Going back to school to earn your PhD in engineering or IT is a major commitment. For some it's an obvious decision, but for others it takes more consideration. Depending on your long-term career goals, getting a PhD may be an essential step on your career path. Before you decide whether or not to pursue a PhD, however, it's important to first understand what it entails.
"A PhD is a big, multi-year project. You really learn self-reliance, how to budget your time, and how to motivate yourself," says Martin Martin, a senior software engineer with a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University.
He adds that PhD programs force you to get up to speed on things quickly. They teach you to apply what you learn and to figure out why or why not things are working. PhD programs can also be a tremendous opportunity to simply learn more about your field and other areas of interest. "A university is a great environment; you'll be around smart people who have interesting ideas and passions," he asserts.
Dr. Andres Fortino, dean of Polytechnic University's Westchester campus in New York, agrees. He says that advanced degrees represent educational opportunities for transformation, which training experiences do not always provide. "Obtaining an advanced degree prepares one to develop a new mind set and a deeper knowledge of a subject."
A PhD is also pretty much a requirement if you want to teach at the university level. Fortino explains, "A PhD in a technical subject signals that you are prepared to educate at the master's level, and even undertake the preparation of future PhDs. That is something few people without a PhD can do."
The Right Time
Deciding whether to pursue a PhD right after college or after a few years working in the field is another choice one must make. There is no "right" time to go to grad school, but for those interested in becoming a professor or doing research, Fortino recommends they go right after college.
Combining work and school is also an option. "These days going to school part time while working is much easier than it once was," Fortino says. "The economics of earning a salary while having some or all of your education paid for by an employer offsets any sacrifices that are made in your personal life."
Keep in mind that experience is especially important when considering graduate school as a way to change your career focus. "If a technical person wants to switch to management, it is definitely better to wait five to six years to accumulate enough work experience to pursue the transition into a manager or business person," says Fortino. "Most schools require that much work experience in their MBA candidates, for example."
"From a hiring perspective, I like to see people take a break between undergraduate and graduate school," says Melissa Lawrence, director of human resources, ITA Software, Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "I think gaining real-world experience makes employees more balanced graduate students and eventually more well-rounded employees. For most positions at our company, too much theoretical work and too little industry experience can be a detriment."
Pick a Path
Having a clear idea of what career path you would like to follow will also help immensely, according to Lawrence.
"If you want to do highly analytical and specialized work such as operations research, artificial intelligence or nuclear physics in industry or in academia, a PhD is often required," she says. "If you want to solve interesting computer science problems, a PhD might be an asset, but would not be required."
Lawrence adds that in her experience, technical graduate degrees are more important if you want to be on a technical career track as opposed to a management career track.
Going back to school to get your PhD does come with downsides as well. It can potentially set you back in some ways or at least delay some aspects of your career. "While you're in school you won't make nearly as much money as you would in the industry," Martin states. And it means you will get started on working in your field a little later. Martin cautions, "If you think the main point of a job is the salary, and the main point of school is to get a better job, it's probably not worth it overall. But if you're world view is a little wider, it could work well."
Margaret Ashida, director of talent for IBM Software Group, says that waiting too long to go back to graduate school can be detrimental. "Some amount of practical experience is increasingly valuable before pursuing an advanced degree," she explains, "but once you are in the 'learning mode' it is much easier to continue on your educational track versus returning to it."
Ashida adds, "Many engineers who take a break from schooling have good intentions of returning in pursuit of their PhD, however, very few ever do. Life and responsibilities change over time. Once employed, one begins to come up with more reasons why they can't pursue a PhD. If you're committed, stick to it."