Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What is the value of a PhD?

I've heard a lot of dismissal recently -- mostly from graduate students in software engineering at Toronto -- of the value of a graduate degree. This puzzles me: if the degree (Master's/PhD) is so worthless, why are they spending time, effort, and mental cycles working for it? I figured that maybe it was just a University of Toronto issue, or maybe even just a perception in that research group. (I haven't heard anything similar from my theory colleagues.)

Just today I've received contradictory information about a PhD. The idea of a PhD looms on my horizon, as I'm finishing my MSc this semester and planning on continuing into the PhD program.

From one of the business managers of the Grace Hopper Institute (I didn't get her name, and there were no barcode scanners nearby so our meeting was undocumented -- we agreed to meet up later and get scanned), I heard a very strong encouragement: "Women should stay in the pipeline all the way through the PhD. This is what we're working towards, this is what we're trying to encourage." This advice would seem to unequivocally encourage me to continue my graduate studies, stay in academia for several more years, and get a PhD. (The widely-observed problem is that women "fall out of the pipeline" to PhD/academic jobs, and locally, I am the one most in control of whether I remain in that pipeline or not.)

From a senior recruiter (Apple), I heard different information. She said that to industry, a person with a PhD often looks "too academic," and thus undesirable. Her observation about the pipeline was skewed positively: many people in graduate programs are too constrained by academia, and basically leap out of the pipeline and into startups where they can accomplish their ideas more easily.

I think that it's unlikely that women are disproportionately more entrepreneurial than men, so the recruiter's explanation can't account for the ever-worsening gender ratio further down the academic pipeline. But it seems to be mostly an issue of perception: academics are unhappy that people choose other jobs? industry professionals greedily want to soak up the best talent before it becomes absorbed into academia?

What is the value of a PhD? I think that, as with everything else in life, its value is what you want it to be. What I want it to be. If the PhD is what I want, then I can devote myself to it and do a fantastic job and (with luck) end up well-situated for entry into an academic job. (And I genuinely like my current research; I'm not sure that proof complexity lines up with an industry job.) But if there are more exciting projects and opportunities elsewhere, then I can easily fall into the open, welcoming arms of industry. I have to be an adult, know myself, and boldly make my own decisions.

So in the end, what it comes down to is choice.

This post's theme word: prorogue, "to discontinue/defer/postpone a session of something." Unfortunately, it is not an adjective meaning, "in favor of rogues."


Andrea said...

well reasoned.

what do you think the current value of a Masters in cartooning is these days?

masha51 said...

...and we're all pro-choice here.