truly fascinates you.

Now I’m not saying that there are no industrial jobs for PhDs – at least in the US, there are a few research labs and thinktanks, and some companies like to have a PhD or two on hand just for the prestige of it.

Assuming they have the equivalent where you are, a Master’s degree might be a reasonable compromise. You can get it in a year or two and it opens up some significantly more interesting and high paying jobs. However, so does a couple of years of actual experience. So…your call.

Thanks for the replies so far. :slight_smile:

I like the research part. I got of a taste of it while doing Honours and quite enjoyed it. The teaching and presentation parts I could live without.

I’ve always found this interesting, but it seems like it takes much longer to do a PhD in the US than here in Australia. I’m not sure why that is. Here it’s a minimum of 3 years full-time, but 4 years is probably more likely.

Yeah that’s not bad advice, although I’ve only really considered a PhD so far as there aren’t any scholarships to do a masters. Instead, it’ll cost me a fortune in fees.

That’s the problem! When I first considered doing a PhD after finishing my undergraduate studies, I had such a difficult time choosing between studying and the PhD that I even spoke to a psychic! (I’m embarrased to admit that though - at least I found out that psychics are frauds.)

In North America, we’ve got to have a Masters before continuing on to A PhD. I believe that’s true for all disciplines, not just IT. Are you saying you can jump right to a PhD program where you live?

Also, the last statement makes me think you’ve got to mature a bit.

Aw - I think the last statement indicates you HAVE matured a bit! Good on you!

I would suggest talking to some people who have PhDs in IT, see if they’re doing things you would enjoy.

Here in Australia, you can do a year of Honours after completing an undergraduate degree, where you do a combination of coursework and research. (For some degrees, Honours is an extra year, while for others it can be done during the final year of study. IT / CS is one where it’s an extra year. I’m not sure if any of this is the same in the US.) While it’s probably equally common to do a Masters first, you can go straight to the PhD if you get very high marks in your Honours year.

I’ve known people in their 40s to go speak to pychics - do they also need to mature? I was just really stuggling to make a decision, and figured it couldn’t hurt. Plus it was on a radio station, so it didn’t cost me anything. :slight_smile:

I’m as big a fan of higher education as you are likely to find, but make sure you aren’t just stalling looking for a job where you can advance. Do you really hate job hunting? Like, really, really hate it? Is is possible that the appeal here is that you can put it off for another 3 or 4 years? Because I’ve known grad students who seemed to have that motivation, and they were miserable.

Remember, too, that the job hunting on the other side of a Ph.d will be much more stressful than this–right now you HAVE a good job and a set of qualifications that give you a broad range of avenues to persue. You can part-time job hunt indefinitly and still support yourself., waiting till you find the perfect position. Once you get your Ph.d, your options are less flexible and your financial situation will be much more uncertain. All that doesn’t matter if you have a passion for research–you’re williing to manage the stress to get what you want. But if you aren’t so much running TO academica as you are running AWAY from the private sector, note that the reinsertion in 4 years will be tough.

Not exactly. Some university departments don’t require a terminal Master’s degree; in fat, some don’t even offer such a thing. I believe that their programs do incorporate the coursework equivalent, though.

Not really. When you get admitted to a PhD program in the U.S., having a masters degree is seldom a requirement. As you progress towards the doctorate, you’re sometimes thrown a masters along the way, but it’s not a prerequisite for admission.

Just, I’d say if you’re not interested in a potential academic career, getting a PhD might not be your cup of tea. But a PhD might open up one non-academic career option for you – consulting. Final thought: I don’t know how tough is grad school in Australia, but a C.S. PhD program in the U.S. is a ***real *** grind.