Beki Grinter

Reasons to do a Ph.D.

In academia, computer science, discipline, research on January 3, 2011 at 5:08 pm

The Economist recently posted an article about the downsides/risks of investing in a Ph.D. The article is just one voice in what feels to me at least like a series of articles that I’ve read in the last year about the future of the University, the system of tenure (and the role that student graduation plays in that), the rising costs, the tight academic job market. The Economist article hits on many of these in the course of the article.

My decision to go to graduate school was a combination of factors. First, and probably foremost, one of my parents is an academic. I grew up in a University environment. I suppose I had a sense that I knew what that life might be. (FWIW: the academic in question is Dr. R. Grinter, and hence the addition of the E. in my publishing name). I had no idea whether I was qualified or not, but I think early exposure to the “gig” might have influenced me.

The rest was a bit of an unplanned adventure. I went on an Educational Exchange program from the University of Leeds, where I had just finished an undergraduate degree, to the University of California, Irvine. UC Irvine had a type of Computer Science that really spoke to me, while I was not at all sure that I could finish (let alone do all the reading I thought I needed too), it was inspiring. And so I applied to two graduate schools, UC Irvine and a backup.

I was pretty sure that I did not want to be an academic. At least not immediately. And I spent 8 years not being an academic, but being an industrial researcher. But, I realized during those 8 years that my passions lay within academia. I arrived at Georgia Tech.

I say all of this because I think that there’s an element of planned behaviour implied in the article. That the equation about the future, about the cost-benefits are fully understood. It wasn’t for me, I didn’t weigh up thoughts about my earnings potential or even about a particular career path. It took being on a career path of any sort to figure out what it was that I really wanted to do. It took having multiple experiences to figure out what I liked and did not. There are downsides to having multiple jobs (and don’t get me started on the ones created by the need to switch visas each time — let’s just say that the time scales associated with Employment at Will and H1-B visa processing are about 6 months apart) but all of them conspired to shape my career. I didn’t know why I was doing a Ph.D. until I did one, it didn’t actually match what I thought it would be, and of course, it was a largely serendipitous event to begin with.

But, while I may not completely agree with the article, there is much to think about. A Ph.D. is a significant commitment, typically about 6 years in the United States in the fields related to Computing. It is worth asking whether that’s the right way to spend that time. And, I think it’s also important that those of us in the academy think about the implications of articles like these, for ourselves, students, and future.

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