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To PhD or not to PhD?

Lately, some of my fellow lab rat mates are slowly transitioning out of academia as if someone's spread deadly poison around the corner. As a result, a handful of hot and furious coffee-break chats arose, all on the efficiency of academia and the meaning of doctoral studies. In the end the debate didn't lead to any final conclusions, but I thought I'd put my thoughts into writing.

So, where did it all began? It is no secret that research in engineering (here referring from a semiconductors guy point of view, but I believe the situation in the rest of the engineering and applied physics world is not much different either) is mostly conducted in industrial entities. Nowadays academia has a hard time providing that manpower and financial resource needed to complete a few silicon iterations of a complex VLSI (or whatever) system. That immediately brought the assertions from some colleagues that academia is a "waste of time" and "super inefficient", while joining industry would bring you that quest for innovation and knowledge much faster. My answer, mostly as a spectator to this debate is: "it depends".

It depends on what you really want to do. If you are starting a PhD just because you think that someone (your supervisor) will be holding your hand, and expect that you will be coached on a daily basis (joining because of these extra courses) you are probably doing it wrong. If you prefer this model it may be easier to join an industrial group where you will be (as a fresh graduate) typically given specific orders, lots of teaching, lowered expectations as well as minimal freedom (here it also depends on the industrial group too). It is also wrong thinking that after completion that doctor's degree will immediately embark you on a senior position – nope, not necessarily. Please don't misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with wanting to follow the taught model which will eventually lead you to being a professional, whatever that means. It's just that you risk running into a doctorate which will turn nightmare for you.

Anyhow, doing a PhD, as opposed to joining industry, brings young players the possibility to gain knowledge and shine very quickly just because there's virtually no obstacles (bar some academic idiotizms) to what you are allowed to do. In contrast, blue sky R&D in the corporate world is extremely rare and is typically reserved to seniors. A lot of the innovation occurring in companies is monetarily driven and follows certain goals which can sometimes squeeze the joy out of work. And again: it depends, it depends, depends! Surely access to fun technology is limited in academia, but unless you end up in a very shallow place I'm sure you'll find a way through to some good enough semiconductor process, or whatever it is that you need.

I think the most important bit to consider when starting a PhD is that to be successful you should be self-driven and self-motivated. When doing a doctorate one typically devotes its time almost entirely on his own project. You are your own boss and 3/4 of the success of your project depends entirely on you. On the plus side, the other 1/4 of your project is steered by your supervisor and, in contrast with doing research entirely on your own, you are at least taken care of project funding. That way you don't necessarily have to do the social part of science i.e. spreading the word, writing grant proposals, PR-engineering and taking care of work facilities, etc... Well, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't if there is a chance to do so. A doctorate as opposed to industry allows you to also develop other skills, which may not be entirely linked deeply with your scientific research, but these are perhaps sometimes even more useful than the new transistor sizing technique you've just discovered. Learning to deal with all sorts of characters is one of the most valuable skills I am beginning to acquire here in academia.

Being happy and feeling beneficial is of highest importance and you can only find out if the Third acaremic stage is for you by investigating more on the topic. So if you are hesitant of what you should do ask around, be inquisitive, talk with various current and former employees, alumni and students, compare - contrast. Don't be lazy, do your homework before it's even been assigned!

Date:Sun Apr 02 10:31:21 GMT 2017


Robert Henderson
06 Jul 2017, 14:04
Good to meet you at IISW. Liked your PhD or not to PhD post! I circulated it to my students...
Deyan Levski
06 Jul 2017, 16:38
Thanks Robert! It was nice meeting you at IISW too. Looking forward to seeing you again on any of the upcoming events in imaging.
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